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Defending Weak Naturalism: Not a Trivial Position

Part 1: Weak Naturalism

My Argument for Weak Naturalism
Belief versus Withholding Belief

Part 2: Robertson’s Objections

Is Weak Naturalism Trivial?
Muddying the Waters
Weak Naturalism is Coherent

Part 3: Further Justification for Weak Naturalism

Sufficient Evidence
Does Lack of Evidence Support Weak Naturalism?
Comparing Unverifiable Beliefs
     String Theory
     Belief in Intelligent Alien Life
     Supernatural Realms—Valhalla
Evidence for Weak Naturalism
What Sort of Supernatural?
On Reflection

In “Trivial by Nature: A Critique of Hugh Harris’ Weak Naturalism,” Gary Robertson claims that there are major flaws in my case for “weak naturalism” that render it either trivially true or internally inconsistent. In this response I defend my concept of weak naturalism as a coherent, nontrivial position, and further reflect on how my argument could be strengthened.

Robertson characterizes my argument as trivial before going on to claim that my concept of weak naturalism is not actually my real position, and then constructs what he thinks is my real position by way of reference to other writings, blog posts, and even Facebook comments that I have made. Thereafter he purports to identify “substantive problems with the proposal, most of which appear to stem from faulty and incompatible epistemological assumptions, such as a selectively applied adherence to scientism and an ascription of epistemic justification to an absence of contrary evidence.”

Thus, most of Robertson’s article pays scant attention to the content of the essay it purports to be responding to. Rather, it seeks to render the argument incoherent, illegitimate, or inconsistent by inserting statements I have made in other contexts, thus muddying the waters and rendering the argument as unrecognizable.

Since my argument for weak naturalism is straightforward, for context I will outline it before commenting on Robertson’s specific objections.

Part 1: Weak Naturalism

My Argument for Weak Naturalism

As far as we know the universe is all there is. There is not sufficient evidence for a supernatural realm. Therefore, we should withhold belief in any supernatural realm.

For clarity’s sake I could represent the argument in the following premises:

  1. There is sufficient evidence that the natural world exists.
  2. There is no sufficient or compelling evidence for the existence of a supernatural realm.
  3. We should withhold belief in a proposition for which there is no sufficient evidence.
  4. Therefore, we should withhold belief in the existence of a supernatural realm.

Questions pursued later in this article concern the difference between belief and nonbelief, what constitutes evidence, and what constitutes sufficient evidence.

My argument infers that weak naturalism should be the default position in the absence of sufficient evidence for a supernatural realm. It thus relies on the epistemological claim that there is no good evidence for a supernatural realm, which will be defended herein.


I have defined evidence as follows:

Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.[1]

The byline of my blog is that beliefs should be formed by sufficient evidence.

Evidence is defined as “the available body of facts or information,” and thereby includes all forms of evidence: scientific, historical, philosophical, economic, or cultural opinions.

What determines sufficient evidence for belief or disbelief is the key question. Evidence can be cumulative. I note that what is sufficient evidence for belief or nonbelief may be insufficient for that belief to be regarded as knowledge.

Evidence may not prove a belief outright, and evidence may be contradicted by other evidence. The weighing of evidence is not an exact science. I contend that the best way to inform beliefs is the principle of sufficient evidence, and that without sufficient evidence, the belief should be withheld.


For a proposition to become knowledge it necessarily exceeds a higher bar than belief. For while beliefs should be based on sufficient evidence, knowledge requires general agreement represented by community consensus, and an element of verifiability. Beliefs may be held with less community consensus by persons using a lesser evidential burden, whereas knowledge is generally accepted by the community.

Where I mention knowledge in this piece (and in Robertson’s references to the term), I do so based on this description. The key point is that, in contrast to belief, knowledge is already generally accepted as true. In what follows, bear in mind the clear distinction between the two.

