Is nature all there is? When you look out at the cosmos or stop to contemplate the beautiful designs of a flower abloom in spring—do you imagine that all of it is the product of a purely natural process, or that perhaps there is something more going on here? Something deeper? Something grander? Something perhaps more designed than we might recognize?
When it comes to these big questions about evolution and creation, design and the origins of the universe, there are generally two major camps: naturalism and supernaturalism.
On the one hand, naturalism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the “idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world.” Those who adhere to philosophical naturalism (so-called “naturalists”) make the claim that nature is all there is—nothing but natural laws and material forces are at work in the world, govern its behavior, or alter the universe at various stages of development and decay.
On the other hand, supernaturalism is the philosophical claim that the natural world cannot simply be explained by the laws of nature or scientific naturalism alone. Instead, there is a spiritual world beyond nature (super-nature) that can include anything relating to deities, ghosts, the human soul, or other non-material entities. As one can readily see, supernaturalists exist along a spiritual spectrum and can include individuals ranging from astrologists to Christians, Zoroastrians to the spiritually inclined, but not religiously defined.
In general, however, those who believe in the beyond challenge the naturalist view that nature is the sum of reality’s parts. Instead, they argue that this is an intentional universe alive with hints of the divine.
What do you think?
It can be hard to deny the benefits that philosophical naturalism, and the science and technology based on its principles, have brought to our world. Medicinal breakthroughs, advances in travel, and gadgets for entertainment are just a few of the services science provides.
However, naturalism has its weaknesses. At times it can rob the universe of its wonder or leave individuals without a place to turn to in their deepest and darkest moments. Furthermore, its promises of bringing health, hope, and wholeness to the world fall short as humanity continues to struggle with its doubts, despair, and deadly selfishness (with all this said, I do not want to claim that naturalism necessarily leads to utter despair or global social meltdown, supernaturalists struggle with the same issues).
Furthermore, naturalism suffers from rational problems. For example, if nature is all there is, how can that claim be tested empirically? If there is nothing outside of nature to test it how can we be confident, according to the scientific method, of our hypothesis that what we see in nature is what we get and nothing more?
Perhaps most worryingly, naturalism can, at times, discount those who take stock of the supernatural and believe in its existence and power. While I am not here to stage an all-out defense of the supernatural worldview or to engage in a serious attack against philosophical naturalism, I am concerned with how a naturalistic viewpoint can sometimes reduce the universe to its elemental parts and perhaps miss its most inspirational aspects—that which lies beyond our senses and scientific measurements.
I believe there is something more to our universe. The very brilliance and depth of the cosmos, the intricacies and intimacies of flowers or the smallest birds, the grandeur of natural spaces that take our breath away, or the awe-inspiring work of the human body and mind as it reacts to, and seeks to work with, the world around it.
I appreciate the natural world. I marvel at the advancement of science and technology and am moved by the possibilities of human discovery. And yet, I remain humble to the fact that there is something more, something divine, about the world we live, move, and have our being in.
Perhaps what I am encouraging here is a consideration. An invitation, maybe. That when we turn our gaze to the natural world and wonder at its majesty we might also consider what is actually not far beyond the natural world—the divine, the holy, the supernatural.
It is my hope that we might even entertain that it is through these natural things that we might be able to seek the supernatural. Even more, that we might perhaps feel our way toward that “something more” that is at work in our world…only if our minds, hearts, and philosophical postures are open to it.