Keywords: philosophy of science, physical reality, philosophical foundations, nonphysical, god, ghosts, ch’i, chakras, soul, spirits, magic
There are lots of things that are said to be supernatural; things like ghosts, gods, and magic, to name a few. Can these things truly be supernatural?
I’m not the first to come up with or present the types of arguments I’ll give below. But this is a critical foundational aspect of science that is useful for moving beyond doubt. I want to emphasize that this discussion does not analyze whether or not these things exist. It analyzes one particular characteristic that is often given to these things: that they are supernatural.
In order to get very far, we’ll need a better term for what we’re talking about. The word “supernatural” is arguably an oxymoron. Can there truly be something that is not natural, that is beyond – super to – nature? We might alternatively ask: Is there something in the universe that is not natural? We sometimes use the word “artificial” in the sense of “made by humans” to mean “unnatural”. But this isn’t the sense we’re talking about here. We’re not using the term to imply that gods or ghosts are made by humans. In the grander sense of the term, everything in the universe (that is, everything) is natural.
So let us change the question to whether or not there is something that is not physical instead of supernatural. This is consistent with the use of the term “incorporeal” to describe ghosts and spirits. Such things are thought of as having no body, of being immaterial.
Arguably, using the term “nonphysical” increases the variety of things under discussion. For example, when I was studying chakras, I came across a statement that chakras exist in a “nonphysical dimension.” These, along with various “life energies” or “life forces”, such as ch’i, are often associated with medicinal practices and are thus often posed as involving the body more than the supernatural. Similarly, forms of extrasensory perception (ESP) such as telepathy or telekinesis are often posed as extensions of the mind more than as supernatural abilities. (This includes some science fiction stories that provide a fictional, “scientific”, reason for their existence.) There are myriad other examples.
The next step, of course, is to have an understanding of what “physical” means. Indeed we need a clear definition of “physical.” I’ll use our bodies as a foundation for this definition. But I’ll also link the definition to my three philosophical foundations discussed in Am I a figment of your imagination?
- Cogito, ergo sum (I think therefore I am),
- Something exists besides self (objective reality),
- Sensory perceptions interpret, rather than capture, reality (modelism).
I hope that few people would argue that we exist only as thought. I hope that most people would admit we are beings of flesh and blood. A body of flesh and blood is a physical body – by definition. Further, our senses, being part of our physical body, are – by definition – physical senses. As physical senses they can sense nothing but physical reality – again, by definition. When we speak, our larynx and mouth modulate sound waves that propagate by physically moving air molecules. When we see something, it is via photons hitting our retinas. When necessary, we can look to biochemistry and physics to understand that our physical body and the physical world are made of molecules and atoms or, more generally, that the universe is made up of the full array of particles in the Standard Model of physics. But for the sake of this discussion, it is important to realize that the definition of “physical” is founded in our bodies and its interaction with objective reality. Particles are just experimentally based refinements to the model that this definition is a part of. It is, perhaps, also useful to realize that this definition is consistent with the definition of “physical” used by science and, in particular, by physics.
It is certainly possible for the word “physical” to be defined in other ways. And people are wont to do so; people commonly engage in what I call Whac-a-mole arguments (which are more formally referenced as moving the goal posts.) If there is a reason to do so, other definitions can be compared to my definition for elucidation. But I argue that any definition of “physical” must include the physicality of our bodies – the physicality of flesh and blood – or else it references a completely different concept then what I am talking about here.
I will likely write a post discussing measurability in more detail, but the concept is an important part of this discussion, so here are a few comments. To measure something in physical reality is to measure either a static characteristic of an object or a change of state of an object. We might measure the static volume of an object or its change of position in space. We might measure a static temperature or the change of temperature as something cools. (As part of our model, measurements always have an error and never measure reality exactly.) Our senses work by making physical measurements (although their accuracy is always in question). We hear by measuring the frequency of sound waves as they move air molecules. We see by measuring the color and intensity of photons. We also extend the range and accuracy of our senses through technological instrumentation, such as yardsticks and the Large Hadron Collider. These are extensions of our senses in that the measurements of these devices are ultimately incorporated into our minds via our physical senses.
This brings us to the definition of a physical “force.” Any force that makes a measurable change to a part of the physical world is a physical force – by definition. There is a sense in which we don’t really measure the physical forces per se; we measure the changes they produce on physical objects. We measure the force of gravity by how it affects dropped objects. We measure the electromagnetic force by its effect on electrons. Physics has identified four forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force. If we happened to measure a change in a physical object that could not be accounted for by the combination of these four forces, we would have identified another physical force. There is currently no evidence of a fifth force, but for the sake of this discussion, let us assume the possibility.
We’re now ready to start addressing the question of whether something can be nonphysical.
I’ll use god as an example to illustrate the main argument. Assume god tells me something and I speak to someone about what god said. Because my speaking is a physical act, somewhere between god and my larynx, god had to have made a change in my physical body. To be clear, the assumption is that I am saying something that I would not have said, would not have known about, if god hadn’t interacted with me. For emphasis, I’ll work back along the trail. We know speech moves physical air molecules. We know that this air motion is created by our lungs and modulated by the motion of muscles in our mouth and throat. Does god have one hand on my throat and another on my lungs physically controlling my speech? Well, the assumption is that I am consciously aware of what god told me. Just as we know that the blood we bleed when we are cut has a function related to the maintenance of our body, we know that the neurons in our brain have functions related to muscle control and consciousness. So, we can work our way back along the nerves that control my mouth muscles to my brain. We know that our brains work, in part, via the firing of neurons. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the way god told me something was by controlling electrons as they moved down my neurons. For the sake of imagery, assume god has a teeny tiny little hammer and god is sitting in our brain whacking electrons as they go by. Such changes to the motions of these electrons – physical particles – would be measurably separable from the effects of other known physical forces. For emphasis: it doesn’t matter how far we have to go on our journey from the larynx, or how minute a change to my body we attribute to god, if god speaks to me, it requires a physical, measurable, change in my body. By definition this would make god a physical force.