Belief versus Withholding Belief

Fundamental to the concept of weak naturalism is the distinction between belief and withholding belief. My contention is that withholding belief requires a lesser level of justification than positive belief. Paraphrasing philosopher Michael Sudduth (who specializes in the epistemology of belief and knowledge), the distinction can be stated thus:

  • Denial skepticism: one can deny that a proposition p is true, where if p stands for “X exists,” then not-p stands for “It is not the case that X exists”—which is equivalent to “X does not exist.” So a denial skeptic would say “I affirm that X doesn’t exist.”
  • Withholding skepticism: one can refrain from affirming that a proposition p is true, where if p stands for “X exists,” then refraining from affirming “X exists” is not equivalent to affirming “X does not exist.” So a withholding skeptic would say “I don’t affirm that X exists” (which is compatible with either X’s existence or nonexistence).

We may compare these stances using real examples:

  • I affirm that Atlantis does not exist.
  • I do not affirm that Atlantis exists.

The positions can be juxtaposed as follows:

  • If I positively assert that Atlantis does not exist, then I am reasonably expected to provide positive evidence to support my claim.
  • If I state that I have no belief in the existence of Atlantis, then at most I am only reasonably expected to demonstrate the absence of any good reasons why I should not affirm its existence.

To provide further contrast, I might reword these statements as follows:

  • Atlantis does not exist.
  • I do not believe in the existence of Atlantis.

While on the face of it, this might not seem like a big difference, it is crucial to our appreciation of the propositions of naturalism and supernaturalism.

Intuitively, we have no compulsion to justify nonbelief in propositions lacking clear supporting evidence. Examples can range from mythological creatures such as goblins or dragons, to realms such as Valhalla or Heaven. We are not compelled to provide a justification for our nonbelief beyond assessing and rejecting insufficient evidence for belief.

I propose an epistemological distinction between either the acceptance or rejection of a proposition on the existence of an entity. The acceptance of the proposition requires sufficient evidence. The rejection of the proposition only requires acknowledgement of insufficient evidence. Disbelief is thereby the default position in the absence of evidence. If there is sufficient evidence to suggest the nonexistence of an entity, then we could make the case for the positive claim that the entity does not exist. For weak naturalism, we need only to make the claim that the proposition lacks sufficient evidence. Strong naturalism would make the stronger case that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that reality is exhausted with the natural world.

In this way disbelief in a supernatural realm does not necessitate the same level of evidential support as strong naturalism. Indeed, weak naturalism—the assumption that nature and natural laws are all that exist—is familiar, as it is assumed by scientists and the medical community in the pursuit of knowledge.

Part 2: Robertson’s Objections

Is Weak Naturalism Trivial?

Robertson alleges that my conception of weak naturalism is trivial. His argument seeks to reduce my definition of weak naturalism down to the ontological statement that “as far as we know” the natural world is all that exists. Therefore, weak naturalism represents only a mere description of the “limitations and transient nature of scientific knowledge.” However, this is an obvious straw man.

Robertson simply ignores the reasoning required for belief formation that I explicitly outlined in my article. There I write:

By weakening naturalism to a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary, weak naturalism becomes an even more formidable opponent to supernaturalism. [emphasis mine]

Weak naturalism is the position that we have insufficient evidence of a supernatural realm, and therefore, we should withhold belief in a supernatural realm.

Robertson compounds this error by claiming that “theists and certain other ‘non-naturalists’ who think a supernatural realm likely exists would also be advocates of weak naturalism”!

Nonsense. Theists the world over strongly believe in the supernatural. It’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of most types of theism. Similarly, one could not consistently claim to be a weak naturalist (using my definition) while believing in a supernatural realm. In this sense Robertson’s main contention is self-refuting and contradictory.

Weak naturalism is neither trivially true nor inconsistent with naturalism. Weak naturalism advocates taking the conservative position of withholding belief based on the paucity of evidence of a supernatural realm. In acknowledging that weak naturalism remains within the limits of human knowledge, Robertson implicitly endorses it as a rational belief. And while we might sometimes move outside of the limits of knowledge to adopt beliefs, it is on these occasions that we bear greater risk of the consequences of folly.

