Skepticism of skepticism - examining why I reject the supernatural

Published on November 19, 2014

Several weeks ago, I had a really thought-provoking conversation with a friend about beliefs in the supernatural. He was describing to us how he had come to start believing quite seriously in the existence of angels after a series of compelling conversations with both friends in Virginia and new acquaintances in Nicaragua. There were several stories - people stopping on the side of the road because of lights in the sky and facing an angel descended, children cured of chronic illness by holy water from Lourdes, bright figures that appeared in a shadowy room and convinced an alcoholic to change his life.

My initial response was skepticism, but his conviction gave me pause. I don't believe that the people whose testimonials he cited were lying, or had less than complete convictions about the reality of their experience. On the other hand my skepticism was rooted in a sort of generic faith in the scientific method and established corpus of theory. I've frequently heard people counter that on the basis of "I just believe that there are a lot of things that science still doesn't understand." I certainly can't refute that - our scientific consensus has had major errors identified within it time and time again. So why was I so confident that these people had to be wrong?

It made me start thinking harder about the things that "science still doesn't understand." I realized that there’s actually a huge discrepancy between the confidence of different fields of science. Lots of foundational fields, like chemistry, nuclear physics, magnetism and electricity, are consistently jaw-dropping in their ability to understand, and manipulate the physical world with the aid of mathematical models. Their work has been powerfully vindicated by the revolutionary real world power to leverage these models to create things as unbelievably complex as a modern processor or nuclear reactor. Other fields like geology and astronomy can predict with high confidence the creation history and timeline of our star and our planet, and use that to understand and access marvels like fossil fuels. Studying these fields, it’s consistently amazing to learn just how much science does understand.

That bears a sharp contrast to my experience beginning to study neuroscience in my final semesters at Princeton. What consistently astounded me was not how much, but how little science understands about the mechanisms of the brain. Consider the problem of understanding vision - how do people identify and track objects in their field of view? We have a picture from the big perspective - the light hits the retina, and the data is passed upstream to the primary visual cortex before heading to a host of further areas. But how it goes from a collection of firing photoreceptors to a high-level representation of objects is not even within the scope of current research. The cutting edge research, such as this Nature article from 2014 or this Nature Neuroscience article from 2013 is simply to try and determine which types of retina cells or which parts of their dendrites are responsible for direction selectivity, for determining which direction the field of view is moving. There is so much more that is not understood than is.

Now consider, where are the gaps in our body of scientific understanding into which you can fit angels and other life-changing supernatural experiences. Is it easier to imagine that our understanding of aerodynamics is flawed and it is possible for a human figure to fly by its own power, or that our understanding of subjective human experience and memory is flawed? Seemingly 'concrete' evidence like the healing effect of holy water too is well explained by the baffling complexity of the mind. Not only have placebos have been well demonstrated to be extremely effective medicines, but it's also clear that the more involved a placebo treatment is, the more effective it is likely to be. (Magazine article, example study). It should come as no surprise that holy water to a true believer would be a highly effective treatment.

In sum, I realized my skepticism for the supernatural is rooted in recognizing that a person’s experience is informed by the hypothetical objective world transpiring around them, but the experience is ultimately dictated by the unfathomable spaghetti of connections and double crossings of perception, memory, and expectation from whose biases, shortcuts, and fallacies from which we can, by nature, never be free.

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