Natural and Supernatural processes

What is a supernatural process? Can you define that? I’ve heard of supernatural events, but not supernatural processes. What would evolution as a supernatural process look like?

I think you’re right on the thumb of the most important question in the origins debate, which is our conception of nature and God’s relationship to it. I would suggest you’re working with unhelpful categories imposed upon the debate by Enlightenment rationalism. (Eddie’s post about closed causal systems is related to this).

I would also suggest that, if you believe in God as creator, there is no such thing as a purely “natural process” (defined in contrast to a “supernatural process”, if those are the only options). Isn’t anything in nature ultimately God’s creation, no matter what sort of process it is? So evolution is a natural and supernatural process. Natural in the sense that it involves nature. Supernatural in the sense that it ultimately involves the power, plan, and intention of Nature’s creator. Yes and yes. That’s my two cents.


Great question, Brad! In fact, I ask a similar question in debates with atheists whenever they claim that ID cannot be science because it posits a supernatural cause. In these cases I make my question rather specific. I ask them if they would consider the physical effects produced by intelligent agents (smart phones, for example) to be the result of natural causes or supernatural causes. If their answer is “yes,” then I point out that we have a good amount of empirical evidence for the supernatural. If they answer “no,” I point out that they have conceded that physical effects produced by intelligent agents are not supernatural. But if they were to say “both,” as you have, I would say that they are committing a logical fallacy.

I agree with you that when we believe in God, there is no such thing as a purely natural process. Nonetheless, I think we could agree that God has given us a universe that we can discover and learn about because he has given us natural processes that are constrained by natural law and fundamental forces. These purely natural processes can explain much about the natural world. It is precisely when someone, be they atheist or Christian, makes the claim that these processes alone constitute a causally adequate explanation for the novel body plans of living organisms, that they have declared a clear position.

Intelligent agents routinely constrain matter within the laws of nature and deliberately steer events toward intended outcomes. Thus, to answer your question directly, a supernatural process is a process wherein deliberate choices are made at successive decision nodes in order to steer events toward a distant goal. But if you prefer the word “event” to the word “process,” that’s fine. It works just as well. When I see a random arrangement of pebbles on the ground, I think nothing of it. But if I should see on the ground an arrangement of pebbles that spell out, “Brad Kramer is a Genius!”, I would be justified in my belief that this arrangement was the intentional result of an intelligent agent; that it was not the result of purely natural processes. The former arrangement of matter was the result of natural processes (at least there would be no reason to believe otherwise); the latter, the result of a supernatural process.

The natural processes that allow us to learn and understand our universe also happen to be necessary to create a universe capable of supporting advanced civilizations. They are not, however, capable, in and of themselves, of producing physical effects such as smart phones and skyscrapers. Smart phones and skyscrapers can only come about through a process involving intelligent agency. Similarly, apart from a commitment to materialistic explamations, there is no reason to believe that a life permitting universe could ever produce living organisms, given the advanced information and engineering protocols necessary to produce and maintain even the simplest known living organism.

Many contributors to this thread have declared that life is like rain or any other natural process,and that just as we do not need to invoke God every time it rains, so it is with living organisms. Now I am not saying that this is your view, as I do not know your exact view here, but such a view promotes life as a decidedly natural - as opposed to supernatural - process. I would say that because of the information and engineering of life, life requires a supernatural - as opposed to natural - process. It cannot be both. The very definition of the word “supernatural” makes this clear.

Why not?

Ultimate Causation and Proximate Causation applies to countless things. The Bible is filled with both the natural and the supernatural applying to all sorts of things. (Was Jesus incarnation supernatural? Yes. Was the birth processes which delivered the baby Jesus natural? Yes.)

An argument based on you choosing to apply a particular word and then using the definition of that word to “prove” something? Does that strike you as at all less than convincing?

By the way, I certainly consider the presence of life on earth as a powerful testimony to God’s role in creating everything I see on this planet. Yet, that doesn’t mean that I can use the scientific method to prove God’s role. (Anyone who understands the methodological naturalism of science should see the differences between my philosophical positions and my scientific positions.)

because they mean two different things. Duh.

Consider definition 8a of the word “natural” from the merriam-webster online dictionary:
8a : occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature : not marvelous or supernatural .[quote=“Socratic.Fanatic, post:3, topic:5438”]
The very definition of the word “supernatural” makes this clear.

An argument based on you choosing to apply a particular word and then using the definition of that word to “prove” something? Does that strike you as at all less than convincing?

Only to someone who believes that using words to make a point is not a convincing method. [quote=“Socratic.Fanatic, post:3, topic:5438”]
By the way, I certainly consider the presence of life on earth as a powerful testimony to God’s role in creating everything I see on this planet.

Well Amen![quote=“Socratic.Fanatic, post:3, topic:5438”]
Yet, that doesn’t mean that I can use the scientific method to prove God’s role.

Once again I need to point out that I absolutely bristle at the word “prove.” I have never used it in relation to the evidence for a Creator. The scientific method cannot “prove” anything. But let me ask you this: can you make a reasonable inference about an event from the distant past if you have enough evidence that points to a certain cause to the exclusion of all other possible causes? We call this forensic science. Can you use reason and logic to reach a conclusion that is superior to any other possible candidates?

