How should we define the supernatural?

Too long a thread for me to read thoroughly from scratch. But George specifically asks me to comment on “hypernatural,” and I agree with you that since there’s no decent definition of “natural,” no useful words can be derived from it.

The orginal poster suggested a definition of natural about “independent of mind.” If you look at my piece on Berkeley, you’ll see that the immaterialist denies that anything is independent of mind, and yet can have a concept of the natural.

But leaving Berkeley aside, and just considering a conventional “materialist Christian” view… the doctrine of creation is that all things that exist were creted by the Father, through Christ the Logos. Furthermore, all things are sustained in existence by him - even the semi-deists at BioLogos affirm that.

So all things at least are embodiments of thoughts in the mind of God, and all things at least are maintained in their existence by the activity of the mind of God. So where are all these “mind independent events” lurking, I wonder?

But there’s more. Unless one dispoenses altogether with the doctrine of special providence, then it is through the wisdom of God that, for example, the Christian obtains his daily bread by apparently “natural” means in answer to his dutiful saying of the Lord’s prayer. Somehow, God is able to provide us with our specific needs, or else intercessory prayer is of nothing but psychological value. So, once more, how are the events that deliever the bread to the table “mind independent”?

My answer is an old one: “natural” is a synonym for “regular,” or “predictable,” and says nothing more or less about the activity of God than my getting up at the same time every day implies I have no say in it.

“Supernatural” on that basis has very little definable meaning, as far as I can see, and is probably best avoided.


Well, I read natural as that which arises from nature or is a part of nature… The only problem being that nature is no longer defined as or understood to be God’s creation. Especially in science.
In a certain sense science is getting pushed into a pantheistic metaphysic as it tries to make sense of the universe and life without God. In many cases nature designs, creates, is purposeful etc.
The “third way” of evolution and some ideas in physics (esp those dealing with conscious) already seem to be going down this path in earnest.

I agree.

True story about the murkiness of these concepts – “natural,” “supernatural,” and the like.

One of my graduate school mentors, the late philosopher of language Leonard Linsky (1922-2012), once told me about a conversation he had with a pair of lawyers, who fancied themselves as astute philosophers. The lawyers said it was easy to define “miracles” – these were events, they said, that could not be explained by current physics, i.e., for which no physically sufficient causal pathway was available.

So Linsky stood up out of his chair, walked around the perimeter of the room, and then sat back down again.

“Was that a miracle?” he asked the lawyers.

No, they replied, smugly – we can explain what you just did via physics. We have a physical explanation for the event.

“All right!” Linsky shouted at them, holding out his hands, palms up, “let’s have it! If you really know, give me the physical explanation – but with no agent ‘Leonard Linsky’ in it, making a point.”

The lawyers were silent.

Agency does a lot of genuine explanatory work for us (think per example of intellectual property law). Problem is, bona fide agency does not fit comfortably, or at all, with a materialist or physicalist metaphysics.

But letting physicalism run the show, at the expense of practical reason, seems a high price to pay.


I like @jongarvey definition. I’m also working on my own.

Supernatural- the uncreated acting upon the created
Natural- the created acting upon the created.


I believe the members of the “Association for Jesus is a Dream” are meeting down the hall. You must have turned into these rooms by accident…

@T.j_Runyon and @jongarvey:

If the Archangel Michael was created by God … and the Archangel Michael makes the entire Russian Navy disappear … that would be the “created acting upon the created” … and thus be labeled a natural event?

Created means universe here. But you already know that. You just like making things more complicated than they need to be


Who says “Created” just means Universe? If @jongarvey uses the term “Uncreated”, he means God, yes? I doubt Jon would assert that the angels are “uncreated”. It is their “created” status, and only their created status, that keeps the angels from being classified as Gods in their own right.

The universe seems to follow these laws without us using our minds to guide it.

No one is making that assumption. Rather, observations are consistent with what we would expect from these natural laws. According to the Law of Parsimony, we don’t include multiple mechanisms when one evidenced mechanism will do. That isn’t to say that the Law of Parsimony is correct, but if we throw this law out then making any sense of reality becomes rather difficult.

I would say naturalism is a basic part of methodological naturalism, being in the name and all.

Nice try TJ - but what about an angel freeing Peter from prison?

As C.s. Lewis wrote, no doubt if ghosts exist no doubt they have natures, and that would make them “natural” on your definition. Which is fair enough, to me, if they do it regularly.

@T_aquaticus: the recurrent or predictable nature of events has no bearing whatsoever on the absence of agency - I’ve already mentioned what I do habitually by agency, and attributing regularity to the faithfulness of God is absolutely as reasonable as attributing it to laws - with the added advantage that you don’t need another God to explain how the laws got there.


Except that the “laws” themselves are how our minds describe a regular interaction. If the laws need to really exist as something real in the universe, they need to be the product of a mind.

The “law of parsimony” itself is an assumption. You are saying the same thing I am while denying it.

Can you define “naturalism”.

The map is not the territory. Just because we can describe something does not mean it requires a mind to exist.

The Law of Parsimony is an assumption, but it seems to be a necessary one. If we throw that assumption out it becomes almost impossible to assign a cause to anything.

I would define “natural” as anything which has an objective and measurable effect on the universe around us.

Like the Chinese water torture and mass spectrometers then?

Though, of course, this phrase fits quite well with theistic immaterialism: natural then becomes “everything objective and measurable in the universe - done by God.”

The map is an approximation of reality with varying degrees of accuracy. That’s what these so called laws are too.
Just a map is description of an area, and not an explanation in how it came to be… or who owns it… laws are also descriptions which don’t address agency in any manner.

Why should assigning causes by th scientific method be fundamental to reality?

So Picasso’s art is supernatural in a lot of its effects?

Would that make Jesus miracle of feeding the 5000 natural?
We could count a lot of stuff in there.

That’s the way I view it. If God causes changes that we can measure then we could potentially study God and the supernatural through methodological naturalism.

Maps are no different than the descriptions we use for how nature operates.

I said the Law of Parsimony is a very useful tool. For example, if you walk out in the morning and see that the ground is wet everywhere you look, and there are dark grey clouds in the sky, you would probably conclude that it rained, a natural explanation. But what if we threw out the Law of Parsimony? If we did, then Leprechauns magically poofing water on the ground would be as good of an explanation. In fact, any explanation we could think of would be just as good as rain falling from clouds.

How does that fit the description I used?

We know this because we have seen rain wet the tiles before.The law of parsimony has nothing to do with it…
It’s a false analogy.

Works of art create feelings in us that are not measurable… by your definition, these are not natural.

But how do you define objective? Was Jesus turning water into wine a natural act then, since everyone could drink the wine?

This is the most important point that shows what I believe to be the blind spot in the deistic view of the universe seemingly espoused by many creationists - that God is only present when He intervenes in the natural order of the unierse.