“The Natural, the Supernatural and the Screwy”

A presentation in the “Science and Technology Club”

The Villages, Fl

June 25, 2018


If the title of my presentation today were something like “Photons, Electrons and Planck’s Constant”, it probably would not be necessary to address at the outset the relevance of my topic. After all, this is a science and technology group, and a presentation of the similarities between photons and electrons and their mutual dependence on the Planck constant would not require much justification. But alas my topic is “The Natural, the Supernatural and the Screwy”, which may prompt some of you to ask why I am giving this presentation in the “Science and Technology Club”. Although the idea of nature is not foreign to the scientific mind, the supernatural conjures up images of the esoteric and the unbelievable. Depending on your intellectual bent, your thoughts may gravitate to the witches in Macbeth (“Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble”) or maybe to the fascination of many Americans with terra cards. For the scientist, the supernatural implies a blind belief that so to speak short circuits the rational faculty of the human mind. One speaks here of a “sacrificium intellectus”, a sacrificing of the intellect, in order to believe the unbelievable.


Now what about the third concept in my topic: the “screwy”? Well, one might suspect that I intend to describe the supernatural as screwy, but in point of fact, I take the word from the Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman who was referring not to the supernatural, but rather to nature itself. In the early 1960s, Feynman held a famous lecture entitled “Probability and Uncertainty – the quantum mechanical view of nature” in which he presented a thought-experiment demonstrating the wave-particle duality of the electron. The latest attempt to actually perform the experiment was at the University of Nebraska in 2013, and the results confirmed once again Feynman’s conclusion, namely that the electron behaves sometimes like a particle, sometimes like a wave. Thus Feynman’s contention that nature is just plain screwy!  

Already we are beginning to see the complexity of our topic. Whereas a leading physicist of the 20th century described nature as screwy, a significant segment of our society today believes in a form of the supernatural that also seems screwy. There was even a TV series under the title “Supernatural”, and a brief search of the internet yields an abundance of sites dealing with the supernatural. So what is the supernatural? Is it simply nature showing itself to be very “screwy”?  Or is the supernatural the essence of religion? There is a wide range of opinions on this topic, spanning a spectrum from atheistic scientists to religious fanatics. The polarization today between rationally-minded scientists and religious fanatics is very unhealthy for our society. We are facing deep-rooted problems in our society that require serious dialogue between the scientific community and qualified representatives of the humanities. Let me give you an example of one such problem.


According to a recent study released by the global insurer and health services company Cigna, loneliness has become an alarming problem for many Americans today. Particularly disturbing is that young Americans between the ages of 18 and 22 seem to be the loneliest. That’s a sobering thought. Precisely those Americans who grew up with computers and cell phones, i.e. those who are most connected in the electronic world, are the loneliest individuals in our society. In my opinion, that is an unsustainable situation, and if we don’t take steps to alleviate the situation, these lonely Americans may well fall prey to the superstitions of the religious fanatics. If we are moving today in the direction of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, we need to give serious thought to our past and to our future. 


So let’s begin with a consideration of the word pair “natural/supernatural”. If we consider the meaning of these terms over a period of time, we discover that the same words are used in considerably different ways in different contexts. Even in science words are used in different ways at different periods, but the scientific formulation of concepts in terms of symbols and numbers makes it very easy to see the different meanings. Take, for example, the concept of mass. In classical physics, there were two different concepts of mass. There was inertial mass given by the well-known formula F=ma, and there was gravitational mass defined in the formula F=Gm1m2/R2. As Albert Einstein noted, these two formulae present us with two different definitions of mass, and classical physics had no explanation for the equivalence of inertial mass and gravitational mass. This dilemma was the starting point for Einstein’s development of the General Theory of Relativity.


In the case of our word pair natural/supernatural, the situation is more difficult to assess because the words are not defined in unequivocal symbols and numbers. Thus one must pore over the writings of philosophers and theologians who represent different historical periods in an attempt to ascertain the shift in meanings that are important for our understanding. Since I have done this, you are spared the effort. On the other hand, you must more or less take my word for the results since they are not easily demonstrable.


