Supernaturalism vs.
Enriched Naturalism

[The Spiritual Ladder, by Sophie Cauvin]


Concerning the explanation of  "spiritual" phenomena there are, generally speeking, two major approaches. The naturalistic approach, arguing that all phenomena in cosmos and existence eventually can be explained according to natural laws, and the supernaturalistic view, claiming that there are, at least, two totally different substances, two "natures", matter and spirit. This controversy started several centuries ago, and still continues.

A third approach considers matter as a form of spiritual substance. It can be considered as a special form of supranaturalism.

Several more or less synonymous labels are used to indicate both approaches, some of them calumniations of the other approach. Naturalists are often called materialists, agnostics [2]. Supernaturalists are labeled as dualists, idealists, spiritualists, the faithfull, and their approach a naive superstition.

The problem to reconcile both approaches is that each of both fundamental hypotheses (one/two substances) often is used as a mere argumentation in a hidden or open dispute about the consequences of this hypothesis. Already the dictionary describes materialism as  the interest in and the desire for money, possessions, etc., rather than spiritual or ethical values. [1] I think that most of believers in the naturalistic approach will find this description offending. The same way spiritualism is defined as belief that the disembodied spirits of the dead, surviving in another world, can communicate with the living in this world, esp. through mediums. [1]. I know of many religious people who don't belief in this kind of paranormal phenomena.

Each approach seems to imply and to suggest some related convictions, at least according to the interpretation of the opposite approach, that seem unacceptable, so that sticking to the own principle seems to be inevitable or logically required.

The naturalists reproach the supernaturalists that the phenomena they describe either don't exist and are mere hallucinations, or that they can be explained by natural laws (even if such laws are still to be discovered) or as pure primitive psychological phenomena, occurring often indeed with "primitive" people or hysterical patients. Moreover, they consider the claim of the existence of a spiritual substance, including God(s), angels, saints, performing from time to time revelations, miracles and appearances, as an authoritarian excuse to dictate moral and ethical guidelines, and to block scientific, technological and even socio-cultural progress at each possible instance. The supernaturalistic approach is in itself paralysing critical and creative thinking, resulting into cultural fatalism and stagnation for centuries. In a moving essay [], the Nobel Prize Winner Steven Weinberg concludes:

One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment.
The supernaturalists reproach the naturalists of a short-sighted view of existence, of rejecting ethical and moral values, opening the doors to arrogance, materialism, egotism, and lack of respect for human dignity. Moreover, by reducing human existence to what can be observed between birth and death, and by considering human existence as an insignificant variant of animal life, they insinuate a certain insensitivity and even a tactless indifference for deep emotions and intuitions concerning contact with suffering, dying and dead beloved.

These non-essential but clearly suggested related negative attitudes make it difficult for a honest thinker to consider himself a sensible naturalist or a progressive supernaturalist.

Is there another approach possible, with the qualities of each and without the negative implications of each?

Definition of Enriched Naturalism

If we consider traditional naturalism as the conviction, the postulate that all that exists is built up from one substance --traditional matter--, then we define Enriched Naturalism as an improved form of naturalism. It is defined as a working hypothesis, plausible and useful, but not yet proven. It distinguishes itself from traditional naturalism by some crucial nuances.

Some correcting assumptions

1. for "naturalists"

 (1) The naturalistic principle ("all that exists is built up form one substance --traditional matter--") is a working hypothesis, not a proven law. This principle seems most plausible because:

1. up to now no exceptions were encountered in science. There are just some phenomena that, by lack of experimental tools (e.g. in philosophy, psychology, religion, economics, etc.), are not yet accessible for experimental science.

2. most phenomena, advanced as "proofs" for non-naturalistic substances and interactions, failed to be objectivated. Most of times, they fall short of predictions, made by the sometimes very tricky and most of times not popularily known laws of statistics. Skeptical websites [] profusely advance evidence of these failures.

3. the naturalistic principle is the most useful attitude for the advancement of science, because it keeps us searching and believing in our possibilities.

4. the naturalistic principle is the most simple approach. A cautious principle in science is that when we can choose between a simple and a complex explanation, the most simple is probably the most plausible, unless we have positive reasons to consider the more complicate one.

