Does science have anything to say about the supernatural?

A good place to start in any productive conversation is to define one’s terms. Carl Sagan said of science, “Science is more than a body of knowledge… It’s a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe.” Science is just a particular species of skeptical inquiry. As the purpose of this post is to investigate the scope of science and whether or not its authority extends to claims of the supernatural, defining what science actually is is of paramount importance. Another similar definition was used by the great paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould: “Science is a battery of observational and inferential methods, all directed to the testing of propositions that can, in principle, be definitely proven false.” Curiously, Stephen Jay Gould considered religion to be compatible with his definition of science. In his 1997 book, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Gould set out his vision for the relationship between science and religion, known as “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” or “NOMA.” He wrote, “Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values–subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.” Today, this idea is commonly phrased as “science and religion are ‘different ways of knowing.’” NOMA is embraced by many theists and atheists who argue for the compatibility of religion and science. This position is commonly known as ‘accommodationism.’ Increasingly, however, religious scientists, progressive theologians and sympathetic secularists seem to be moving away from NOMA and suggesting open interaction between science and religion.

There are a number of problems – for religion and for science – with the vision represented by NOMA. As an argument for the compatibility of science and religion, NOMA leans heavily on the use of definitions. This puts the argument at risk of becoming a tautology. Under the model of NOMA, religion and science are compatible by definition because “true” religion is defined as that species of religious belief that is compatible with science. This is where NOMA becomes difficult for most religious people to accept, and where it ultimately seems to break down. Steve Gould summarized the ‘first commandment’ of NOMA thusly: “‘Thou shalt not mix the magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science.’ In common parlance, we refer to such special interference as ‘miracle’—operationally defined as a unique and temporary suspension of natural law to reorder the facts of nature by divine fiat.” The problem here is that the non-interventionist God who comports with NOMA is not the God worshipped by most believers. But if he is not ‘allowed’ to work miracles, what is the domain of the God of NOMA? Well, according to Gould, religion deals with metaphysics and morality. Placing metaphysics entirely in the domain of religion, however, seems strange. Metaphysics asks questions about what is, and how we are to interpret that. From my point of view, the domain of science is precisely that: to answer questions about what is. A scan of the wikipedia entry on metaphysics reveals such “Central Questions” as “Cosmology and Cosmogony,” “Quantum Physics and Free Will,” “Mind and Matter,” “Space and Time,” etc. Clearly, the questions of metaphysics are not wholly outside the domain of science. Metaphysical questions are the domain of philosophy, but are heavily informed by natural science. The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of morality. Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, belongs to the domain of philosophy but can be informed by science. For example, if one believes that abortion is morally wrong based on the premise that embryos have souls, then science has something to say about that. Within moral philosophy, the idea known as utilitarianism seeks to apply a rigorous quasi-scientific methodology to assessing the moral value of behaviors. Further, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris argued in his recent book The Moral Landscape that advances in neuroscience could potentially be applied to quantitatively assess suffering. While I am not fully in line with his thesis, his work at least demonstrates that science – as a way of thinking, and maybe even as a discipline – is not irrelevant to judging ethics. Metaphysics and moral philosophy both deal with issues of intense interest and relevance to religion, but it is in fact philosophy which answers them and science which informs such discussion. Thus, by redefining religion Stephen Jay Gould effectively argues for the compatibility of science and philosophy – something which no one questions.

In order to discuss whether science has anything to say about the supernatural, it is not sufficient to define science. There also needs to be an agreeable definition of the supernatural. However, this is extremely problematic. Distinguishing between “Nature” and something which is “not nature” but still could conceivably exist is rather difficult. Is Nature not simply that which exists? To many people, the answer is “No,” though what that “super-nature” actually is is far less clear. However, it may be that, like pornography to a judge, we simply know it when we see it. In the last few centuries, many phenomena once considered to be manifestations of the supernatural have come to be regarded by virtually all educated people as natural phenomena. It may be that by studying how these shifts occurred we will hit upon some of the distinguishing characteristics of a supernatural phenomenon. One of the earliest and most far-reaching of these shifts is credited to the work of Sir Isaac Newton. The motion and placement of the celestial bodies was long considered to have a supernatural cause. Newton formulated laws of gravitation to describe and predict their behavior and positioning. He did not actually explain why gravity works like it does, but the simple fact that the behavior of the planets was consistent – that is, they could be described mathematically – was enough to make it a ‘natural’ phenomenon for most people. Thus, predictability appears to be an essential element in distinguishing between these two domains: natural and supernatural.

I generally do not like describing a miracle or supernatural phenomenon as simply one which violates the laws of physics, because our knowledge of these is limited. New physical laws – or regularities – are encountered all the time as we extend our understanding of the universe. The regularities of gravitation that Newton described become inaccurate when applied to great distances, for example, and have been superseded for this purpose by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The laws of thermodynamics, however, underlay virtually every chemical and physical process and seem to be universally applicable. This is convenient, because one thing common to all physical miracles and supernatural phenomena is the violation of these important principles. Thus, consistency with thermodynamics may be a way to operationally define the supernatural. If the two characteristics just discussed are accepted to distinguish between natural and supernatural phenomena, then I will argue that science has something to say about the supernatural.

