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Natural — Supernatural FAQ


The Natural — Supernatural trope appears so frequently, I have decided to add it to the FAQ. The following new FAQ (many thanks to StephenB and DaveScot, from whom I have cribbed freely) is now open for comment:

(38) When an ID theorist says “natural forces” cannot account for certain features of the universe, he must mean that only supernatural forces can account for these features.

“If phenomena are not naturally caused, they are supernaturally caused. There is no other alternative.” Barbara Forrest

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ms. Forrest has tied herself into linguistic knots, causing her to succumb to the logical fallacy of “false dilemma.” There are three categories of causation: (a) agency, (b) law, and (c) chance. Of these three, law and chance are both “natural” causes. Agency, on the other hand, is a non-natural – but not necessarily “supernatural” cause. Any particular agent may be a human agent; a superhuman but non-divine agent; or a divine agent, and only this last category would be “supernatural.” Effects caused by an agent (whether divine, superhuman or human) leave similar traces (e.g., complex specified information, irreducible complexity) that simply cannot be replicated by effects caused by law and chance.

Ms. Forrest errs when she fails to take into account that the word “natural” has multiple shades of meaning. Her argument has a first-blush plausibility, because depending upon the context in which it is used, the word “natural” can be an antonym of “supernatural,” and in that context every phenomenon may indeed be categorized as either natural or supernatural. Ms. Forest fails to take into account, however, that in other contexts – as any thesaurus will confirm – the word “natural” can be an antonym to “technological” or “artificial.”

Now suppose an archeologist finds a spear point. Will he conclude that the spear point is a natural phenomenon? Obviously not. The whole point of calling it a spear point (instead of just “rock”) is that an agent (some ancient Indian perhaps) worked on it, and his work left traces that can be distinguished from the traces left by non-intelligent (i.e., “natural”) causes such as erosion. But wait a minute, under Ms. Forrest’s formulation, the spear point must be a natural phenomenon, because it was caused by a (presumably) non-supernatural human agent. The confusion vanishes when we realize that the archeologist is using “natural” as an antonym to “technological” or “artificial,” and not as an antonym to “supernatural.”

ID uses the term “natural” the way the archeologist uses it, not the way Ms. Forest uses it. In summary, therefore, Ms. Forest’s objection to ID is based not on the substance of ID’s theories, but on her failure to use language in a precise manner. Whether she has equivocated intentionally to muddy the waters and bring an unfair charge against ID, we will leave for others to decide.