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The Supernatural and “Supernatural” November 7, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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Oftentimes, during a conversation between a theist making a conversion attempt and an atheist, the topic of lack of evidence for the supernatural comes up.  And sometimes the atheist demands, not only evidence that the supernatural exists, but some kind of an explanation for the mechanism by how it operates.  But I don’t need that second part, and don’t think we need to demand it.  If I had strong enough evidence that the supernatural existed, I’d accept that it did.

The theist will then usually protest about how there’s tons of evidence.  Faith healing that’s not statistically better than placebos!  A plane crashed and somebody survived!  Just look at the trees! And other such stuff that isn’t good evidence for the supernatural.

What would a world look like where there was good evidence for the existence of the supernatural?  I’ve found a really good example.  I’ve just finished a binge watch on Netflix of the first eleven seasons of the series Supernatural (go figure).  The basic setup, for those of you unfamiliar with the show, is a pair of brothers who travel the country saving people from various supernatural bad guys and monsters.  In their world, this stuff really exists, and behaves in predictable ways.  The brothers are often testing solutions to see what works, and researching into records to see what has been successful for other monster hunters in the past. For example, what works on a werewolf always works on a werewolf, but is not necessarily effective on a skinwalker or a vampire.  The trunk of their car is filled with dozens of different weapons, to be prepared for anything they run into.

I’d like to look at the show’s treatment of demons in particular, since often theists claim that demons are real.

In this show, if someone is possessed by a demon, there’s no vague “I think they’re possessed because they said crazy things” or “I have a bad feeling”.  Nope, in the Supernatural world, if you think someone is demon possessed, throw holy water on them.  If it burns them, and they smoke and scream, there’s a demon.  If they say “what did you do that for?” then it’s not a demon.  (Could be something else, though.  Best to run a few other tests.)

Demons can possess people without their permission, but can be evicted by someone else performing the exorcism incantation, upon which they exit from the possessed person visibly.  No uncertain “I feel better now, so it must be gone” stuff. You can see it leave.


But if you want to kill it, you need a special demon knife.  And there are specific rules and constraints on their behavior.   They are unable to possess someone who has a warding tattoo:


If you trick one of them into standing on a devil’s trap, even if it’s under a carpet, they can’t leave until the trap outline is broken.


If you put specific items in a box, bury it at a crossroads, and say the right incantation, a crossroads demon will appear, ready to make a deal with you.

crossroads-demonAnd if you make a deal with a demon, they will abide by it, no cheating.  But you had better read the fine print first, because they will abide by the letter of the agreement, not the intent.

And there’s a lot more specifics on demons, that I won’t go into here.  Each different sort of baddie in the series also has specific characteristics and weaknesses.  Not some vague woo-woo “I feel a spirit in the room whose name starts with either a C or a J”.  Nope, if there’s a ghost around, the temperature drops, the EM meter goes whoop, the ghost is usually visible and often solid, and they are repelled by cold iron or salt.  You want to be rid of them?  Find out what is tethering them to earth (usually remains of some kind) salt and burn that, and the ghost disappears in a burst of flame.  Usually just in the nick of time, of course.


Sam and Dean don’t need to know the actual mechanism that makes all this possible.  They just see it in action, every day.  If theists could pull out examples of stuff like this, that’s predictable and testable and doesn’t line up with the laws of our physical universe, and our most thorough testing was unable to reveal any use of trickery or special effects, then I’d be willing to consider that the supernatural exists.  I wouldn’t need to know how it works, I’d be fine with seeing that it does work.

But Sam and Dean’s world isn’t our world.  The show even made this point by having the characters break through into our world at one point, where they found themselves on a TV set in Vancouver, and to their dismay found out that magic doesn’t work here!

Of course, I would not need a theist to show me exactly this evidence to establish that the supernatural is something more than their imagination.   But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Claiming the existence of an invisible realm full of invisible super-beings that interact with us?  That’s really, really extraordinary.  Show me evidence as strong as the characters are provided with on this show, or don’t bother.


That one spooky thing (wrap-up) October 14, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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OK, time to wrap the series up.

When you’ve deconverted from religion and superstition, and decided to live a life based in reality, what do you think about that one strange thing that might have once happened to you?  That thing that keeps you convinced that there’s a supernatural realm out there somewhere?

Before you can decide that it’s actually “supernatural”, you really need to consider the following alternate possibilities, which I’ve discussed in earlier posts:

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you (Part 1)
  • It’s technological (also Part 1)
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you (Part 2)
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above (Part 3, 3.1 and 3.2)
  • It’s “supernatural”

So, when you are thinking of that thing you once saw, before you conclude it was an actual “impossible thing”, first you need to run through a serious thought process about it.  Could you have mis-perceived it initially?  Or filled in mental gaps based on what you expected to see?  Did someone have something to gain by tricking you?  And have you embellished your memory over time, to the point where what you remember now really might not be what you saw initially?

Suppose that you have run through all those possibilities, and still have not come up with a plausible explanation.  Then you are left with two possibilities that I can think of.  Either it actually fell under one of the above categories but you couldn’t figure it out, or it was ‘supernatural”.  (Remember probability, which of those is most likely?)

So, finally, if you have still come to the conclusion that the thing you saw might actually  be supernatural”, we have the problem of defining that term.  Like “spirituality”, it’s a word that people throw around all the time, but when asked for a straightforward definition, they either can’t define it, or define it in terms of other vague undefined concepts, which isn’t helpful.  Here’s my working definition of “supernatural”:  We live in a four dimensional space-time universe  of matter and energy, governed by predictable physical forces.  That’s the “natural world”.  “Supernatural” would be something that is not that, either wholly or in part.

For us to detect something “supernatural”, it would have to have the ability to interact with our physical world in some way.  Even if that’s just deflecting some photons, or causing an EM disruption, or just planting a thought in somebody’s brain, all of those things are interactions with our physical world.  Any being that is completely unable to interact with our world would be totally undetectable and therefore irrelevant.

To be sure that something is really supernatural, you’d have to examine it in a way that eliminates all of the other possibilities we have already discussed.  Since the real world is so messy, the best way we can be sure is to do carefully controlled examinations, where we reduce the variables down to just the thing we are examining and eliminate cheating.  Of course, a fleeting “ghostly vision” isn’t going to be easy to catch in a lab experiment!   Lots of investigators have worked to pin down something “supernatural”, to where we could get a look at it, and actually say something coherent about it.  Alas, the better the controls are on your experiment, the more the “supernatural” aspect goes away.  The JREF has had a standing ONE MILLION DOLLAR prize to anyone who can demonstrate something supernatural under conditions controlled to eliminate cheating and wishful thinking.  So far no one has even passed the first round of tests.  Does this mean there isn’t any such thing?  Well, no, but given the results so far,  I’m not holding my breath.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1 Part 2 – Part 3Part 3.1Part 3.2

That one spooky thing January 14, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
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Olympic Blimp UFO

This is in response to several comments by Wylekat on Ex-Christian.net on this thread: http://new.exchristian.net/2013/05/why-do-most-people-easily-trust.html

Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  That’s a really straightforward guideline.  It’s really useful for evaluating claims of things that supposedly happen or should happen predictably.  Things like whether intercessory prayer can heal people, whether homeopathy works, and whether psychics can actually talk to the dead or read minds.  It’s doable to set up a carefully controlled study to see if the effect that’s claimed is really there.  (James Randi has $1,000,000 waiting for anybody that can reliably demonstrate a paranormal ability under  conditions controlled to eliminate confirmation bias and cheating.  Nobody’s won it yet!) (more…)