Muddying the Waters

After describing my position as trivial, Robertson strenuously seeks to move my position from weak naturalism to strong naturalism by quote-mining other statements I have made in other contexts. He then points out how this artificial construction is inconsistent with my argument.

To demonstrate how Robertson has straw-manned my argument, I list some of his references below:

[3] Some of which were Harris’ responses in a written debate between him and this writer on his now defunct Rational Razor blog over the question “Is Naturalism More Probable than supernaturalism?”

[4] Harris, “In Defence of Weak Naturalism” (February 8, 2017). Rational Razor blog. <http:/rationalrazor.com/2017/02/08/in-defence-of-weak-naturalism-post-2-a-response-to-gary-robertson/>.

[5] Harris, “Naturalism vs. supernaturalism: The False Dichotomy” (August 25, 2016). Rational Razor blog. <http://rationalrazor.com/2016/08/25/naturalism-vs-supernaturalism-the-false-dichotomy/>.

[7] Harris, “If Weak Naturalism is Untrue then Provide Your Evidence” (September 26, 2017). Rational Razor blog. <http://rationalrazor.com/2017/09/26/weak-naturalism-untrue-provide-evidence/>

[18] Hugh Harris’ January 13, 2017 comment in response to one of this author’s comments on his essay at “Naturalism vs. supernaturalism: The False Dichotomy” (August 25, 2016).

[34] Hugh Harris’ reply to a comment on his Facebook post “Secular Web Kiosk: Proposing Weak Naturalism” (July 4, 2019). https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=980649148933332&id=100009647677837

None of these quotations form part of my piece “Proposing Weak Naturalism.” Indeed, his references to my other writings outnumber his references to the Secular Web article by two to one. Robertson not only grotesquely misrepresents my views on several issues, he misleads the reader by conflating my argument with statements I have made in other contexts. For example, he argues:

Here Harris is affirming his view that claims about the natural world and fundamental reality must be empirically verifiable to qualify as genuine knowledge. Notably, Harris believes that deducing some aspect of reality from empirical findings amounts to “conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence, with observing the empirical evidence itself.[18]

Robertson’s endnote 18 makes reference to a comment I made on my blog. That comment was made in response to Robertson’s reference to “the fact that many inferences to design or a directive intelligence from certain features of the natural world are empirically based and rationally sound.” For context, my full blog reply follows:

The argument from Design was long considered the key reason for belief in God—even the Deists of the Enlightenment were generally convinced of it. But then evolution turned that on its head. Thus, we should be very suspicious of inferring from “apparent” design or patterns we see in the observable universe, to concluding that there must be a designer—having so clearly and decisively been shown the error of our ways.

Please don’t posit the Bible or the cosmological argument as being based on empirical evidence. You are conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence, with observing the empirical evidence itself. The “God of the Gaps” defense to these arguments is well-known: it’s simply invalid to insert the generality of the supernatural, or a deity, where an explanation is unknown. [emphasis mine]

Note that my point was that using empirical evidence to infer a metaphysical outcome is not the same thing as having actual empirical evidence. While Robertson is content to use such quotes to misinform the reader that I will only accept scientific evidence to inform belief formation, I have otherwise consistently referred to a general evidentialist point of view, consistent with the principle of sufficient evidence.

