The concept of the supernatural encompasses anything that is inexplicable by scientific understanding of the laws of nature but nevertheless argued by believers to exist. Examples include immaterial beings such as angels, gods and spirits, and claimed human abilities like magic, telekinesis and extrasensory perception.
Historically, supernatural entities have been invoked to explain phenomena as diverse as lightning, seasons and the human senses. Naturalists maintain that nothing beyond the physical world exists and hence maintain skeptical attitudes towards supernatural concepts.
The supernatural is featured in paranormal, occult and religious contexts, but can also feature as an explanation in more secular contexts.
Occurring as both an adjective and a noun, descendants of the modern English compound supernatural enters the language from two sources: via Middle French (supernaturel) and directly from the Middle French’s term’s ancestor, post-Classical Latin (supernaturalis). Post-classical Latin supernaturalis first occurs in the 6th century, composed of the Latin prefix super- and nātūrālis (see nature). The earliest known appearance of the word in the English language occurs in a Middle English translation of Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue.
The semantic value of the term has shifted over the history of its use. Originally the term referred exclusively to Christian understandings of the world. For example, as an adjective, the term can mean ‘belonging to a realm or system that transcends nature, as that of divine, magical, or ghostly beings; attributed to or thought to reveal some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature; occult, paranormal’ or ‘more than what is natural or ordinary; unnaturally or extraordinarily great; abnormal, extraordinary’. Obsolete uses include ‘of, relating to, or dealing with metaphysics’. As a noun, the term can mean ‘a supernatural being’, with a particularly strong history of employment in relation to entities from the mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Epistemology and metaphysics
See also: Anthropology of religion
The metaphysical considerations of the existence of the supernatural can be difficult to approach as an exercise in philosophy or theology because any dependencies on its antithesis, the natural, will ultimately have to be inverted or rejected.
One complicating factor is that there is disagreement about the definition of “natural” and the limits of naturalism. Concepts in the supernatural domain are closely related to concepts in religious spirituality and occultism or spiritualism.
For sometimes we use the word nature for that Author of nature whom the schoolmen, harshly enough, call natura naturans, as when it is said that nature hath made man partly corporeal and partly immaterial. Sometimes we mean by the nature of a thing the essence, or that which the schoolmen scruple not to call the quiddity of a thing, namely, the attribute or attributes on whose score it is what it is, whether the thing be corporeal or not, as when we attempt to define the nature of an angle, or of a triangle, or of a fluid body, as such. Sometimes we take nature for an internal principle of motion, as when we say that a stone let fall in the air is by nature carried towards the centre of the earth, and, on the contrary, that fire or flame does naturally move upwards toward heaven. Sometimes we understand by nature the established course of things, as when we say that nature makes the night succeed the day, nature hath made respiration necessary to the life of men. Sometimes we take nature for an aggregate of powers belonging to a body, especially a living one, as when physicians say that nature is strong or weak or spent, or that in such or such diseases natureleft to herself will do the cure. Sometimes we take nature for the universe, or system of the corporeal works of God, as when it is said of a phoenix, or a chimera, that there is no such thing in nature, i.e. in the world. And sometimes too, and that most commonly, we would express by nature a semi-deity or other strange kind of being, such as this discourse examines the notion of.
And besides these more absolute acceptions, if I may so call them, of the word nature, it has divers others (more relative), as nature is wont to be set or in opposition or contradistinction to other things, as when we say of a stone when it falls downwards that it does it by a natural motion, but that if it be thrown upwards its motion that way is violent. So chemists distinguish vitriol into natural and fictitious, or made by art, i.e. by the intervention of human power or skill; so it is said that water, kept suspended in a sucking pump, is not in its natural place, as that is which is stagnant in the well. We say also that wicked men are still in the state of nature, but the regenerate in a state of grace; that cures wrought by medicines are natural operations; but the miraculous ones wrought by Christ and his apostles were supernatural.— Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature
The term “supernatural” is often used interchangeably with paranormal or preternatural — the latter typically limited to an adjective for describing abilities which appear to exceed what is possible within the boundaries of the laws of physics. Epistemologically, the relationship between the supernatural and the natural is indistinct in terms of natural phenomena that, ex hypothesi, violate the laws of nature, in so far as such laws are realistically accountable.
