The supernatural (Medieval Latin: supernātūrālis: supra "above" + naturalis "nature", first used: 1520–30 AD) is that which is not subject to the laws of physics, or more figuratively, that which is said to exist above and beyond nature. In philosophy, popular culture and fiction, the supernatural is associated with the paranormal, religions and occultism. It has neoplatonic and medieval scholastic origins.
In Catholicism, while the meaning of the term and its antithesis vary, the “Supernatural Order” is the gratuitous production, by God, of the ensemble of miracles for the elevation of man to a state of grace, including the hypostatic union (Incarnation), the beatific vision, and the ministry of angels. Divine operation, “spiritual facts” and “voluntary determinations” are consistently referred to as “supernatural” by those who specifically preclude the “extrinsic concurrence” of God or by those espousing a materialist or determinist worldview that excludes immaterial beings or free will. Barring disingenuous intent, there is no objection to this manner of speaking.
Catholic theologians sometimes call supernatural the miraculous way in which certain effects, in themselves natural, are produced, or certain endowments (like man's immunity from death, suffering, passion, and ignorance) that bring the lower class up to the higher though always within the limits of the created, but they are careful in qualifying the former as accidentally supernatural (supernaturale per accidens) and the latter as relatively supernatural (prœternaturale). For a concept of the substantially and absolutely supernatural, they start from a comprehensive view of the natural order taken, in its amplest acceptation, for the aggregate of all created entities and powers, including the highest natural endowments of which the rational creature is capable, and even such Divine operations as are demanded by the effective carrying out of the cosmic order. The supernatural order is then more than a miraculous way of producing natural effects, or a notion of relative superiority within the created world, or the necessary concurrence of God in the universe; it is an effect or series of effects substantially and absolutely above all nature and, as such, calls for an exceptional intervention and gratuitous bestowal of God and rises in a manner to the Divine order, the only one that transcends the whole created world... It is obvious also that this uplifting of the rational creature to the supernatural order cannot be by way of absorption of the created into the Divine or of fusion of both into a sort of monistic identity, but only by way of union or participation, the two terms remaining perfectly distinct.—Joseph Sollier, The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14.
Divine revelation of the supernatural order is considered to be a matter of fact, contingent upon proper evidence of such, (miracle, prophecy etc.). “The revelation and its evidences are called extrinsic and auxiliary supernatural, the elevation itself retaining the name of intrinsic or, according to some, theological supernatural.” The supernatural order was analyzed primarily by scholastic and post-Tridentine theologians. Theories denying or belittling the supernatural order, are historically classified into three groups:
- present de facto condition (Pelagianism, Beghards, Stoic influence),
- the original status of man (Reformers such as Baius, Protestant and the Jansenist School),
- possibility and evidence (Rationalist School, from Socinus to the present Modernists).
Rosmini ... unwittingly, [may] have paved the way for them in the following vaguely Subjectivist proposition: “The supernatural order consists in the manifestation of Being in the plenitude of its reality, and the effect of that manifestation is a God-like sentiment, inchoate in this life through the light of faith and grace, consummate in the next through the light of glory”... Preserving the dogmatic formulæ while voiding them of their contents, the Modernists constantly speak of the supernatural, but they understand thereby the advanced stages of an evolutive process of the religious sentiment. There is no room in their system for the objective and revealed supernatural: their Agnosticism declares it unknowable, their Immanentism derives it from our own vitality, their symbolism explains it in term of subjective experience and their criticism declares non-authentic the documents used to prove it. “There is no question now,” says Pius X, in his Encyclical “Pascendi” of 8 Sept., 1907, “of the old error by which a sort of right to the supernatural was claimed for human nature. We have gone far beyond that. We have reached the point where it is affirmed that our most holy religion, in the man Christ as in us, emanated from nature spontaneously and entirely. Than this, there is surely nothing more destructive of the whole supernatural order.”—Joseph Sollier, "Supernatural Order" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14
Process theology or process thought is a school of thought influenced by the metaphysical process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) and further developed by Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000).
