Originally posted: http://bendench.blogspot.com/2009/06/on-miracles.html
The concept of a miracle, like the concept of sin, is incoherent. If nature actually had any laws, they would be unbreakable. I see no compelling reason to divide existence into a natural and a supernatural. Either something exists, in which case it is a part of nature (existence) and is natural (real), or else it doesn't exist. These options are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive—no other option is logically possible.
If ghosts and gods exist, they are every bit as natural as rocks, trees, rivers, birds, or human beings. There is no supernatural (the concept is self-refuting)—it only makes sense to talk about nature and different aspects of nature. That something occurs outside our normal experience doesn't seem to warrant calling it a miracle or supernatural. Is a bird something supernatural compared to a fish because it lives outside the water and can fly? Is infrared light supernatural because the human eye cannot perceive it? Nor does it seem right to call something supernatural merely because it contradicts our current understanding of things. In that case, what is or isn't supernatural would be relative to the understanding of the individual. Is a plane supernatural in relation to a tribal group that doesn't understand how it works? Are the fine points of quantum physics, Hawking radiation, French, and Cricket supernatural in relation to me? And how does such a division into the natural and the supernatural aid in helping us to expand our understanding of things? It seems clear that it doesn't. Rather, it serves as an intellectual blockade.
And our modern thinking has been greatly influenced by this division. On the one hand we have the institution of science, which refers strictly to the material world and addresses it using critical thinking. On the other hand we have religion / New Age spiritualism, which concern themselves with spiritual matters but which apply to them no critical thinking—beliefs are based on faith rather than evidence and any idea is afforded equal respect with any other regardless of the basis behind it. But this division is a fundamental error. For example, those that speak of the out-of-body experience say that we have two bodies, the physical and the astral. But if an astral body exists, it is just as natural as our physical body, and in any event, our physical body is just as spiritual as any astral body. We should be open to all experiences and address all areas of life, and we should think critically about the experiences we have any time we try to form an idea about objective reality from those experiences. Again, while the mainstream scientific community tends to assume a strictly materialist perspective and to regard spiritualist matters as beyond its scope, where testable, hypotheses concerning extraphysical1 phenomena should be regarded as being as much the realm of science and systematic empirical inquiry in general as any other observable phenomenon. To regard them as otherwise would be to cling to dogma rather than pursue knowledge.
Or consider that most cultures have some concept of a vital life energy. The Chinese concept of chi (qi) is probably most well known to Westerners. The Japanese pronounce this ki. The ancient Egyptians called it ka. The Hindus call it prana. The Polynesians refer to it as mana. To the Greeks it was pneuma. In the West, Wilhelm Reich studied what he called orgon energy. But regardless of what it is called, if such a type of energy exists, it is every bit as natural as heat, light, or electricity. In the East, where this division into spiritual and material did not occur, they appreciate this. The Japanese reiki (spirit energy) is not fundamentally different from denki (electricity), tenki (weather), or genki (the state of being happy, healthy, and energetic). Everything is energy and energy is everything. The kami (gods) and oni (demons) of Japan are both spirits and natural. In Chinese medicine and acupuncture, one works with various types of vital energies, but this is not something that is taken on faith. This is something that one comes to understand through study, experience, and experimentation. The same is true in Indian medicine (Ayurveda). The same is true in any number of shamanic traditions.
Groups that actually want to help you will be honest and upfront about what they do, as well as what they don't do. Groups that want to manipulate you will constantly tell you, “Yes, yes, yes. Just wait until you get to that level.” And they have endless levels. Groups that want to help you will focus on the practices themselves and not on having any special authority. Groups that want to manipulate you will talk about how their way is the only or the best way, or how they somehow hold some sort of monopoly. Groups that want to help you will teach you things so that you can then use that knowledge for your own purposes. Groups that want to manipulate you will want you to show your dedication to them through serving their organization and revering their leadership. Perhaps the most useful guide of all is this: When you are around groups that want to help you, you feel good about yourself and the situation. When you are around groups that want to manipulate you, you feel bad about yourself and the situation. Take these guidelines to heart, but don’t be afraid. Just remember to participate in organizations that serve you, not ones that seek to get you to serve them.
People have spiritual experiences. The institution of religion assigns contexts for these experiences based on its own phantasy and desire for control. The institution of science ignores or belittles these experiences as fake or irrelevant. The New Age spiritualist atmosphere is filled with some good, some bad, some knowledge, some chicanery, no oversight, and wishy-washy believe-anything participants. What is one to do? How can science take spiritualists seriously when they are not grounded, critical thinkers? How can people trust science when it ignores and belittles phenomena that they themselves empirically observe? There is another group, of critical thinking spiritualists—but unfortunately this is largely the exception rather than the rule. Many parapsychologists that study extraphysical phenomena scientifically are a good example of this—but unfortunately they are not well respected by either scientific or religious groups. This I would regard as a grave error for all parties. We can do better.
1 I know, I know—extraphysical isn’t much better than supernatural, is it? And yet, while I want some way to refer to such potential phenomena as the continuation of one’s consciousness after one “dies”, “vital” energy, memories of past incarnations, clairvoyance, the “astral” body, and any number of other things that defy our “materialist” expectations, I don’t like the idea of referring to them as supernatural, because to designate them as being something other than natural seems to carry with it connotations that I would consider false. I still want a word that refers to all of existence (whatever the particular structure of that happens to be), and I think nature/reality/universe are the most appropriate for this. But I also want to erase this strict Western division between the spiritual and the material, which I think is false and has caused unnecessary problems for us. For a fuller discussion of why I prefer the term extraphysical, click here:
If you identify with the message of this article, please email it to people, tell your friends, even print out copies to pass around. Together we can raise awareness. Thank you.