Robertson then proceeds to frame my position as “scientism,” which he describes as the view that “the natural sciences are the only source of ‘real’ knowledge.” Here again, Robertson makes this case by quoting articles I wrote two years earlier:

For any theory regarding fundamental reality to be confirmed, it will take the verification and testing of the scientific method. This is not scientism, it is an uncontroversial observation of reality. {[16] Harris, “If Weak Naturalism is Untrue Then Provide Your Evidence.”}

[W]e must distinguish knowledge claims or hypothesis or theories or conjecture from actual knowledge…. It is a far different matter to base knowledge claims on knowledge and extrapolate from there, as is the case for supernaturalism, and theology in general…. What is sufficient evidence? {[17] Harris, “If Weak Naturalism is Untrue Then Provide Your Evidence.”}

Note that these comments are made in the context of distinguishing knowledge from beliefs, and of distinguishing philosophical analysis from the determination of empirical facts. These statements do not bear specifically to my position on weak naturalism, which is a position based on “disbelief” in the absence of evidence. They relate to how to weigh evidence and how to confirm knowledge in a wider context.

Weak Naturalism is Coherent

Robertson layers these unrelated statements on to my proposal to suggest that my concept of weak naturalism is invalid:

So, although what Harris presents as the central tenet of his proposal remains within the boundaries of science, his actual naturalistic position crosses those boundaries, being an inference from such knowledge which cannot itself be scientifically verified. Therefore, Harris’ actual naturalistic position is invalid according to his own criterion for knowledge about reality.

Here Robertson strains to misapprehend my proposal by conflating belief and knowledge. My position specifically refers to lacking belief in the absence of evidence. I do not argue that the lack of evidence requires scientific verification, and indeed, it would be nonsensical to do so. Further, my previous statements advocating scientific verification are more relevant to determining knowledge (as opposed to belief), and as previously argued, weak naturalism is focused on what we should choose to believe.

Further, Robertson errantly insists that all metaphysical positions are beyond the purview of science. While this is a common claim by religious apologists, we can see at once that it is flawed. Surely we could empirically demonstrate that a particular cause of an event was either natural, or thus-far unable to be explained as natural.

There are many purported supernatural events. Consider the creation of the universe by a deity. It is not inconceivable that science could demonstrate that the universe is a natural closed system and explain its existence by reference to natural forces. Indeed, this is what cosmologists work on every day.

There have bene innumerable scientific studies attempting to verify supernatural events by showing that an event could not be explained by natural causes.

Alas, many natural events once assumed to be supernaturally caused are in fact now comprehensively explained by natural forces—for example, floods, storms, earthquakes, eclipses, etc. In this sense many metaphysical beliefs relating to supernatural forces have been overtaken by scientific knowledge.

Theists often claim the supernatural supervenes on the universe in significant ways. The theist cannot have it both ways: claiming to know that the supernatural is at work in this universe in specific ways, and then declaring that the supernatural is beyond the boundaries of knowledge.

Weak naturalists choose to refrain from believing in a specific type of realm posited by theists over many centuries because of they lack sufficient evidence to motivate such belief. We do not need proof or evidential confirmation that the natural world is a closed system since we lack evidence of any specific supernatural system beyond it.

Weak naturalism is a “belief”-based position, not a “knowledge” claim. Pace Robertson, that is a strength of weak naturalism, not its fatal flaw. I need not prove scientifically that the natural world is all there is. I merely choose to disbelieve in anything beyond. Where we could have good evidence for a supernatural realm, we in fact have none. I will further explore the areas for which we might have evidence another time.

In summary, I do not have to justify that my Secular Web article is consistent with everything I have ever said or done on the topic of naturalism. I contend that my argument for weak naturalism is clear and self-sufficient, and whether it is consistent with my previous or subsequent writings is beside the point.

What Robertson has done is analogous to reviewing Antony Flew’s influential 1976 article “The Presumption of Atheism” and judging it be invalid or incoherent because it conflicts with later writings or statements that Flew made endorsing deism. But such a sophistic enterprise would have no bearing on the veracity of “The Presumption of Atheism.” It would only suggest that Flew may have changed his mind, or otherwise that his overall worldview is inconsistent. In critiquing my argument in “Proposing Weak Naturalism,” Robertson commits the undergraduate error of ad hominem—attacking the man and not the argument. He has missed the mark entirely, and now left it to me to unmuddy the waters and present the argument again. I nevertheless welcome the opportunity to clarify and elaborate on some elements of the argument.

