Monday, June 10, 2013

The Default Position: Natural vs Supernatural Explanations

Occam’s Razor is a rule that is useful for determining the most probable explanations for phenomena. When
considering claims of supernatural events, forces, or entities using Occam’s Razor, by default, natural explanations will always be more likely to be true.

Why Scientific Explanations are the Most Probable

      Science is a process of eliminating potential causes of phenomena based on experimentation and observation of measurable variables, otherwise known as evidence. Scientists develop theories to explain phenomena based on the best available evidence. As the evidence changes, so do the explanations. Throughout this process, both the evidence and explanations are thoroughly scrutinized by the scientific establishment. The peer review process is performed by other scientists who understand not only the subject matter, proper methods of testing, observation, and analysis, but also various psychological pitfalls which lead to bias and skewed data. In short, they are professional critical thinkers and skeptics. For the scientist submitting papers for review, their incentive is to uncover major breakthroughs in their field; the greater the breakthroughs, the greater the prestige. For the peer reviewers, their incentive is to enhance and maintain the prestige of their publication by only publishing papers that can hold up to scrutiny. When they publish hogwash, the establishment will consider the journal to be hogwash.

       So what of Occam’s Razor? Well, there are a couple of important points:  

  1. Scientists use Occam’s Razor as the foundation of their evidence-based reasoning.  
  2. For those of us who are not scientists, when a good proportion of scientists agree that a particular explanation is plausible, then that explanation should always be considered the most probable until sufficient evidence suggests otherwise.

For example, science tells us that changes in humidity and temperature causes wood to expand and contract. As it does so, it makes groaning noises. Now, say you’re in an old house and you keep hearing groaning noises.  Is it a ghost? Maybe, but probably not, since groaning wood is already a sufficient explanation.

The Probability of the Supernatural

Supernatural explanations are inherently improbable because they go against that which has been substantiated by science. For example, to say that you can “see into the future” completely flies in the face of the known laws of physics. In order to support such claims, and thus disprove that which has been supported time and time again by scientists for the past several hundred years, you would need significant and strong evidence. As Carl Sagan put it, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Ever hear of the James Randi foundation? They’re offering $1 Million to anyone who can “demonstrate a paranormal ability under agreed-upon testing conditions.[1]” Since James Randi started offering a price in 1964, there have been 1,000 applicants, and none have been awarded the prize[2]. Likewise, there have been many prayer studies, experiments with dowsers, psychics, and other sorts of magical practices and phenomena. When reviewing the evidence provided by these studies, the scientific establishment has determined that there is no reason to believe magic, spirits, gods, etc. have any sort of influence in our world. All in all, there is simply no sound evidence for the supernatural that cannot be better explained by natural forces. Maybe God purposely stops answering prayers whenever scientists are looking, and maybe there really are psychics out there who just keep it to themselves. It’s certainly possible there are forces beyond nature, but given the evidence, it is not likely.

The God Argument

Many theists and deists believe the universe is far too orderly, refined, and beautiful for it to have just happened on its own. They often will point to the complexity of DNA as a go-to example (see  Thus, they presume that the all knowing, all loving, all powerful God of their personal religious traditions must have been the one to put it all in motion. Is this really the simplest explanation? Well, think about it. This god is all powerful and all knowing, meaning that he knows what one electron in the cloud of gas on a planet a billion light years away has been doing since creation, and what it will be doing for all eternity. Not only does he know about this one electron, he knows the past, present, and future of all particles everywhere and can control them to boot. This sounds like a very complex creature.

Compare this to the scientific explanations (e.g. the Big Bang Theory), founded on evidence-based reasoning made by some of the most intelligent people in the world. As Steven Hawking put it, “what I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn't prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary.”

I am not attempting to prove that God, the supernatural, or “forces beyond our comprehension” don’t exist. I am merely arguing that, by default, material explanations for phenomena are more probable than supernatural ones. Keep this in mind as I proceed to provide alternative natural explanations for phenomena commonly believed to be evidence of the divine.


Richard Dawkins Ultimate 747 Gambit (i.e. the complexity of God vs. the complexity of the universe)

Carl Sagan Baloney Detection Kit:

Michael Shermer Baloney Detection Kit:

Another by Michael Shermer on Skepticism:


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