"Supernatural Science" - Fact or More Creationist Science Fiction?

Scientists have firmly established evolution as an important natural process. Experimentation, logical analysis, and evidence-based revision are procedures that clearly differentiate and separate science from other ways of knowing.  Explanations or ways of knowing that invoke non-naturalistic or supernatural events or beings, whether called “creation science,” “scientific creationism,” “intelligent design theory,” “young earth theory,” or similar designations are outside the realm of science and not part of a valid science curriculum. (Taken from the National Association of Biology Teacher's Statement on Teaching Evolution, revised May, 2004)

On Mr. Knapp's webpage entitled "Bias/Presupposition/Naturalism" (See here.), he attempts to make the case that there are really two distinct kinds of science: "operational" (which allows only naturalistic explanations) and "origins" (which permits supernatural explanations).  Is it really true that there are two categories of science which operate according to these different criteria?  The short, simple, and correct answer is a resounding, NO.  Mainstream science, in all forms, is a naturalistic enterprise for obvious practical reasons. (See here and here.) 

Introduction -

Although mainstream science is inherently naturalistic with regard to its methodology, scientific inquiry does not discount the possibility of supernatural causation a priori.  It is possible for certain hypotheses that posit supernatural intervention to be examined scientifically if they make testable claims and predictions and are amenable to falsification - both of which are requirements of the scientific method.  For example, claims about the supposed supernaturally mediated power of healing prayer can, if tested under properly controlled conditions, fall into this category.  Since such claims specify defined outcomes that are subject to direct observation and possible disconfirmation, they can be examined scientifically.  Thus far, in all cases where such phenomena have been subjected to careful scientific analysis, they have failed to live up to the wishful thinking of their proponents.  (See here and here for discussion of "scientific" studies that have been conducted to assess the efficacy of healing prayer.) 

Likewise, certain claims made by young-earth creationists (YECs) are definitive enough that they can be analyzed using the scientific approach.  For example, the YEC claim that the universe and everything in it is only a few thousand years old has been tested rather extensively over the last century and a half.  The fact that this claim has consistently failed the test for scientific validity is beside the point.  (See here.)  The point is that science is not prevented from investigating this claim simply because a supernatural entity was said to be the causative factor.  So long as a hypothesis points to tangible evidence that can be examined objectively, it can be tested scientifically - regardless whether it is said to involve natural or supernatural causation. 

Another aspect of the scientific method to consider is the requirement that any hypothetical mechanisms and processes must also be amenable to testing and falsification.  In the example above, the final product of the YEC hypothesis, i.e., a few-thousand-year-old universe, can be, and has been, evaluated scientifically and found to be sadly wanting.  On the other hand, the claim that this purported young universe was created miraculously by a divine being in seven 24-hour days, cannot be scientifically corroborated, even if it were true, because the specific methods and operational techniques used by such a being are beyond the scope of experimental elucidation.  In the same vein, some creationists argue that the universe is really only a few thousand years old, but that God just made it look ancient, i.e., that He created it with the false appearance of old age.  Such a subjective metaphysical argument is untestable by science.  All science can do is examine the available evidence and conclude from what evidence it has that the universe looks billions of years old.  To conclude otherwise is to invoke some kind of miraculous intervention that can only be confirmed by knowing the mind and methods of God.  Unlike creationists, mainstream scientists do not pretend to be blessed with such insight.  Especially when it comes to dealing with a cosmic trickster.    

Intelligent design (ID) advocates hypothesize that supernatural causation is responsible for the basic design of all living things and for various complex structures and functions associated with them. Since supernatural activity is, by definition, beyond the scope of scientific detection and measurement, then the methods and rationales used by such a designer would, for all intents and purposes, be unpredictable and unknowable.  That being the case, ID cannot make informed statements (other than those based on general principles of commonality) about what structures and functions one should expect to find, or not to find, in a particular organism.  For example, unlike the theory of evolution, ID cannot offer a logically coherent explanation for the occurrence of vestigial legs in whales (See here.), nor would it have any grounds to predict that chimpanzees and humans would have a defective gene for making vitamin C that is broken in the same places in both species (See here.), nor would it have a rational explanation why human chromosome 2 gives every indication of being a fusion product of two chimpanzee chromosomes (See here.).  All IDists can say in the face of such evidence is that things are the way they are because their intelligent designer just wanted them to be that way. 