Ghosts illustrate the concept of a supposedly incorporeal entity measurably affecting the physical world. Ghosts are purportedly seen or heard through our eyes or ears. The purported rattling and shaking produced by ghosts are physical phenomena and thus ghosts cannot be nonphysical.
This same argument applies to souls and things like animistic spirits of trees. If the soul in any way influences our physical body or a spirit inhabits and affects a tree, it would have to do so via a physical force. Similarly, if some life force animates our bodies, it would have to do so by affecting our physical bodies in some measurable way.
I’ll now move away from the image of god with a little hammer in our head by considering telekinesis (moving objects with our minds) or magic in the form of casting spells (or in the form of its cousin, prayer). These tend to be presented as something happening at a distance; that there is physical separation between the person and the object being affected. Let’s assume a person is doing something that causes an effect on some object. Let’s say, either through telekinesis or through spell casting, that a rock is lifted. On the rock side, we are back to a measurable effect that we could isolate out from gravity. But there is also the action of the person – whether it is waving their hands in a spell or just thinking really hard about lifting the rock. These are measurable actions – either the motion of the hands or neurons firing as part of a conscious act. That is, there are two measurable and linked effects involved in the lifting of the rock. This makes these abilities part of physical reality.
Let’s also discuss “dimensions” since, for example, chakras have been said to exist in a nonphysical dimension (which they can’t because they supposedly affect our physical bodies.) Various forms of string theory posit more than the four dimensions of space-time (10, 11, and 26 in particular.) So, even physicists are willing to discuss extra dimensions. But the key point here is that, if they exist (and there is currently no evidence that they do) they are physical dimensions. They would be extensions of our current four dimensional model and would have measureable affects. Sometimes the word “dimension” is used to discuss “alternate” universes or realities. Science fiction and fantasy like to use the trope of “portals,” “gates,” or “doorways” into these alternate places. But, once again, if there is a doorway, it provides a physical connection to those alternate dimensions.
Finally, I’ll discuss things that people really want to believe have transcendental origins: love and other emotions. Many people don’t want to think that love is only a physical response. Well, we’re already capable of measuring some emotions in terms of their electrochemical presence in our bodies (although not very easily and not with any level of accuracy). Even further, I’ll point out that people in love (especially newly discovered love) can sometimes be identified by sight – without fancy equipment. Many of us have looked at a couple and thought to ourselves, “They’re in love.” For another example, anger is often visibly noticeable. These, again, are physical measurements made by our physical senses. I want to emphasize that this in no way diminishes the beauty of love. Love exists and produces one of the most exquisite feelings we feel. That love is “only” electrochemical doesn’t change these facts.
In summary, anything that affects the physical world and, in particular, produces (by whatever means) a conscious awareness of its existence in our physical bodies, is necessarily a physical force or object. Otherwise it couldn’t interact with the physical world or our bodies or our minds. These facts are true by definition. Harking back to my original definition of “physical”, to deny this definition is to deny that we have flesh and blood bodies. In conclusion: there is nothing nonphysical or supernatural.
There is a technicality regarding this conclusion. It is imaginable that there is something which we cannot measure because it is not connected to the part of the universe we occupy. Perhaps we are in one isolated bubble in a multiverse sea of bubbles. Well, we will never know if this is true because if there are segments of reality that are completely, physically, disconnected from us – that our physical bodies (or current or future instruments) cannot sense– there is zero chance of knowing anything about them.
There is another concept in the category of things that might exist but are not measurable: an observer. I’ll use an observer soul as a focus. I’ve already noted that if the soul in any way controls or influences the body, it is physical. But it might be that the soul is simply an observer, an archiver of our life, something that acts as a memory storage device. (This is an important aspect of souls. If the soul does not have any memory of who I was then how is it in any way a continuation of “me?”) We often observe people without them knowing it. So, it is imaginable that there is something observing us without our knowing. (Of course, the question of mechanism comes into play. The analogy thus falls apart in that we see people via physical photons. But let’s ignore mechanism for this discussion.) This is no different than the situation of a bubble universe. If something is only an observer that in no way interacts with us in a measurable way, we, again, have zero chance of knowing anything about it.
As I said at the beginning, this argument does not address the existence of things like gods or ghosts. I will likely post other arguments against their existence, but I want to strongly emphasize that the purpose of this post is to discuss a single characteristic often attributed to these things. This post only argues that there is nothing nonphysical, nothing supernatural. That is, if gods or magic or whatever exist, then they are physical objects or forces. As physical entities, they are measurable. This means they can be analyzed by the scientific method because what science does is analyze data obtained via measurement.
Part of my reason for this emphasis is to deflect arguments of “maybe science just hasn’t detected these things yet.” Such arguments from ignorance are irrelevant here. This discussion is about “in theory” vs. “in practice.” If there is a physical affect, then in theory we could develop techniques to measure it. Whether or not we have done so in practice is not part of this discussion. Understanding that the nature of reality is fundamentally physical and measurable is necessary for understanding the nature of science. The terms “supernatural” and “nonphysical” are red herrings we can discard as we analyze what is real and what is not.
An ironic aspect of this conclusion is that I started out by saying “supernatural” doesn’t mean “artificial” in the sense of “made by humans”. Well, since there is nothing supernatural, it turns out that anything claimed to be supernatural is just an artifice of human imagination.
(Update: I realized that I forgot to include credit for the ghostly image I used. https://creativity103.com/)