The other day I wrote a critique of Tanya Luhrmann’s latest essay in her series of Templetonian paeans to spirituality in The New York Times. Despite these pieces being not only embarrassingly bad but full of logical errors, the Times continues to publish them—why I’ll never know. In that piece (called “When things happen that you can’t explain“), Luhrmann seems to have melted a bicycle light in her backpack with the power of her mind, and her conclusion was “Who’s to say that this had some natural explanation rather than a numinous one?” In other words, since she didn’t know what melted that light—and didn’t even investigate—she held out as a distinct possibility that Some Other Unexplained Force did it. In that way she gives succor to the innumerable woo-lovers and spirituality mavens who populate America.
I wanted to write a letter to the editor of the Times about this, but I had no standing to do so, and the letters people are a capricious and cranky lot. So I called Luhrmann’s piece to the attention of Michael Shermer, who was mentioned in it. (Luhrmann referred to the episode in which Shermer’s radio, a long-defunct item that belonged to his grandfather, mysteriously started working on his wedding day. Shermer has since argued vigorously that there was no supernatural explanation.)
As I hoped he would, Shermer wrote a letter to the Times, and, mirabile dictu, they published it yesterday. Here is his response to Luhrmann, “Unsolved, not supernatural“:
To the Editor:
Re “When Things Happen That You Can’t Explain” (Op-Ed, March 5):
T. M. Luhrmann opines that when things happen that cannot be explained, it opens the door for the possibility of supernatural or paranormal phenomena being real. She cites several examples of powerful personal experiences that people have had, including my own, which I recounted in my Scientific American column.
As interesting as such experiences are to read about, from a scientific perspective they mean nothing because there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural. There is just the normal, the natural and mysteries we have yet to solve with normal and natural explanations. Until such time as we can provide natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena, we need do nothing with such stories because in science we will never be able to explain everything.
There is always a residue of unexplained phenomena, and in science it is O.K. to simply say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. Unexplained does not equal supernatural.
The writer is publisher of Skeptic magazine.
I mostly agree with what Shermer said, although part of the letter is confusing: “there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural.” One could take that as a tautology: that such phenomena, because they can be investigated by the tools of science and reason, must be natural by definition, as they’re part of nature. But I think Shermer means more than that: that there is a natural explanation for everything that seems paranormal or supernatural. While everything we know about what happens in the cosmos supports this conclusion, it’s still logically possible that there is a God—a supernatural being—who uses forces outside of nature to interact with the world. If that were true, those interactions would not have “normal and natural explanations.” (I find the paranormal a bit more “natural-ish”, since if we could, say, move objects with our minds, there would almost have to be some natural but unexplained reason for that.)
Where I agree with Shermer is that the history of science has shown not a scintilla of evidence for either supernatural (divine) or paranormal phenomena, and, given that, it’s best to suspend judgment when faced with a phenomenon, like melting bicycle lights, that we haven’t yet explained. The public needs to learn that in the face of things we haven’t yet explained—or, like the origin of life, we may never explain—it’s okay to say “We don’t know.”
I believe I posed this question to Shermer in Mexico City when he talked about the same issues at the atheist meeting in 2012. His response was a paraphrase of writer Arthur Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Anything that appears truly divine or supernatural, Shermer argued, could be the workings of space aliens with that advanced technology. Well, I suppose that’s true, and perhaps those aliens and their technology are indistinguishable from God; but there are still things that would convince me of a God provisionally. In The Albatross (soon available at fine bookstores everywhere) I give a scenario that would convince me of the existence of the Christian God. But that acceptance would be a provisional one, subject to revision if we found out later that, say, it was due to aliens.
The fact is that it’s not impossible that there could be a God, and we might as well admit it. It’s also not impossible that, as Steve Gould once said, apples could start rising tomorrow instead of falling from trees. But there’s no evidence for any of this. Nevertheless, we can’t rule supernatural and divine phenomena out of court from the start. To do that is not only unscientific, but plays into the hands of the faithful, who criticize that attitude as close-minded. Had I written the letter instead of Shermer, I would have said that yes, there could be spooky “un-natural” explanations, but based on what we know they’re very unlikely, and the proper attitude (as Shermer said), is to seek a naturalistic explanation.