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The Supernatural, Science, Milesian Naturalism, and the Truth

By Edited Jun 24, 2015 1 0
Supernatural

In many ways, human beings constantly are evolving their beliefs (both individually and socially) so as to make sense of existence and other epistemological concerns. As is undoubtedly certain by an elementary history lesson or perhaps an examination of our own beliefs, many of our own beliefs have limited grounding in rational thought. While this may not be the complete truth for every individual, as a generalized statement this may very well be accepted as a statement of fact. With this said, where then do we place our trust as we wade through our thoughts on life, death, and other topics that we insist we understand; but we truly know little or nothing about? Even to this day, the supernatural has been an easily assessable route to potential knowledge. Alternatively, science has also found itself to be a structured form of knowing; yet it still heavily relies on theoretical knowledge as opposed to 100 percent truth. There are no scientific articles that can conclusively prove that one thing is true and another is not, which then begs the question: what is truth and how can we determine what is true and what is not true if our current measures only allow scientists to examine what is most likely to be true based on probabilities as opposed to some other unrecognizable structure that would allow us to gauge, with complete certainty, what truth is. The importance of this concern leads to a notion that science and folk psychology may not be so dissimilar as we may be lead to believe, and Milesian naturalism may inadvertently be a building block to describe the relationship between these two concepts and how they might work best if used together.

            An analysis of human beliefs easily can begin by questioning what motivates individuals to believe in particular things, and how this motivation ultimately leads to individuals acting on their beliefs. In the context of beliefs in supernatural powers (such as god, prayer, and other forms of extrasensory perception), this question of motivation moves beyond an analysis of physiological constructs and even beyond psychological constructs. I say the latter because modern psychology is heavily based in the realm of science, and currently no supernatural phenomena have been researched in any way that would prove these phenomena exist by scientific standards. For example, one can consider James Randi’s $1,000,000 paranormal challenge. This challenge began in 1964, and still to this day no one has been able to successfully prove, under scientific conditions, that the paranormal exists; even when offered a significant payment (Wagg, 2008). For the sake of argument, it can be said that supernatural powers, entities, and so forth do not exist; as there is currently no conclusive, experimental evidence to support their existence. With that said, supernatural beliefs continue to be a driving motivator in human beings, despite the lack of scientific evidence.

            The fantasy provided by belief in god, superheroes, and perhaps even talking goats (the goat is an inside joke) allow individuals to feel somewhat safe, as if everything that occurs has some purpose. The ideology that some higher power is leading every human being to a similar destination is, in the least, comforting. While there is concern that belief in the supernatural may or may not be rational, one must consider that “superstitions are due, in part at least, to the cause-seeking instinct; and when a new phenomenon appears, or an old one at times and under circumstances which cannot be predicted, this instinct demands satisfaction (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration).” In this respect, one can at least understand why, even in modern day, individuals may easily believe in the supernatural. It is, in part, instinct that drives human beings to desire answers to problems that do not currently have answers.

            To further this dilemma, many issues examined by supernatural means appear to be lost causes for scientific answers. For example, where did the universe come from? Science is only beginning to answer this question (through the Big Bang Theory, for example), and still the answers leave much to be desired if one is to believe the answers provided with complete certainty. However, religious groups, for example, are able to state that god created the universe (and they have even prior to the Scientific Revolution). This simple answer begs simple questioning: “Is this true?” and “How can we be certain it is?” While the answers to these questions have yet to be found, it is undeniable that the hard-questions of philosophy and science require answers so as to satisfy humanities desire to be in control of their lives.

            Stories of the supernatural and mythology are prevalent in most societies, as folk tales are utilized to teach and entertain children at very young ages. These beliefs are not exclusively found in children, however, as many individuals, regardless of age, enjoy fantasy.  This is extremely noticeable in modern times as television, movies, books, and other forms of media are easily accessible. While it is certain that some individuals may not be lured to “unrealistic” fantasy films, such as those often found in science fiction; fantastical beliefs are not exclusive to the extraordinary. To further this example, one might examine a romance book/film; such as A Walk to Remember. In this story, life is portrayed pretty accurately for the sake of realism, yet the end result of the actual story arouses potential interest in such a fantastical concept of love that it supersedes reality. In lamens terms: it looks real, the emotions feel real, but when analyzed further it is not real. It is the ultimate delusion. The question that arises from a sense of ambiguity with regards to media carries over to philosophical discussions of science and the supernatural/potential fantasy: how unrealistic are these fantasies? Philosophically, if our fantasies can be conceived in our minds (or through neurological processes if one is a materialist) then they may potentially have the capacity to be real, albeit alien to our current informational sources.

            While the supernatural may only be studied and discussed in a manner that is almost exclusively qualitative, science seeks to be the opposition to folk psychological beliefs by enabling individuals to structure their beliefs through quantitative measures. I am currently taking an Experimental Psychology course, and my interest in scientific research has increased substantially throughout the course of this semester. However, despite all of the desire from the scientific community to quantify knowledge and experiment, questions still linger as to how any theory can be proven with 100 percent certainty.

            As can be seen by an examination of a science textbook, science is constantly evolving as new theories replace the old. For example, one may examine a very commonly accepted scientific theory, such as Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation. In the classroom, gravity is often taught as a universal truth (Stern, 2006). Yet, there exist many alternative theories and rebuttals against Newton’s theory (Schempp). The area of concern that arises from the inconclusivity of scientific theories is how can mankind truly distinguish between supernatural ideologies and theoretical scientific fact if they both require a degree of faith to believe in potential truths? And are not these potential truths also potential fallacies?   