Parapsychologists use the term psi to refer to an assumed unitary force underlying the phenomena they study. Psi is defined in the Journal of Parapsychology as “personal factors or processes in nature which transcend accepted laws” (1948: 311) and “which are non-physical in nature” (1962:310), and it is used to cover both extrasensory perception (ESP), an “awareness of or response to an external event or influence not apprehended by sensory means” (1962:309) or inferred from sensory knowledge, and psychokinesis (PK), “the direct influence exerted on a physical system by a subject without any known intermediate energy or instrumentation” (1945:305).— Michael Winkelman, Current Anthropology
Many supporters of supernatural explanations believe that past, present, and future complexities and mysteries of the universe cannot be explained solely by naturalistic means and argue that it is reasonable to assume that a non-natural entity or entities resolve the unexplained.
Views on the “supernatural” vary, for example it may be seen as:
- indistinct from nature. From this perspective, some events occur according to the laws of nature, and others occur according to a separate set of principles external to known nature. For example, in Scholasticism, it was believed that God was capable of performing any miracle so long as it didn’t lead to a logical contradiction. Some religions posit immanent deities, however, and do not have a tradition analogous to the supernatural; some believe that everything anyone experiences occurs by the will (occasionalism), in the mind (neoplatonism), or as a part (nondualism) of a more fundamental divine reality (platonism).
- incorrect human attribution. In this view all events have natural and only natural causes. They believe that human beings ascribe supernatural attributes to purely natural events, such as lightning, rainbows, floods, and the origin of life.
History of the concept
Dialogues from Neoplatonic philosophy in the third century AD contributed the development of the concept the supernatural via Christian theology in later centuries. The term nature had existed since antiquity with Latin authors like Augustine using the word and its cognates at least 600 times in City of God. In the medieval period, “nature” had ten different meanings and “natural” had eleven different meanings. Peter Lombard, a medieval scholastic in the 12th century, asked about causes that are beyond nature, in that how there could be causes that were God’s alone. He used the term praeter naturam in his writings. In the scholastic period, Thomas Aquinas classified miracles into three categories: “above nature”, “beyond nature”, and “against nature”. In doing so, he sharpened the distinction between nature and miracles more than the early Church Fathers had done. As a result, he had created a dichotomy of sorts of the natural and supernatural. Though the phrase supra naturam was used since the 4th century AD, it was in the 1200s that Thomas Aquinas used the term “supernaturalis”, however, this term had to wait until the end of the medieval period for it become more popularly used. The discussions on “nature” from the scholastic period were diverse and unsettled with some postulating that even miracles are natural and that natural magic was a natural part of the world.
Main article: Deity
A deity is a supernatural being considered divine or sacred. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines deity as “a god or goddess (in a polytheistic religion)”, or anything revered as divine. C. Scott Littleton defines a deity as “a being with powers greater than those of ordinary humans, but who interacts with humans, positively or negatively, in ways that carry humans to new levels of consciousness,beyond the grounded preoccupations of ordinary life.” A male deity is a god, while a female deity is a goddess.
Religions can be categorized by how many deities they worship. Monotheistic religions accept only one deity (predominantly referred to as God), polytheistic religions accept multiple deities. Henotheistic religions accept one supreme deity without denying other deities, considering them as equivalent aspects of the same divine principle; and nontheistic religions deny any supreme eternal creator deity but accept a pantheon of deities which live, die, and are reborn just like any other being.
Various cultures have conceptualized a deity differently than a monotheistic God. A deity need not be omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent or eternal, The monotheistic God, however, does have these attributes. Monotheistic religions typically refer to God in masculine terms, while other religions refer to their deities in a variety of ways – masculine, feminine, androgynous and gender neutral.
Historically, many ancient cultures – such as Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, Nordic and Asian culture – personified natural phenomena, variously as either their conscious causes or simply their effects, respectively. Some Avestan and Vedic deities were viewed as ethical concepts. In Indian religions, deities have been envisioned as manifesting within the temple of every living being’s body, as sensory organs and mind. Deities have also been envisioned as a form of existence (Saṃsāra) after rebirth, for human beings who gain merit through an ethical life, where they become guardian deities and live blissfully in heaven, but are also subject to death when their merit runs out.
Main article: Angel
In fine art, angels are usually depicted as having the shape of human beings of extraordinary beauty; they are often identified using the symbols of bird wings, halos, and light.
Main article: Prophecy
Prophecy involves a process in which one or more messages are allegedly communicated by a god to a prophet. Such messages typically involve inspiration, interpretation, or revelationof divine will concerning the prophet’s social world and events to come (compare divine knowledge). Prophecy is not limited to any one culture. It is a common property to all known ancient societies around the world, some more than others. Many systems and rules about prophecy have been proposed over several millennia.
Main article: Revelation
In religion and theology, revelation is the revealing or disclosing of some form of truth or knowledge through communication with a deity or other supernatural entity or entities.
