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MonsterTalk # 96
Fear Itself

Why do we fear? What is fear? The Ressler Lab is located in the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, and the studies they’re conducting seek to understand fear at the cellular, molecular and neural-circuitry level of granularity. Dr. Kerry Ressler, head of the lab, joins us to talk about that research and the neurological basis of fear.

About this week’s eSkeptic

Sometimes strange things happen, the causes for which seem hard to explain. Sometimes, these occurrences are referred to as “supernatural” or “paranormal.” But, what do those words really mean? In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer describes what is meant by “supernatural.”

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, and the author of The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. His previous books include: The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Mind of the Market, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil.

What Does “Supernatural” Mean, Anyway?

by Michael Shermer

Ever since my Scientific American column appeared last year about the anomalous experience my wife Jennifer and I had on our wedding day involving her grandfather’s long-dead radio that mysteriously began to play music at an opportune moment (never active again), much discussion has ensued regarding the implications for belief in the supernatural, for which I penned a longer explanation and analysis on Slate. In a March 5 New York Times essay Tanya Luhrmann wrote about her own experience involving a bicycle light that mysteriously melted in her backpack, she concluded “Who’s to say that this had some natural explanation rather than a numinous one?” (paraphrased by Jerry Coyne). In response I wrote a letter to the editor at the New York Times, which they published on March 10:

To the Editor:

Re “When Things Happen That You Can’t Explain” (Op-Ed, March 5): T. M. Luhrmann opines that when things happen that cannot be explained, it opens the door for the possibility of supernatural or paranormal phenomena being real. She cites several examples of powerful personal experiences that people have had, including my own, which I recounted in my Scientific American column.

As interesting as such experiences are to read about, from a scientific perspective they mean nothing because there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural. There is just the normal, the natural and mysteries we have yet to solve with normal and natural explanations. Until such time as we can provide natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena, we need do nothing with such stories because in science we will never be able to explain everything.

There is always a residue of unexplained phenomena, and in science it is O.K. to simply say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. Unexplained does not equal supernatural.

The always insightful biologist and skeptic Jerry Coyne wrote an analysis of both Luhrmann’s essay and my letter in which he concluded:

I mostly agree with what Shermer said, although part of the letter is confusing: “there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural.” One could take that as a tautology: that such phenomena, because they can be investigated by the tools of science and reason, must be natural by definition, as they’re part of nature. But I think Shermer means more than that: that there is a natural explanation for everything that seems paranormal or supernatural. While everything we know about what happens in the cosmos supports this conclusion, it’s still logically possible that there is a God—a supernatural being—who uses forces outside of nature to interact with the world. If that were true, those interactions would not have “normal and natural explanations.” (I find the paranormal a bit more “natural-ish”, since if we could, say, move objects with our minds, there would almost have to be some natural but unexplained reason for that.)

Jerry makes a good point here, but let me add one final point on the matter as it seems to turn on what one means by “supernatural” and “paranormal”.

When I say that “there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural,” I mean that these words are just linguistic placeholders to talk about something for which we do not as yet have a normal or natural explanation. Analogously, when cosmologists talk about “dark energy” and “dark matter” they don’t mean those words to be an explanation, only linguistic placeholders until they figure out what exactly is causing the as-yet unsolved mysteries (rotation of galaxies, accelerating expansion of the cosmos). But whereas cosmologists do not stop searching for the underlying mechanisms of the observed phenomena just because they have a label, religious believers and New Agers treat words like “paranormal” and “supernatural” (or “miracle”) as if they were causal explanations.

If it turned out that, say, people really could read other peoples’ minds and that they were able to do so because inside our neurons are tiny microtubules in which quantum effects happen that allow thoughts (patterns of neural firing) to be transferred from one skull to another at any distance (like “spooky action at a distance” effects that quantum physicists have measured in experiments), that would not be ESP or PSI, and we wouldn’t need to call it a “paranormal” effect because we would then know that the ability to read minds was due to the properties of neurons and atoms, and it would be subsumed under the sciences of neuroscience and/or quantum physics (quantum neuroscience?). (This is, by the way, an actual theory.)