Part 3: Further Justification for Weak Naturalism

Sufficient Evidence

What is arguable is the point at which evidence becomes sufficient to justify belief. The form of evidentialism suggested by my version of weak naturalism is consistent with how evidence is used and adhered to in most Western societies. Our legal systems, public discourse, politics, and medical and educational institutions all operate on a weak naturalist concept that beliefs should be supported by sufficient evidence.

We know this by observing the operation of evidence in society. Rarely are medical procedures put on hold so that families can first attempt prayers. When medical care is withheld from children because of religious beliefs, criminal charges ensue. Our public policy is often subject to the test of being “evidence-based.” Courts of law do not consult oracles or stare into crystal balls to deliver verdicts. Rather, a strict process of analyzing the evidence is undertaken.

The scientific revolution and the success of the sciences in explaining the causes of phenomena has had the effect of highlighting the importance of evidence. The scientific method has had the effect of encouraging a more stringent questioning of contested propositions and the critical examination of the evidence in favor of them.

The question of what amounts to sufficient evidence for belief is contested. In line with weak naturalism, I contend that supernaturalism should be disbelieved until we are furnished with sufficient evidence of the supernatural. As I will show, not only do we have insufficient evidence, we have no good evidence at all.

Does Lack of Evidence Support Weak Naturalism?

Robertson claims that my reliance on evidence leaves weak naturalism vulnerable:

The belief that God probably does not exist because the existence of such an entity is not supported by evidence, is not itself supported by evidence.

This rather cryptic statement is supported by reference to a paper by Michael Antony, “Where’s the Evidence?[2], which outlines the position more clearly. Antony argues that weak atheism—which is analogous to weak naturalism in regard to belief formation—requires more than a lack of evidence for God to be supported. He notes that New Atheists often mention the lack of evidence for certain propositions, such as Russell’s tea pot, the Loch Ness Monster, Shangri-La, or goblins, and then make the case that in the absence of evidence for them, the only rational response is nonbelief. I draw upon precisely the same epistemological principle to defend weak naturalism.

Antony does not believe that these examples are analogous to theism because evidence for a divine reality exists in the form of weak evidence—”evidence for a proposition P which is usually insufficient on its own to persuade a disbeliever that P is true.” According to Antony, weak evidence for a divine reality includes “religious experience, the fine-tuning of physical laws and constants, [and] the apparent contingency of the universe.”

While his argument is persuasive, it is not clear how weak evidence should influence the objective person seeking to weigh their decisions based on sufficient evidence. For instance, few philosophers would agree that the accumulation of the weak evidence that Antony mentions provides sufficient warrant for belief in a divine reality.

Further, those who take this subject seriously consider each item of evidence on merit, and either accept or reject the item in question. If they accept the item as evidence, only then can they put a weight on it. The arguments for religious experience mentioned by Antony are not broadly accepted, nor is there compelling independent evidence concerning them beyond the testimony of individuals. We either accept them as a form of positive evidence, or we don’t.

Neither the fine-tuning argument nor the contingency argument are broadly accepted as good reasons for belief in a designer. The fine-tuning argument lacks any evidence beyond a simple observation that the constants of the universe may not vary by even a small degree or else life would not be possible. The argument for contingency is either a valid argument or it is not. Few philosophers agree that it’s a valid argument. Rather than weak evidence, many would regard these propositions as simply weak theories.

A rational person should independently assess these items of weak evidence and either accept them as evidence (whether weak or strong) or reject them as evidence altogether. Many atheists could argue persuasively that combining a coincidence (fine tuning) with an invalid philosophical argument (contingency) provides precisely no evidence whatsoever.

For evidence of the supernatural, we might be presented with testimony of a haunted house. There are unexplained noises, lights going on and off, and extraordinary events that are sometimes regarded as signs of paranormal behavior. Experience tells us that it would be a mistake to regard such reports as weak evidence for a supernatural realm, for we are aware that these reports almost always end with a natural explanation. We have many examples of reports of supernatural events, but no confirmed reports where the reported events were subsequently incapable of being explained through natural causes.

