In this series on the human condition I have surveyed two approaches to that condition: Scientism and Semanticism. I argued that science fails to address the human condition at all, while Semanticism addresses it but cannot address it sufficiently. Semanticism cannot really save us from our deepest fears nor fulfill our deepest longings, just as the natural sciences can provide no answers to the “Why” questions of life. In this post I will look at one final approach, Supernaturalism.
Supernaturalism is decisively distinct from Scientism and Semanticism in one fundamental way: metaphysics. Unlike its materialistic antitheses, Supernaturalism assumes or even argues for the actual existence of non-physical beings, especially non-physical agentive beings like God, gods, angels, demons and human souls. There may be other kinds of non-physical beings, perhaps abstract objects like numbers or sets, but leaving those aside it is the supernaturalist who posits the existence of immaterial agents that have causal powers and even moral natures. Moreover, it is through these agencies that human beings can be saved from their finite and otherwise apparently purposeless existence, because these agencies really do interact with the physical and temporal, altering and shaping the course of human history and the lives of people– people who themselves are more than just their bodies. In other words, these agents, or God as the ultimate Agent, are in contact with the spacetime reality which most of us believe we inhabit.1 Philosophers since Descartes have posited thought experiments like the “evil demon” or the “brain in a vat” which although sounding absurd are nevertheless logically possible.
Supernaturalism and the Human Condition
In the previous post I outlined Heidegger’s way of looking at the human condition, which focused on the phenomena of existence. Existence as being “thrown into” the world– not knowing why we are here, not knowing from where we have come or where we are headed. This being in the world, Dasein, unfolds in time, Zeit, and we are left to struggle between the way we feel about the world and what science seems to tell us is true. For the semanticist, philosophy becomes the new apparatus through which we try to communicate our religious and theological impulses, and it is through such communicative acts, preferably in pluralistic societal contexts that we hope to attain some modicum of meaning and peace about our otherwise hopeless state. The usual end result of the semantic approach is a kind of therapeutic culture, where religious language acts as a sort of psychological safety net that can help us to manage through life until we die. In the words of one Christian scholar, it is a world where religion is reduced to “moral therapeutic deism.”2 This now very popular, and very useful term was coined by the Notre Dame philosopher Christian Smith. I would suggest that this is the dominant view today, at least in western and in particular English-speaking cultures.
Another way of looking at the existential crisis of the human condition was Bertrand Russell’s “firm foundation of unyielding despair” which he thought emerged inevitably from a thorough, scientific analysis of the natural world. All stories, according to the adherent of the Russellian worldview, are naturalistic ones and anything that cannot be reduced down to natural entities–subatomic particles and natural causes, e.g. the law of gravity– are at bottom fictions. They are projections of a physical brain onto a physical world. In the end we must fess up to this stark reality and learn to be the captains of our own “souls.” The genuine adherent of Scientism, unlike the semanticist, also sees any kind of religious language or practice as not only meaningless, but potentially harmful to society. The supernatural approach to religion as well as the semantic approach should both be excised from modern society since they muddy the waters of objective truth.
Both of these approaches seem to leave us wanting when it comes to answering the significant questions of life, however. For when it comes to questions of ultimate origins, meaning and purpose, morality and eschatology both Semanticism and Scienticism seem to say the same thing: we are left to ourselves to develop our own answers. There is no outside help, no aid from above. 3Of course, there may be an intermediary for both types of naturalists, one often portrayed in our films, namely the existence of highly evolved and supra-intelligent extra-terrestrials. Some, although a dwindling number, still hold out hope for a “close encounter” of this kind. On both views we must conjure our inner Sinatra and “do it our way.”
Alternatively, the supernaturalist approach presupposes a very different solution: there is outside help and we can know that that help is there based on revelation knowledge. And, in knowing there is a supernatural realm, we might actually attain real answers and real peace about our situation.
Supernaturalism and Traditional Religion
Supernaturalism then is the prerequisite for any traditional religious belief system: Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Mormonism on the one hand or Hinduism, Janism, and classical Buddhism on the other. While each of these systems will cash out the nature of that which is beyond the physically differently, especially between the two sets listed here, all will hold to some kind of non-physical reality. In doing so each system will have something on offer to answer the human existential condition that the other, non-supernaturalistic approaches will not have.
First, each of these traditional religions will have metaphysical commitments. Most of Christianity’s foundational metaphysical commitments, for example, are contained in its early creeds. Second, because of these commitments traditional religions will ground its answers to fundamental questions in the metaphysical realities that underlie their theological statements. For example, morality is grounded not in social conventions but both in the nature of the God who designed the universe and objectively in the design itself. Thus, moral truths can be discerned both by a careful examination of God’s creation and by a direct revelation of His will. To know the latter, however, requires some kind of communication between the supernatural agent and the human creature. Thus, third, each traditional religious system that holds to metaphysical commitments of a supernatural kind will also have a set of oracles, writings and traditions that are considered revelatory or inspired in some special way.
