What Does “Supernatural” Mean? Part 2


Perhaps in lieu of starting from scratch on this issue, readers might want to consider what others have already said on this issue.  …


I plan to take Keith Augustine’s advice, just not this week.  Maybe next week, or maybe next month.  See his comments on the first post in this series, where he provides various links to web articles on this subject (I have added copies of Augustine’s comments at the end of this current post, because it is difficult to search through all of the comments on the first post).

It is interesting to note that the words “supernatural” and “supernaturalism” don’t appear in dictionaries and encyclopedias of philosophy: not in Flew’s A Dictionary of Philosophy (surprisingly), not in Lacey’s A Dictionary of Philosophy, not in Baggini & Fosl’s Philosopher’s Toolkit, not in Sparkes’ Talking Philosophy: A Wordbook, not in Ward’s Fifty Key Words in Philosophy, not in Gutmann’s Philosophy A to Z, not in Thiselton’s A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion, not in Evans’ Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion, not in Audi’s The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, not in Honderich’s The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, not in Edward’s 1967 The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, not in Borchert’s 2006 (2nd ed.) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, not in Craig’s Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, not in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and not in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

My wife and daughters like to read the book before they see the movie.  This was especially true with the Harry Potter series of books and movies.  They had to finish the book first, before allowing themselves to go see the movie based on that book, or before watching the DVD.

I have a similar habit concerning conceptual/definitional issues in philosophy of religion.   I like to think about the issue for a while on my own, before I go read what other people have to say about it.  I don’t want the ideas of others to prejudice or distort my own thinking, at least not at the start of my investigation.

Also,  since I use the word “supernatural” myself, I have an intellectual obligation to understand what I mean by the word, and what I mean be the word might be different from what somebody else means by the word.  No article or book can reliably spell out what I mean by the word (although, obviously I didn’t invent the word; I learned the word from reading, conversing, listening to others, watching movies, etc.), so my mind is my best resource for understanding the logical structure of my own thoughts, for figuring out what I mean by a particular word or phrase.

I do, however, allow myself one initial external resource: a dictionary.  The definitions in a dictionary are NOT an ultimate authority, and they certainly do not determine what it was that I had in mind when I used a particular word on a particular occasion.  But, dictionary definitions are a good place to start, and since I feel free to disagree with dictionary definitions, they can offer a springboard for working out my own meaning or use or understanding of a word.  If a dictionary definition doesn’t quite fit my own understaning of word,  I can usually tweak or revise the dictionary definition, keeping a significant portion of the definition as-is, and come up with a good initial attempt at an analysis of what I mean by the word.

What does my dictionary have to say about the meaning of the words “supernaturalism” and “supernatural”?


  1.  The quality of being supernatural.
  2. Belief in a supernatural agency that intervenes in the course of natural laws.

(The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College edition, p.1221, emphasis added)

The second definition is the sense in which I and the humanists, atheists, and skeptics that I quoted, use this word.

Note that “supernaturalism” in this second sense is defined in terms of the word “supernatural” and the word “natural”, more specifically in terms of the phrases “supernatural agency” and “natural laws”.


  1. Of or pertaining to existence outside the natural world.
  2. Attributed to a power that seems to violate or go beyond natural laws; miraculous.
  3. Of or pertaining to a deity.

(The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College edition, p.1221, emphasis added)

All three definitions seem relevant, at least initially.  However, the third definition is clearly too narrow, taken by itself.  When I use the word “supernatural” I have in mind more than just God and the attributes of God, and more than just dieties in general.  I have in mind, for example: ESP, angels, magic, ghosts, levitation, demons, mind-reading, and souls, in addition to God and the finite gods of polytheistic religions.

Note that “supernatural” in the first and second senses is defined in terms of the word “natural”, specifically in terms of the phrases “the natural world” and “natural laws”.  The third definition of “supernatural” is the only definition that does not use the word “natural” as part of the definition.


  1. Present in or produced by nature.
  2. Of, pertaining to, or concerning nature: natural science.
  3. Conforming to the usual or ordinary course of nature: a natural death.
  4. a. Not aquired; inherent: Love of power is natural to man. b. Having a particular character by nature: a natural leader. 
  5. Free from affectation or artificiality; spontaneous.
  6. Not altered, treated, or disguised: natural coloring.
  7. Faithfully representing nature or life.
  8. Expected and accepted: Marriage seemed the natural and logical sequence to love.