Antony then goes on to mention several improbable propositions that some academics support, such as the theory that worms have some sort of consciousness. Presumably this is meant to validate belief in weakly evidenced propositions. However, the fact that many people, including academics, hold to a plethora of insufficiently evidenced beliefs does not constitute a valid reason to affirm them. In fact, it’s all the more reason to argue vociferously against such careless belief formation.

Therefore, we should be wary of assigning value to Antony’s concept of weak evidence. What he describes as weak evidence provides no value whatsoever in helping us justify our beliefs.

Comparing Unverifiable Beliefs

In assessing what counts as sufficient evidence, it will be useful to compare against other common beliefs that have yet to be regarded as accepted knowledge. In doing so, we can see that it is sometimes difficult to assess what constitutes sufficient evidence for belief, and that it is possible to justifiably believe or disbelieve in the same proposition.

String Theory

There are physicists who claim to believe that string theory is true. Arguments in favor of string theory suggest that it makes sense of the universe mathematically. Not only that, but string theory understands gravity in a way that may reconcile Albert Einstein’s general relativity with quantum mechanics and the rest of particle physics.

However, string theory predicts ten dimensions of space and one of time, which seems at odds with our perceptions (though the spatial dimensions are said to be curled up and smaller than the smallest subatomic particle) and cannot, in any case, be evidentially justified (at least at this point). The detractors of string theory also point out that the prediction that it makes for the value of the cosmological constant has turned out to be wrong by a significant order of magnitude. So, at this stage, string theory remains a theory.

In string theory we have a coherent and plausible explanation, but we do not have sufficient reason to assume that the theory applies accurately to the real world. So the best position to take is to withhold belief about either its truth or falsehood while remaining open to new evidence. Note that we don’t have positive evidence that string theory is false, nor do we make that claim. We simply decline to accept the proposal due to a lack of sufficient evidence in its favor, which is a rational, justifiable approach analogous to the one that weak naturalism takes.

Belief in Intelligent Alien Life

For many years we have speculated on the possibility of intelligent alien life, but have yet to find any evidence for it. The famous Fermi paradox wondered why, with so many planets apparently within the habitable zone from their stars, we have never encountered aliens: “Where are they all?” Perhaps intelligent civilizations may have died out, or the development of intelligent life is exceedingly rare.

Much scientific endeavor has sought evidence of microbial life on nearby planets. There is some evidence that there may have been sufficient water on Mars to provide habitable conditions for microorganisms. In 1996 a group of NASA scientists found microscopic features on the Martian meteorite ALH84001 that they thought were best explained by the rock having once hosted Martian bacteria. It was later found that the evidence could be explained by nonbiological processes. So despite initial excitement over the find, we still have no conclusive evidence of life on Mars.

However, the fact that so many scientists expect to find life in habitable parts of the universe suggests that the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe should be taken quite seriously. In my opinion, there is sufficient evidence to justify belief in the possibility of intelligent alien life. However, this should be tempered by the knowledge that there is no real evidence of any specific form of alien life.

Belief in the possibility of alien life should be distinguished from belief in specific claims of alien activity such as alien abductions. The evidence points to the possibility that one day we will find evidence of alien life, but belief in intelligent alien civilizations should be withheld until stronger evidence is available.

Belief in alien life can be differentiated from supernaturalism by the quantum of empirical evidence in favor of the former from how life develops on Earth, knowledge of the conditions in which life can develop, the sheer number of goldilocks zone planets in the universe, and the consistency of physical elements and forces (e.g., carbon, gravity) throughout the universe. There is no such evidential support for belief in a supernatural realm.