Unfortunately for the IDists, it is not possible for them or anyone else to anticipate just what it is that their purposely unidentified designer might want or what he/she/it might decide to create in a particular situation.  Rather than offering logical theory-derived explanations for idiosyncratic features such as those mentioned above (as does the theory of evolution), they must resort  to apologetic guesswork and ad hoc rationalizations.  It is for this reason that the ID hypothesis does not meet the criteria of a bona fide scientific hypothesis - not because it involves supernatural elements per se, but because the kind of supernatural explanations it offers do not make testable predictions and are immune to falsification.  It is this non-falsifiable type of supernatural hypothesis that fails to offer internally consistent explanations and testable predictions that I am referring to when I speak of "supernatural explanations" in my following discussion. 

"In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from confirmable data - the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists.  Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation.  Explanations that cannot be based on empirical evidence are not part of science."  (From the National Academy of Sciences' article, "Evolution and the Nature of Science")

The Scientific Method in a Nutshell -

  1. Make observations about some aspect of the universe.
  2. Develop a tentative explanation (hypothesis) to account for what has been observed thus far.
  3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions about what evidence one should expect to find upon further investigation.
  4. Test the hypothesis by conducting additional observations to determine how accurate and useful its predictions are, and modify the hypothesis, if necessary, in light of the observed evidence.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there is good agreement between what the hypothesis predicts and what is actually observed.   If good agreement cannot be achieved, abandon the hypothesis and develop a new one.
  6. If good agreement is achieved and no serious discontinuities are discovered after rigorous evaluation, advance the hypothesis to the status of a theory.

Hypotheses such as YECism and ID that invoke supernatural intervention have difficultly ever making it to step 3.  They never survive past step 5.  The theory of evolution has progressed all the way to the final level of authentication, step 6.  Mainstream science does not invoke supernatural explanations in formulating its own hypotheses because, a posteriori, such explanations have never been found to be necessary, workable, or epistemologically useful.

Once Upon a Time -

There once was a time when supernatural forces were used to explain many occurrences humans could not account for because of their limited knowledge of the natural world.  Gods were thought to cast forth lightning, hurl comets, and display "signs and wonders."  Diseases and afflictions like the plague, leprosy, boils, dysentery, withered hands, and mental deficiencies were attributed to the intervention of  wrathful gods and malicious demons.  Origin myths, such as the Assyro-Babylonian creation cosmology, were centered around the creative acts of super-human deities. Supernatural entities were basically all our primitive ancestors could conjure up to try to make sense out of the often hostile and incoherent world in which they lived. In spite of all this focus on supernaturalism, people eventually came to recognize an inherent orderliness and organization in nature that belied the spontaneous intervention of capricious gods and demons.  It was as a consequence of man's early quest to account for and better understand this natural orderliness and organization that the rudiments of modern science were born.

From primitive times until some two centuries after the middle ages, superstition and supernaturalism reigned supreme.  Then, within the next two centuries, five great scientists, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, transformed the former metaphysical approach to understanding the world into an empirical one.  No longer was the quest for knowledge about the natural world based on philosophical determinism, nor was it constrained by traditional theological concepts of the universe. Now each fact was considered independently, with no requirement to rationalize it in terms of some pre-ordained religious dogma.  Observation combined with induction and mathematical deduction replaced reliance on authoritative conjecture.  Now the concept of slow and gradual development guided by natural law replaced the old dependence on sporadic episodes of  miraculous intervention.  Testable and falsifiable naturalistic explanations superseded the arbitrary and un-falsifiable supernatural explanations of the past.  Science was well on its way to becoming the immensely-successful engine of discovery that it is today. 