As for the possibility that a God could be using other forces, “forces outside of nature to interact with the world” as Jerry says, if a God did that (through intercessory prayer, miracles, or whatever) in a way we could measure the effects of such interactions, wouldn’t that mean that God must be using forces measurable by our scientific instruments? Here I am reminded of the analogy drawn by the great British astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington in his classic 1958 book The Philosophy of Physical Science:

Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals. He arrives at two generalizations:

  1. No sea-creature is less than two inches long.
  2. All sea-creatures have gills.

In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observations.

An onlooker may object that the first generalization is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge, and is not part of the kingdom of fishes which has been defined as the theme of ichthyological knowledge. In short, what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.” (1958, p. 16)

Extending the analogy beyond the physical sciences to all fields, regardless of what forces a God may use outside of our universe, if he’s interacting with our universe in a way we can measure it, then he must be using forces measurable by scientific instruments or our senses, so by definition they must be natural. What our scientific nets catch are natural fish. If one were to argue that God’s forces are non-natural (or supernatural) and they can still affect the world but in a non-measurable way (because our scientific nets only catch natural fish), then what’s the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God? END



  1. Roy Niles says:

    “what’s the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God?”
    Perhaps the invisible one is similar to something like dark energy, or perhaps this is a meaningless question, since we appear to have an intelligently constructed set of universal systems from which intelligently constructed humans have originated; and a purely magical God would have been needed to construct any of these logically functioning systems in an otherwise dead and thus completely non-intelligent illogical vastness of apparently boundless space. So whatever it is that’s missing from this picture is not like any of the Gods we’ve yet been able to invent.
    Perhaps we should be asking ourselves how intelligent creatures were evolved from a supposedly non-intelligent nature, Gods in play or not. And then ask ourselves if the elements that our nature has evolved from are somehow smarter than they look to those of us who aren’t quite smart enough to figure this rather simple problem out.
    Which may have a lot to do with energy itself being somewhat obviously more smart than simply being dark

    • Bob Pease says:

      “what’s the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God?”

      Although it is Fun to lapse into Scholasticism, it diverts the duscussion from
      The intended point .

      To me, a better question is :

      ” Why should you expect me to believe in a God who does the nutty stuff you are talking to me about?”

      Dr. S.

      • Roy Niles says:

        I don’t expect you to believe in anything that has intelligence.

        • ksb says:

          It’s interesting that humans self-describe themselves as “intelligent,” yet we are destroying the earth that has sustained us and the rest of “non-intelligent” life, kill our own species, and engage in other behaviors that seem rather “unintelligent.” Kind of makes one wonder what the term means, after all. Humans invented gods when they realized that they had to die, and as all-powerful parent figures (better than the real thing).

          • Roy Niles says:

            Intelligence is defined as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. It doesn’t require those who have it to be smart. Birds and animals in their environments can outsmart us – until of course we kill them;

        • Bob Pease says:

          Thanks for the pathetic attempt at iinsult rather than addressing issues.


  2. Kevin Ternes says:

    “When I say that When I say that ‘there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural,’ I mean that these words are just linguistic placeholders to talk about something for which we do not as yet have a normal or natural explanation.“

    Dr Shermer, I think the actual word for this placeholder is “preternatural”.

  3. Gary Whittenberger says:

    I suggest that when we think about “supernatural” we should interpret “super” as “against” and “supernatural” as “against the regularities and patterns of nature, as we currently understand them.”

    If Jesus came back to life, this would be a supernatural event. Why? Because one regularity of nature, as we currently understand it is “Human persons who are dead do not come back to life.” There is no good evidence that a human person has ever come back to life in billions of chances for this to occur. So, it would be against a regularity of nature, as we currently understand it, for a human person to come back to life. I like to call such an event “super-improbable” because there has never been a case of it happening in a large set of chances for it to happen.

