Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The supernatural

J.R.R. Tolkien, in On Fairy-Stories, writes:

Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to the fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom.

My first (mis)reading of this passage was that fairies are "supernatural" only in an indexical sense: the fairies can say of us that we are "supernatural", since we go beyond their nature, and thus far we can say of them that they are "supernatural". But this reading would have Tolkien allowing that fairies are in some sense "supernatural", and he doesn't seem to want to do that; moreover, this reading can't make sense of "Such is their doom."

I now think that Tolkien's idea is that fairies are tied to nature in a way in which we are not. Their doom is to be spirits associated with the woods and so on, while man has a doom that goes over and beyond nature--a doom to union with or eternal separation from God.

That said, I think one might want to distinguish the absolutely supernatural from the relatively supernatural. The absolutely supernatural is God and that whose concept includes the concept of God, such as union with God. But maybe there is room for an indexical notion of the relatively supernatural: x correctly says that y is supernatural if y has powers that go beyond a mere intensification and/or recombination of the powers of x. In such a case, one could have a world that has both fairies and humans, where the fairies correctly say of the humans that they are supernatural (e.g., because they can engage in intentional tool-making) while the humans correctly say of the fairies that they are supernatural (e.g., because they can directly transmute one object into another).

The distinction between absolutely and relatively supernatural mirrors that between the absolutely and relatively infinite, which I will try to say something about on a later occasion.


Heath White said...

I think you are correct in your second interpretation of Tolkein.

I recall reading somewhere that "supernatural" was a word invented in the context of Enlightenment-era theories of a closed "natural" world. I think one ought to be suspicious of any concept of the supernatural.

rigelrover said...

I have had difficulty using the word supernatural in any context because of the distinction that it seems to draw between ontological spaces; eg. God's space and the world's space. It is clear to me that we wouldn't call a material effect of human agency supernatural, though it may (controversy aside) depend entirely on a libertarian will, for instance. In this sense we ought either to call human willing supernatural, or not refer to God this way.

In Tolkien's sense of "going beyond their nature", I think it rather more appropriate to say 'super-normal', of course in relation to a well-defined realm of being.

Natural, these days, seems to be used as a synonym for "material/physical world". But even in that sense, I don't think that it seems proper to make an ontological distinction between the world experienced by humans, and say the world experienced by angels. It seems, instead, more fitting to refer to 'nature qua reality' is in what is natural is that which is real, or maybe that which is concrete. In that sense the natural world extends well beyond the what is largely considered the normal realm of being for humans.

In fact the only properly supernatural object may be God in this sense... but then God is concrete in most consistent theistic paradigms, so wouldn't God be included in the natural qua reality?

It may be better, then, to refer to God as 'ultra-mundane' or beyond normal... but even that may be misleading for someone who sees that God is ubiquitously provident.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested to know what the answering of prayer is purported as; If God is a supernatural being, one would think that it follows that his actions are supernatural. But the act of prayer (both asking and receiving) is clearly within our natural realm.