There is a lot of debate about the characteristics of nature and the existence of the supernatural, but through it all the concept of nature is often obscure. We may use the same word, but often we’re not talking about the same thing.
For the materialist, nature consists of the objective properties studied by science and nothing more. Nature includes 3 spatial dimensions and its movement through the fourth dimension of time. Structure and function are all there is to the machinery of nature.
We impose these materialist ideas of nature on our ideas of the supernatural. The supernatural means beyond nature, something which transcends nature. And with the materialist idea of nature, the supernatural becomes something that is outside the external dimensions or outside the laws of physics.
This gives us a conception of God as a disembodied mind who exists beyond the limits of space-time, outside the universe. But outside is a spatial description, being outside space is like being north of the north pole. It’s not an intelligible concept.
The materialist idea of nature also infects our ideas of the soul. It’s been likened to a ghost in the machine. This is a view of the soul as an immaterial homunculus floating somewhere behind the eyes.
These ideas of God and the soul are implausible if we understand them with the materialist ideas of nature. This is why many people assume the existence of the supernatural is an incoherent idea. They think belief in God and the soul is irrational. They think science has shown they don’t exist.
But they don’t stop to consider it’s the materialist idea of nature that is incoherent. Our ideas about nature determine our ideas of the supernatural.
The materialist conception of nature comes from scientific descriptions of nature’s objective properties. But science is a method, a way to investigate and gain knowledge of nature. It intentionally excludes anything except the measurable objective properties.
That exclusion doesn’t mean science gives us a complete description of nature, or that nature only consists of the properties science allows in its explanations.
Wearing rose-colored glasses means we see the world in a particular way according to the filters we’ve imposed on our view of the world. But it’s a rudimentary mistake to assume this means the world itself is rose colored. This is the same mistake materialists make when assuming nature is nothing more than the scientific description.
The spiritual view of nature
By contrast, the spiritual view doesn’t limit nature to its objective properties. Instead of thinking of the supernatural as something external to nature, the spiritual view of nature includes its inner dimensions.
Nature is alive, it’s animated by inner forces.
This is how God, the soul and the spiritual reality are traditionally understood. From the classical conception of theism through to the animism of indigenous cultures, the supernatural is understood as the force pervading and animating nature.
The design and order within nature; the sentience within living beings; the causal powers of nature, all have their ultimate source in the inner dimensions of the world.
The supernatural is the living soul permeating the entire cosmos.
This idea of the immanence of the supernatural isn’t something we need to theorize about or demand proof it exists. There’s no puzzle about what it could mean, we have direct experience of it.
We can describe our physical body in scientific terms. It has mass, height, and various structures and functions. But it also has inner dimensions which science can’t detect or describe.
Each of us knows the conscious self which animates our physical body by direct experience. Our thoughts, desires, feelings are the inner dimensions of our physical body, they animate the body and cause its movement. This inner conscious world is the spiritual aspect of our existence, this is the supernatural dimension of the world.
Why think the conscious self is supernatural?
Supernatural means beyond nature. The conscious self is beyond the body, not in a spatial sense as existing outside its external dimensions, it transcends the body as a subject transcends its object. The subject is necessarily beyond the object because the subject is a point of view, an observer.
Our conscious self observes and surveys nature from a viewpoint beyond its actuality. We can easily imagine having an out-of-body experience. Think of viewing your body from above; or below; or any position in space you choose. What we’re doing when we imagine this is taking a point of view outside our body.
That is what the conscious self is, a viewpoint from which to observe the world. It can view the world from any vantage point it chooses. This isn’t restricted to a visual encounter with the world.
It includes all the sensory perceptions and the mental dimensions. We interpret the world through the filters of our experiences, beliefs, and desires culminating in a unique vantage point on the world.
But our vantage point on the world goes beyond the world as it is. We not only view its actual state, but we can also envision the many possible states it could take. We can observe its possibilities and act to bring them into existence. We can make the potential become actual.
This is an extraordinary feat. It’s a remarkable series of powers and abilities. But it’s so ordinary we take it for granted as if there was nothing unusual happening.
Think about a simple task like baking bread. From the trip to the store, assembling the ingredients, creating suitable conditions for combining those ingredients, everything must happen in a particular order. This series of tasks needs far more than a simple perception of the world.
It requires the ability to survey the world in its actual states, but also to view its future states and know which of them are possible. We need to envision the intermediate states of the world that link the actual to the possible. We need to know how to exert forces that cause one of those possibilities to become actual.
A simple loaf of bread requires us to select the ingredients, measure correct proportions, combine them in a certain order, knead the dough, leave it to rise in a warm place, heat the oven to a particular temperature, oil the pan and cook for a certain duration of time.
All these activities require us to transcend nature, to take a viewpoint beyond the actual world. Not only do we need to take a transcendent viewpoint, but we also need the causal power to make nature move in a particular way. We transcend the laws of nature because we observe them and then use them to create future states of reality.
The soul, or the conscious self is supernatural. It’s beyond nature but also immersed within it. In theological terms, the spiritual is both transcendent and immanent in the cosmos.
Beyond the individual soul
These direct observations of the inner dimensions in our own physical bodies logically extend to all of nature. Most of the arguments against the materialist view of nature are motivated by recognition of the existence of these inner dimensions.
The hard problem of consciousness is the most obvious and decisive example the materialist idea of nature is wrong. The argument from design shows the existence of law-like regularities in nature suggests an inner intelligence.
The cosmological argument shows the foundation of all movement, all causal power must be something that exists of necessity. Necessity is a description of the inner properties of reality, its mode of existence.
These all point to aspects of nature science is incapable of describing. Science is incapable of this because it’s a method of inquiry that intentionally excludes nature’s inner dimensions.
Transcending the mechanical view of nature
This view of nature as consisting only of mechanism is a relic of the Newtonian era. Quantum mechanics superseded it over 100 years ago. With quantum theory the observer became inseparably connected with the laws of physics.
Descriptions of the quantum realm reflect our experiences at the macro level. The observer surveys a field of possibilities and their actions bring one state into existence. Quantum mechanics establishes the causal link between the observer and the physical world the mechanistic philosophy excluded.
The conflating of nature itself with the impoverished mechanical conception of it gives us a superficial and hollow view of nature. From a method that treats nature as if it was a machine to discover its function, it assumes nature actually consists only of mechanism.
This is like giving a description of the biological functions of the human body and assuming that is a complete and accurate description of what humans are. As we all know, that sort of description leaves out the essential inner qualities that define us.
The essence of nature isn’t discovered by treating it as an object we can grasp within our intellect, but as a subject with whom we share an intimate connection. Everyone has felt this connection in some form of spiritual experience regardless of their particular beliefs.
It’s an experience we discover when immersed in the natural world, or quietly staring into the vastness of the night sky. This isn’t an experience of admiration for the engineering of the machinery of nature. It’s a visceral connection to nature that speaks to the primal state of our being.
The human search for meaning is inescapable. We can try and convince our intellect the universe is meaningless, but it will always consist of nothing more than intellectual conceit.
The human search for meaning and an understanding of our place in the world is like metal moving toward a magnet. We may not be able to articulate the invisible forces which cause the attraction, but we’ll always move according to the demands of our inner nature.