            In modern day, theories that attempt to prove the existence of god (among many other supernatural powers) are created by those who believe in a higher power and debated by non-believers. If they are proven to be fairly unreliable, or if the non-believers wish to have a better argument, then new theories are drafted. For example, one can examine the Intelligent Design argument that indicates that the universe is best explained by an intelligent cause (Questions About Intelligent Design). This theory has been developed out of Creationist theories that a god has created the universe (Ruse). While this may just be a slight alteration to the argument, it still stands as a significant one, especially if an individual is debating another individual with a specific religious belief regarding god. For example, in Genesis an account for creation is given that indicates that the Jewish god created all life in a period of seven days. The debate with an individual who believes in the story provided in the Old Testament will be significantly different than a debate with an individual who believes in an intelligent creator of no particular cause or creed. Furthermore, there are numerous organized communities that seek to prove that a particular supernatural phenomenon exists, such as psychic mediums or ghosts. For example, The Atlantic Paranormal Society focuses on documenting ghosts, demons, and other forms of spiritual energy (The Atlantic Paranormal Society). In other cases, such as a search for the existence of god, many individuals flock to churches in part to rationalize their belief in a supernatural power. The important element of this is the realization that believers in science and believers in the supernatural work towards common goals of being able to rationalize and justify one’s own belief.

            As one considers the differences between science and beliefs in the supernatural, one can never seem to distance themselves to one extreme or the other without inadvertently taking a stance from the other. For example, the truth of science involves acknowledging how scientific research is really conducted. “…Theory influences observation and world view influences theory. Technical, conscious, deliberate reasons often follow conclusions generated from one’s ‘sense of science’ or ‘sense of the world’ (Harris, 1991). Our observational worldview is in very many respects a matter of how an individual subjectively perceives how the world functions. One may examine the sun in the sky and insist that it is merely a star that provides warmth and life to living things on our planet, yet another individual may look at the same sun and call it a god because of the amount of space it takes up and the other mystical characteristics it holds.

            The question that must then be raised is, is it self-defeating for human beings to completely put aside supernatural notions when we currently lack the ability to account for all phenomena and experience beyond scientific theoretical notions? As Greek philosophy and literature are reexamined, one cannot help but imagine that both science and supernatural beliefs have their rightful place in a functional society. The scientist-philosophers of Miletus existed prior to modern scientific theories (and even some modern supernatural ideas, such as specific religious ideals such as those found in the New Testament of the Bible and perceptions of heaven and hell). While it may be antithetical to look back at the beginning of scientific interest as it is mixed with supernatural ideas if we desire to become more knowledgeable about the universe as based on present evidence and research methods, it is not necessarily a bad idea to examine our ancestors thought processes and rationale by merging newly constructed “scientific thought” with the potential existence of supernatural concepts.

            As is indicated by Wheelwright, Milesian philosophers were not scientists by modern standards. He states that the Milesians knew nothing of “the contemporary demands of maximum exactitude, of experimentally controlled verifications, and of intellectual economy…” This however does not imply that the Milesians thought process lacked systematic knowledge of the world through observation and experimentation (Wheelwright, 41; science). The Milesians appear, in the least, to be rational in their theories of how the universe functions as opposed to simply coming to conclusions through highly emotional means. For example, one can consider Thales’ statement that “all things are full of gods” and see the inherent mystical components of this statement (Wheelwright, 45). In addition, one can also consider his cultural heritage and personal observations of the world; as well as a consideration of Greek linguistics, and understand that Thales may have been representing scientific ideas related to blood flow and the need for oxygen.

            As a human society, there are undoubtedly questions that have been raised that have not garnered conclusive answers. Scientists work daily to examine these concerns and seek to answer them, however as complex as human beings may be; we do not currently have the intelligence to prove what is true and what is not. The Milesians were never forced too choose between two extremities, science and non-science. If this was more accepted in modern societies we may find more scientists attempting to test theories related to the supernatural. More importantly, financial support could be leant to these individuals to actually perform experiments and studies. Milesian philosophers were well ahead of their time as they began to attempt understanding the universe by examining it through naturalistic observational methods (Wheelwright, 41).

            Though there are undeniably differences between scientific thought and belief in the supernatural, there are also significant similarities in their end results. In a search for truth, believers on both ends of the spectrum insist on the credibility of their beliefs. With that said, there is never complete certainty that what is taught or generally accepted by the majority of the populace is truth. It is antithetical to philosophy when one examines the fallacious argumentum ad populum (“appeal to the majority”) to believe in things just because we are told they are true by scientists, priests, parents, or friends (Argumentum Ad Populum). It is ironic that science seeks the simplest answer to explain things, yet those who believe in the supernatural have the tendency to provide simple answers. As an individual who is a materialist and who does not believe in the supernatural, I still find that other individual’s beliefs need to be considered as potential truths; as scientific research still leaves much to be desired when one feels compelled to make a significant, life-altering choice between what is truth and what is false. The Milesian philosophers may not be scientists by modern definitions, and may very well believe in their ideas due to subjective reasoning. However, the important concern to be addressed is that science in itself has subjective qualities as well. The line between science and the supernatural appears to then be very blurred. The primary difference appears to be the subject matter. It is easy to believe in the material world, and science can explain many physical occurrences. However, just because the supernatural lies outside of the physical realm in many respects does not make it any less real or true. The argument is not that the supernatural does exist, it is that if it may potentially exist; it may not simply lie within sciences’ grasp to give an explanation. At the time when the Milesian philosophers had their new ideas, they began to bridge the gap between faith-based folk psychology and modern science. In our modern day, humanity is somewhat plagued by a need to pick an extreme (“I am a man of science” or “I am a man of god” for example). In this respect, it is especially important that society at least reexamines the Milesians’ thought processes and begins to reevaluate whether or not truth can only be explained through the scientific method.

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Bibliography

  1. "Argumentum Ad Populum." Philosophy at Lander.edu. 3/March/2011 <Web >

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