(The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College edition, p.832, emphasis in original)

There are actually fourteen different senses of “natural” as an adjective in my dictionary, but the definitions 9-14 were clearly irrelevant, so I just left those out.  In fact, definitions 5-8 also do not appear to be relevant to clarifying the word “supernatural”.

Definitions 1-3 seem relevant, and possibly also 4a and 4b.  Definitions 1-3 as well as definition 4b define “natural” in terms of the word “nature”.

So, based on the dictionary definitions above, “nature” appears to be the most basic concept from which the other concepts are constructed:


As with the word “natural”, there are several definitions or senses of the word “nature”:


  1. The material world and its phenomena.
  2. The forces and processes that produce and control all the phenomena of the material world: the laws of nature.
  3. The world of living things and the outdoors: the beauties of nature.
  4. A primitive state of existence, untouched and uninfluenced by civilization or artificiality.
  5. Theol. Man’s natural state as distinguished from the state of grace.
  6. Kind; type: something of that nature.
  7. The essential characteristics and qualities of a person or a thing: the nature of the problem.
  8. The fundamental character or disposition of an individual; temperament: had a sweet nature.
  9. The natural or real aspect of a person, place, or thing.
  10. The processes and functions of the body: the call of nature.

(The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College edition, p.832-833, emphasis in original)

Definitions 1 and 2 are clearly relevant to attempting to clarify the words “natural” and “supernatural”.  Definitions 3 and 4 might be of some relevance.  Definitions 5-10 seem to be irrelevant for those purposes.

To be continued…


Keith Augustine

Perhaps in lieu of starting from scratch on this issue, readers might want to consider what others have already said on this issue.

The definition of ‘natural’ and ‘naturalism’ was the subject of my master’s thesis a decade-and-a-half ago:


Outside of his book Sense and Goodness without God, Richard Carrier has also taken on giving a positive characterization of ‘natural’ and ‘naturalism’ athttp://richardcarrier.blogspot… and http://richardcarrier.blogspot… and


Paul Draper has also taken up this issue on, among other places, The Secular Web:


Evan Fales’ chapter in Michael Martin’s The Cambridge Companion to Atheism is on “Naturalism and Physicalism.”

Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro characterize a position they call “broad naturalism” (distinguished from the narrow variety, i.e., materialism/physicalism):http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/23844-…

I’m sure there are other discussions, but those are the ones I know about offhand.


Keith Augustine

Actually, SEP *does* have an entry on naturalism by David Papineau, but he means something different than simply the rejection of the supernatural:


It’s interesting that Alan Lacey’s dictionary doesn’t have anything on naturalism, as he is the author of the brief naturalism entry in Ted Honderich’s Oxford Companion to Philosophy (quoted in full here:http://www.rationalskepticism…. ).

At the time I wrote my thesis in 2001, I was unaware of any extended discussion of naturalism as an ontology, or any philosophical discussion at all of what constitutes the metaphysical (or “theoretical” as I call it in my thesis) natural/supernatural distinction. (It turned out that Paul Draper had at least already discussed the definition of naturalism in a few places, but I didn’t know this at the time I wrote the thesis.)

In my experience when philosophers talk about naturalism, they almost always use it as a synonym for naturalized epistemology (seehttp://www.iep.utm.edu/con-met… ), not as a label for an ontology that rejects the existence of supernatural events/causes/forces/agents/entities. (Indeed, I think many people misread the PhilPapers survey results on “Metaphilosophy: Naturalism” to be about how many philosophers accept anti-supernaturalism, when in fact the question is aimed at whether epistemology can be entirely “naturalized”–seehttp://commonsenseatheism.com/… )

I suspect that the dearth of discussion of naturalism in the sense that interests us has occurred because “anti-supernaturalism” is so foundational to contemporary philosopher’s views that they don’t bother to defend it, in the same way that very few metaphysicians bother to defend “anti-solipsism.” Similarly, you don’t find much discussion of mind-brain dependence in a general way in the philosophy of mind (outside of God debates, say) rather than narrower conceptions like type identity, token identity, supervenience, constitution, realization, emergence, and so on, because philosophers of mind tend to take general mind-brain dependence itself for granted and are interested in pinning down exactly what metaphysically undergirds such dependence.


Keith Augustine

  1. Gene Witmer’s “Naturalism and Physicalism” (from the The Continuum Companion to Metaphysics, published in 2012) has a good metaphysical discussion of both how to characterize naturalism and physicalism (as a species of naturalism), as well as how to define terms like ‘natural’ and ‘physical’: