Demarcation Problem

By the time atoms were directly observed in 1981, they had existed for decades as theoretical entities, “just things of thought,” in the words of the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach.[i] The case of atoms illustrates a more general principle, namely that an entity can be a perfectly sound theoretical conclusion despite never having been directly observed.

This principle can be applied to God as well. God could be a perfectly sound theoretical conclusion despite never hav­ing been directly observed. Direct experience of God isn’t re­quired to justify a reasonable belief in God.

But we quickly run into a problem. The suggestion that we might acquire direct observational evi­dence of the supernatural or entertain theoretical conceptual­izations of the super­natural raises tough questions. How do we distinguish the supernat­ural from the natural? When we observe or contemplate any object, what are its characteristics that justify our ascribing it to one realm as opposed to the other? Should we classify as supernat­ural all anomalous or extraordinary events, thereby reducing super­natural to a statistical classification, like a big shoebox where we stash everything that surprises us (“god of the gapes”)? Or should we classify as super­natural those events that fit our preconceived notion of godly acts?

Alternatively, we might decide that the demarcation problem is unsolvable. We might, for instance, classify everything as natural. That would be a provisional classification, subject to revision if we ever solve the demarcation problem.

Around 350 BCE, Aristotle taught that the inherent behavior of objects on Earth was to seek Earth’s center, at least until they en­coun­ter resistance (typically in the form of Earth’s surface), and then to remain at rest. But Aristotle viewed the celestial sphere as operat­ing by a different set of rules. The sun, stars, and other heavenly orbs did not follow a straight path toward Earth’s center. Instead, they traced perfect circles around Earth. When Isaac Newton arrived on the scene nearly two thousand years later, he united the Earthly and heavenly realms, demonstrating that the falling of an apple and the orbit of the moon abide the same principles of motion.[ii] Newton showed that the tradi­tional distinction between Earthly and heavenly objects was illu­sory.

I propose that we continue the synthesis launched by Newton. It’s an illusion that there exists two inde­pendent realms, one natural and one supernatural.

To call this an illusion is not to dogmatically deny the existence of the supernatural. It is merely to deny that we presently have any evidential basis or even conceptual basis for affirming or denying its existence. Our inability to resolve the demarcation problem mandates that we provisionally adopt a unified perspective. Failure to adopt a unified perspective would be to commit the informal fallacy known as argumentum ad ignorantiam.

A few brave thinkers, to avoid drawing arbitrary distinctions be­tween natural and supernatural events, classify everything, from butter­fly burps to gamma ray bursts, as direct acts of God. Baruch Spinoza seems to have adopted this remedy, portraying everything as ultimately super­natural. Thomas Hobbes attributed everything post-creation to the natural order. Although these philosophers started from radically different premis­es, they nonetheless converged on the conclusion that a single classi­fica­tion applies to all our experiences.

Albert Einstein expressed a similarly unified perspec­tive when he remarked, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”[iii] Ludwig Wittgenstein agreed, insisting in his Tractatus that “the world is all that is the case.” Carl Sagan also recognized a single clas­sification when he remarked at the beginning of his Cosmos televi­sion series that the cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Joseph Conrad, in the preface to The Shadow Line, put it more explicitly, “Whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, how­ever exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part.”

These proclamations may seem strident and close-minded to a per­son who naively presumes that there must be some intelligible distinction between natural events and supernatural events. But there is, in fact, no such intelligible distinction. All we ever know are events. The events we witness are not categorically differentiated into natural and super­natural. By convention we usually say that events we observe in our daily lives fall within the natural realm. But the ad­jective natural adds no new information to the phenomenological description of an event.

Our senses have been sculpted by nature and are thus inevitably tuned to the natural realm. Talk of anything supernatural, whether confirming or denying its existence or speculating on its character­istics, is literally nonsensical.

If this strikes you as a radical perspective, that’s because it is. But the path to this radical perspective wasn’t paved by screeching, banner-waving atheists. It was paved by respected theologians and religious philosophers, who over the past few centuries have tried to acclimate us to a receding god. There’s a reason we distinguish the god of Abraham and Isaac from the god of the philosophers.

Primitive religions spoke of gods percep­tible through our aborigi­nal faculties. These gods were big, powerful titans who roamed the real world rather than being quarantined to some invisible realm. We could potentially see them, hear them, and feel the ground tremble when they stomped.

But we eventually outgrew these primitive gods. We couldn’t find them in the woods or on mountain tops. There seemed to be no other hiding places for the gods.

Then natural theol­ogy came along with its ambition to invent a new hiding place. To make this hiding place seem credible, theologi­ans had to highjack our natural faculties and force them to conceptu­alize about a hypotheti­cal supernatural sphere. A new residence was thereby built for the divine, and a new breed of divinity—mysterious, elusive, tantalizingly beyond our comprehension—was prompt­ly in­vented to occupy the residence.

