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I’ve been wondering what ‘supernatural’ means

Recently Thomas Plante e-mailed me to remind me of a couple of chapters I am providing for his three-volume project, 'Abnormal Psychology Through the Ages'. Dr Plante is a professor at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor, psychiatry and behavioural sciences, at Stanford University's School of Medicine. He previously worked up a similar project: mental disorders of the new millenium.

I am supposed to provide him with a chapter exploring the supernatural perspective on psychopathology. So, I find myself these days wondering just what “supernatural” actually means. Is this in the ballpark of the 'Blair Witch Project', demonic possession, and animism? Are we to explain mental illness as the attack of spirits, and then protect ourselves by placing talismans in strategic places, using garlic to ward off the vampires, and resorting to counter-incantation to defend ourselves against the spells of voodoo?

Or do we just laugh at such things and tell ourselves, as is the approach of Richard Dawkins, that science will be able to explain everything that currently needs explaining. Science, working according to a naturalist perspective, can explain everything. The assumption for such a stance is that there is no other possibility. All can be reduced to physics.

According to Wikipedia: “Naturalism commonly refers to the philosophical viewpoint that natural laws (as opposed to supernatural ones) operate in the universe, and that nothing exists beyond the natural universe or, if it does, it does not affect the natural universe that we know. Followers of naturalism (naturalists) assert that natural laws are the rules that govern the structure and behaviour of the natural universe, that the universe is a product of these laws and that the goal of science is to discover and publish them systematically.”

With that, then, come two possibilities for me in writing one of my chapters for Dr Plante. At first I had found myself wondering how I could find material on witch doctors and the practices of shamanistic healers, or of going into the religious explanations for dysfunctional behaviour. However, I have discovered numerous volumes (many can be found at Amazon describing why reductionism is a flawed perspective) suggesting that reducing everything to a physical/biological cause for psychopathology would be in error. What does that leave one with? If we cannot trace everything directly back to the brain, a physical cause and a naturalistic philosophy, then we are left with the possibility of a supernatural explanation that is not necessarily on the fringes of clinical psychology, not necessarily the parapsychology of mind reading and mind over matter, and not necessarily the religious and the magical.

What is that thing? It points back to the phenomenological project of Edmund Husserl, who argued against the naturalism of his day, to suggest a way of paying attention to experience in order to get to the elements of experience themselves. It also points to an emergent understanding of mind. That is, the “thing” that is aware of paying attention to one's experience IS the mind, the subjective sense of self. Me. What Freud called the ego. What Husserl called the constituting ego. The Greek term for it was “I” or “ego”, literally. It is the “I” in whatever is going on.

I am writing. I am listening out the door of my office for what is going on in the next room. I am feeling the effects of several cups of coffee. And now I am feeling an itch in one of my ears. The “I” is the “ego”, is the subjective self, and it forms in the mind (in fact some would say it is the mind).

Nobody can weigh the mind. You can't find it by dissecting the body. It is immaterial, just like the sense of self, the sense of being a person and living a life. These things are, then, supernatural. They are. Forget the prejudice people have against religion, then, by calling it supernatural (and by implication, bogus, weird, and magical). According to a non-reductionist perspective on science, which is becoming the dominant paradigm, everything you think, everything you sense, everything you experience is a product of a supernatural entity called “the mind”.

The compartmentalism of the 20th century has caved in. The modern has given way to the postmodern. Positivism has surrendered to post-positivism. Reductive physicalism has surrendered to non-reductive physicalism the emergent understanding of mind, and the downward causation that mind exerts over the brain. What? It works like this: the physical body is engaged in the world, and as the physical brain works in its basic and natural systems, the very working of such systems give rise to an emergent and non-reductive, supernatural mind. The mind depends on the working of the brain, but it can also decide and make judgments of its own, which then create actions that put the brain into still further situations. That is how some philosophers and neuropsychologists explain the “mind over matter” issue. And for me, it also allows that the supernatural understanding of abnormal psychology includes the functioning of the mind.

Proverbs 23:6-8 says: “Do not eat the bread of a selfish man, or desire his delicacies; for as he thinks within himself, so he is. He says to you, 'Eat and drink!' But his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten, and waste your compliments.”

This section contrasts what people do and say apart from the convictions and beliefs that actually comprise who they are. The outward actions, if one were to go strictly by a naturalist-behaviourist approach in psychology, are not as crucial as the supernatural preoccupation of their minds. Sure, people can be trained to do various things, but it's not who they are. God looks at the heart, who a person is on the inside.

As a psychotherapist I find myself in the company of many people. Although I pay attention to what a person says and does, and especially the way in which he or she does that, I know that the other person is having an experience of being with me that is supernatural. That process opens up all kinds of possibilities.

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Published March 06, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated March 06, 2012 at 7:43 am)

I’ve been wondering what ‘supernatural’ means

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