Some religions have religious texts which they view as divinely or supernaturally revealed or inspired. For instance, Orthodox Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that the Torah was received from Yahweh on biblical Mount Sinai. Most Christians believe that both the Old Testament and the New Testament were inspired by God. Muslims believe the Quranwas revealed by God to Muhammad word by word through the angel Gabriel (Jibril). In Hinduism, some Vedas are considered apauruṣeya, “not human compositions”, and are supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called śruti, “what is heard”. The 15,000 handwritten pages produced by the mystic Maria Valtorta were represented as direct dictations from Jesus, while she attributed The Book of Azariah to her guardian angel. Aleister Crowley stated that The Book of the Law had been revealed to him through a higher being that called itself Aiwass.
A revelation communicated by a supernatural entity reported as being present during the event is called a vision. Direct conversations between the recipient and the supernatural entity, or physical marks such as stigmata, have been reported. In rare cases, such as that of Saint Juan Diego, physical artifacts accompany the revelation. The Roman Catholic concept of interior locution includes just an inner voice heard by the recipient.
In the Abrahamic religions, the term is used to refer to the process by which God reveals knowledge of himself, his will, and his divine providence to the world of human beings. In secondary usage, revelation refers to the resulting human knowledge about God, prophecy, and other divine things. Revelation from a supernatural source plays a less important role in some other religious traditions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.
Reincarnation is the philosophical or religious concept that an aspect of a living being starts a new life in a different physical body or form after each biological death. It is also called rebirth or transmigration, and is a part of the Saṃsāra doctrine of cyclic existence. It is a central tenet of all major Indian religions, namely Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The idea of reincarnation is found in many ancient cultures, and a belief in rebirth/metempsychosis was held by Greek historic figures, such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato. It is also a common belief of various ancient and modern religions such as Spiritism, Theosophy, and Eckankar, and as an esoteric belief in many streams of Orthodox Judaism. It is found as well in many tribal societies around the world, in places such as Australia, East Asia, Siberia, and South America.
Although the majority of denominations within Christianity and Islam do not believe that individuals reincarnate, particular groups within these religions do refer to reincarnation; these groups include the mainstream historical and contemporary followers of Cathars, Alawites, the Druze, and the Rosicrucians. The historical relations between these sects and the beliefs about reincarnation that were characteristic of Neoplatonism, Orphism, Hermeticism, Manicheanism, and Gnosticism of the Roman era as well as the Indian religions have been the subject of recent scholarly research. Unity Church and its founder Charles Fillmore teaches reincarnation.
In recent decades, many Europeans and North Americans have developed an interest in reincarnation, and many contemporary works mention it.
Main article: Karma
Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म, Pali: kamma) means action, work or deed; it also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and future suffering.
With origins in ancient India’s Vedic civilization, the philosophy of karma is closely associated with the idea of rebirth in many schools of Indian religions (particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) as well as Taoism In these schools, karma in the present affects one’s future in the current life, as well as the nature and quality of future lives – one’s saṃsāra.
Main article: Christian Theology
In Christian theology, the Supernatural order is, according to New Advent, defined as “the ensemble of effects exceeding the powers of the created universe and gratuitously produced by God for the purpose of raising the rational creature above its native sphere to a God-like life and destiny.” The Modern Catholic Dictionary defines it as “[t]he sum total of heavenly destiny and all the divinely established means of reaching that destiny, which surpass the mere powers and capacities of human nature.”
In Catholic theology, the supernatural order is, according to New Advent, defined as “the ensemble of effects exceeding the powers of the created universe and gratuitously produced by God for the purpose of raising the rational creature above its native sphere to a God-like life and destiny.” The Modern Catholic Dictionary defines it as “the sum total of heavenly destiny and all the divinely established means of reaching that destiny, which surpass the mere powers and capacities of human nature.”
Main article: Process theology
Process theology is a school of thought influenced by the metaphysical process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) and further developed by Charles Hartshorne(1897–2000).
It is not possible, in process metaphysics, to conceive divine activity as a “supernatural” intervention into the “natural” order of events. Process theists usually regard the distinction between the supernatural and the natural as a by-product of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. In process thought, there is no such thing as a realm of the natural in contrast to that which is supernatural. On the other hand, if “the natural” is defined more neutrally as “what is in the nature of things,” then process metaphysics characterizes the natural as the creative activity of actual entities. In Whitehead’s words, “It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity” (Whitehead 1978, 21). It is tempting to emphasize process theism’s denial of the supernatural and thereby highlight that the processed God cannot do in comparison what the traditional God could do (that is, to bring something from nothing). In fairness, however, equal stress should be placed on process theism’s denial of the natural (as traditionally conceived) so that one may highlight what the creatures cannot do, in traditional theism, in comparison to what they can do in process metaphysics (that is, to be part creators of the world with God).— Donald Viney, “Process Theism” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A spirit is a supernatural being, often but not exclusively a non-physical entity; such as a ghost, fairy, or angel. The concepts of a person’s spirit and soul, often also overlap, as both are either contrasted with or given ontological priority over the body and both are believed to survive bodily death in some religions, and “spirit” can also have the sense of “ghost”, i.e. a manifestation of the spirit of a deceased person. In English Bibles, “the Spirit” (with a capital “S”), specifically denotes the Holy Spirit.
