Supernatural, counterontological, superempirical

Posted on December 10, 2008


No, not a new Santana compilation but three terms that are very close to each other in extension but not so close in how commonly they are used. Given that one term was invented somewhat whimsically by Pascal Boyer and another by myself while the third is a generally known term, this is hardly surprising.

So, let’s take each in turn and see what they are supposed to mean.

The supernatural is like art – we all know it when we see it but have no idea what it is. Or, to put it a little less jokingly, we are perfectly capable of classifying various concepts as natural or supernatural but have big problems when we try to define the two. Most definitions of either seem to consist in them not being the other. So, for example, supernatural things are those which are not explained by the laws of nature. The circularity gets larger but no less vicious when science gets pulled into the picture. After all, use of it usually comes down to saying that supernatural entities are those that science does not refer to.  A further difficulty is whether by science we mean today’s imperfect human practice – which surely does not refer to every natural phenomenon in the universe – of a final, perfected science – which we do not have any solid grasp of and which might not even make any sense to talk about. This point is, of course, simply Hempel’s dilemma.

Boyer writes (Religion Explained, p. 65) about religious concepts being counterintuitive or counterontological:

Counterintuitive is a technical term here. It does not mean strange, inexplicable, funny, exceptional or extraordinary. What is counterintuitive here is not even necessarily surprising. That is, if you have the concept of cologne-drinking, invisible persons, and if everyone around you talks about these visitors, you cannot really register puzzlement or astonishment every single time it is mentioned. It becomes part of your familiar world that there are invisible persons around who drink cologne. In the same way, Christians and Muslims are not surprised every time someone mentions the possibility that an omnipotent agent is watching them. This is completely familiar. But these concepts are still counterintuitive in the precise sense used here, named “including information contradicting some information provided by ontological categories.” I will show in another chapter how we detect what information is provided by these categories. For the time being, we must just remember that the ordinary sense of the term counterintuitive may be misleading. (The neologism counterontological might be a better choice.)

Boyer’s term might seem to be useful in potentially drawing the distinction that the term supernatural aims at. While maintaining that the distinction is to be ontological, it provides it with a clear cut psychological basis. The thing about gods, demons, fairies, etc. is that some information about them contradicts some information provided by our psychologically-derived ontological categories. There is a problem, however. Just a few pages later (p.68) Boyer discusses the way caterpillars turn into butterflies:

To cut a long story short, a natural metamorphosis of this kind is, whichever way you want to represent it, counterintuitive in precisely the sense described here. It violates intuitive, early-developed expectations about the ontological category ANIMAL. Many aspects of the real natural world are in fact counterintuitive relative to ur biological expectations.

To use another example: Over 99 percent of this (and every other) solid-looking table is actually vacuum (as are all other medium-sized dry goods of philosophical intuition fame). But, if that is the case, Boyer should say something about what distinguishes religious and other similar concepts from scientific ones. Given that I am only getting back into his work right now I do not know what he does say and look forward to finding it out. However, I do have my own suggestion…

Both supernatural and counterontological are ontological categories. However, I think the answer in this case is to be found in epistemology. I have mentioned this term before and it essentially means ‘not testable in the given social context and with the available empirical methods’. Relativising the term in this way avoids much of the silliness the discussion of verifiability lead to. So does moving away from a purely abstract, linguistic understanding of the  situation. This category can be applied to counterontological concepts to distinguish the scientific ones, forced upon us by our investigations, from the religious and superstitious ones, whose acceptance has little to do with their truth.

The value of Boyer’s account in this story is that he provides us with a cognitive explanation for why certain superempirical concepts are particularly interesting for people. In effect, he can be seen as providing another class of cognitive biases that, in the right circumstances, lead to superstitions. In this way, his account can probably be fitted into the story that I have been developing.