    Thus, in a sense “supernatural” refers to “super-improbable.”

    Many other examples could be given of this, but I think that most or all of the things and events typically thought to fall into the category “supernatural” (like gods, ghosts, souls, spirits, resurrections, heaven, hell, etc.) can be understood in this way.

  4. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    I tend to agree with Dr Shermer: if we can comprehend how it works it is no longer supernatural. However, why do we suppose all ‘natural phenomena’ are comprehensible? That is a bold assertion without proof.

    When astronomers talk about the entire Universe (not merely the sphere 28GLy across that we call the observable Universe) we see that our numbering system is inadequate to discuss it. What is 10^10^300? It is a number so vast that for most human purposes it is infinite … but it, in fact is not infinite – our finite minds (which evolved math for counting berries and sheep – not stars and possible outcomes ) lose their grip. Since our concept of vast numbers is not up to the task of adequately describing the vastness of the cosmos, it is possible that other mental facilities fall short, too.

    Another slightly more mundane example is light: electromagnetic waves … I mean photons. We do not have a single, self-consistent model of light that describes all of its properties. If you take the wavelike view you can’t say squat about the particle properties and if you employ the photon-view you can’t describe the wave-like properties. That tells me we don’t understand the nature of light well.

    Perhaps the reason that string theory (and all of its cousins) have failed to pay off is due to an inherent limit to human spatial reasoning so we cannot create a suitable model of gravity, quantum mechanics, and the rest of the kit.

    By Dr Shermer (and my) definition of ‘supernatural’ there could be many supernatural phenomena in the Universe but the reason they remain supernatural is our limitation. How gravity and quantum mechanics work together and the nature of light – at present – are supernatural phenomena. Now, doesn’t that sound weird?

    • Roy Niles says:

      What sounds weird is that what sounds like it’s acting intelligently is relegated to either the mechanical dump heap or the mystical. John A Wheeler asked why the apparently meaningless universe is replete with aparently meaningful information. The Shermers, the Dawkinses, the Krausses, and especially the Coynes reply that universal mechanisms aren’t using any of that information, they’re only acting that way accidentally.

  5. Brent Meeker says:

    “Supernatural” as it is actually used, means a phenomenon contrary to known science which has special moral significance for people. UFO’s that maneuver without reaction or travel faster than light are not touted as supernatural. If a bust of Machiavelli had moisture appear on its cheek it would be investigated as a surprising, but scientific phenomenon. If the bust is of Jesus, IT’S A MIRACLE! Supernatural means it’s all about US.

  6. john werneken says:

    Non-existent God: universe behaves as we experience it, whether we understand exactly how, or not. However, we surmise that there is no such thing as God.

    Invisible God: universe behaves as we experience it, whether we understand exactly how, or not. However, we surmise that there is such a thing as God.

  7. awc says:

    We have discovered the universe obeys natural laws. The premise is if super natural seems to occur then it is merely our understanding of how it happened that has failed.

    Perhaps we consider what if humans do not have the capacity to understand the natural law describing the observed phenomenon? Not unlike a cat is incapable of solving calculus equations. To date it would seem that this is what constitutes supernatural.

    So a natural law exists however, is out of the grasp of the human mind. This would be an example of supernatural for all intents and purposes there is no difference between phenomenon that are or appear supernatural.

    The challenge would be then to recognize that it is out of our grasp (the understanding) and not that it is supernatural… rather super-cognizant. This is the we don’t know answer of course… if it is a we can’t know I am not sure how that effects us.

    • Roy Niles says:

      Intelligence, the “thing” that we use to think with, is certainly neither supernatural or out of the grasp of the human minds that run on it.
      So how can scientists, who believe in the interacting forces of the universe following “mathematical” rules, still feel that these ruled behaviors are in no way evidence of universally intelligent arrangements or are serving no intelligent purposes?

