And The Supernatural
Hello, I have a question. Is it hypocritical to be an atheist while believing in such things as ghosts, UFOs, ESP, etc.? Argument: they are all supernatural. I have internally quarreled about this for some time. Can you answer this?
---DB in New York
Our response has been edited for publication. This is a minor revision of the published response, which itself differed slightly from the original.
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <email@example.com>
To: "Damon Bennett"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Monday, October 23, 2000 1:56 PM
To discuss this question rationally, we do well to first distinguish between the words supernatural and paranormal.
The word supernatural implies that there may be entities who are somehow "above" or "beyond" nature (whatever that means). If you believe in the existence of angels or demons, I'd suggest you might want to start calling yourself a theist: these are merely the demoted gods of polytheism. Atheists tend not to believe in the supernatural ("above" or "beyond" nature), neither do most naturalistic religions such as Deism and Pantheism.
The word paranormal suggests there may be forces we have yet to discover, leaving room for us to doubt that anything occurs contrary to or "above" nature. The bottom line, here, is whether nature is supreme. Some but not all atheists (and Pantheists and Deists) recognize this possibility. The paranormal would include claims of ghosts (the alleged disembodied "spirit" of a deceased human), though some would disagree with me on this; claims of ESP (Extra Sensory Perception: the alleged transmission of thoughts from one human to another without a known physical medium and, according to many, without regard to time); claims of PK (Psychokinetic phenomenon: the alleged ability to move or affect objects simply by thinking, an ability many gamblers think they have). The paranormal, to me, would also include UFOs and strange animals.
Atheism technically speaks exclusively to one's position on the existence of gods. While it is assumed, in the West, that an atheist would shun the supernatural and would probably doubt the paranormal without extraordinary proof, this is not necessarily the case -- much to the chagrin of many atheistic leaders in the West.
We had this argument when I belonged to an atheist group, and I took the side of accepting as atheists those who have quirky beliefs about the paranormal. This did not fare well for my standing with the leaders of the group. Nevertheless, I eventually wrote a piece, "Reflections On The 'A' Word" (May, 1998), which raised these questions. Later, in a discussion with Pantheist Trene Valdrek, "Pantheism Section Of FAQ Misrepresents Pantheism" (July, 2000), we got into great detail and hammered out a more precise way to see this situation (this argument is common in both atheistic and Pantheistic circles).
Finally, the questions of UFOs and strange animals do not affect atheism at all; that is, the truthfulness of any such claims would pose no challenges to the atheistic position. Most claims for UFO sightings strongly resemble, in their rhetorical technique, most claims for supernatural occurrences. This is why so many atheists lump the two into the same category. True, these discussions are beset with opportunistic hucksterism of the Weekly World News variety. However, we are here discussing the subject of the claims, not the validity of the arguments. The subject here is whether extraterrestrial beings or strange, undiscovered animals exist, and the presence of fraud in many such claims does not change the facts.
This brings us to a different angle of the discussion, that regarding degrees of evidential support. Michael Scriven describes two degrees of evidential support, particular evidential support and general evidential support. He uses the example of the Loch Ness monster to make his point. Claims for the existence of the Loch Ness monster lack particular evidential support because nobody has found her. But they do not lack general evidential support because the discovery of a new species of fauna would not change any known laws of science and is not contrary to past experience. So, we do best to suspend judgment, pointing to the lack of particular evidential support, rather than to assert that this claim is false. Ditto for Yeti (the Abominable Snow Man) and for other strange "undiscovered" creatures. (Some use the word kryptozoology to describe the study of undocumented animals.)
And ditto for the notion that aliens are visiting this planet: Whatever one might think about how long it would take to travel from anywhere to Earth, the notion that aliens exist and can survive long enough to travel here violates no known laws of physics. So, though UFO reports may lack particular evidential support, they do not lack general evidential support. (Some use the word lepufology to describe the study of UFO sightings which somehow involve rabbits. This stuff is big business and, as such, can get extremely involved.)
But, says Scriven, this does not hold when dealing with claims for the supernatural, claims that lack both particular and general evidential support. To invoke the supernatural is to claim something that is unprecedented in our experience. "Given the radical nature of these claims, they demand a high quality of evidence, and when such evidence is lacking, not mere suspension of judgment but explicit disbelief is the appropriate response." My first tendency would be to place ESP, PK, and ghosts in this category, but technically they don't belong here because we may have yet to discover a physical force which could explain things like this. I would, however demand extraordinary evidence before I stopped suspending judgment (rather, before I stopped leaning toward outright skepticism). But proponents the supernatural tend to state flat-out that some entity is wilfully suspending the laws and forces of nature on behalf of humans. Claims of this type clearly fall into the latter category, and to accept them would require us to abandon centuries of careful observation and sophisticated experimentation.
The difference is that validating the paranormal would involve merely discovering laws of nature hitherto unknown to us (although we'd still be working within nature). But the supernatural alleges to involve somehow suspending or violating the laws of nature (that is, working "outside" of nature; "above" or "beyond" physical reality). So, to me, those who believe in the paranormal would more easily fit within the definition of atheists while those who believe in the supernatural ought to consider calling themselves theists.
Your mention of ghosts is the one thing that makes me scratch my head, but only because we are here dealing with entities -- conscious and aware personalities or "persons." My only reservation would be the argument that we have yet to discover what makes the human consciousness tick. However, I'm almost certain that the human mind-body continuum is self-contained, that there is no such thing as a "soul" that can exist apart from a functioning nervous system. Consciousness is the result of the structures and processes in the human nervous system, and when these structures and processes become destroyed, the consciousness goes with them, there being nothing left to establish a conscious, aware "Me." I could argue this case in detail, but that is not the topic of this letter. If someone wishes to ask me to tackle that subject, I'd be glad to give it all I've got.
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From: "Damon Bennett"
To: "'Positive Atheism Magazine'" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: RE: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Tuesday, October 24, 2000 7:09 AM
Thank you Cliff, for that detailed response. It was very helpful.
Keep on not believing.
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