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What Is the “Supernatural”?

What Is the “Supernatural”?



The supernatural seems irrational, superstitious, archaic and primitive. So far, the natural world has provided explanations for the previously mysterious unknown: social psychology, psychiatry, chemistry, mathematics, biology, medicine, physics, astronomy, geology and history have aided humanity and preserved our mental and physical health and extended our lives.

So why do we refer to G‑d to as a supernatural being? Where is the evidence that the supernatural exists, or has any bearing on our lives? Does the word “supernatural” even mean anything, other than “I don’t understand this (yet)”?


You distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. By “nature,” I suppose you mean a closed, logical system that can be observed, measured and explained in its entirety. “Supernatural” would then refer to those phenomena that will not fit into such a system, either because they operate in a manner inconsistent with that system, or because they are inherently unobservable, unmeasurable or inexplicable.

Your question is whether there is evidence of such phenomena. In truth, however, the opposite should also be asked: Do we have evidence that all phenomena can be explained in a consistent form?

The compulsion to explain all phenomena in a consistent, integrated form is a hallmark of a literate society. The controversy wasn’t born in the twentieth century. Illiterate societies are marked by their mythological presentation of history, where time and place exist in fuzzy disarray, along with an equally mythical present, with no true systematology. The compulsion to explain all phenomena in a consistent, integrated form is a hallmark of a literate society, particularly one that employs a linear alphabet, which forces the mind to think in terms of “this, therefore that.”

We moderns have inherited from the ancient world two cosmologies of two literate societies—in some ways complementary, in other ways competitive with one another.

The Greek post-Socratic philosophers were rigorous in their search for consistency and form in nature. They were committed to the idea that all things can be explained, that the ultimate judge of truth is the human mind, and that if the human mind cannot make sense of any matter it simply cannot exist.

The Greeks took their alphabet and many core ideas from the Jews, who had preceded them in literacy by well over a thousand years and were more universally literate. The Jews had long developed a sense of a “universe”—a sense of a unified world with a single order. However, national Jewish experience had imbued them with a sense of that which transcends nature.

To Plato and to Aristotle, the primal principle is the Supernal Intellect that stands at the core of all true forms and nature. To the Jew, while G‑d can be found in all natural forms and is their essence, He is not bound by any of those forms, not even by the form that we call “reason.” When He manifests in nature and its phenomena, it is because He chooses to do so. At other times, He may manifest through the negation of the natural order—as in the plagues of Egypt. Or, at times, in the negation of any logical order whatsoever. G‑d, to the Jew, is entirely free and unbound. In the language of the Kabbalists, He is the Ein Sof, the Infinite.

There is no natural explanation for the existence of the Jewish people today . . . That Jewish national experience hasn’t changed much in the past three thousand years. In fact, it has only served to further validate our original stance. There is no natural explanation for the existence of the Jewish people today—if anything, it is a phenomenon that contradicts all natural order. Blaise Pascal, one of the most brilliant thinkers of the Age of Reason, recognized this and wrote as such in his Pensées. It is said that when Louis XIV asked Pascal for a proof of the supernatural, he answered simply, “The Jews, my lord, the Jews.”

As for science, the search for a consistent, bounded explanation of all natural phenomena took great leaps and bounds forward with the development of even more rigorous tools of linear thought, in mathematics and in scientific method. By the early nineteenth century the success of astronomy, mechanics and mathematics at explaining so many phenomena led many to believe that humanity was at the verge of finding a perfectly explainable universe, with no need for the “hypothesis of G‑d.”

There were detractors, however. One of the greatest mathematicians, Georg Cantor, proposed the existence of infinity as a working value in mathematics. His work was deemed by many of the scientific establishment “subversive.” The issue came to its crux when philosophers Alfred N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell attempted to present a comprehensive, consistent approach to all of mathematics and logic. They were foiled when Kurt Gödel demonstrated in the mathematical coup d’etat of the century that all such attempts are inherently futile. “Gödel’s Proof”—taking over where Cantor left off, and now universally accepted—says that no system can be complete in and of itself. Every system can be proven only by that which is outside and transcendent of it.

The implications for the concept of “natural order” should be obvious: Any sense of natural order must imply that which is transcendent of it and sustains it. In other words, the supernatural. Cantor himself posited that beyond all sets of infinity there must be an absolutely transcendent quality. He claimed that this was G‑d.

Physics took a similar route at the same time. If we were to find a “natural” explanation for all things, internally consistent and entirely comprehensive, our foundation stone would have to be causality—the idea that “this happens because that happened, and it couldn’t happen any other way.” The Copenhagen School of Quantum Theory did away with this notion when it was demonstrated that the behavior of subatomic particles can be described only in terms of probabilities—not because we cannot measure any closer than this, but because such particles simply do not have discretely measurable properties. To paraphrase Werner Heisenberg, if there is no discrete present, there can be no discretely knowable future.