It is not possible, in process metaphysics, to conceive divine activity as a “supernatural” intervention into the “natural” order of events. Process theists usually regard the distinction between the supernatural and the natural as a by-product of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. In process thought, there is no such thing as a realm of the natural in contrast to that which is supernatural. On the other hand, if “the natural” is defined more neutrally as “what is in the nature of things,” then process metaphysics characterizes the natural as the creative activity of actual entities. In Whitehead's words, “It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity” (Whitehead 1978, 21). It is tempting to emphasize process theism's denial of the supernatural and thereby highlight what the process God cannot do in comparison to what the traditional God can do (that is, to bring something from nothing). In fairness, however, equal stress should be placed on process theism's denial of the natural (as traditionally conceived) so that one may highlight what the creatures cannot do, in traditional theism, in comparison to what they can do in process metaphysics (that is, to be part creators of the world with God).—Donald Viney, "Process Theism" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The metaphysical considerations of the existence of the supernatural can be difficult to approach as an exercise in philosophy or theology because any dependencies on its antithesis, the natural, will ultimately have to be inverted or rejected.
One complicating factor is that there is no universal agreement about the definition of "natural" or the limits of naturalism. Concepts in the supernatural domain are closely related to concepts in religious spirituality and occultism or spiritualism. Additionally, by definition anything that exists naturally is not supernatural.
For sometimes we use the word nature for that Author of nature whom the schoolmen, harshly enough, call natura naturans, as when it is said that nature hath made man partly corporeal and partly immaterial. Sometimes we mean by the nature of a thing the essence, or that which the schoolmen scruple not to call the quiddity of a thing, namely, the attribute or attributes on whose score it is what it is, whether the thing be corporeal or not, as when we attempt to define the nature of an angel, or of a triangle, or of a fluid body, as such. Sometimes we take nature for an internal principle of motion, as when we say that a stone let fall in the air is by nature carried towards the centre of the earth, and, on the contrary, that fire or flame does naturally move upwards toward heaven. Sometimes we understand by nature the established course of things, as when we say that nature makes the night succeed the day, nature hath made respiration necessary to the life of men. Sometimes we take nature for an aggregate of powers belonging to a body, especially a living one, as when physicians say that nature is strong or weak or spent, or that in such or such diseases nature left to herself will do the cure. Sometimes we take nature for the universe, or system of the corporeal works of God, as when it is said of a phoenix, or a chimera, that there is no such thing in nature, i.e. in the world. And sometimes too, and that most commonly, we would express by nature a semi-deity or other strange kind of being, such as this discourse examines the notion of.
And besides these more absolute acceptions, if I may so call them, of the word nature, it has divers others (more relative), as nature is wont to be set or in opposition or contradistinction to other things, as when we say of a stone when it falls downwards that it does it by a natural motion, but that if it be thrown upwards its motion that way is violent. So chemists distinguish vitriol into natural and fictitious, or made by art, i.e. by the intervention of human power or skill; so it is said that water, kept suspended in a sucking pump, is not in its natural place, as that is which is stagnant in the well. We say also that wicked men are still in the state of nature, but the regenerate in a state of grace; that cures wrought by medicines are natural operations; but the miraculous ones wrought by Christ and his apostles were supernatural.—Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature
In a letter to the Reverend Dr. Richard Bentley in 1692, Isaac Newton wrote: "To your second query I answer that the motions which the planets now have could not spring from any natural cause alone but were impressed by an intelligent agent." This statement is referenced by Intelligent Design advocate Stephen C. Meyer in The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design, who refers to this statement as "Newton's famous postulation of special divine intervention to stabilize the orbital motion in the solar system" in developing his argument of the methodological equivalence of naturalistic and non-naturalistic (i.e. supernatural) theories.
The term "supernatural" is often used interchangeably with paranormal or preternatural — the latter typically limited to an adjective for describing abilities which appear to exceed the bounds of possibility. Epistemologically, the relationship between the supernatural and the natural is indistinct in terms of natural phenomena that, ex hypothesi, violate the laws of nature, in so far as such laws are realistically accountable.
