Paranormal, Supernatural,
Ghosts, Science, And Atheism
Terry Davidson

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Terry's Crafts, Inc."
Subject: Re: Ghosts?
Date: Tuesday, July 17, 2001 9:55 PM

I have discussed the question of atheism's compatibility with belief in the supernatural, the paranormal, and ghosts with several people, and eventually wrote an FAQ response on this question. I also touched on this subject in a monthly editorial called "Reflections On The 'A' Word." Needless to say this piece, written while I was still in the group, was somewhat controversial amongst the hard-liners.

While "Reflections" is my first suggestion that the paranormal might be compatible with atheism, the discussion with Trene Valdrek, "Pantheism Section Of FAQ Misrepresents Pantheism," is my first exposure to the concept that the paranormal and the supernatural are two entirely different concepts, and my first suspicion that this might be the key to deciding whether either is compatible with atheism.

I will first review my current position, which has remained relatively stable for several years, but could eventually change. This is because it's not the least controversial issue we've discussed, neither is it most cut-and-dried discussion we've had. However, I welcome the opportunity to rethink this subject, and thank you for the opportunity to do this through your question.

After that, I will raise more questions regarding that monkey wrench which is the discussion of ghosts, which is related to the discussion of the afterlife. I suspect that my thoughts on this problem are not exactly the same as they were when I last wrote about them.

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The Paranormal and
the Supernatural,
as Each Relates To Science

I currently distinguish between the supernatural and the paranormal.

This distinction, I think, is the key to addressing this question.

The confusion, I think, lies in the fact that the proponents of both the supernatural and the paranormal often seem indistinguishable from one another, at least in their arguments and claims (not to mention their zeal for convincing others that they may be on to something). Thus, atheists and skeptics tend to lump the two into the same category.

But philosophically, the two are at least as different from one another as night is from day -- perhaps even different as a knight is from a daze, they being two entirely different axes.

I still suggest that the subject of the paranormal is compatible with atheism, while the subject of the supernatural is incompatible with atheism.

Face it: we don't know everything about science. Scientific method itself demands that we must admit to the possibility, however remote, that one or more of the proponents of the paranormal just might be on to something that has completely escaped all diligent search by the world's scientific community (at least there is no consensus even remotely suggesting there even might be something on the horizon along these line). True, admitting to a remote possibility is not the same as suggesting that it's true -- far from it. It only says that we don't know everything and have been wrong before.

Liberal scientific method says at least two things:

Although scientific method has little to do with the element of sentient agents in this discussion, the supernatural and the paranormal tend to fall neatly into two distinct approaches regarding scientific method (the discussion of sentient agents notwithstanding):

So we have the following dividing lines:

Supernatural

Paranormal

Science

More than just nature

Yes

Not
necessarily
*

Not
necessarily
*

Suspension of nature

Yes

Not
necessarily
*

Not
necessarily
*

Sentient beings involved

Yes

Not
necessarily
*

Not
necessarily
*

Intervention is deliberate

Yes

Not
necessarily
*

Not
necessarily
*

Equal access to knowledge

No

In
principle

In
principle

Goal of natural explanation

No

In
principle

In
principle

I'm sure there are other axes, but these are the major distinctions that I see right now. If I think of any more, or if readers suggest any more that I feel belong on this grid, I will add them to the post and note their having been added (as well as their source).

*Note that I put "Not necessarily" instead of "No" in the Paranormal and the Science categories here simply because both scientists and proponents of the paranormal deliberately refuse to rule out these things. Were it not for liberal scientific method's insistence that all claims to knowledge are, by definition, subject to scrutiny, that is, subject to being overthrown, the general-rule answer to these questions would probably be a flat-out "No" in both categories.

†Note also that I placed "In principle" instead of "Yes" in the Paranormal and the Science categories here simply because pride, passion, profit, and politics have all been known to hinder the actual practice of these ideals in both camps.

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Ghosts and the Afterlife:
Paranormal, Supernatural, or What?