Supernatural Realms—Valhalla

Valhalla was the grand hall of Norse mythology ruled by Odin and reserved for warriors who die heroically in battle. Few would agree that there is compelling evidence to suggest the existence of the palace of Valhalla as the afterlife of Norse warriors. Similarly, other proposed supernatural realms have no genuine evidence to support them. Since science has generally explained the historical belief in supernatural causation in the natural world, and that the physical state of the human body is comprehensively understood in natural terms, it is difficult to substantiate an appeal to supernatural causation.

Realms such as Valhalla or Heaven have no similar evidence to support them, apart from their postulation in religious contexts as convenient solutions to existential questions. Unlike alien life, where we have specific and uncontroversial observable conditions in the universe that lead us to speculate about their existence, supernatural entities have no such concrete evidence to suggest that we postulate them.

Evidence for Weak Naturalism

Robertson claims that my original essay commits the fallacy of equating absence of evidence with evidence of absence, and thus amounts to an appeal to ignorance:

Concluding that supernatural entities do or do not exist because of the lack of evidence either way is unjustifiable as it is based on what we don’t know and is therefore simply appealing to ignorance.

One could just as ignorantly cite the absence of evidence against the presence of supernatural entities to argue that they probably do exist.

Unfortunately, Robertson has sawn off the branch that he sits upon. His attempt to juxtapose the existence and nonexistence of supernatural entities as equally probable in the absence of any evidence only serves to highlight the stark difference. His second claim, that the absence of evidence for supernatural entities counts as evidence of their existence, is clearly outrageous.

Crucially, there is no evidence of the supernatural where its existence might have been expected. The absence of evidence is meaningful because the supernatural is always portrayed as having some sort of role and impact on the physical world, and yet it has consistently defied the strenuous efforts made to uncover its existence. There is still no compelling evidence of supernatural entities despite innumerable investigations, research studies, and the strenuous efforts of pastors and theologians over thousands of years. The lack of evidence, where we are repeatedly assured that there should be evidence, counts as positive evidence that we are unlikely to see confirmation of supernatural events or entities in the future.

Every year a new assortment of spoon benders, faith healers, false messiahs, prophets, mediums, psychics, spiritualists, and ghost busters are eventually exposed as charlatans. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence to the extent that the supernatural has been interrogated. We hold belief in weak naturalism knowing that strenuous efforts to substantiate a supernatural realm have led to nothing.

The world’s many religions contain supernatural accounts of reality that are mutually exclusive. But the fact that some of these must be false does not prove them all false. It does, however, suggest caution in forming beliefs based on contested propositions, and it highlights the value of carefully considering and weighing the evidence.

The question at hand—’Is there a supernatural realm beyond the natural world?’—can only be assessed from the available evidence. The laws of nature operate in a wholly consistent manner without deviation. A roughly physicalist account of our mental faculties is accepted by science. We do not see the laws of nature occasionally suspended so that miracles occur. It’s difficult to imagine how the physical laws could be suspended by a supernatural agent without impinging on other events. Beyond comic book imaginings, the physical reality of a supernatural intervention in the world lacks any a sort of evidential justification, let alone explication of how it might work.

Alas, to provide proof that the natural world is the entirety of reality seems beyond the bounds of possibility. Even if we were able to explain creation and existence itself, there would no doubt still be arguments for something beyond. But given no evidence of a supernatural realm intervening within the natural world, it seems entirely reasonable to withhold belief. Alternatively. if a supernatural realm exists but has no connection to the natural universe and cannot create events in the natural world or overlap with nature in any way, then there will never be any possibility of confirmation. Indeed, its existence would never be relevant to life in this universe, nor to any religious debates featuring a supernatural realm.

And yet still, while disbelieving in the existence of such a thing, weak naturalism does not preclude the possibility that a supernatural realm may in fact exist.

Proponents of a supernatural realm may argue that we understand so little of the nature of the universe that we cannot rule out further natural realms and supernatural realms. Quantum mechanics seems spooky to some, and the content of dark energy remains a mystery. A potentially promising argument for a supernatural realm would provide a cause for the universe, and thereby solve the riddle of existence. However, historically, we have yet to see any scientific mystery resolved by evidence of a verified supernatural occurrence or agent. The weak naturalist position accepts that our knowledge is always incomplete, and that many of our theories still require verification.

