Smokeless Fire: On the Plausibility of Believing in the Supernatural

Djinn.

Beings described in the Quran as made of smokeless fire, are a favourite topic of discussion among Muslims. The mysterious entities often feature in hear-say stories, frivolously passed around. The stories vary from genuinely frightening – possession leading to near-fatal acts of self-harm – to laughable – a man saw a ‘demon’ sitting in his car, which he then got in to so that he could escape the ‘demon’.

Then there’s black magic, a taboo source of immense evil, again acknowledged to exist in the Quran. This is often cited by some Muslims as the reason behind warring couples, terminal illnesses, and other awful happenings. This isn’t to suggest that every rumour bouncing around the community is affirmed by the Quran – the point is that the supernatural is something acknowledged in the Quran and is a pervading concern in the Muslim community. Beyond the Muslim community, once sensational movies such as Paranormal Activity (which is now a dead cash-cow, milked to oblivion by corporate fat cats), shows the supernatural to be of concern to wider society as well.

The absurdity of some rumours circulated in the Muslim community and popular depictions of the supernatural (such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose’s infamous spider-walk scene), leads some to regard a belief in the supernatural as irrational and erroneous. Is believing in the supernatural, as probably every religion does to some degree, really a marker of falsehood?

I waver not. There are good reasons to believe in the supernatural, or at the very least reasons not to dismiss it entirely. Let’s discuss some.

The most popular reason why the supernatural is dismissed is that science has not proven its existence. This is true, but it does not necessarily lead to the rejection of the supernatural. This can be understood by considering the transitive nature of science. Science changes overtime; new phenomenon is discovered, and old theories are amended. Indeed, science has improved mankind’s standard of living considerably, and advanced its knowledge.

However, science doesn’t always lead to knowing more; it can lead to knowing how little we actually know. Consider the discovery of DNA; prior to this seismic finding, scientists felt comfortable in their understanding of the cell as the basic building block of life. But all of sudden, a chasm of uncertainty opened up when DNA was discovered; a double-helix of epic proportions, encapsulating 1000s of years of ancestry. Suddenly, we knew that we knew not. It’s very often to hear people claim that various unexplained phenomenon will eventually be understood by science, but as the example of DNA shows, we may not necessarily move towards greater certainty. That isn’t to say that science will definitively not prove the existence of the supernatural – the point here is that we shouldn’t place too much weight on assuming that science will do one or the other. Maybe some discovery will be made that will make the supernatural at the very least describable in scientific terms, or maybe it will always remain in the ethereal.

Even if science does not find some basis for the supernatural, it also doesn’t matter. To only believe in the supernatural if science proves it is to assume that every phenomenon can be explained by material causes. If one were to maintain this assumption, it would leave something like consciousness unexplained, as there exists no definitive material explanation of consciousness. Consciousness is still very much up for discussion; it remains one of the grandest mysteries of both science and philosophy. One may argue that science will eventually discover a material basis for consciousness. If we accept that argument, it can equivalently be argued that science will eventually discover a material basis for the supernatural, in which case an outright rejection of the supernatural would be intellectually inconsistent. As such, if one maintains the assumption that every phenomenon can be explained by material causes, then there yet remains no sound basis to reject the supernatural.

If we don’t accept the assumption of everything being explained by material causes, then the implication is that there are other causes beyond the material. Since science is concerned with the material, and the supernatural is immaterial, the supernatural is therefore outside of the scope of science.

That was quite a lengthy and convoluted rebuttal of science being a basis to deny the supernatural. But it is an important point; keep it in mind.

The second reason why it isn’t implausible to believe in the supernatural is the amount of testimonial evidence of supernatural experiences. No, I am not saying that your friend’s friend’s friend who swears he beat up a djinn is reason to believe in the supernatural. What is reason to believe in the supernatural is the considerable number of cases documenting supernatural happenings. Some examples include levitation, sudden strength, and speaking dead languages (Latin, Aramaic). These certainly seem to be beyond scientific explanations.

More interestingly however is that every culture seems to have some conception of the supernatural. Throughout history, there seems to be some documentation, some reference to the supernatural from so many different cultures. A thorough analysis of references to the supernatural would be fascinating; if there are common happenings/themes in these references, it would add credibility to belief in the supernatural, since cultures from across history are all observing similar phenomenon. Even without such an analysis, the frequency with which supernatural phenomenon are cited by different cultures is telling – it’s a form of group testimony; humanity has been observing something that they have struggled to explain.

Again, this isn’t a sweeping endorsement of every culture’s horror stories. But it shows that some sort of supernatural phenomenon has been an age-old observation.

As we’ve seen, for two reasons, it isn’t implausible to believe in the supernatural. Science would have a difficult time grappling with the ethereal nature of the supernatural, and there seems to be a significant number of testimonial evidences on supernatural happenings. Whilst these reasons may not sway one towards believing in the supernatural, I think it’s sufficient basis not to be dismissive of it.

And after all that, it remains to be said, if you don’t share this blog 10 times, you’ll be haunted at night.

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