Newton was instrumental in refining the scientific method. He presented his four rules for conducting scientific investigations in his masterpiece, "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica". The rules were: (1) we are to admit no more causes of natural things such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances, (2) the same natural effects must be assigned to the same causes, (3) qualities of bodies are esteemed to be universal, (4) propositions deduced from observation of phenomena should be viewed as accurate until other phenomena contradict them.

The importance of adhering to naturalistic explanations in the conduct of all facets of science is evident from Newton's rules.  No distinctions are made between "origins" and "operational" science.  That fictional distinction exists only in the imagination of the creationists.  (Note:  Science does not assert that supernatural entities do not exist. Whether or not such things exist is not within the scientific purview.  Science simply assumes that, if they do exist, they do not interfere with the normal operation of the natural laws that govern the universe.  Science makes this assumption for the sake of arriving at reliable, testable, confirmable, workable, and universally applicable explanations for how things work.  As discussed below, this "naturalistic assumption" is an indispensable feature of the scientific method.)

What are the Creationists' Motives

Creationists pretend to be doing legitimate science while at the same time relying on preternatural elements as criteria for substantiation. The naturalistic assumption has been incorporated into the scientific method because experience has shown that, by using this approach, the process has been tremendously productive. This epistemological assumption no longer seems to cause a great deal of consternation amongst the creationists with regard to such things as the germ theory of disease, the universal law of gravitation, quantum mechanics, or the idea that mental illness correlates with brain disorders. But when science turns to the investigation of origins (specifically cosmological and biological origins), suddenly the creationist nerve has been struck. Now they ignore the fact that the scientific method, with its naturalistic assumptions, has proven to be the most effective system ever devised by man for promoting invention and discovery.

So why do creationists falsely claim that there is a category of science that allows them to them plug their favorite supernatural explanations into the equation? Since miracles play such a critical role in creationist origins theories, and since they want to give the impression that their theories are scientifically valid, they have no choice but to create the fiction that science thinks miraculous explanations are just hunky-dory. While creationists do not hesitate to badmouth mainstream scientists at the slightest provocation, they still yearn for the high level of prestige and respect that the scientific community enjoys with the general public. More importantly, they also know that, unless they appear to have a stamp of scientific authenticity for their religious teachings, they will not be able to foist them off as genuine science in the public school curriculum.  Spurned by the scientific community and thwarted in their efforts to teach creationism as science in public schools, they have now adopted a new ploy.  They have now concocted their own rules that permit them to do what mainstream science would never allow them to do - to replace naturalistic explanations with supernatural ones wherever it suits their fancy.  (As if a fringe-group of evolution-bashing pseudo-scientists could profoundly alter one of the fundamental tenets of the scientific method simply by pretending to do so.) 

Of course, real scientists are not fooled by the creationists' chicanery.  But, creationists couldn't care less what mainstream scientists think about their self-serving rule changes. Creationists are not trying to persuade other scientists.  They are on a political disinformation campaign to confound the general public. 

Who's being biased?

Mr. Knapp correctly states that everyone approaches an issue with their own set of  presuppositions.   If by presupposition he means something like, "a necessary antecedent condition," then I agree that both evolutionists and creationists start with different presuppositions. Evolutionists start with the presupposition that the scientific method is an extremely effective means of discovering how the world operates and that this method must be judiciously adhered to in their examination of any evidence relating to how the diversity of life arose on Earth. And creationists start with the presupposition that the literal Genesis account of creation represents the absolute, invariable truth that must be faithfully defended no matter how drastically the contradictory evidence must be ignored or distorted in the process – the scientific method be damned. Bias, of which he also accuses evolutionists, is different than presupposition. Bias involves selectively ignoring contrary evidence and selectively embracing anything that might strengthen one’s position. While evolutionists are not completely immune to bias, the scientific method under which they must operate puts a damper on it. Because a scientist’s work is peer-reviewed by other scientists who are only too eager to poke it full of holes (and who are eager to gain notoriety by finding fault with accepted theories in general), the chance of bias is greatly diminished. It is very difficult for scientists to allow personal prejudices to control their work when there exists such a large body of critical observers who are ready to call them on the carpet for doing so. Creationism, on the other hand, thrives on bias. The more one squelches contradictory viewpoints and the more closely one adheres to the sacred party line, the greater the rewards and accolades. His contention that evolutionists and creationists are "bound by the same principles of bias, presupposition, and faith" is completely without merit.

