Are you in, or are you out?

You know how people like Massimo Pigliucci and others like to say that science has nothing to say about the supernatural? And therefore scientists who dispute religion are trespassing on other people’s territory and crossing their own borders without a passport and generally misbehaving? I’ve been thinking about that.

I googled the two words just now, and found a nice helpful item by Victor Stenger. He quotes the National Academy of Sciences:

Science is a way of knowing about the natural
world. It is limited to explaining the natural
world through natural causes. Science can say
nothing about the supernatural. Whether God
exists or not is a question about which science
is neutral.

That’s good, because it says exactly what I had in mind, what I’ve been thinking about –

what I think is a crock of shit.

Here’s why: there’s no such thing as “the supernatural.” Nobody cares about some general thing called “the supernatural.” People care about particular things that could be put under the heading “supernatural” but are not “the supernatural” themselves. And many or most of the things that people care about and that can be put under the heading “supernatural” are not really supernatural in a sense that would make science unable to say anything about them. And that includes “God” – except when the deist god is meant, which in fact it almost never is.

“The supernatural” is just the name of a category, but what’s really in dispute is not a category, but a person, an agent. The supernatural is one thing, and “God” is another, and it’s a distraction to pretend that by walling off “the supernatural” from science it is possible to get science to agree that God is beyond dispute. The god that is meant when people say “God” – the god that will be in charge on National Prayer Day, when Obama tells us all to get busy praying – is not supernatural at all but heavily involved in human life. A god that really really is super-natural – altogether outside nature – is not the one that people care about and summon to tell us all what to do. The god of believers is a part of this world, however magic and elusive and tricky it is supposed to be.

So saying “science can say nothing about the supernatural” is true enough as far as it goes (because it’s true by definition), but it’s irrelevant to god-talk.

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