Of course they mean different things. (Duh!, as you say.)

But you still haven’t explained why both the natural and the supernatural can’t be involved in a given event or phenomenon. For example, when God sent rain after Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, the fact that the supernatural was at work that day does not rule out that God could have used the condensation of water vapor around dust particles in clouds to bring about that precipitation.

I’m not necessarily trying to dismiss or argue against whatever position you are expressing here. I just don’t follow your reasoning.

Me too! And that’s why I made clear that anything I’ve written should NOT be assumed to “mean that I can use the scientific method to prove God’s role.” We certainly agree on that.

Same here.

As a scientist (retired), I certainly agree. However, due to the confusion that can arise with lay audiences, we do have to keep in mind that non-scientists often use “prove” with a different definition in mind, just as they use the word “theory” with an entirely different, non-scientific meaning in mind.

It depends what you mean by “enough evidence” and what you “to the exclusion of all other possible causes.” We’ve all seen lots of absolutely appalling Argument from Personal Incredulity and Argument from Ignorance fallacies where a lot of scientific jargon, quotable quotes, subjective opinions, and “I don’t see what else it could be other than God” where they’ve just taken a God-of-the-Gaps arguments and tried to wrap it up in a verbose package that sounds convincing to the science-illiterate. This is virtually the hallmark of the Discovery Institute brand of “Intelligent Design” campaigns to the general public. And that’s a shame, because ID has the potential for some very important research, although usually more in philosophy than in science—though I would be absolutely thrilled if some scientists were to publish an actual “scientific theory of intelligent design” and gave us solid heuristic rules for determining whether any X we encounter is “intelligently designed.” (I just read some stuff about this at the Bible Science Forum and I love that objective.) Unfortunately, what we usually see instead from people like Stephen Meyer and the Discovery Institute amateurish philosophy dressed up in science terminology and masquerading as science.

There’s also a lot of confusion among the general public about how the standards of “reasonable doubt” in a courtroom when forensic experts present their professional opinions compared to what is expected of scientific papers in a peer-reviewed journal.

Yes, I will certainly agree that what is often called forensic science on a TV crime solving drama and the real thing in the real world is often quite different, so it sounds like we continue to be on the same wavelength here. I’ve noticed that those script writers sometimes apply courtroom tactics where forensic science is overplayed to produce fascinating parallels to God-of-the-Gaps arguments: “This couldn’t be my client or the alternative suspect----so it surely must have been the spurned lover! Science has eliminated everybody else!” [Music dramatically intrudes: “Dun, dun, duuuuun!”

It sounds like (and it is very possible that I’m misunderstanding you) that you are heading towards a scenario where “We’ve statistically shown unlikely that phenomenon X was caused by natural processes J, K, or L, therefore the only remaining possibility is God.” If that is the “reason and logic” being employed, there are all sorts of logical fallacies ready to walk up from behind and bite on the behind the person making such an argument. We don’t know all of the possible “natural processes P, Q, and R” yet undiscovered which could explain phenomenon X by means of natural causes. And that is precisely why the God-of-the-Gaps argument is so prone to failure.

Imagine if you were taking a walk on the beach at Kitty Hawk when the Wright Brothers were experimenting with their new invention. It would have been easy for some old guy seeing heavier-than-air flight for the first time to say, “I don’t see any ropes to overhead hot air balloons and I don’t see any Chinese fireworks rockets tied to that machine. So those two guys must be wizards and some supernatural beings are propelling that thing into the air! After all, it is only a matter of logical elimination of all other possibilities!”

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as to the greatest failure of the popular ID promoters. Rarely do they present anything that is not an Argument from Incredulity or Argument from Ignorance used to justify old fashioned God-of-the-Gaps “reasoning”.

It’s a real shame because if someone does finally make breakthroughs in this area, I think they will have to choose a new technical term, because “Intelligent Design” has already become too associated with pseudo-science and really bad arguments/reasoning. In the minds of so many evolutionary biologists and paleontologists I’ve gotten to know online, ID is also associated with deceptive quote-mines, fabricated attributions, and just plain erroneous footnotes and failures to comprehend the science involved. Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt is absolutely loaded with bloopers that even a sharp undergrad biology major can catch. (I don’t even have significant training in comparative anatomy and genomics, and yet I was amazed to find so many errata myself.)

@BradKramer, it appears that @deliberateresult defines “Supernatural Evolutionary Processes” as any processes that are INTENTIONED …INTELLIGENT … NOT merely unthinking nature.

I can live with this definition if he applies it consistently throughout his discussions.

Could it be a robot with a copying machine? Could it be a computer programmer operating a 3D printer?

I once found on the ground a flat stone with a series of large letters and numbers on it. It was basically “embossed” right into the rock. The rock was so big that I couldn’t lift it out of the ground or even budge it. Was it a result of natural processes or did an intelligent mind decide to place that series of characters there? What heuristics can you apply under “intelligent design theory” to determine whether an intelligence or natural processes placed it there?

Argument from Personal Incredulity fallacy.

There are LOTS of reasons. The fact that you think life is too complicated for that to happen is just your personal incredulity. It is one of the main reasons why the Discovery Institute has been largely ignored by the academy—including by the evangelical Christians who are in the scientific academy.

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