Modern theologians, amidst their tedious disputations over the characteristics of God, are conspicuously mute with respect to the demarcation problem. Whether anything supernatural even exists raises questions we humans seem structurally unsuited to answer. We evolved to interact with the natural realm, the only realm that de­monstrably exists.

A critic of the position I am describing here might respond, “If you’re going to start with the premise that the supernatural is inherently inaccessible, then you have closed your mind to all religion.”

But I do not start with such a premise. I merely suggest that our minds and senses may not be, and there’s no reason to think they would be, portals to some transcendent realm.

I might be wrong about that. Perhaps our naturally evolved cog­nitive capabilities are incidentally suited to comprehend extra-natural entities. We cannot rule that out. Yet the claim that natural selection, a notoriously miserly process, which prunes away talents or organs that don’t pay their way in terms of physical survival, would endow us with faculties to penetrate beyond our physical environment and into supernatural spheres is a counter-intuitive proposition that at least demands some reasonable proof.

I’m quite happy to believe in the existence of the super­natural if two commonsense conditions are met. First, an intel­ligible definition must be provided for the term supernatural and, second, ade­quate evidence must be provided to justify belief in the supernat­ural. The second condition can’t be met until the first condition is met, and no one has yet provided a meaningful definition of super­natural.

In practice, humans apply the word supernatural to any being imagined to possess powers that, while demonstrable to us through our senses, are nonetheless so exceptional as to permanently defy explana­tion by all systemic principles of nature. In other words, supernatural, in practice, means magic. Though the word magic is sometimes burdened with derogatory connotations, my intention is not to prejudice the case. There simply is no more fitting word.

A man who could snap his fingers or speak commands and thereby cause weather to abruptly change, as did Jesus (Matthew 8:26-27), would be performing magic. He would therefore meet our working definition of a god. Baby Jesus was honored by the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12), from which we derive the word magic. A central message of the New Testament is that Jesus was magical.

As stated above, to qualify as magic, an event must per­manently defy explana­tion by all systemic principles of nature. The belief in magic thus appeals exclusively to individuals of a peculiar disposi­tion. Picture in your mind the kind of self-assured per­son who would proclaim that some phenomenon must forever elude rational com­prehension. Such a brash proclama­tion reflects, in addi­tion to self-assuredness, a deep-seated pessimism about the pro­gress of human knowledge. It signi­fies an entrenched knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, the kind that is typically coupled with grotesque credulity toward the superstition du jour.

If those who believe in magic are right, how could we recognize a magical being? The British theologian William Paley opined that a magical being could reveal itself to us only by intruding into the nat­ural realm, vio­lating the normal operations of nature, “Now in what way can a revelation be made, but by mira­cles? In none which we are able to conceive.”[iv] In other words, the invisible gods invented by theologi­ans will have to temporarily step out of their hiding place and back into the real world to be detected.

We humans stand ready and eager to greet the returning gods. Hell, many of us would settle for a leprechaun. Con­fronted daily and eventually fatally by our natural limitations, we ache for contact with a being immune to familiar natural con­straints. We hope to get under its protection, mimic its technique, or snatch it and squeeze out its magical juice as an elixir.

People too sophisticated to endorse vulgar forms of magic, such as healing the blind with spit (as done by Emperor Vespasian and Jesus) and turning wooden oars or staffs into snakes (as done by Dionysus and Moses), never­theless crave the managerial magic of a Grand Designer. It affords hope that natural limitations don’t always apply and that there may be some gap in the iron jaws of mor­tality, through which a desperate, mournful wretch might squirm. It’s not called “salvation” for nothing, a word translated from the New Testament Greek word soteria, which denotes magical cures and apotropaic spells.

Supernatural and magic are not perfectly synony­mous. On a Venn diagram, magic appears as the intersection of the supernatural and natural.

But consider the two regions of the Venn diagram where there is no intersection. One of these two regions depicts the natural realm while the other depicts the supernatural realm. Yet these two regions may not be as distinct as the diagram suggests. Can a purely natural event have a supernatural cause? Or would having a super­natural cause qualify the event, at some level of abstraction, as supernatural? This harkens back to the dispute be­tween Baruch Spi­noza and Thomas Hobbes.

But for now, the term natural has a wider scope than the term supernatural, in that we apply the adjective natural to most of our experiences. This makes it the default term. As long as we lack a sufficiently rigorous definition of supernatu­ral, we can’t profitably introduce the term supernatural into our worldviews. This is the demarcation problem.




[i] Michael Moseley, “What Is the World Made Of: The Story of Science”, (BBC Documentary, 4/14/2013),

[ii] Noson S. Yanofsky, The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us, (MIT, 2003), p.170.

[iii] Albert Einstein, “Everything Is A Miracle”, quoted by David T. Dellinger, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter? (Catholic Worker, 1993) p. 418.

[iv] William Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity, in Three Parts; and the Horae Paulinae (Robert Potts, Trinity College, 1849), p. 2.

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