Ideas about death, souls and afterlife existence are often intertwined with religious or spiritual beliefs—in other words, belief in the supernatural. But are spiritual forces present or observable in this world? Do they exist? Can they be observed, defined, categorised? Are friendly ghosts and vengeful spirits lingering in haunted houses real, are the paranormal investigators you see on television really fighting an evil spirit as they claim, or are all these ghost sightings a hoax that can be disproven with scientific evidence?
The short answer is that because supernatural means “outside the natural,” it is impossible to scientifically test using natural laws. Anything that conforms to natural laws is no longer supernatural. For that reason, the question “Are spiritual forces real?” cannot be proved or disproved definitively one way or the other.
However, just because it cannot be proved beyond doubt doesn’t mean we can’t examine the evidence and attempt to explain the reasons these beliefs persist.
What do the experts say?
Throughout history, cultures have independently developed a form of belief in forces that cannot be seen. A vast majority of people who have existed on this blue and green globe for all of recorded history have had some form of belief in the spirit world—that there is more to existence than what can be touched, seen, smelt or tasted.
There are many theories in the realm of cognitive psychology (how the brain works and why) that try to describe why these widespread beliefs exist and where they come from. While cognitive psychologists often reject the existence of supernatural forces, they look for evolutionary explanations for why people might believe in forces outside of the natural world.
“Just what is it about the human mind that leads so many members of our species, across cultures and geographic distances, to hold such an unshakable, sober and highly personal belief in an invisible, all-powerful being whom Westerners call God?” asks Jesse Bering in an American Scientist article.
The Theory of Mind is the idea that humans have the ability to reason that other beings/entities have independent minds. If this is the case, humans have a propensity to assign feeling and meaning to other minds, including to a dead person or non-human forces: “Because no one knows what it’s like to be dead, people attribute to dead agents the mental traits that they cannot imagine being without. The results also provide evidence that belief in supernatural agents pirates the brain’s mental inference systems that are designed to reason about everyday intentional (living) agents.”
One explanation outlined in science magazine Discover is that the human mind attempts to find patterns in things that are unrelated. If you’ve lost someone dear to you, you want to continue that connection and read their presence into good and bad things that happen to you after that event.
So for many of these cognitive psychologists, belief in the supernatural is just a chance reaction in the human brain. “God might be an accidental by-product of human cognitive evolution, a functionless leftover of the capacity to reason about other human minds in the everyday social world,” explains Bering. But it’s not the only explanation that psychologists put forward.
Bering continues: “There’s a third option, which I favour: that religious belief is an exaptation—a spandrel that turned out to be useful and so was subsequently selected for by evolutionary pressures.”
In Bering’s worldview therefore, belief in the supernatural is an evolutionary leftover that human beings have retained because of its usefulness.
The theory goes like this: belief in the supernatural developed as some kind of external accountability or morality software in the human brain. Experiments have replicated the results of this kind of belief.
Bering set out to test the theory. A group of students were set a competitive computer skills task. They were told that there was a glitch in the system, which meant that correct answers would sometimes appear on screen. They were supposed to immediately hit the spacebar to clear the answer. The researchers were really testing how long it would take them to clear the answer or whether they would hesitate, being tempted to cheat or see the answer before clearing it.
The control group was just asked to sit the test, while the second group was told that the test was being held in memory of a graduate student who had passed away during the study. The final group were told that the student had passed away in that room and that there had been some strange occurrences there—a ghost story. In testing the group’s reactions, the group who was told about the ghost of a former student on average pressed the space bar quickest. Their senses were heightened and they were less tempted to cheat, as “something” may be watching over them. The control group hesitated for the longest.
“My view is that afterlife beliefs are the default state, and it is in fact counterintuitive for people to deny them,” said Bering, who continues to study the topic. “If one could answer what have traditionally been solely philosophical questions using testable means and place the results in a plausible theoretical context, areas that have historically been out of bounds for scientists could be rightfully claimed by psychological science.”
Not a full answer
Here then is some acknowledgement that science can’t fully answer these questions. Well-known psychologist and author Jordan Peterson is comfortable leaving the fact that religious belief is so widespread unexplained.
“What’s going on? How did [religious belief motivate culture and lead thought for 2000 years]? It’s by no means obvious,” said Peterson, during the first of a series of lectures on the biblical book of Genesis, where he explores early Hebrew concepts of God and how they tie in with psychological theory.
“One of the things that bothers me about casual critics of religion is that they don’t take the phenomena seriously and it’s a serious phenomenon. Not least because people have the capacity for religious experience and no-one knows why that is, I mean you can induce it reliably in all sorts of different ways. You can do it with brain stimulation, certainly do it with drugs…to produce some sort of intimate union with the divine. We don’t understand any of that.”
He’s asking where this tendency to supernatural belief comes from and, as an evolutionary psychologist, he’s not ready to dismiss the phenomenon out of hand.
He highlights a problem in trying to quantify where supernatural ideas come from.
One problem researchers run into in all fields of science is that the same evidence can be interpreted very differently by different groups of people. Widespread belief in the supernatural could point to a historical development of morality, or it could point to the fact that such forces do indeed exist but are outside of natural law and cannot be tested. And morality that has developed could point to evolutionary advantages or to an objective moral truth.
Searching for the supernatural
I have friends who I respect and trust, and who have told me about unexplainable “supernatural” encounters. Demonic manifestations, changed voices, unnatural physical strength, oppressive sensations, sleep paralysis. There is no reason to make these stories up.
Maybe you’ve seen or experienced some of these things. Maybe you’ve heard stories or accounts from others you trust that can’t be explained. While others would discount these happenings as impossible, a coincidence or even misunderstanding or delusion, my worldview leaves room for belief in the supernatural: things that are outside of the observable, natural world.
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As author CS Lewis said while he grappled with concepts of the supernatural in his book Miracles, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.” In other words, humans initially sought to understand science because they believe there will be design patterns within the system created by something outside of the system.
You may be reading this without sharing my worldview. But I invite you to consider a few things. If spiritual forces are indeed real, can they communicate with us or have an impact in the natural world? If we believe in the supernatural then it follows that we should try to figure out an explanation for it.
Jarrod Stackelroth is the editor of Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand and Adventist Record. He lives in Sydney, NSW. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.