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Supernatural refers to phenomena or entities that are beyond the laws of nature. The term is derived from Medieval Latin supernaturalis, from Latin super- (above, beyond, or outside of) + natura (nature) Though the corollary term "nature", has had multiple meanings since the ancient world, the term "supernatural" emerged in the Middle Ages and did not exist in the ancient world.
The supernatural is featured in folklore and religious contexts, but can also feature as an explanation in more secular contexts, as in the cases of superstitions or belief in the paranormal. The term is attributed to non-physical entities, such as angels, demons, gods, and spirits. It also includes claimed abilities embodied in or provided by such beings, including magic, telekinesis, levitation, precognition, and extrasensory perception.
The philosophy of naturalism contends that nothing exists beyond the natural world, and as such approaches supernatural claims with skepticism.
Etymology and history of the concept
Occurring as both an adjective and a noun, descendants of the modern English compound supernatural enter the language from two sources: via Middle French (supernaturel) and directly from the Middle French's term's ancestor, post-Classical Latin (supernaturalis). Post-classical Latin supernaturalis first occurs in the 6th century, composed of the Latin prefix super- and nātūrālis (see nature). The earliest known appearance of the word in the English language occurs in a Middle English translation of Catherine of Siena's Dialogue (orcherd of Syon, around 1425; Þei haue not þanne þe supernaturel lyȝt ne þe liȝt of kunnynge, bycause þei vndirstoden it not).
The semantic value of the term has shifted over the history of its use. Originally the term referred exclusively to Christian understandings of the world. For example, as an adjective, the term can mean "belonging to a realm or system that transcends nature, as that of divine, magical, or ghostly beings; attributed to or thought to reveal some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature; occult, paranormal" or "more than what is natural or ordinary; unnaturally or extraordinarily great; abnormal, extraordinary". Obsolete uses include "of, relating to, or dealing with metaphysics". As a noun, the term can mean "a supernatural being", with a particularly strong history of employment in relation to entities from the mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
History of the concept
The ancient world had no word that resembled "supernatural". Dialogues from Neoplatonic philosophy in the third century AD contributed to the development of the concept the supernatural via Christian theology in later centuries. The term nature had existed since antiquity with Latin authors like Augustine using the word and its cognates at least 600 times in City of God. In the medieval period, "nature" had ten different meanings and "natural" had eleven different meanings. Peter Lombard, a medieval scholastic in the 12th century, asked about causes that are beyond nature, in that how there could be causes that were God's alone. He used the term praeter naturam in his writings. In the scholastic period, Thomas Aquinas classified miracles into three categories: "above nature", "beyond nature", and "against nature". In doing so, he sharpened the distinction between nature and miracles more than the early Church Fathers had done. As a result, he had created a dichotomy of sorts of the natural and supernatural. Though the phrase "supra naturam" was used since the 4th century AD, it was in the 1200s that Thomas Aquinas used the term "supernaturalis" and despite this, the term had to wait until the end of the medieval period before it became more popularly used. The discussions on "nature" from the scholastic period were diverse and unsettled with some postulating that even miracles are natural and that natural magic was a natural part of the world.
Epistemology and metaphysicsSee also: Anthropology of religion
The metaphysical considerations of the existence of the supernatural can be difficult to approach as an exercise in philosophy or theology because any dependencies on its antithesis, the natural, will ultimately have to be inverted or rejected. One complicating factor is that there is disagreement about the definition of "natural" and the limits of naturalism. Concepts in the supernatural domain are closely related to concepts in religious spirituality and occultism or spiritualism.
For sometimes we use the word nature for that Author of nature whom the schoolmen, harshly enough, call natura naturans, as when it is said that nature hath made man partly corporeal and partly immaterial. Sometimes we mean by the nature of a thing the essence, or that which the schoolmen scruple not to call the quiddity of a thing, namely, the attribute or attributes on whose score it is what it is, whether the thing be corporeal or not, as when we attempt to define the nature of an angle, or of a triangle, or of a fluid body, as such. Sometimes we take naturefor an internal principle of motion, as when we say that a stone let fall in the air is by nature carried towards the centre of the earth, and, on the contrary, that fire or flame does naturally move upwards toward firmament. Sometimes we understand by nature the established course of things, as when we say that nature makes the night succeed the day, nature hath made respiration necessary to the life of men. Sometimes we take nature for an aggregate of powers belonging to a body, especially a living one, as when physicians say that nature is strong or weak or spent, or that in such or such diseases nature left to herself will do the cure. Sometimes we take nature for the universe, or system of the corporeal works of God, as when it is said of a phoenix, or a chimera, that there is no such thing in nature, i.e. in the world. And sometimes too, and that most commonly, we would express by nature a semi-deity or other strange kind of being, such as this discourse examines the notion of.— Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature
And besides these more absolute acceptions, if I may so call them, of the word nature, it has divers others (more relative), as nature is wont to be set or in opposition or contradistinction to other things, as when we say of a stone when it falls downwards that it does it by a natural motion, but that if it be thrown upwards its motion that way is violent. So chemists distinguish vitriol into natural and fictitious, or made by art, i.e. by the intervention of human power or skill; so it is said that water, kept suspended in a sucking pump, is not in its natural place, as that is which is stagnant in the well. We say also that wicked men are still in the state of nature, but the regenerate in a state of grace; that cures wrought by medicines are natural operations; but the miraculous ones wrought by Christ and his apostles were supernatural.
Nomological possibility is possibility under the actual laws of nature. Most philosophers since David Hume have held that the laws of nature are metaphysically contingent—that there could have been different natural laws than the ones that actually obtain. If so, then it would not be logically or metaphysically impossible, for example, for you to travel to Alpha Centauri in one day; it would just have to be the case that you could travel faster than the speed of light. But of course there is an important sense in which this is not nomologically possible; given that the laws of nature are what they are. In the philosophy of natural science, impossibility assertions come to be widely accepted as overwhelmingly probable rather than considered proved to the point of being unchallengeable. The basis for this strong acceptance is a combination of extensive evidence of something not occurring, combined with an underlying scientific theory, very successful in making predictions, whose assumptions lead logically to the conclusion that something is impossible. While an impossibility assertion in natural science can never be absolutely proved, it could be refuted by the observation of a single counterexample. Such a counterexample would require that the assumptions underlying the theory that implied the impossibility be re-examined. Some philosophers, such as Sydney Shoemaker, have argued that the laws of nature are in fact necessary, not contingent; if so, then nomological possibility is equivalent to metaphysical possibility.
The term supernatural is often used interchangeably with paranormal or preternatural—the latter typically limited to an adjective for describing abilities which appear to exceed what is possible within the boundaries of the laws of physics. Epistemologically, the relationship between the supernatural and the natural is indistinct in terms of natural phenomena that, ex hypothesi, violate the laws of nature, in so far as such laws are realistically accountable.
Parapsychologists use the term psi to refer to an assumed unitary force underlying the phenomena they study. Psi is defined in the Journal of Parapsychology as "personal factors or processes in nature which transcend accepted laws" (1948: 311) and "which are non-physical in nature" (1962:310), and it is used to cover both extrasensory perception (ESP), an "awareness of or response to an external event or influence not apprehended by sensory means" (1962:309) or inferred from sensory knowledge, and psychokinesis (PK), "the direct influence exerted on a physical system by a subject without any known intermediate energy or instrumentation" (1945:305).— Michael Winkelman, Current Anthropology
Views on the "supernatural" vary, for example it may be seen as:
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