The track record of mysteries solved is that they have always been solved in naturalistic terms. Only a few centuries ago, when church bell ringers were warding off the demons who allegedly inflicted storms, they were invariably electrocuted by lightning. These needless deaths were curtailed by the invention of the lightning rod (even though it was opposed by the French Catholic Church for 60 years). In the scientific and technological revolution of the last few centuries we have exclusively uncovered naturalistic explanations of previously unknown elements of the world. There is therefore little reason to assume future discoveries will involve supernatural outcomes.

The metaphysical arguments for supernatural explanations remain unconvincing. Most philosophers (72%) do not believe in (a presumably supernatural) God, suggesting that they would almost certainly be aware of and reject the many so-called proofs for God, such as the kalam cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument.

What Sort of Supernatural?

The lack of evidence for the supernatural is crucial in undermining specific religious concepts of a supernatural realm. Robertson has already agreed with my contention that, as far as we know, the natural world is all that exists. It is one thing to observe that we cannot disprove a supernatural dimension, quite another to substantiate a specific supernatural account of the world. If Robertson accepts that we cannot know anything beyond the natural world, then it stands to reason that he cannot know anything of a specific supernatural world, and indeed the specific supernatural world of his own religion (which he is straining to defend). Indeed, if we could identify any specific evidence of a supernatural entity or event, then we might make some guesses as to what sort of supernatural realm exists. Alas, there is insufficient evidence of any kind!

The specific supernatural claims of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all have insufficient evidence to support them. There is no evidence of Heaven or Hell (stories of near-death experiences positing them notwithstanding). There is no evidence of a human soul despite unprecedented advances in medical sciences.

Christianity holds innumerable supernatural claims sans evidence. For example, Jesus was divine, born of a virgin, walked on water, healed the sick, spoke to animals, controlled the weather, rose from the dead, and so on. There is insufficient evidence to support any of these claims. Islam and Judaism support the existence of Jesus as human, but deny he was divine. The Christian God flooded the entire Earth only saving one couple. The Flood myth proposes a physical impossibility, not to mention a tale so ridiculous that it is clearly not a real historical event. The flood myth also appears in various other cultures.

The key point is that a potential supernatural realm will have a particular nature, character, form, or dimension, and there are an infinite range of possibilities as to what these might be. (Sudduth has called this the problem of auxiliary assumptions.) That there is insufficient evidence to support any of the myriad versions of supernatural reality presented by various religions, and no agreed-upon manner to differentiate between their unverifiable claims, suggests that withholding belief in all of them is the most rational approach. The limitless possibilities for what a supernatural realm entails also point to the remoteness of the possibility that any one of our imagined supernatural realms could be true.

On Reflection

I have shown that weak naturalism is a straightforward and coherent naturalist position, one consistent with how we use evidence in the modern world. I have made an argument to show that weak naturalism should be the default position because disbelief in a supernatural realm does not require us to move beyond the limits of human knowledge, and because there is an absence of sufficient evidence to suggest that a supernatural realm exists in the first place.

I request that any replies to this article respond to the article itself, and do not insert quotations or paraphrase opinions I have expressed elsewhere.

I challenge replies to this post answer these questions:

  1. What is your justification for belief in a supernatural realm?
  2. Can you provide a detailed outline of your evidence of its existence? If my standard of sufficient evidence is disputed, what alternative standard would you propose?


[1] Hugh Harris, “If Weak Naturalism is Untrue Then Provide Your Evidence” (September 26, 2017). Rational Razor blog. <http://rationalrazor.com/2017/09/26/weak-naturalism-untrue-provide-evidence/>.

[2] Michael Antony, “Where’s the Evidence?Philosophy Now, Issue 78 (April/May 2010): 18-21.