I have done some thinking on the notion of ghosts and the afterlife since writing the above-mentioned pieces. Remember, we are asking if these topics are compatible with atheism, or if one who accepts either of these ideas is still rightly called an atheist.
 

We must keep in mind that the word atheism itself is controversial, as are the boundaries which define atheism once we settle on a definition. We hold that atheism is, at minimum, the simple absence of theism: one is either a theist or one is not (and is thus an atheist). I will use this as our working definition of atheism for this discussion.

The question then becomes, What is theism? and the related question becomes, What are gods? We are all familiar with the various God characters of the many forms of monotheism -- this is easy. But there are (and have been) many forms of theism, the remnants of which were simply renamed and redefined when these old forms of superstition were assimilated into the dominant monotheism of the official state religion. In Europe, the Goddess became the Virgin, no longer a goddess by name but just as powerful and influential as any polytheistic deity in the hearts of the people. The Church would just as soon have given her the ol' heave-ho, but her influence was too great. So they gave her a makeover and redefined her as an imaginary advocate for the people against the admitted tyranny of the monotheistic deity. (Jesus started out placating his Father, but eventually required a Mother figure to placate him.) The saints, likewise, were once gods of polytheism -- in some cases, the very statues of saints can be shown to have been statues of gods with a new name etched into its base. The same can be said for angels. The Hebrew Patriarchs were probably tribal gods whose exploits eventually became the exploits of human ancestors

So theism is not necessarily simple monotheism. A case can be made that a belief in angels or saints or patriarchs is indistinguishable from a polytheistic belief in gods -- except that the names have been changed to protect the authority and credibility of the state church and to enable the continuance of polytheistic worship and ritual without appearing to violate the tenets of the authoritarian state dogma.

Another element in defining atheism, pertinent to our present question, came up in our discussion with pantheist John Love-Jensen. He tried to paint pantheism as a third option between theism and atheism. I responded by suggesting that his use of religious language placed him squarely into the camp of theism, even though his materialism was indistinguishable from mine. Later, George H. Smith dismissed this distinction as "superficial."

Smith suggests another option: that an atheist is "a thinker who explicitly disbelieves in any personal, transcendent, or supernatural God." If we narrow the definition of atheism to this, then belief in angels (but no gods) is not theism, and a person believing this way is rightly called an atheist (even though the "angels" were once considered gods). I am not ready to carry it that far, at least not in this discussion. To go along with Smith's suggestion would make the discussion too easy -- to pat. (To be fair, this is not necessarily Smith's opinion, but is, rather, part of a tangential speculation of a discussion that Smith relegated to a footnote.)

So in an attempt to provide as full a discussion of this issue as possible, I will stick to defining, for this discussion, the belief in angels and patriarchs -- and, in at least one sense, ghosts -- as theism. However, there is another sense in which the a belief in ghosts is not necessarily theism, and I will cover that perspective below.

These and other questions complicate any discussion on whether the belief in ghosts is compatible with atheism. If we are talking about beings that were once widely considered deities by indigenous tribes (the "spirits" of the dead becoming deified), then we are definitely talking about theism. Many anthropologists think this might be where the whole idea of theism got started: a revered tribal leader died, and "returned" in the dreams of the survivors. In this sense, then, belief ghosts is the very essence of theism.
 

I am still agnostic (and thus tolerant) of how to categorize some ghost-claims and some afterlife claims. I can think of two cases at this moment.

Let's deal with the second objection first.

Some forms of pantheism simply hold the universe in high regard, and these pantheists shun the use of theistic language in their descriptions of the Universe. Other pantheists use the theistic language and, if they intend for this language to be taken as more than literally, if they see the universe as in some way sentient, or see talk of a "divine intelligence" that "guides" all things, then their pantheism includes panentheism. But if their language is strictly metaphorical, as was the language of John Love-Jensen in our discussion, then we are dealing with simple pantheism.