  8. Daniel Millen says:

    Shermer seems to be spot on to me. LOVE the guy! “Supernatural” or “paranormal” are, indeed, placeholder words for “I can’t/don’t know how to explain X!” The credulous follow up after citing one of these experiences takes the form of, “Well, how ELSE can you explain X!? There’s more to this world than what we can see or test!” The insistence upon demons, angels, minions, and other entities “real but invisible to our limited senses” seem to me to be “natural:” we’ve been doing this since the very first child (likely a young, virgin girl, if I may be so bold) was slaughtered to ensure a bountiful harvest of barley.

  9. Roy Niles says:

    ““Well, how ELSE can you explain X!? There’s more to this world than what we can see or test!”
    Shermer’s problem is that if he can’t see what caused it, he says it’s there by accident.
    At least the loony tunes who see their demons sense instinctively that an accident cannot explain a purpose.

  10. Sean B says:

    I am reminded of Rob McKenna from Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s a rain god and when he gets checked out, they dub him “supernormal,” because everyone thinks that they understand what paranormal and supernatural mean and the scientists, who couldn’t explain it, wanted something that said he was their’s and no one else’s. Hence, supernormal.

  11. W. Corvi says:

    I think something supernatural would be a phenomenon that cannot be reproduced at will. For example, if someone very devout prayed for something highly unlikely, and it happened, but next time someone else prayed for a similar thing it did not happen, that would have to be supernatural. If a loved-one died in a car accident, and the family prayed, and after an hour, the loved-one came back to life, this would be highly unlikely based on a natural phenomenon (ie it doesn’t happen very often). If this could be reproduced at will, it could be studied, and might well become ‘natural’. But if the prayers were only answered very rarely (as is the case), it would have to be considered supernatural. It seems to me. But the case would have to be very well documented in the first place – no doubt it happened at least once.

  12. Gerry Retief says:

    If people living in the middle ages saw what to us are quite normal phenomena such as radio, television, jet planes, etc. there is no doubt that they would have called it supernatural.

  13. Ken Phelps says:

    I’ve never understood what supernatural could even mean. Things are, or they are not. If the universe (broadly defined) contains fairies, gods or ghosts, then those things are part of reality. Our lack of understanding wouldn’t place them outside of nature in any way, it would simply mean that we were unable to perceive all of nature.

    It seems to me that the word is primarily used today to describe frauds and believers who are trying to create an unnecessary classification as a cover for the lack of evidence supporting their claims.

    • Daniel Millen says:

      Well said, Ken. A Christian friend claims that angels, demons, spirits, etc. inhabit a “higher reality” which they can transcend into our “lower reality.” Of course, he can produce no ACTUAL evidence for this, but assures me that, if I ask to be shown this, I will see (and experience!) it. And … yes … this person actually votes.

  14. Phea says:

    Supernatural, paranormal, superstition, witchcraft, voodoo, or, the term I prefer as it cuts to the chase, “MAGIC”. I don’t believe in magic. I know how to do a couple simple effects, and I’ve seen some very good performers who were so good at their craft, even knowing how they did it, helped little. (If you ever get a chance to catch Johnny Fox do close up magic at a Renaissance Festival, it’s a treat),

    If an illusion is performed correctly and perfectly. If the effect completely fools, mystifies, and totally astounds me, I know it wasn’t done by means of magic, but something that my mind just doesn’t see, understand, or consider.

    We are a young species. We were/are so frightened, and for very good reasons. We thought nature was controlled by gods, demons, and imaginary forces who we worshiped, feared, and sacrificed to. We are thankfully, now beginning to outgrow the need for such immature notions, but lumped in with those notions are thousands of years of evolved culture.

    Our heritage, traditions, rules, customs, ceremonies, food, music… much of our collective wisdom, results from the tried and true hard won lessons from the past.
    The trick is growing up, and letting go of our belief in “magic”. We can keep the good stuff, we’ll NEED the good stuff, as we come to grips with a whole other set of problems and challenges our ancestors could have never even imagined.

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