Why single out Evolutionists?

On his webpage, Mr. Knapp says, "When it comes to origins science, evolutionists claim that only naturalistic explanations are allowed."   The truth is, when it comes to any type of science, all mainstream scientists make this claim and abide by this rule. Fewer than 5% of all the scientists in this country are so religion-obsessed  that they must pretend that they are exempt from the prohibition against supernatural explanations. (See here and here.)  Origins science is no different from any other type of science except that it deals with events that have occurred in the past. It offers naturalistic explanations for what happened in the past by examining natural evidence that was produced by that event and still exists in the present. It is the creationists who indiscriminately mix science with the supernatural who are the oddballs.

Events in the past are routinely investigated and accounted for without breaking the conventional rules for doing science. Forensic scientists test the evidence from past crimes and the conviction of perpetrators often rests strongly on their results. A geologist can observe a cone-shaped mountain, test the composition and structure of the rocks that make it up, and arrive at the reasonable conclusion that it was formed by a volcano. An archaeologist can test the composition and structure of clay pottery and determine when and by what group of people it was produced. A radio-chemist can measure the ratio of isotopes in a properly prepared specimen and determine its age. When a cosmologist measures the characteristics of distant bodies in space, he/she is scientifically testing residual evidence from something that occurred in the past. And a paleontologist can examine the position of a fossil in the geologic column and determine when it was part of a living animal. There is no need for "supernatural science" because natural science is fully capable of doing the job.

Why is Science Strictly Naturalistic?

So why does science routinely restrict all its explanations to those involving only naturalistic causes and effects.  Does science hold a grudge against promoters of the supernatural and antagonize them just for spite?  Is science like some elitist club that makes up rules to exclude those who have different opinions?   Or are there beneficial, functional, and logical reasons for science having adopted an explanatory process that eschews the supernatural?  There are actually a number of valid reasons why science restricts itself to the natural realm. In what follows, I briefly discuss three of them to show why science insists on this restriction and would be severely handicapped without it.

First - Permitting supernatural, ontological, metaphysical, etc. explanations in the scientific process would have the deleterious effect of stifling further investigation. If supernatural explanations (which cannot be tested or falsified) were to be accepted as meaningful hypotheses, there would be little incentive to continue doing any further scientific research in areas where such an explanation had become the established dictum. Why would a scientist involve himself/herself in the difficult process of trying to uncover naturalistic explanations, if there existed an overarching supernatural explanation that was embraced by the scientific community? A scientist would be further ahead to spend his/her time dreaming up more grandiose supernatural explanations under such circumstances.

Who, under the scheme of "supernatural science," would decide whether an investigation had simply reached a technical roadblock, or whether the subject in question was completely intractable from a conventional scientific standpoint? Who would make the decision that enough traditional science had been carried out and that a supernatural explanation was now in order? Since Michael Behe has now proclaimed that supernatural intervention was responsible for much of the blood clotting mechanism, should scientists abandon further efforts to determine how the system might have evolved naturally? Studies such as these often yield ancillary benefits that are not envisioned as part of the original research effort. But why should they be continued if the phenomenon under study has been determined to be off-limits to standard scientific inquiry and inexplicable in naturalistic terms?

And then there is the matter of funding. Conventional scientific research is often very expensive and is dependent on grant money for survival. But why waste money funding conventional scientific research when you can concoct an acceptable supernatural solution for free?  "Supernatural science" would render an already difficult funding situation much worse, to say the least.