Love-Jensen could not think of a better way to express his awe for nature than to call it a form of "reverence" similar to how many theists revere their God. Carl Sagan approached but, I think, did not touch this realm when he said,

Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

Richard Dawkins likewise tries to find nontheistic language and concept to describe his awe for nature, particularly in his recent book, Unweaving the Rainbow.

Panentheism, a subset of pantheism, is, according to some, the notion that the Universe is both natural and, in a way, sentient. The Universe is thus considered "divine" -- often for lack of a more creative description. The mystics tell us of meditative states where they feel they are "at one" with "all things." They sometimes give the name "God" to the "all things" which they often speak of as being "One." Common is the description of the meditative state as being "more real" than even the waking state.

I deliberately showcase this language because these adherents make no pretense of there being any consensus or precision in their discussions or descriptions. My point will be twofold: First, panentheism (or any theistic pantheism) is a form of theism, for purposes of this discussion (and according to our usual definitions of theism and atheism). Secondly, even if we agreed that neither pantheism nor panentheism are rightly called forms of theism (if Love-Jensen's initial claim that we're dealing with a third alternative in addition to theism and atheism is valid), any discussion of pantheism or panentheism is too vague to be subject to verification or falsification; thus, we don't really need to address this element at all, except to admit that some forms of pantheism are often seen as atheistic and some forms (particularly panentheism) are called theistic.
 

In a discussion of the supernatural, we need to point out that neither pantheism nor panentheism see there being anything more than the Universe itself. There is nothing resembling the common notion of the supernatural in either viewpoint. Most importantly, if there is only nature, then there is no supernatural -- as that is the meaning of the word supernatural: something "above" or "beyond" nature.

However, in pantheism and especially panentheism, the very definition of the Universe takes on some quirks shared by neither traditional naturalism nor traditional supernaturalism. We cannot hold a precise discussion of a concept which various people define differently -- if they bother or dare to define it at all. Most who give credence to these ideas describe them as undefinable. Pantheism and panentheism approach the very fringes of our being able to even understand what is being said, and is thus not really conducive to discussion, as it is not readily subject to verification or refutation.

Furthermore, the pantheistic understanding of consciousness and awareness (this "One-ness") is not considered by any to be even close to the common human understanding of the waking state. It is thus not necessarily the same as talking about an afterlife, which assumes that you get to live again.

What did Yoko Ono mean when she announced in December of 1980 that John Lennon had become a part of all things? We don't know and perhaps neither did Yoko, who still hadnot accepted the fact that her best friend and beloved husband had just been deliberately murdered by a cold-blooded stalker who wanted only to become notorious. In her recent report to the parole board, Yoko pointed out that John can no longer be with his family, can no longer write songs, and can no longer enjoy watching the sun and the seasons go by. If she did think of him as being in some state of afterlife, it apparently lacks those things John loved the most: his family, his work, and the ability to "watch the wheels go round and round" which only life can give.

Perhaps some who talk of the dead "becoming one with all things" have something more specific in mind than we could expect from a grieving widow still in a state of shock. Nevertheless, nobody that I've asked knew very much as far as the details of what this "afterlife" means (not that the traditional Western concepts make any more sense to me -- they don't -- but the pantheistic concepts admittedly contain very little in the way of precision and understandability).

Thus, such a discussion would not only require great care, but could also take on different directions for different pantheists and panentheists. For these reasons, I will limit my discussion to the notion of disembodied souls rather than the notion of the imminance of "God" or "god" in all things and our alleged eventual absorbtion back into that godhead. I will also limit my discussion of the afterlife along the same lines, as we can neither define nor discuss the other subjects. Besides, I cannot see how these concepts, even if true, would or could be classed as either paranormal or supernatural, even though they don't really fit into the traditional materialistic understanding.
 