Spirit is often used metaphysically to refer to the consciousness or personality.
Historically, it was also used to refer to a “subtle” as opposed to “gross” material substance, as in the famous last paragraph of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.
Main articles: Demon
A demon (from Koine Greek δαιμόνιον daimónion) is a supernatural and often malevolent being prevalent in religion, occultism, literature, fiction, mythology and folklore.
In Ancient Near Eastern religions as well as in the Abrahamic traditions, including ancient and medieval Christian demonology, a demon is considered a harmful spiritual entity, below the heavenly planes which may cause demonic possession, calling for an exorcism. In Western occultism and Renaissance magic, which grew out of an amalgamation of Greco-Roman magic, Jewish Aggadah and Christian demonology, a demon is believed to be a spiritual entity that may be conjured and controlled.
Main article: Magic (paranormal)
Magic or sorcery is the use of rituals, symbols, actions, gestures, or language with the aim of utilizing supernatural forces. Belief in and practice of magic has been present since the earliest human cultures and continues to have an important spiritual, religious, and medicinal role in many cultures today. The term magic has a variety of meanings, and there is no widely agreed upon definition of what it is.
Scholars of religion have defined magic in different ways. One approach, associated with the anthropologists Edward Tylor and James G. Frazer, suggests that magic and science are opposites. An alternative approach, associated with the sociologists Marcel Mauss and Emile Durkheim, argues that magic takes place in private, while religion is a communal and organised activity. Many scholars of religion have rejected the utility of the term magic and it has become increasingly unpopular within scholarship since the 1990s.
The term magic comes from the Old Persian magu, a word that applied to a form of religious functionary about which little is known. During the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, this term was adopted into Ancient Greek, where it was used with negative connotations, to apply to religious rites that were regarded as fraudulent, unconventional, and dangerous. This meaning of the term was then adopted by Latin in the first century BCE. The concept was then incorporated into Christian theology during the first century CE, where magic was associated with demons and thus defined against religion. This concept was pervasive throughout the Middle Ages, although in the early modern period Italian humanists reinterpreted the term in a positive sense to establish the idea of natural magic. Both negative and positive understandings of the term were retained in Western culture over the following centuries, with the former largely influencing early academic usages of the word.
Throughout history, there have been examples of individuals who practiced magic and referred to themselves as magicians. This trend has proliferated in the modern period, with a growing number of magicians appearing within the esoteric milieu. British esotericist Aleister Crowley described magic as the art of effecting change in accordance with will.
Main article: Miracle
A miracle is an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws. Such an event may be attributed to a supernatural being (a deity), magic, a miracle worker, a saint or a religious leader.
Informally, the word “miracle” is often used to characterise any beneficial event that is statistically unlikely but not contrary to the laws of nature, such as surviving a natural disaster, or simply a “wonderful” occurrence, regardless of likelihood, such as a birth. Other such miracles might be: survival of an illness diagnosed as terminal, escaping a life-threatening situation or ‘beating the odds’. Some coincidences may be seen as miracles.
A true miracle would, by definition, be a non-natural phenomenon, leading many rational and scientific thinkers to dismiss them as physically impossible (that is, requiring violation of established laws of physics within their domain of validity) or impossible to confirm by their nature (because all possible physical mechanisms can never be ruled out). The former position is expressed for instance by Thomas Jefferson and the latter by David Hume. Theologians typically say that, with divine providence, God regularly works through nature yet, as a creator, is free to work without, above, or against it as well. The possibility and probability of miracles are then equal to the possibility and probability of the existence of God.
Main article: Skepticism
Skepticism (American English) or scepticism (British English; see spelling differences) is generally any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief. It is often directed at domains such as the supernatural, morality (moral skepticism), religion (skepticism about the existence of God), or knowledge (skepticism about the possibility of knowledge, or of certainty). Formally, skepticism as a topic occurs in the context of philosophy, particularly epistemology, although it can be applied to any topic such as politics, religion, and pseudoscience.