Thursday, September 22, 2011

How to Destroy Naturalism in 4 Easy Steps

This little shop in Boston
could change the world.
Are you a healer, a psychic, a medium, an exorcist, or someone who's witnessed a supernatural event? Are you looking to become world famous as the individual who caused humanity to completely overhaul its understanding of the universe—and make a bit of extra cash as a bonus? You're in luck, because now you can! All you have to do is provide sufficient evidence that your supernatural phenomenon of choice actually occurs. I'll show you how in just four easy steps.

1. Have multiple, reliable witnesses.
If you tell me you saw an exorcist stick a Bible in a demon-possessed man's face, causing such an adverse reaction that his head spun around, all you have is a spooky story. There's absolutely no reason for me to believe you, because it's far more likely that you're either lying or mistaken. It's far better if you have other people to corroborate your story, but the character of those people is also important. If they have a history of drug use or mental illness, or have been known to lie, or have some conflict of interest, or have been primed to expect certain things out of exorcisms as a result of a highly religious upbringing, they're not going to be very convincing. You'll want skeptical, upstanding citizens as witnesses to your supernatural event, and the more the better.

2. Write down what happened.
Memories are delicate things, prone to being erased, altered and rewritten—especially in high-stress situations. Maybe you think you saw the head spin around... but you really only saw it jerk violently to the side, you turned away in horror, and your brain filled in the rest. The best thing for you and your witnesses to do is to write down, as soon as possible and in meticulous detail, exactly what occurred during this event. Don't discuss what happened beforehand, lest you influence each other's interpretation of events. Later, if it turns out that one of you saw the head turn clockwise and another counterclockwise, consider the possibility that you both just got caught up in the excitement of the moment.

3. Get it all on tape.
Witnesses are helpful, but ultimately people can say anything they like. Audiovisual recording devices trump them any day of the week. If you show me crisp video footage of a man's head doing a 360, I won't believe you right there on the spot, but I will sit up and take notice. Can this sort of thing be faked? Absolutely. There are prosthetics makers and computer animators who create effects like these for a living. But that's okay: weeding out the particularly crafty charlatans is what the final step is for.

Sorry, an artist's depiction ain't gonna cut it.
4. Replicate your results.
Got your reliable witnesses, consistent testimonies and recorded evidence? Great! Now you're ready for the big leagues. In fact, this final step is the only one that really counts, but supernatural phenomena fail it so reliably that it's only worth unleashing it on the serious contenders.

You will be asked to repeat your supernatural event of choice in a controlled setting. That's it. Simple, right? Just have your exorcist use his Bible to spin another person's head like a corkscrew, and you've made history. We'll be watching, of course. There will be cameras and scientists watching closely to make sure there's no funny business. But I'm sure that won't be a problem. Oh, and once you do shock the world by offering proof of the supernatural, there's just one more thing we'll need to do...

Tinker like there's no tomorrow.
You didn't think it was going to end there, did you? That we'd just destroy naturalism and call it a day? I certainly hope not.

By doing the apparently impossible, you've piqued the curiosity of every scientist on the planet. A kinesiologist will ensure these people can't somehow turn their heads that far all on their own, and do x-rays to understand the mechanics of that twisting motion. A linguist will analyze the demon's vocabulary and speech patterns. A psychologist will conduct extensive interviews to get the demon's complete mental profile. An anthropologist will try to glean information about past cultures that the demon presumably lived through. A neuroscientist will do fMRI scans to compare brain activity before and after exorcism. We'll also want to find out the mechanism of the "Bible corkscrew" effect. Does it work with a different book disguised as a Bible? How about half a Bible, or one that's written in Wingdings? What if the possessed person is blindfolded or on the other side of the room? Now that we've opened up this can of worms, we'll need to know all this and a whole lot more.

Okay, let's face it.
We're probably never going to get to this point. If the supernatural is real, destroying naturalism ought to be easy, but the fact is that anyone who actually tries to replicate their results in a tightly controlled setting fails miserably. No one ever makes it past step four, and that doesn't bode well for the existence of spirits, magic and psychic phenomena.

But even if naturalism were to die, science would enter a new era of exciting opportunity. Why? Because we will have proven that the supernatural interacts with the natural world—and if we can interact with it, we can measure, test, explain and understand it. The religious often see the supernatural as unknowable, but they couldn't be more wrong. If it's an observable part of our world, it's just one more realm for science to conquer.


  1. Very well put. I'm skeptical of the supernatural because no one, ever, has followed through on these steps.

  2. I am a card carrying skeptic. Since there is no credible evidence for anything supernatural, there is no reason to believe in it.

    Yet my opinion (I choose to talk of opinions when I don't know positively) is that it is possible for the supernatural to exist, it is possible for there to be things we can perhaps at a later time be able to detect and yet still not decipher with science.

    Perhaps some supernatural agency doesn't act in a consistent fashion so that measurement, experiment, and replication is possible. Perhaps there will be mysteries that science can be aware of and not ever solve.

    What is the likelihood of the above? Exceedingly slim, in fact assymptotic to zero. Near enough that living life as if it were zero is the only realistic approach, but not zero.

    So I see it as fundamental scientism, a faith position, to be dead certain that whatever we can detect, science will be able to decipher. Science is a wonderful tool, in fact our very best tool. There is no other tool worth using. But for me, the proposition that science and scientist can decode anything detectable by science is a faith position.

    There is a saying that getting atheists to agree is like trying to herd cats. So this is not by way of argument, just to expose you to how another skeptic views the topic you chose to write about today.

    My view is subject to revision. Wouldn't want to have undue faith in my opinion either :)

  3. Exrelayman,

    I agree with you for the most part. If we're being really particular, there are situations where science wouldn't be able to detect supernatural interactions.

    If we're talking about a supernatural phenomenon that's wildly inconsistent, it can in principle be detected by science, but doing so may not be practical (at least in the short term). If we're talking about a supernatural agent that has both the means and desire to avoid science's critical eye, then we're at a complete loss.

    As you say, though, the chances of those cases being true are close to nil. So close, I would argue, that they're (generally) not even worthy of our consideration.

    Thanks for your constructive criticism though. I did make an absolute statement (mostly for the sake of convenience), and you quite correctly called me out on it.

  4. Something that is supernatural and detectable is testable and analyzable, and therefore no longer supernatural. It's a contradiction. Therefore, the supernatural cannot occur.


  5. Lurker111,

    I get where you're coming from, but what you're essentially doing is defining the supernatural out of existence, which strikes me as a bit of a cop out. Such phenomena would be natural only by technicality. If a timeless, omnipotent spirit being interacts with the world, merely attaching the label "natural" to it does nothing to change what it actually is.

    Rather than defining "natural" as "that which is detectable," I think it would be more useful to define it as something like "that which is always subject to physical laws," which things like spirits presumably would not be.

  6. Tim, I also see where you're coming from. But think about it: If a supernatural force makes itself known in our current reality, how does it do that? Does it emit light? Make a sound? If so, it's by definition a physical phenomenon and subject to all the analyses that science provides. On the other hand, I suppose a supernatural force could do something like transmute elements without heat exchange or radioactive byproducts; _that_ would be impressive.


  7. Lurker111,

    It's true that the lights and sounds that come from a supernatural being would be physical and scientifically observable. One could describe these as natural phenomena, but they would still have a supernatural cause, so I think it would be inaccurate (or at least misleading) to say that "the supernatural cannot occur." Of course, the problem with this hypothetical situation is that (to my knowledge) believers haven't really explained how the non-physical could act upon the physical in the first place.