To envision how deleterious such an approach to science would be, consider what the state of the medical sciences would be today if such a scheme had been adopted in the past. The Bible claims that disease is caused by possession with supernatural demons? What if that supernatural explanation had become the guiding principle of the medical sciences and no work had been directed at finding the real cause of infectious diseases? One need look no further than the plague-ridden Dark Ages in which superstition and supernatural thinking prevailed for an answer to that question.

Second - One of the significant advantages of the scientific method is that the theories that it generates are universal in application because the theoretical explanations derived from it are based on empirical, inter-subjective evidence. Force equals mass times acceleration on the macro scale everywhere on earth (and throughout the universe as far as we know), and any scientist with the proper equipment can test and verify it. One of the major problems with allowing supernatural explanations into the scientific process stems from the fact that anyone can dream one up, but nobody can tell for sure if they are anything more than the figment of someone’s imagination. Since supernatural explanations are not amenable to the standard methods of testing and falsification, there is no logical basis for favoring one person’s miracle-based theory over another’s.

If "supernatural science" became a reality, various individuals could propose different supernatural hypotheses to explain an observation and there would be no rational way to sort through them to determine the best contender. With "supernatural science," there would be Hindu sciences, Christian sciences, Scientology sciences, Wiccan sciences, etc. that would be operable only in the particular area where the corresponding supernatural explanations were de rigueur. Under these circumstances, science would become an unworkable hodgepodge of mutually exclusive theories all competing with one another and with no reasonable way to determine which one of them, if any, was viable. It is likely, under such a system, that spokesmen for the majority religion or belief system in a particular region would be calling most of the shots. The consistency and continuity that are the hallmarks of the scientific method would be completely lost, and it would be virtually impossible for "supernatural scientists" to effectively compare their work and arrive at consensus opinions. Instead, we would have a montage of competing ideologies bickering with one another over whose miracles should be given top billing. (Any resemblance to religion is not purely coincidental.)

Third – An important attribute of science is that it can make useful predictions about how things would be expected to behave in the future based on how they, or related things, have behaved in the past. The reliability of such predictions is dependent on the fact that natural systems behave in a consistent, probabilistic, and ordered manner. If supernatural elements were assumed to intervene, all bets would be off as far as making any meaningful predictions is concerned. If spirits, gods, demons, leprechauns, or whatever were assumed to be able to scramble experimental variables and alter outcomes whenever it suited their fancies, it would be an exercise in futility to anticipate how things might act in the present, let alone in the future. Science works under the assumption that preternatural forces are not operative because, to do otherwise, would make predicting future outcomes a total waste of time. So far, there is every indication that this assumption has been completely justified.

From this discussion, the importance of maintaining science as a purely naturalistic enterprise should be readily apparent. If anyone thinks that science does not enforce this requirement evenhandedly, then I challenge them to identify even one well-established and generally accepted scientific theory that invokes supernatural forces as causative factors - whether they be in the fields of "operational" or "origins" science.  And if they still insist on mixing science with "God did it" explanations, then it is incumbent on them to explain how such an amalgamation will improve the scientific method and render it better able to promote invention and discovery.

As indicated above, naturalistic methodology was established as an integral part of the scientific process early on by the likes of Newton and Galileo. I have given three reasons why it is necessary continue to this approach if science is to remain a viable system for gaining reliable information.  It doesn't matter whether science is examining "origins" or any other subject, the same rule applies to all scientific endeavors.  Introducing supernatural explanations in the scientific study of "origins" would all have the negative repercussions discussed above.  There is only one kind of science that concerns itself with physical reality, and that science must remain strictly naturalistic in its methodological approach if it is to continue to be such a powerful force for increasing our knowledge of the natural world.