Of course, this presupposes that science could in principle accept a “supernatural” explanation. One of the centerpieces of the philosophy of science is ‘methodological naturalism.’ This is often interpreted as representing a limitation of the scope of science: a commitment to consider only natural phenomena. In their 2010 paper, “How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism,” philosophers Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and Johan Braeckman broke down interpretations of methodological naturalism into two categories: Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism (IMN) and Provisory Methodological Naturalism (PMN). According to the first interpretation, science rules out supernatural phenomena by definition as an intrinsic limit to the nature of the questions which science is equipped to address. Because science rejects supernatural explanations by philosophical fiat, and not on empirical grounds, science is restrained from commenting on the supernatural. Boudry et al. describe the alternative view, PMN, “as a provisory and empirically grounded attitude of scientists, which is justified in virtue of the consistent success of naturalistic explanations and the lack of success of supernatural explanations in the history of science.” There is no clear reason why science should have a problem with handling supernatural explanations. What science does have a problem with, however, is an explanation being un-testable. This is a common feature of supernatural explanations, but it is not always this way and when it is, it is often due more to the intellectual dishonesty of its proponents than to the explanation itself. Science is fundamentally about distinguishing between models which seek to explain what is. Thus, science has something to say about the supernatural if a manifestation of it can be expected to have some effect on our world; particularly if its characteristics are well-defined so that there are particularly observations we might expect to make (or not make) about a universe in which it exists or occurs. For example, there are certain things one would expect to see if life were designed for a purpose, or if the universe were made for the enjoyment of Homo sapiens. More importantly, there are certain observations which could be inconsistent with these hypotheses. This approach is not at all unscientific. However, many supernatural claims – like those of Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) – are shielded from disproof by their proponents. Again, the problem here for science is not to be found in the explanation itself, but in the intellectual dishonesty of its proponents. When supernatural claims are made to be empirically impenetrable in this manner (i.e. immune to scientific inquiry), one begins to wonder why any of us should then care about the truth of the claim. If a world in which a given phenomenon occurs really is objectively indistinguishable from one in which it doesn’t, then isn’t it irrelevant to ask questions about it?

The political controversy regarding science education in the United States is a prime example of where the IMN interpretation of methodological naturalism could be dangerous. Supporters of the Intelligent Design movement promote their idea as a reconciliation of theology and science. The religious nature of IDC has been clear since its inception. It seeks to explain huge swaths of biology and astronomy as well as aspects of the other natural sciences in supernatural terms. The Intelligent Design movement has been opposed at every turn by the prominent scientific organisations of the United States, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). However, consider their statements regarding the relationship of science and the supernatural:

“Creationism and “intelligent design” deal with supernatural questions that cannot be addressed through the scientific method. Science and religion ask and answer different questions…” – AAAS

“Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural.” – NAS

“By definition, science cannot consider supernatural explanations…”                       – Eugenie Scott, NCSE

Regarding such statements, University of Chicago Biologist Jerry Coyne writes, “That’s not the way scientists – and the NCSE – attack creationism, of course. They take a Designer seriously as an explanation, and then show that the evidence better supports the alternative of evolution.  If you’re an adherent of IMN, why bother?” I expect these organizations would retort that IDC is special because it bears on “the natural world,” which is the domain of science. But don’t faith-healing, homeopathy, psychic reading, and all physical miracles also cross this metaphysical barrier into the domain of science? Also, while the above organizations attack the more politically incorrect forms of creationism, they coddle individuals like cell biologist Ken Miller, a Catholic who claims that God created the universe, fine-tuned it for life, and then guided evolution to eventually produce Homo sapiens, whom he then infused with a heritable soul. How is this different in nature from the other forms of Creationism? In fact, the fine-tuning argument used by this species of creationist is a form of the Argument from Design also employed by Intelligent Design proponents. Why is it alright as a scientist to assert that God created the universe, but not to believe that he is responsible for the diversity of life? The origin of the universe is, at least in principle, just as much a scientific question.

So in practice, how might science go about testing supernatural claims? Well, it is difficult on a case-by-case basis to evaluate claims of supernatural events. In these circumstances, I believe that the appropriate scientific attitude toward such claims should be along the lines of David Hume’s timeless pronouncement, “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be even more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish…” However, claims amenable to statistical analysis allow for a more rigorous scientific evaluation. For example, it seems logical – and has indeed been claimed by religions – that God manifests his power in some form over inheritance, “forming you in your mother’s womb” so to speak, and thereby affecting the person you will become. However, this claim is falsified by the data. Long before we were able to map chromosomes directly with sophisticated sequencing equipment, geneticists were able to map with great precision the approximate locations of genes on chromosomes simply by their statistical relationships in inheritance.

The closer two genes are to one another physically, the less likely they are to be separated by recombination in meiosis. Thus, their inheritance is said to be ‘linked’ (e.g. Manenti et al, 2009). If God manipulated inheritance, rather than leaving it to chance and chemistry, this method of gene mapping based on the chance-and-chemistry assumption should be ineffective. Investigating a more obvious front in the interaction between science and religion, several studies have examined the effects of intercessory prayer. One of the largest of these, performed by a team from the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard Medical School (Benson et al, 2006), found no statistically significant difference between groups who received intercessory prayer and the control groups who did not. This result does not merely mean that we do not know if intercessory prayer is effective. Rather, because it conforms to the null hypothesis – that intercessory prayer is not effective – it amounts to a falsification of the primary hypothesis. What is important here is not so much whether science accepts or rejects the ‘supernatural’ explanation, but that scientific methodology can be applied to them. There are many such instances where scientific thinking can be applied to evaluate supernatural claims. Whether the supernatural claims of religion are true or not, the domains of science and religion do overlap on this matter.


Benson H, et al. 2006. Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. Am Heart J. 151(4), 934-42.

Boudry, M., S. Blancke and J. Braeckman.  2010. How not to attack intelligent design creationism: philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism. Foundations of Science (online).

Gill, G. About Intercessory Prayer: The Scientific Study of Miracles. Medscape (online).

Manenti G, Galvan A, Pettinicchio A, Trincucci G, Spada E, et al. 2009. Mouse Genome-Wide Association Mapping Needs Linkage Analysis to Avoid False-Positive Loci. PLoS Genet 5(1)


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Filed under Accommodationism, Religion, Science

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