In general, we can speak of three separate historical periods in which the words “natural and supernatural” were defined. In the first period, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural was conceived as complementary and seemed to be plausible. That’s not to say that it was correct, but it was plausible. And because it was plausible, it was worth debating. In the second period, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural was conceived as contrary and became very problematic. In this period, beginning in the 17th century with the work of Galileo and Newton, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural was dominated by the discoveries of the new empirical sciences. From that point forward, the conflict between science and religion became intense. As the scientists offered causal explanations and empirical evidence for one phenomenon after another, the theologians retreated and searched for an available “space” for their talk about the supernatural. So in this period, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural was no longer complementary, but rather contrary. In the third period, in which we are still living today, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural has become totally incoherent and therefore completely meaningless. So that which was once plausible and then problematic has become totally meaningless. So keep these ideas in mind: the complementary relationship was plausible, the contrary relationship was problematic and the incoherent relationship is meaningless.

From our perspective today, it is difficult to imagine when the relationship between the natural and the supernatural was ever considered to be plausible. In order to grasp this plausibility, we must turn our thoughts to a pre-scientific period of European culture when the great intellectuals were theologians, not scientists. The Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, born in 1225, developed a philosophical-theological system in which the natural and the supernatural were indeed complementary. Aquinas did not think of the natural and the supernatural as complementary in the sense that the two supply each other’s deficiencies, but rather in the sense that the one completes and perfects the other. So the relationship was not based on mutual dependence or equality. Instead, the natural and the supernatural formed a hierarchy whereby the supernatural perfected the natural. Based on the philosophy of Aristotle, Aquinas built a system of thought whereby the natural formed the substructure of reality and the supernatural formed the superstructure that completed and perfected the substructure.


This relationship between substructure and superstructure can be exemplified by a consideration of ethics in the writings of Aquinas. The ability of human beings to develop the classical ethical virtues of justice, wisdom, temperance and courage was thought to be an essential part of human nature, i.e. an element in the substructure of the world. Nevertheless, human beings were by nature not able to bring these virtues to a state of perfection, and at this point, the supernatural came into play as a complement to the natural. The so-called theological virtues of faith, hope and charity were necessary in order to perfect the classical virtues of justice, wisdom, temperance and courage, and the ability to develop faith, hope and charity was according to Aquinas a supernatural gift. So the supernatural did not in any way contradict the natural. On the contrary, the supernatural perfected the natural. To state this in modern terms, we might say that the supernatural does not contradict our rational thinking, but rather it perfects our rational thought processes. In the context of the 13th century, the idea of a substructure and a superstructure, i.e. of the natural and the supernatural in a complementary relationship, seemed very plausible and therefore worthy of debate.

This is not, however, the world in which we live, and so we must turn now to a later time in which the relationship between the natural and the supernatural became very problematic. The rise of science in the 17th century rendered the complementary view of Thomas Aquinas untenable. The new science rejected Aristotle’s understanding of nature, and when the traditional substructure crumbled, the superstructure became problematic. I take as a prime example of this problem the supernaturalism of William Paley, the Anglican clergyman who dominated British theology in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Paley’s version of supernaturalism did not reject the new science. Rather it attempted to demonstrate that there was still “room” for the supernatural within a scientific world of nature. How did Paley do this?

Unlike Thomas Aquinas, Paley concentrated his understanding of the supernatural on the various miracle accounts recorded in the New Testament. That is, the miracles of Jesus were for Paley the paradigm of the supernatural. In reading his Evidences of Christianity (1794), we notice immediately that his method for verifying the truth of the miracle accounts differs greatly from many contemporary evangelicals. At no point does Paley suggest that the reader should accept these accounts on faith, but rather he bases his argument on scientific and mathematical considerations. Paley argues that physics is an empirical science and therefore cannot make any universal claims. He is thinking here of the traditional logical square of opposition composed of two universal and two particular claims. For instance, the claim: “All Greeks are mortal” is universal (admitting no exceptions), whereas the claim: “Some Greeks live in Athens” is a particular claim (i.e. not applying to all Greeks). The logical peculiarity of particular claims is this: It doesn’t matter whether the claim applies to only one individual or to 99.9999 % of the individuals. If the claim doesn’t apply to all individuals, it is particular, not universal. From this perspective, Paley can argue that the scientist cannot claim universality for the law of gravity since all scientific claims are particular, not universal. At this point, Paley utilizes the newly developed branch of mathematics in the 18th century known as probability and statistics and argues that all particular claims must be evaluated in terms of probability.


