Supernatural

Part of a series on
Anthropology of religion
two carved figures from ancient Peru
Ancient statues discovered in Peru
Social and cultural anthropology
Saint Peter Attempting to Walk on Water (1766), painting by François Boucher

The concept of the supernatural encompasses anything that is inexplicable by scientific understanding of the laws of nature but nevertheless argued by believers to exist.[1] Examples include immaterial beings such as angels, gods and spirits, and claimed human abilities like magic, telekinesis, precognition and extrasensory perception.

Historically, supernatural powers have been invoked to explain phenomena as diverse as lightning, seasons and the human senses. Naturalists maintain that nothing beyond the physical world exists, and point to a lack of reliable evidence for anything supernatural, and hence maintain skeptical attitudes towards supernatural concepts.[2]

The supernatural is featured in occult and religious contexts,[3] but can also feature as an explanation in more secular contexts, as in the cases of superstitions or belief in the paranormal.[2]

Etymology and history of the concept

Occurring as both an adjective and a noun, descendants of the modern English compound supernatural enter the language from two sources: via Middle French (supernaturel) and directly from the Middle French's term's ancestor, post-Classical Latin (supernaturalis). Post-classical Latin supernaturalis first occurs in the 6th century, composed of the Latin prefix super- and nātūrālis (see nature). The earliest known appearance of the word in the English language occurs in a Middle English translation of Catherine of Siena's Dialogue (orcherd of Syon, around 1425; Þei haue not þanne þe supernaturel lyȝt ne þe liȝt of kunnynge, bycause þei vndirstoden it not).[4]

The semantic value of the term has shifted over the history of its use. Originally the term referred exclusively to Christian understandings of the world. For example, as an adjective, the term can mean "belonging to a realm or system that transcends nature, as that of divine, magical, or ghostly beings; attributed to or thought to reveal some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature; occult, paranormal" or "more than what is natural or ordinary; unnaturally or extraordinarily great; abnormal, extraordinary". Obsolete uses include "of, relating to, or dealing with metaphysics". As a noun, the term can mean "a supernatural being", with a particularly strong history of employment in relation to entities from the mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.[4]

Dialogues from Neoplatonic philosophy in the third century AD contributed the development of the concept the supernatural via Christian theology in later centuries.[5] The term nature had existed since antiquity with Latin authors like Augustine using the word and its cognates at least 600 times in City of God. In the medieval period, "nature" had ten different meanings and "natural" had eleven different meanings.[6] Peter Lombard, a medieval scholastic in the 12th century, asked about causes that are beyond nature, in that how there could be causes that were God's alone. He used the term praeter naturam in his writings.[6] In the scholastic period, Thomas Aquinas classified miracles into three categories: "above nature", "beyond nature", and "against nature". In doing so, he sharpened the distinction between nature and miracles more than the early Church Fathers had done.[6] As a result, he had created a dichotomy of sorts of the natural and supernatural.[7] Though the phrase supra naturam was used since the 4th century AD, it was in the 1200s that Thomas Aquinas used the term "supernaturalis", however, this term had to wait until the end of the medieval period before it became more popularly used.[6] The discussions on "nature" from the scholastic period were diverse and unsettled with some postulating that even miracles are natural and that natural magic was a natural part of the world.[6]