Why Supernatural Claims?
Why Are Religious Claims a Target for the Extraordinary Claims Campaign?
Some comments on Supernatural Claims, Evidence, and the Burden of Proof
Central to the question of whether belief in the supernatural is justifiable is the question of whether it is possible to have evidence for supernatural claims. Of course, we already know that we can have evidence for natural claims. For this, we use the scientific method. So, what does the scientific method tells us about supernatural claims?
Well, one thing is for sure. Science cannot show that supernatural claims are false – proving a negative is practically impossible. We can however show that believing in the supernatural is unjustified.
The scientific method operates within a framework of general skepticism. Here skepticism should be understood as a default position of incredulity regarding empirical claims. This means that unless there is evidence for a claim, scientists default to a position of disbelief. Thus, for any empirical claim, the burden of proof lies with the person making the claim.
Now, how does the scientific method justify beliefs about the natural world?
It is important to remember that there is an indefinitely long list of empirical claims that are logically possible and may well be true – there may be a flying spaghetti monster after all. However, unless there is some way to test these claims in the real world, there is no way to assess their truth. While good scientific theories have a variety of virtues, one of the most significant is surely testability. According the scientific method, belief in natural claims is justified when observations match the predictions of a scientific theory.
One of the problems with supernatural claims is that much of the time there are no empirical effects to speak of. While such claims are indeed empirical – they are, after all, existential claims – many supernatural claims, even if true, would produce no observable effects. The consequence is that we can have no empirical evidence for them. The claim the God exists outside of time and space falls into this category. No evidence means no justification.
Other supernatural claims, such as the effectiveness of intercessory prayer, do produce observable effects – or rather they would if they were true. However, the evidence for them is consistently unimpressive, to put it mildly.
These two facts about supernatural claims, when coupled with scientific skepticism, entail that belief in the supernatural is unjustified according to the scientific method – the only consistently reliable epistemological practice we have.
Could there be an extra-scientific method of justifying supernatural claims? While highly doubtful, it is certainly logically possible that such a method could one day be discovered. It is also possible that a future study will prove the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. However, until these things come to pass, we must come to grips with the fact that belief in the supernatural is unjustified.
Popper, Karl “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”, Hutchinson and Co., 1959.
Forrest, Barbara, “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection”, Philo, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 7-29, 2000. (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/barbara_forrest/naturalism.html)