For the Christian worldview, both Protestant and Roman Catholic versions, the only domain of special revelation knowledge4 Meaning that which can be known about the supernatural realm apart from just our experiences of the world around us. is that of the words of the Bible, or Sacred Scripture.5 Some Roman Catholics hold that there are sacred traditions that are equally revelatory to the words of Scripture, but this is a minority view and one dismissed by the Church at Vatican II. The Bible is a special kind of propositional knowledge, a unique communique between God and man that must be evaluated at a higher level than any other communications about reality, even other communications between God and man, e.g. like personal revelations or rational reflection about nature. However, while the existence of a sacred text or set of inspired oral traditions may count as the standard by which other inferences about reality are to be gauged, this does not mean that sacred texts or traditions must be utilized in every instance of human evaluation about reality. One need not go to the book of Leviticus or to Judges to assess the merits of differential calculus or the taxonomies of marine biology.
Nevertheless, on the broad existential questions, traditional religions, their sacred texts, creeds, and practices will inevitably give answers that presume the reality of some supernatural agent that can or already has broken into the physical world. By doing so, this Agent has initiated some process that will saves us from having to construct our own “ultimate” meaning and purpose for life, that provides for us a human-independent standard of moral behavior, and that will actually rescue us from the finitude of bodily existence and potentially bring us into some new kind of existence. If there are such supernatural Beings with such plans and purposes, then it would seem Supernaturalism has quite a leg up on Scientism and Semanticism. However, Supernaturalism has one central weakness, a weakness that has been continually exposed and argued about since at least Descartes. That weakness is this: how do we know that there is such a thing as the supernatural?
Supernaturalism and Religious Epistemology
The apparent death-knell to a supernatural approach to the human condition did not come all at once, rather there was a long, slow atrophying of looking at the world through supernatural lenses. However, in the West many philosophers will trace the history of the rejection of metaphysical knowledge through at least three main figures: Descarte, Hume, and ultimately Kant. After Kant (1724-1804) the notion that we can know anything about the non-physical world becomes an increasingly minority view among the intellectual elite, a view that ultimately trickles down into popular culture, ending in what we label today as our secular society.6This is a very simplistic description of how we have come to be “a secular age.” For a robust treatment of the history of Western culture’s slide from supernaturalism into secularism, see Charles Taylor’s magisterial tome, A Secular Age.
Nevertheless, in spite of that long slide into a strongly secular cultural milieu, the way the culture operates currently is not conclusive evidence against the possibility of metaphysical or even religiously relevant metaphysical knowledge. The question of how we can know that the supernatural realm of the religious exists has been taken up anew since the mid-1960’s by both analytic philosophers of religion in Protestant circles and by Roman Catholic neo-Thomist scholars. Even non-theists have come to admit that serious metaphysics is back on the table in contemporary philosophy.
In the strain of Evangelical philosophy of religion there are at least two viable models to justifying religious, i.e. supernatural, beliefs: the more science-friendly model grounded in forensic evidence and probabilistic inferences to the best explanation and the Reformed epistemological model, which argues religious beliefs as properly basic and thereby warranted unless otherwise defeated. Representatives of each would be philosophers like Richard Swinburne on the one hand, and, of course, Alvin Plantinga on the other. Both have spawned schools of thought on religious epistemology.
Conclusion: Supernaturalism, If True, Is The Only Approach That Can Save Us
Since the supernaturalist approach to the human condition allows for not only individual and immanent purposes but also ultimate purposes, and since it also allows for not just subjective moral values and socially constructed moral obligations, but objectively grounded obligations and values, and because it provides a real solution to the finitude of physical existence, that is to death itself, Supernaturalism is in the end the only approach to the human condition that really could solve our existential crisis. Only Supernaturalism could literally save us from a world where our deepest longings go unfulfilled, our deepest pains go unredeemed, and all our human efforts, projects, and endeavors ultimately go into oblivion. Unlike Heidegger’s failed attempt to solve the crisis of existence by positing some sacralization of the immanent, Supernaturaism has the resources to actually do so because it maintains there is a God who actually can perfect the immanent through His very real power (and gracious willingness).
If Supernaturalism then has any epistemic justification,7 For a concise yet powerful argument that Christian epistemic practices have the same epistemic justification as our sensory perceptions, see William Alston “Religious Experience and Religious Belief” in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, edited by Geivett and Sweetman (New York: Oxford Press, 1992) 295-303. it should be clear that it is the best, existential option for anyone who has thought a minute about the human situation. That Supernaturalism has at least some warrant in virtue of both rational argumentation, e.g. theistic arguments from cosmology, design arguments, or arguments from morality or beauty, and personal experiences, e.g. encounters with the divine, the demonic, etc., should further provide a starting point for those skeptical of this traditional religious approach to the human dilemma.
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”Romans 1:19-20