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The Natural and the Supernatural

Cartoonist Sidney Harris once illustrated two scientists at a chalkboard. One has written, among mathematical equations, “Then a miracle occurs,” to which his colleague replies, “I think you need to be more specific here in step two.” This nicely sums up the relationship between science and religion: one deals in the natural while the other deals in the supernatural. And never the twain shall meet.

Were only it were so. Unfortunately, religions routinely make claims about the natural world that are in direct conflict with the scientific evidence. Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that the world was created around 6,000 years ago, about the same time that the Babylonians invented beer. These claims cannot both be correct, and anyone who thinks the former is right has relegated all of science (along with brains) to the dumpster of life. Many people of faith believe that prayer can cajole the deity into taking action in our world to do everything from healing cancers to winning wars. Yet a comprehensive controlled scientific study on the efficacy of prayer on healing, funded by the religiously-based Templeton Foundation and conducted at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, found no relationship between the two: subjects in the non-prayed for group did just as well (or poor) as those in the prayed for group. And why is it, scientists want to know, that prayer only seems effective for things that might have happened anyway, such as tumors going into remission. A more dramatic and unmistakably religious miracle that would shock even the most skeptical of scientists would be if prayers for amputees (especially our brave wounded Christian soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan) resulted in renewed whole limbs; i.e., a true miracle.

How, then, can we reconcile the natural and the supernatural? Most people keep them separated in logic-tight compartments, even scientists. Surveys conducted in 1916 and again in 1997 found that 40 percent of American scientists said they believe in God. As well, hundreds of millions of practicing Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and members of other faiths both believe in God and fully embrace science, even evolution: a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 68 percent of Protestants and 69 percent of Catholics accept the theory. So, demographically speaking, most people find no conflict between science and religion.

However, the natural world does not bend to the demographics of belief. Millions of people also believe in astrology, ghosts, angels, ESP, and all manner of paranormal piffle, but that does not make them real. The veracity of a proposition is independent of the number of people who believe it.

In conclusion, I go so far as to conclude: There is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is only the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain. God is a mystery, and the God of Abraham may very well be an eternal mystery for the simple reason that any God explicable through science and the laws of nature would, by definition, lose the status of supernatural and enter the realm of the natural. A God definable by science is not a God at all.


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Weirdonomics & Quirkology

How the curious science of the oddities
of everyday life yields new insights
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Using an index finger, trace the capital letter Q on your forehead. Which way did the tail of the Q slant?

What an odd thing to ask someone to do. Exploring weird things and why people believe them, however, is what I do for a living. Coming at science from the margins allows us to make an illuminating contrast between the normal and the paranormal, the natural and the supernatural, and the anomalous and the usual. The master at putting uncanny things to the experimental test — the man I call the Mythbuster of Magical Thinking — is University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman. His new book, Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things (Basic, 2007), presents the results of his numerous (and often hilarious) experiments on all matters peculiar. (continue reading…)

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Michael Shermer & Michio Kaku
Discuss Science & Pseudoscience

The famous theoretical physicist and science popularizer Dr. Michio Kaku interviews Skeptic publisher and science writer Dr. Michael Shermer, in which they explore a variety of topics between science and pseudoscience, the normal and the paranormal, the natural and the supernatural.

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Mr. Skeptic Goes to Esalen

Science and spirituality on the California coast
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The Esalen Institute is a cluster of meeting rooms, lodging facilities and hot tubs all nestled into a stunning craggy coastal outcrop of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, Calif. In his 1985 book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, the Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman recounts his experience in the natural hot spring baths there, in which a woman is being massaged by a man she just met. “He starts to rub her big toe. ‘I think I feel it,’ he says. ‘I feel a kind of dent — is that the pituitary?’ I blurt out, ‘You’re a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!’ They looked at me, horrified … and said, ‘It’s reflexology!’ I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.”

With that as my introduction to the Mecca of the New Age movement, I accepted an invitation to host a weekend workshop there on science and spirituality. Given my propensity for skepticism when it comes to most of the paranormal piffle proffered by the prajna peddlers meditating and soaking their way to nirvana here, I was surprised the hall was full. Perhaps skeptical consciousness is rising! (continue reading…)

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Rupert’s Resonance

The theory of “morphic resonance” posits that people have a sense of when they are being stared at. What does the research show?
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Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to do a newspaper crossword puzzle later in the day? Me neither. But according to Rupert Sheldrake, it is because the collective successes of the morning resonate through the cultural morphic field.

In Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance, similar forms (morphs, or “fields of information”) reverberate and exchange information within a universal life force. “As time goes on, each type of organism forms a special kind of cumulative collective memory,” Sheldrake writes in his 1981 book A New Science of Life (JP Tarcher). “The regularities of nature are therefore habitual. Things are as they are because they were as they were.” In this book and subsequent ones, Sheldrake, a botanist trained at the University of Cambridge, details the theory, which is again hotly debated in the recent June Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Morphic resonance, Sheldrake says, is “the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species” and accounts for phantom limbs, how dogs know when their owners are coming home, and how people know when someone is staring at them. “Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images,” Sheldrake explains. Thousands of trials conducted by anyone who downloaded the experimental protocol from Sheldrake’s Web page “have given positive, repeatable, and highly significant results, implying that there is indeed a widespread sensitivity to being stared at from behind.” (continue reading…)

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