Supernaturalism & Theism: Chicken or the Egg?

In analytic philosophy of religion, it is not uncommon to think of Theism as being a sub-type of Supernaturalism.

The idea is that whereas Supernaturalism is merely the thesis that, say, something is supernatural; Theism specifies what this supernatural thing is as a God.

According to this taxonomy, Supernaturalism logically precedes Theism because while Theism entails Supernaturalism, Supernaturalism does not entail Theism. That is, if something supernatural like a God exists, then Supernaturalism must be true, but just because something is supernatural does not mean that it has to be a God. What if instead it was just an angel, or a demon, or some other type of spirit?

This way of classifying things assumes a view of divinity on which a God is a type of thing; namely, a supernatural type of thing.

But this assumption is either deeply controversial or misguiding, depending on how seriously we take it.

If we take it seriously that a God is a type of thing, then we have a view on which a God is not ultimate. There is something deeper or more fundamental than a God on account of which she is of the sort of thing that she is. In this case, supernatural — whether supernaturality is like a genus, species, or kind to which she belongs; or an essence, nature or property which she exemplifies, etc.

But this view has been rejected by a historical majority of thinkers who have held Theism (a move, for the record, derived from Platonism). So, it is deeply controversial to represent Theism as saying that a God is a type of thing.

However, if we do not take this way of speaking very seriously, then it is misguiding, because it implies a structuring of logical space (and so the apportioning of evidence) which is not true.

In either case, it is very problematic to put forth this way of describing Theism, at least when put forth among theists of a more classical bent, or as if their disagreements were negligible.

You might think that the alternative to having Theism depend on Supernaturalism is to having Supernaturalism depend on Theism. And, indeed, where the concept of supernaturality is imported from pre-philosophical reference to otherworldiness, perhaps such a move is wise. But, from a more Platonic perspective, there is another alternative, one which uses supernaturality in a more philosophical sense. On this alternative, Supernaturalism is Theism, and so neither derives from the other.

I argue in my book Polytheism: A Platonic Approach, that to be divine is to transcend Nature, and that to transcend Nature is just for one to be wholly ineffable. This latter claim is made because Nature is the whole of sensible, intelligible reality. One cannot transcend intelligible reality and yet still be intelligible as any sort of thing: she must be ineffable. As such, to be supernatural is just to be ineffable, and so, divine.

Needless to say, this view carries with it a very different way of organizing logical space!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s