Reputable Scientists Speak Out -

The National Academy of Sciences is the most prestigious scientific organization in the country, if not the world. Only the foremost scientists who have contributed the most to their fields of research are allowed membership in this organization. On page 42 of "Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science" which was published in 1998 by the NAS, it is specified that:

"The statements of science must invoke only NATURAL things and processes"

(Emphasis mine)

Here the most knowledgeable scientists in the country (if not the world) make it clear that science allows only naturalistic explanations. The following excerpt from the online University of Texas El Paso syllabus for the "Introduction to Biology 1306: Harris Section" offers additional insight on why science insists on the naturalistic approach.

"The scientific approach is entirely naturalistic. Thus, when doing science, the supernatural cannot be invoked. This says nothing about the religious and philosophical beliefs of scientists – personal beliefs vary from atheistic to fundamentalist religious faiths. It means only that the supernatural is off limits to scientists when acting as scientists. Long experience has taught us that when we are allowed to explain things by supernatural occurrences, we tend to rely on these rather that doing the hard labor to find natural explanations – in short, we stop doing real science, and we stagnate. This approach has paid off big time. In the few centuries that science has been at work, we have learned more about the natural world than we had learned throughout the earlier history of mankind."

The rationale for allowing only naturalistic explanations in science is further elaborated on in the following excerpt from the Internet article, "Compatibility of Christianity and Evolution", by Paul Neubauer.

"Once we decide that any phenomenon has a supernatural cause, we can do no more than throw up our hands and say, "we cannot explain it." To say "God did it" is to say that He did it for His own reasons, which we do not presume to understand, and this is precisely equivalent to giving up our search for an explanation. Methodologically, this is bad strategy. If we stop searching for explanations, we will certainly not find them. Therefore, as scientists, we must proceed under the assumption of naturalism, even if we, as human beings, might also be committed theists."

Another good rationale for the insistence on the use of methodological naturalism in science has been provided by Arthur Strahler in his book, "Science and Earth History".

"Supernatural forces, if they exist, cannot be observed, measured, or recorded by the procedures of science – that’s simply what the word 'supernatural' means. There can be no limit to the kinds and shapes of supernatural forces and forms that human mind is capable of conjuring up from 'nowhere.' Scientists therefore have no alternative but to ignore 'claims' of the existence of supernatural forces and causes. This exclusion is a basic position that must be stoutly adhered to by scientists or their entire system of processing information will collapse. To put it another way, if science must include a supernatural realm, it will be forced into a game where there are no rules. Without rules, no scientific observation, explanation, or prediction can enjoy a high probability of being a correct picture of the real world." – Arthur Strahler


The claim by creationists that there are two sciences, one of which embraces supernaturalism, is political propaganda, pure and simple. Creationists know that there is not a single legitimate scientific organization on earth that agrees with such nonsense.  And they must also know, for the reasons discussed above, that their approach to science would render the process totally unworkable.  Their contention that "origins" science involves different rules than other sciences is pure bunk designed to garner support for their anti-evolution agenda from a scientifically naive public. Mainstream science employs nothing but naturalistic explanations for one very simple reason - because sticking with such explanations has made it the most effective system ever devised by man for acquiring a working knowledge of the natural world. 

Creationists want the general public to believe that so-called "origins" events cannot be properly tested and accounted for by conventional scientific methods.  By perpetrating this myth, they hope to garner public support for their own supernatural-friendly brand of pseudo-science. Using this strategy, they hope to con the credulous masses into falling for the ruse that creationism is actually a bona fide scientific alternative to evolution.  Judging from the proliferation of anti-evolution websites on the Internet, it looks like their ruse may be paying off.  Nevertheless, no matter how many people sing its praises, creationism will never pass the test as legitimate science so long as it incorporates supernatural elements into its theoretical framework.

“…the criterion of falsifiability… [is the solution to] the problem of drawing a line… between the statements, or systems of statements, of the empirical sciences, and all other statements – whether they are a religious or of a metaphysical character or simply pseudo-science.” - Karl Popper

Updated: 5/11/05