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Supernatural? What does that even mean?

In debates between atheists and theists one accusation frequently made by theists is that atheism is a religion too, since atheists - or naturalists - believe, without evidence, that the physical world is all that exists, that there is no supernatural dimension to the world. I´ve heard this fatuous argument so often, that I´ve decided to clarify the position of the naturalist.

Not only do I believe, I know with 100% certainty that there is no supernatural dimension to the world.

Why is this not a close-minded dogma? Because it is not a statement about the universe or the world but rather a statement as to how the debate and the search for truth cannot be conducted. It´s a rule of intellectual etiquette. Let me clarify.

Supernatural or metaphysical means literally "above nature" or "beyond physics", so the meaning of those words depends completely on your definition of nature and the physical world. One possible definition would be that the physical world is "all things that obey the laws of physics" but that just raises the question what "the" laws of physics are. The known laws of physics? In that case nobody denies the existence of the supernatural. Indeed, last year's Nobel prize in physics was awarded to one of the guys who showed us that roughly 70% of the universe violate the known laws of physics. But that´s not how the word supernatural is generally used.

Instead the word supernatural always turns up as an "explanation" for rather weird statements about the natural world. Statements such as "There once was a guy who walked on a lake" or "Information about your future life is stored in encoded form in the pattern of the lines in your hand" are statements about natural objects. The word supernatural only comes into play when the question "How´s that supposed to work?" is raised. It´s a sort of intellectual joker that allows its user to just declare anything, however specific or ridiculous as lying beyond human understanding.

A naturalist is simply a person who says that this is an illegal move in an intellectual debate. The definition of "nature" or "the physical world" that we use is quite simple:

Nature:=Everything that exists.

If people really can walk on water or raise the dead, it´s part of nature. If certain horses can fly or the movements of the planets can tell me how my love-life will develop, if there really is a mind behind the universe, than that´s part of nature too, and we are always entitled to ask the question "How does that work?"

Using the above definition for nature or the physical world does not imply any specific details about the universe, it does not even imply that everything that exists is understandable to human minds. It merely emphasizes that merely declaring any specific thing as not understandable is a childish move that cannot be used in adult debate.



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