5. explaining things by projecting them to other worlds and natures, e.g. "life didn't start on earth but comes from Mars" doesn't explain anything; one has to explain now how life emerged in Mars.

6. to suppose repeated interventions by God, His Son and His host of Saints is offending for God: it implies that in the beginning His creation was rather clumsy, making many corrections and interventions necessary. A not intervening God is more congruent with His alleged Almightiness, Wisdom, and respect for our freedom.

(2) The naturalistic approach has to remain prepared for the discovery of new, completely unexpected phenomena in nature. Why should scientific discoveries stop in 1950? It is still possible that yet unknown fields, forces, rays and particles are discovered. Quantum physics and modern cosmogony brought some revolutionary observations yet to understand, and paradoxes yet to solve. Even if future "scientific" explanations remain naturalistic in their fundamentals, they risk to sound very unusual in traditional "scientific" ears.

(3) The control of the plausibility of a hypothesis, and hence the notion of "scientism" in itself are urgently to be extended. As argued elsewhere [], the traditional experimental scientific method is only one way to achieve reliable plausibility. Domains less accessible for experimenting, measuring and calculating up to now where supposed to wait until exact measuring became available for their field, and until then nothing distinguishes them from unscientific myth and confabulation. This waiting time could take some more centuries. But in the meantime it became clear that integration is a means to achieve a comparable degree of plausibility. This integrative method doesn't intend to replace the exact method, but to complement it in fields apparently inaccessible for this method. The problem is that the fundamental attitudes to achieve integrative thinking appear to be radically opposed to the traditional academic approach, which tends to an even higher specialization in even more subdivised fields of knowledge.

2. for "supernaturalists"

Also people being sensitive for "psychic" phenomena have to nuance some of  their viewpoints, to enable an enriched naturalistic approach:

(1) It is clear that fine-tuned and highly complicated "matter" connections, as the nervous system, computers and neural networks, make "artificial" intellectual processes possible. Also emotional and creative processes, still not within the reach of artificial brains, can be explained by neuropsychological interactions. It can be expected (but still not proven) that once the AI devices are quantitatively comparable with human brains, and probably will be enriched with processing paradigms completely different from exact deductive thinking, e.g. unexact and associative thinking, those devices will produce other than cool intellectual performances. With all possible respect, super-animal phenomena don't imply nor prove the existence of supernatural psychic entities or interactions, however honest, emotive and convinced the person who experiences it might be.

(2) The laws of probability sciences can yield very surprising and decieving predictions and results, often contrary to common sense. This explains most of "unexpected" observations of paranormal phenomena.

(3) Still less explored is the phenomenon of collective thought. Inspired by our shared life experiences and common instincts, people completely without any contact with each other can come to the same conclusions, often even simultaneously. This occurs as well for the basics of human concepts, as illustrated by the archetypes, as for creative thinking at the edge of progress, as illustrated by creative scientists, independently coming to the same theory or discovery. Those striking similarities between complicated concepts do not necessarily presuppose mysterious forms of communication nor a common predecessor, terrestrial nor extraterrestrial.

(4) Even the still intriguing concept of consciousness isn't a proof for a super-natural sunstance. If one defines consciousness as an interiorized internal "image" of external reality, many misunderstandings fade away. As argued eslewhere [], this interiorization includes a strong linking with emotional and behavioural reactions, and the "internal image" includes, apart from memorized facts and observations, a very complex system of general, abstract hypotheses and categories, and presuppositions about things not yet observed and possibilities yet to come. The comparison of consciousness with a camera, that holds an internal image of extern reality but isn't conscious of that reality, is confusing and deceiving. A camera doesn't interiorize its experiences and observations. A better comparison should be a computer: the words memorized by a word processor are not interiorized because they never change the behaviour of the computer (and can be compared with a camera), but the words composing a computer program highly determine the computer's behaviour, as does the brain contents with men.

(5) If one defines consciousness as the most elaborate form of system control or internal organization (see an article on the development of consciousness), [] one easily understands that more primitive forms of living beings, and even inanimated systems, feature a primitive form of  "consciousness" or encoded experience, without presupposing primitive forms of souls or other psychic organs.