First, science has all but ruled out the notion of an immaterial "soul." The (extremely remote) possibility that "souls" exist (but cannot currently be detected) nudges me in the direction of admitting them into the category of paranormal. Remember, the supernatural is, in a sense, a subset of the paranormal: all supernatural is, by definition paranormal (an intervention in the normal workings of nature), but the paranormal, as paranormal (things working contrary to how they normally work, according to our current understanding of how things work), is not necessarily a supernatural intervention.
 

So the question is, would the "soul" be natural or supernatural? If "souls" simply exist and do not need any supernatural intervention either to be sustained or "revived" (or whatever), then we are talking about simple paranormal "activity." If the natural growth of a human includes the development of a "soul" that can continue after the physical destruction of the body, then "souls" are paranormal simply because we have yet to develop a way to detect them.

But science has yet to detect either the "soul" itself or a mechanism for the "soul" to interact with the body (these being two distinct things, according to the "soul" hypotheses I've heard). Actually, science has explained the workings of the consciousness sufficiently enough that to posit a "soul" is unnecessary: none of the unanswered questions require that we even look in that direction for a solution.

Nevertheless, I think this is the only element opening the door to this topic being seen as paranormal and not supernatural. In other words, only in this one sense can the traditional concepts of ghosts and the afterlife be considered compatible with atheism: If "ghosts" turn out to be a natural process of life (or are simply posited as such, without proof), this is, I think, compatible with atheism. And if a hypothesis of reincarnation describes a simple natural transference of a naturally developing "soul" (or whatever), without any intervention from supernatural beings or any sentient, panentheistic Universe, then reincarnation can be compatible with atheism (and is the afterlife opinion of many Eastern atheistic religions).

The only question would be whether this concept is combined with another less-controversial form of theism. But the concept itself, as I have described it, is not necessarily theistic, according to my current understanding of theism.
 

However, two things keep me from seeing this as cut-and-dried:

First, since angels and demons and saints and patriarchs and the like have, at one time or another, been indistinguishable from gods (were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Twelve Sons of Israel once tribal deities?), I am more tempted to place this subject in the category of the supernatural, and thus call it a form of theism. Theism itself, according to some anthropologists, arose from the concept of ghosts and is an evolution of that very notion. So, if belief in angels and saints, once being seen as gods, is rightly called theism (as I have posited above), then belief in ghosts would likewise rightly be seen as a form of theism. As I said, we are not engaged in a cut-and-dried discussion, and this is one of the monkey wrenches that we can throw into the works to keep ourselves from making pat statements on the topic. (Isn't this fun!?)

Another reason to class them as supernatural (or to erode the cut-and-dried distinctions that I so carefully wrought in the above discussions) is the element of willful intervention. This is not required because the ghosts, according to the theory, are not necessarily suspending or intervening against nature.

Does the notion of willful intervention by a sentient being de facto define an act as supernatural rather than paranormal? or can we be satisfied with a simple paranormal that includes the notion of the wilful (but natural) manipulation of physical properties of objects and energy? Certainly humans and other entities wilfully intervene in the natural course of events, according to nature, of course, so what do we call it if these events are similarly manipulated by entities that we have yet to detect and who may or may not exist?

If they are said to be suspending physical properties or intervening through non-natural means, then we are talking about the supernatural. If they are not, then we talk of natural processes which include sentient beings deliberately altering physical properties through physical means -- known or unknown.
 

The big problem in discussing this whole issue, I think, is that most of those who posit the paranormal tend to use the same forms of argument (and dishonesty) as those who posit the supernatural. We atheists therefore become tempted to lump the two into the same category. Indeed, even though they probably know how to distinguish between the paranormal and the supernatural, such professional Skeptics as James Randi, Michael Shermer, and Victor Stenger do not usually distinguish between the two and are therefore equal-opportunity debunkers.

And they might as well be, for the most part: all I am saying here (and in the above and previous pieces) is that in at least some senses, we are premature if we write something off as being necessarily theistic. While we may be justified in writing off many claims for the paranormal (if not most of them), to debunk them solely because we object to the supernatural explanations is inadequate.

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Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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