The Supernatural

Belief in the supernatural can take many forms, all of which imply some degree of irrational thought. What do you believe, and how do you measure up?

The Supernatural: What The Hell Is It?

According to Wikipedia, a supernatural phenomenon is "anything above or beyond what one holds to be natural or exists outside natural law and the observable universe." Which is to say it is not subject to the laws of physics and/or not detectable by observation. Astral projection, for example, allows one to retain consciousness outside of the constraints of the physical body. A god can exist outside of space and time.

A ghost never has to go to the bathroom.

Angels. Ghosts. Resurrection. Speaking with the dead. Telekinesis. Precognition. All involve serious violations of the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics; other charges may be filed later. As we understand the universe scientifically, none of these things are possible. None has been reliably demonstrated under conditions controlled for the countless number of variables that could be involved, and none has been posited with any sort of plausible mechanism behind it. Of course, a "plausible mechanism" would likely render it not supernatural. After all, if a miracle could actually happen, it wouldn't be much of a miracle.

"It's a miracle!"

As for "outside the observable universe," what does this mean? Obviously, being not directly observable would not necessarily place anything outside the universe; science often has to observe phenomena indirectly, by measuring its effect on something that can be observed directly. Our five senses only sample a small amount of the information available, after all. No, this phrase could only mean "does not affect the physical universe in any detectable fashion." Which means it is indistinguishable from something that does not exist.

And thus will not make a good anniversary present.

So, a more concise definition: a supernatural phenomenon is "anything impossible caused by beings or forces that don't exist."

Why Do People Believe In The Supernatural?

Because they want to.

Okay, it's not really that simple. Often, though, people will buy into a supernatural explanation because, if nothing else, it's an explanation. Which implies the possibility of control, the thing people most want over the big events in life. If a drought is caused by chaotic weather patterns, and there is nothing you can do about it...well, that would suck, to use a fine old colloquialism. Much better would be if the whims of god-like beings were involved; perhaps symbolic rituals of sympathetic magic will sway events using unseen levers. Maybe they don't work reliably, but hey, it beats standing around helplessly. Seriously, fuck that shit. Lacking real information, you can always make shit up and believe it.

If you're good at it, they might give you a hat.

The brain, you see, is very prone to certain types of mistakes and biases that can seemingly confirm the most unlikely beliefs. Foremost among these is the tendency to see patterns in random noise; whether it's seeing the Virgin Mary on your grilled-cheese sandwich, or believing that "celebrities always die in threes," it's all about connecting random dots in one particular way and ignoring millions of other ways to connect those dots. The human brain is a pattern-seeking engine, it will find meaning in randomness, and it will often see just what it wants to see.

Richard Nixon!
Always remember: you are not perceiving reality with your senses. You are perceiving a mental model reconstructed in your brain from a sampling of data from the world around your body. If you want to see something badly enough, your brain has the means to make that happen whether that something is there or not. It's constantly filtering all that incoming data and deciding what you need to know. It also has a nice selection of mind-altering chemicals at its disposal, and the authority to use them. And you need to learn to handle your high, dude.

I Have The Power: Clairvoyance, Precognition, Telekinesis, Telepathy

These are the powers that stem from the human mind. Whether it's reading the thoughts of others (telepathy), seeing the future (precognition) or mind over matter (telekinesis), the belief is essentially this: the human mind can gather information by other means than the usual five senses, and influence events remotely in ways outside physics.
Some of these powers can be simulated through the use of learnable techniques that don't involve anything magical. Reading body language and facial expressions, and a bit of "cold reading" (the art of asking vague questions, zeroing in on specifics, and gaining personal information quickly from seemingly nowhere) will often seem like some kind of supernatural ability. This is how stage psychics, or "mentalists" ply their trade.

Should have called him "The Douchebag."