Thus, the truth of a miracle such as Jesus walking on water becomes a matter of probabilities. There is a certain probability that the authors of the New Testament falsely reported the event, and there is a certain probability that the event actually happened. So in Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, he attempts to demonstrate the moral integrity of the New Testament authors as a means of bolstering the probability that the supernatural miracles actually happened. If the individuals who reported the miracles were upstanding and honest, then the probability of the miracle increases proportionally. Note that Paley does not attempt to prove the truth of the miracles. He simply argues that it is highly probable that they took place. The supernatural in this case may not contradict the natural, but it certainly does stand in a contrary relationship. Walking on water is contrary to our everyday experience, and therefore the relationship between the natural and the supernatural is very problematic.     


The third period that I would like to discuss was clearly signaled by a transition in the scientific community from consensus to crisis – a transition that is associated with two names: Albert Abraham Michelson and Albert Einstein. In his book entitled Light Waves and their Uses, published 1903, Michelson brought the optimistic consensus of his colleagues to expression in discussing the need for more exact measurement in science: “The more important fundamental laws and the facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote” (p. 23 f). Few statements in the history of science have been so emphatically stated and so patently wrong as this one. Then two years later, Albert Einstein published his revolutionary article on the Special Theory of Relativity (“Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper”), in which he placed the fundamental laws of classical physics in question. In the same year, 1905, Einstein published another article (“Über einen die Erzeugung und Umwandlung des Lichts betreffenden heuristischen Standpunkt”), in which he explained the photoelectric effect by assuming that light is composed of packets or particles. From this point onward, physics was characterized more by crisis than consensus, and the particle nature of light eventually became a cornerstone in quantum physics.

Based on James Clerk Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetic radiation, the energy of a light wave should depend on its amplitude, not its frequency. This prediction was not, however, confirmed by the experimental results of the photoelectric effect. If we shine an intense light on a metal sheet such as cesium, the energy of the light is transmitted to some of the electrons in the cesium and these electrons are emitted from its surface. Let’s assume that we do this and that we measure the energy of each emitted electron and find that each one has an energy level of 2.0 eV. If we now reduce the intensity of the light, we expect (based on Maxwell’s equations) that the emitted electrons will have a lower energy level – perhaps 1.5 eV. But to our surprise, the electrons still have an energy level of 2.0 eV. We can reduce the amplitude of the “light wave”, i.e. its intensity, to the point that it is hardly visible, but the energy of the emitted electrons will remain the same as before. At low intensity fewer electrons will be emitted, but the energy level of each electron will remain 2.0 eV. These results led to the conclusion that light is composed of discrete packets of energy and that the energy level is solely dependent upon the frequency of the light. So in quantum physics we define the energy of a packet of light or a photon as the product of its frequency and Planck’s constant (E = hv). Nevertheless, there are many situations in which we observe an interference pattern of light, leading us back to the conclusion that light is indeed a wave.


So where do we stand today after four hundred years of experimental and theoretical physics? To be sure, many advances have been made, but when we try to grasp nature in a comprehensive theory, we are reminded once again of Richard Feynman’s statement that nature is just plain screwy! According to the traditional thinking about the natural and the supernatural, it was always assumed that we understood the natural well enough. Or at least, it was assumed that we could in principle understand the natural. In the absence of this certainty, however, the contrast between the natural and the supernatural becomes meaningless. How can we compare the supernatural with something that is in its very essence screwy?!