Parapsychologists use the term psi to refer to an assumed unitary force underlying the phenomena they study. Psi is defined in the Journal of Parapsychology as “a general term used to identify personal factors or processes in nature which transcend accepted laws” (1948: 311) and “which are non-physical in nature” (1962:310), and it is used to cover both extrasensory perception (ESP), an “awareness of or response to an external event or influence not apprehended by sensory means” (1962:309) or inferred from sensory knowledge, and psychokinesis (PK), “the direct influence exerted on a physical system by a subject without any known intermediate energy or instrumentation” (1945:305).—Michael Winkelman, Current Anthropology
Many supporters of supernatural explanations believe that past, present, and future complexities and mysteries of the universe cannot be explained solely by naturalistic means and argue that it is reasonable to assume that a non-natural entity or entities resolve the unexplained. Proponents of supernaturalism regard their belief system as more flexible, allowing more diversity in terms of intuition and epistemology.
Views on the "supernatural" vary, for example it may be seen as:
- indistinct from nature. From this perspective, some events occur according to the laws of nature, and others occur according to a separate set of principles external to known nature. For example, in Scholasticism, it was believed that God was capable of performing any miracle so long as it didn't lead to a logical contradiction. As a pedagogical exercise, a physics university instructor might ask what the aftermath would be, as nature returns to normal, following a hypothetical miraculous intervention by God, similar to a modern thought experiment. Some religions posit immanent deities, however, and do not have a tradition analogous to the supernatural; some believe that everything anyone experiences occurs by the will (occasionalism), in the mind (neoplatonism), or as a part (nondualism) of a more fundamental divine reality (platonism).
- incorrectly attributed to nature. Others believe that all events have natural and only natural causes. They believe that human beings ascribe supernatural attributes to purely natural events, such as lightning, rainbows, floods, and the origin of life.
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- "The eventual development of a clear concept of the supernatural in Christian theology was promoted both by dialogues with heretics and by the influence of Neoplatonic philosophy." Benson Saler: Supernatural as a Western Category. Ethos 5 (1977): 44
- "Saint Thomas's important contribution to the emergence of a technical theology of the supernatural represents a special development of the concept of surpassing effects. Saint Thomas and others of the Scholastics have left us as one of their legacies a dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural that is theologically rooted in the distinction between the Order of Nature and the Order of Grace." Benson Saler: Supernatural as a Western Category. Ethos 5 (1977): 47-48
- Sollier, Joseph (1912). "Supernatural Order". The Catholic Encyclopedia 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
- Pastrovicchi, Angelo (1918). Rev. Francis S. Laing, ed. St. Joseph of Copertino.. St. Louis: B.Herder. p. iv. ISBN 0-89555-135-7.
- Viney, Donald (2008). Edward N. Zalta, ed. "Process Theism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 ed.).
- Boyle, Robert; Stewart, M.A. (1991). Selected Philosophical Papers of Robert Boyle. HPC Classics Series. Hackett. pp. 176–177. ISBN 978-0-87220-122-4. LCCN 91025480.
- "An example of theological plausibility functioning to limit design hypotheses can be found by examining the reception of Newton's famous postulation of special divine intervention to stabilize the orbital motion in the solar system. Newton postulated the periodic and special intervention of God to correct for an apparently accumulating instability in the orbits of the outer planets (Jupiter and Saturn) within the solar system. While this episode is often cited to illustrate why divine action or design can never be considered as a scientific explanation, it actually illustrates a more subtle point: how such inferences were constrained by considerations of theological plausibility." http://www.discovery.org
- The paranormal. Books.google.com. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
- Winkelman, M.; et al. (February 1982). "Magic: A Theoretical Reassessment [and Comments and Replies]". Current Anthropology 23 (1): 37–66. doi:10.1086/202778. JSTOR 274255.
- Zhong Yang Yan Jiu Yuan; Min Tsu Hsüeh Yen Chiu So (1976). Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Issues 42-44.
- Ellis, B.J.; Bjorklund, D.F. (2004). Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development. Guilford Publications. p. 413. ISBN 9781593851033. LCCN 2004022693.