Religions are full of supernatural claims and stories, many of which are the core of the religion itself. But the problem isn’t just that there’s no proof to support supernatural claims, it’s that the very idea that something can be deemed supernatural is impossible.
If something actually happens, or happened, it is, to the extent of its happening, real. And if something is real, it is, to the extent of its reality, a thing that exists in nature. It makes no difference how amazing or rare the thing is: if that thing actually did occur or does exist in the way you perceived it (and was not a product of delusion), then that thing is natural—whether you can explain it or not.
The great David Hume, in his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, famously determined that “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.” Hume then proceeds to explain how we should judge the validity of a miracle by weighing the probability of the laws of nature being violated against the probability of the observer being under a misapprehension.
But the problem is that the idea of a violation of the laws of nature is necessarily loaded with the impossible prerequisite of knowing everything there could possibly be to know about the natural world. After all, even if it turns out that you’re not under some misapprehension, how could you possibly determine that what you’re witnessing isn’t contained within the laws of nature? Ancients famously used to assert that such natural phenomena as lightning bolts, earthquakes and solar eclipses were supernatural.
Because it’s impossible to know everything there could ever be to know about the natural world, trying to prove that something is supernatural, i.e. not natural, is no more than attempting to prove a negative and then defending that negative with a classic argument from ignorance fallacy.
I don’t mean to dispute Hume’s conclusion regarding the improbability of miracles. I’m saying that it’s unnecessary to weigh the probabilities of something that’s impossible on its own terms. A miracle isn’t just improbable, it’s impossible to determine.
“No, no, no,” I’ve heard many a religious friend protest, “I never claimed to know everything there is to know about nature. All I’m asking is how else can you explain something that clearly defies any scientific explanation? What else could it be but a miracle?”
This common defense is no more than a cocktail of two logical fallacies: an affirmative conclusion from a negative premise and an argument from ignorance. In other words, it combines “Because I don’t know one thing, I do know another” with “I don’t understand how this could happen naturally, therefore it must be supernatural.” It’s the same exact game that UFO theorists play. They don’t understand what they’re seeing, and can’t find a terrestrial explanation for it, so they leap to a conclusion about an extraterrestrial source.
Not only can the uninformed, negative premise not support the conclusion, but the conclusion and the premise fly in opposite directions.
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