The impossibility of any meaningful contrast between the natural and the supernatural can be illustrated from the scientific as well as from the religious side. Frank Tipler, professor for mathematical physics at Tulane University, has attempted in several publications to demonstrate that modern physics is totally consistent with Christian doctrines. Tipler became generally known for his position in his book The Physics of Immortality which was published in 1994. More recently he has published The Physics of Christianity in which we find statements such as this: “According to Christians, Jesus rose from the dead in a ‘resurrected body,’ a body that we will all have at the Universal Resurrection in the future. This ‘Glorified Body’ was capable of ‘de-materializing’ at one location and ‘materializing in another.” Tipler then proceeds to explain how this process can be explained by our current knowledge of quantum physics. In the end, however, we are left with very little of the supernatural because everything has been reduced to the natural. Exploiting the screwy character of nature, Tipler reduces religion to science, albeit to an understanding of science that many scientists would find objectionable.

At the other each of the spectrum, we find ultra-conservative evangelicals who more or less disregard nature in favor of the supernatural. Consider, for instance, the statements of Elder Randall McClure: “The world consists of both the natural and the supernatural, the material and the spiritual. The Bible provides a full explanation of natural and supernatural phenomenon that cannot be adequately explained by man-made doctrines.” McClure then claims that scientific knowledge is based solely on the perceptual information of the five senses and that any knowledge which is not available through the five senses must be supernatural. The confusion here is really quite astounding. Perhaps John Locke in the 17th century would have accepted the premise that all scientific knowledge is based on sense experience, but a serious adherence to this claim today would eliminate most of modern physics. Contrary to his contention, Elder McClure offers us in the end no real contrast between the natural and the supernatural. Instead, he reduces the natural to the supernatural, thus rendering the contrast meaningless.

Since we have moved from the plausible to the problematic and finally to the meaningless, the question arises as to whether it would be possible to revive the traditional structure in any way. In the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural was thought to be complementary. William Paley changed this relationship of complementarity to one of contrariety, and the religious conservatives today have rendered the relationship completely incoherent. If we can revive the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, we would certainly prefer a relationship of complementarity. But is this possible?

I think that it is. However, it will be in a form that no one expects. To put the matter quite succinctly, I think that the relationship between the natural and the supernatural will evolve into a complementary relationship between human intelligence and superintelligence. The new supernatural will be the new superintelligence. Just as the supernatural was once conceived to be “above” the natural, the superintelligence of the future will be “above” human intelligence. This superintelligence will be smarter than we are and we will come to think of it as omniscient; it will be more powerful than we are, i.e. omnipotent; and it will exercise global control, i.e. it is be effectively omnipresent. Just as the supernatural of Thomas Aquinas completed and perfected the natural, the superintelligence of the future will complete and perfect human intelligence. There is, however, a significant difference.

For those who still remember the traditional structure, this complementary relationship between human intelligence and superintelligence will be an inverted world where the serious believers become the unbelievers. Serious theologians will be expressing their doubts about the new “supernatural” and they will be investigating the depths of human nature in search of a religious foundation. In this inverted world, the high priests of the new superintelligence will be the computer programmers; the theologians will become humanists of a sort; and the remaining advocates of traditional supernaturalism will run the risk of mental derangement. 

So where do I stand in all of this? I will leave you with this thought. I am convinced that the development of artificial intelligence will be a reciprocal process. Without doubt, we will develop superintelligence, but in the process, artificial intelligence will develop us as well. That is, we will become more like the artificial intelligence that we develop. We will lose capabilities that artificial intelligence does not understand, and individuals who don’t fit the pattern will be relegated to the sidelines of public discussion. You can think about this in Darwinian terms, if you like. Artificial intelligence will build the new environment of human beings, and those individuals who think of themselves as computers in flesh and blood will be the “fittest”, i.e. they will have the best chance of surviving. There is no doubt that there is something to be gained from artificial intelligence, but with every gain, something is always lost. If we reduce our own thinking to a digital world, we will reduce our capacity for contemplative thinking, that is, for thinking that is not directed toward problem solving. The type of thinking, for instance, that beholds the beauty of a sunset is not directed toward solving any problem. We need to be aware of what we are losing. Concerns over the development of superintelligence generally revolve around the possibility of unexpected economic or political impacts. My major concern is different. I am concerned that we will lose something very human within ourselves.


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