To give one example, we know that we can predict the half-life of a radioactive isotope. Show a scientist a chunk of uranium, and he can tell you how long it will take for 50% of the unstable atoms to lose their extra electrons and stabilize as lead. For the past hundred years at least, the universe has been looking more and more like somebody’s video game . . . But if you will ask a physicist today, “What caused that atom to lose its electron before that one?” he will likely provide little more than a blank stare. The question is meaningless in the realm of quantum mechanics, because causality is meaningless.

So here we have a clear case where a very successful scientific theory (upon which we rely for countless inventions in modern life) accepts that certain phenomena are inherently not explicable. These phenomena can be described—albeit in terms of probabilities rather than in discrete measurements—but the theory literally excludes the possibility of explaining a cause. The electron does not leave at that point in time because anything within the system of “nature” caused it to leave. This, arguably, could satisfy your criteria for scientific evidence of that which is outside nature.

In sum, there is no reason today to believe that the universe is a closed system. On the contrary, for the past hundred years at least, it has been looking more and more like somebody’s video game—with a lot of leeway for the Big User and his joystick. We are today in a much better position to understand reality according the metaphor of the Kabbalists—as no more than a grand, single thought, generally consistent, but often loaded with surprises. A wondrous place.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Discussion (7)
December 10, 2014
why, talk about starting with a fallacy.

So the whole "proof" for the supernatural is that there must be one? How do you jump to this? Bertrand and such are wrong.

we have nothing that shows that

1. there is something "outside" our universe.
2. If we ever do prove that there is something outside, this does not lend to a "creator" or it being supernatural

You're reaching Rabbi. lol.
Nelson Hernandez
December 13, 2011
think about it
In fact, the existence of the universe is supernatural! YOU experiencing taste, sight, smell, thoughts, etc., truly is something supernatural.

Think about it:

we know how taste buds and eyes send signals to the brain etc. Sure. But this leaves the fact there is a YOU that experiences something a fundamental mystery! A clog of atoms, if it were JUST THAT could not experience anything!

As a believer, I do not claim to have solved the riddle of the universe. I sure know though that rationalism/positivism have not solved it either. They have solved only facets, with very bright thinking. Fundamentally, on the questions, why is there something at all, why is there life, and even more: how is there sentient, conscious life, how can it be? - it has explained nothing.

Read Schumacher, Chesterton, read the Torah/Bible.
utrecht, nl
June 16, 2010
Excellent explanation! You connected a few loose ends for me on Quantum theory's compatibility with Judaism.
David Sagurton
Mahwah, NJ
September 10, 2006
Response to Jay
Concerning the story with Pascal: I looked into this a little further--you're right, it couldn't have been Pascal. I found a reference to this story in Rosenzweig's "Star of Redemption"--there he relates a similar story between an unknown pastor and Frederick the Great of Prussia. I know there are other versions--it's likely apocryphal--but I'll keep looking.
Tzvi Freeman (Author)
Thornhill, ON
April 24, 2006
If we can now predict the half-life then . . .
If we can now predict the half-life of a radioactive isotope, then we can use radiometric dating. And if we can use radiometric dating, we can seriously challenge biblical history. And if we can do that . . . never mind. I am sure the supernatural has already refuted my unfounded naturalist logic.

For the record, Pascal was a Jasenist who had one of his books ordered burned by Louis XIV, a Jesuit. Suffice to say that the quote is suspect. Source?

The reference may be to Pascal''s Pensees 620, which is a statement of respect for the Jews for their brotherhood, their commitment to education and knowledge, their endurance, and their law which governs both civil and religious practices.

Thanks for clearing up Plato, Aristotle, and Supernal Intellect in one sentence. No need to investigate further. I thought broad statements needed a reference. Maybe thats only for those that rely on peer review.

Last point before I laspe into a coma - Who the heck is Gregory Kantor??
Jay Fox
Cherry Hill, NJ
February 22, 2006
Yes, the supernatural is something that exceeds the capacities of "natural" or scientific methods. But here is the problem: I never witnessed anything that exceeds scientific explanations! So two thousands years ago when no science was present it was kind of easy to sell anything as a miracle, I would argue that it is very difficult today. Two thousands years ego prophet Eliahu flew and it was a miracle, today airlines take millions on board to the height that no prophet had ever tried.
Generally speaking there are no miracles of first hand anymore, everything is vicarious experience. The vary word “miracle” has acquired totally different connotation. Today medics who save life, engineers who made computers and spacecrafts, scientists who devise new drags and materials perform miracles....
Chicago, IL
February 20, 2006
it says in a work of the Tzemach Tzedek (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, 1789-1866), "Sefer HaChakira," that in order for the creation of a finite existance, one needs, and that can only be done by an INFINITE power, think about it!
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