A Clear Mind: The Supernatural

29Jun11

Science tends to deny paranormal phenomena, searching instead for testable explanations of mysterious events.  Many nonscientists find some scientific accounts unsatisfactory, and instead rely on traditional explanations.  Traditional explanations often have a supernatural component.  For instance, a bad event is often attributed to the Devil, or bad karma, or angry gods.

Science has rendered many traditional explanations less persuasive.  Severe weather is linked to atmospheric conditions or global warming; sudden death is traced to cardiac arrest brought about by a bad diet and lack of exercise, not to the Angel of Death.  The understanding provided by science leads to many precautions that protect people from such developments.

Yet in a larger sense, science has inadvertently made a traditional orientation more appealing.  Nowadays, it’s not just a matter of a nasty thunderstorm signaling God’s wrath.  Over the past half-century, we have recurrently had to face the prospect that much of the human race could be wiped out — by nuclear war, by a pandemic sweeping across all continents in a matter of days, by global environmental collapse.

For the most part, these consummately frightening possibilities have been created and/or enhanced by science itself.  Science could have done a far better job of protecting against such prospects, but that’s not where the money was.  Science tends to be a relatively value-free enterprise, serving the values of the political and economic forces that fund it.   Often, those are values that traditional orientations struggle against.  So now we have a situation where it will be difficult if not impossible for science to put the genie back in the bottle.  It can seem likely that hope must come from a higher source.

Rejecting the supernatural aspects of traditionalism would be easier if science did have comparably appealing perspectives.  It may be true that a landscape will tend to seem beautiful, to the human observer, if it is the kind of place that primitive humans would have found hospitable.  But if that is assumed to be the only reason for its beauty — if, more generally, beauty itself is treated as a self-serving and therefore potentially ugly trait — then many people are going to feel that science is missing something important.

Such an assessment would be supported by some evidence.  Science does not have a good track record where landscapes and beauty are concerned.  For instance, the physical environment of the Americas was in far better condition before European science arrived.  The world feels far richer when the stones, the trees, and the wind have supernatural associations.  Life’s experiences seem more important if one’s individual experiences are believed to be somehow connected to something larger.

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