Of course, the power of telekinesis requires out-and-out deception. Convincing people that they have seen something move without apparent cause usually involves a bit of distracting patter and sleight-of-hand to prevent the audience from seeing the actual cause. Most "magicians" don't seriously claim to have real, honest-to-goodness supernatural powers; you know it will be an illusion. Interestingly, the up-front illusionists will be the ones who do the big, spectacular tricks, while the people who really want you to believe they have special abilities will most often perform smaller, less exceptional feats like bending spoons.

If you had such power, you would be like a god. A god, I tell you.

But again, if you can't demonstrate these powers under conditions controlled for the variables (such as luck, cheating or other perfectly natural phenomena) then you have demonstrated nothing. Not that I don't believe you, understand, but you need to eliminate the possibility that you're simply a lucky bastard, or, just maybe, lying like a sack of shit. Then we can talk.

It's Written In The Stars, Just Not Very Legibly: Astrology

The world of astrology has been shaken in the last few years, what with Pluto being demoted from planet to one of many objects in the Kuiper Belt and Ophiuchus being gerrymandered into the Zodiac more recently. This has caused some upheaval among astrologers and necessitated some rethinking of some of the details (some are very upset at this new sign being tossed into the mix), but the facts remain: the constellation Ophiuchus has been in our sky essentially unchanged for thousands of years. Nothing has changed; astrologers just weren't paying attention to the actual sky, that's all. No biggie. As for Pluto, it was never a real planet to begin with and just needs to STFU.

Then again, accounting for new information regarding appearances in the heavens has never been astrology's strong suit.

Astrology is one of those "disciplines" that is much better at making assertions than it is at providing evidence for them. When someone tells you that the moon is in conjunction with Jupiter in your chart, and this means you will always fear success (or whatever), ask them: how do you know that? How, exactly, did you determine that correlation?

Pray For Me, It's The Least You Can Do

Yes, it's true: if you believe in God, be it Yahweh, Allah, Ganeesh, Thor, Zeus, or any one of the thousands of deities that humans have worshipped throughout history, you believe in the supernatural. You may disagree with that; perhaps your "god" is a more sophisticated concept, a natural, creative force, not a being who interferes with the physical world. That's fine; no one will be able to prove you wrong. Of course, if that's your belief, your god is indistinguishable from one that does not exist.

All around the world, though, billions of people are subscribing to a theistic god that does occasionally intercede in human affairs, sometimes to punish mankind for alleged sinfulness.

"OK, now this is some serious bullshit."
And the usual mode of communication with these gods, mortal man's way of possibly influencing the decisions these powerful beings make, is prayer. While there isn't room here to detail the myriad ways in which human beings pray, the essential is this: you are petitioning your chosen supernatural being to intervene in worldly affairs. And, you should know, it doesn't work for shit.
Of course, it is a common precept in religious thinking that gods are not required to pay the slightest bit of attention to your prayer; obvious failure is usually hand-waved away with something along the lines of "I asked and God said no." Sometimes the prayer is granted, sometimes not. That may sound reasonable, but let's face it: those sorts of results are indistinguishable from what you get talking to the ceiling. Which is, of course, what you're really doing.

But I've Seen Them: Ghosts and Spirits

Oh, don't even get me started.

Really, if it was possible for dead people to communicate with the living, every murder victim would be haunting the shit out of his/her murderer. Ghosts would be haunting ghosts haunting ghosts haunting people.
And no one would sleep anymore.
Dead people are dead, people. It can be consoling to think otherwise, but the afterlife is a story we tell ourselves for comfort.

Really, kids, we gave grandpa to a nice farm family.

If You Believe In The Supernatural

If you believe in the supernatural despite the lack of evidence for such things, exactly what is your criteria for believing in something? If empirical evidence is not required, how do you differentiate between one claim and another? Critical thinking requires some means of testing claims against reality, because claims often contradict and compete with one another. Some turn out to be utter horseshit. What is your basis for evaluation? Why believe one thing and not another? If you have no consistent basis for doing so, you're liable to believe just about anything, aren't you?

feralboy12 lives here.