(6) The absence of personalized contact, since long considered as the most typical difference between man and machine, is only typical for primitive forms of artificial intelligence. When one defines personalization as warmth and empathy, it seems to presuppose another human, sympathizing being, most probably of "psychic" nature. But if one considers personalization as a kind of attention, taking every aspect of the encountered person into account, also very individualized needs and feelings not immediately important for the current activity or interview, and even needs of the interviewer himself, it's very likely that this could be "programmed". Some conversations with HAL9000, the supercomputer in 2001, A Space Odyssey illustrate this possibility. Even the pubertal revolt of this computer reflects a touch of humaneness.

(7) It is possible to explain the old human immortality dream as a kind of Global Mind (as argued in an article on immortality). []. This Global Mind is to be interpreted as a kind of universal "psychic" software, and doesn't imply some supernatural substance.

(8) It is important to consider some intrinsic contradictions in the traditional supernatural hypothesis. When the nature of such supernatural bodies --which guide and "animate" us-- is evolutive, how is this compatible with alleged abilities as jumping in time and space? The necessity to evolve is precisely provoked by the unability to collect wisdom without trying and experiencing everything. Furthermore, this evolution strongly suggests that these "psychic" bodies are rather dependent form material evolution than otherwise. On the other hand, if those immaterial entities don't evolve but were perfect from the first moment --as ghosts are supposed to be--, why didn't they inspire us and our animated predecessors to more wise forms of evolution than the exhausting and painful way we seem deemed to follow?

Concluding we can state that an "enriched" naturalistic hypothesis could be accepted by everybody without hampering scientific thinking nor humanistic experiencing. Both of the traditional, conflictuous approaches can be interpreted as one-sided reductions of the integrative hypothesis.

Non-integrative approaches

Some authors, other than Teilhard, often suggest theories that seem to imply the existence of two substances: a "psychic" apart from our mundane matter. Some of the most popular amongst them are Popper, Lovelock, Bohm --at least as I understood them.

Without denying the least bit of their grandeur in their primary field of knowledge and experience, I fear that precisely their enormous and successful expertise in some rather restricted scientific domain could be indicated as responsible for their two-nature approach. Even the fact that sometimes they are Nobel Prize Winners doesn't protect them from such "unscientific" statements. For that matter, other Nobel Prizes including Steven Weinberg come to completely different conclusions. I fear that their hyperspecialization in one or a restricted number of very physical or biological domains obscures them perhaps for well founded conclusions outside that domain.

For many, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin seems to suggest the existence of souls and all kinds of psychic phenomena. He even extends this traditional religious notion by seemingly attributing primitive forms of soul to pre-human beings. Personally, as I read Teilhard, it never occurred to me that he explicitly suggests the existence of such supernatural beings. It strikes me that he always uses abstract terms to describe such phenomena: consciousness, psychism, the Inner Side, noogenesis, cephalization, cerebralization, individuation, psychic transformation, etc. Why should he stick to phrên in stead of simply using soul? And elsewhere he states clearly:

"detaching the mind, fulfilled at last, from its material matrix" [3]
For me this sentence clearly defines the mind as a product of the material structures, and not as something exterior to these.

Even God is mostly indicated as an abstraction:

" will henceforth rest with all its weight on God-Omega." [3 ibid.]
These and many more expressions convince me that Teilhard sees the psychic as a kind of software of the brain, not as a supernatural, animating principle coming from elsewhere. I think a supplementary reason for this is that he wanted to avoid direct conflict with the religious authorities. By replacing supernatural phenomena --which he considereed as unscientific-- by abstract notions, without explicitly refuting them, he kept outside of heresy properly speaking, but suggested another approach. At the same time he performed an impressive process of integration.

[1] Collins English Dictionary, 1993
[2] word coined in 1869 by T.H.Huxley, to indicate that the answer on these fundamental hypotheses cannot be known with certainty. From a- not, + -gnostic, one who fully knows.
[3] P. Teilhard de Chardin, Survival, p. 288

Posted 13/4/02