Calamities of SuperNature

By Sean Carroll | June 18, 2011 9:40 am

Tony Piro, the artist behind the webcomic Calamities of Nature, explains the relationship between science and the supernatural better than I ever could.

Click for the rest of the exciting story. Via Evolving Thoughts.

  • Steven

    I would add that these claims if true would also contradict established science. It isn’t just that science can’t explain it, it is that in light of what science can explain, these things don’t make sense. The have a very low prior probablity.

  • Martin

    This isn’t that smart and it isn’t that funny. Your standards for what constitutes good seem to vary inversely with how closely they align with your worldview.

  • Alex

    Oh come now, surely there’s more philosophical depth to this issue than just this. Can we really say that Schrodinger’s equation or general relativity or whatever theory you like “interacts” with the world in any meaningful sense?

    As a scientist, these theories have a lot more elegance because by (scientific) induction they appear to correctly predict phenomena, but Occam’s razor doesn’t work this way for everyone. For some, “As a general rule, God makes things fall down” is a much simpler explanation.

    For me at least, my belief in the nonexistence of God is based on the lack of an a priori reason for his existence and the relative lack of predictive value of a theory including his existence. It certainly is not based on whether God would interact more or less with the world than a mathematical equation, even though I ascribe some degree of truth to many of those.

  • Carlos Bardullas Subirats

    Dear Dr. Sean, from the reading of several of your papers at “” and that other fine stuff you write at sites like this one, I learned you are a very gifted person… I refer to what you told at the tweet wich have leaded me here: “[…] If I had even a smidgen of artistic talent I would try myself.”… I am sure you already have a lot of artistic talent… I have drawn my first comic character at the age of 5: A donkey head built out of five ellipses… Then I started to develop my main skil (graphic designer) at such an age… Much later, at my third age, I started trying to be a researcher… Please, for the shake of every one of your followers, don’t do the same mistake: Start now on discovering what the outcome of the synergy of both of your brain lobes working in harmony whould be.

  • Carlos Bardullas Subirats

    I missed to add the need to put both brain loves in harmony with your heart.

    NOTE: By the way… Tank you a lot for those three tweets you posted on 02/06/2011 explaining what particles and waves are… That is the best explanation about such a complex subject I ever have seen… I have it now very clear.

  • Kevin

    Excellent comic.

    @ #3, Alex:

    Theories and equations describe how physical entities interact with the world. The soul, if it existed, would be one of those physical entities.

    Also, Occam’s Razor only works one way: minimum message length. Many people don’t understand mathematical/computational simplicity, but that just means they’re using the razor incorrectly.

  • Joseph Smidt

    Actually, there is a major flaw in this logic if you understood religion the way a lot of people believe it.

    Many, if not most Christians, view this world as a place where we are being tested to decide whether we want to serve God or not without Him interfering. (Hence things like Pascal’s wager.) If God interfered it wouldn’t be a valid test just as if your professor helps/hurts your performance during the middle of a final it isn’t a valid final for a school course. It is in *the next life* that God gives out the awards and/or punishments. (Or interacts with you.)

    So, this comic is funny and witty on one hand but it also shows that the common atheist misunderstands religion as much as Ken Ham’s followers misunderstand science. (But the jokes each side makes are always funny to their own tribe and to be honest I don’t mind but everyone should just be aware such comics show a lot of misunderstanding. )

  • Johan Fruh

    @ 7.,
    The major flaw in that logic of religion, in my opinion, is that the only way of getting people to believe in a religion in the first place, is through interaction with what is considered divine. Either directly, or through history.
    Jesus, prayer, miracles, holy water, a best-seller book, Mary’s face appearing on a toast etc…

    It’s only through these “interactions” that we come to believe…
    So again, either these interactions exist, and there is a way of scientifically observing these…. be it with our eyes, ears, microscope, radars, whatever…
    Or these interactions don’t exist, in which case there is no reason to believe it in the first place.

  • Anchor

    Joseph Smidt says, “Actually, there is a major flaw in this logic if you understood religion the way a lot of people believe it…So, this comic is funny and witty on one hand but it also shows that the common atheist misunderstands religion as much as Ken Ham’s followers misunderstand science.”

    Ah, so naturally BELIEF in supernatural shennanigans is exempt from belonging to natural reality.

    Nice to know that selective bias so conveniently comes to the rescue. Just believe it and the OBJECT of the belief is elevated to existence and cannot be investigated by science, such examination being hobbled by the real-world necessity for tangible interaction.

    We may all therefore rest assured nobody can deny any belief or challenge the idea that one’s belief is identical to the object of that belief. Belief is untouchable, therefore the object of the belief must exist. (For extra credit, plug thumbs in both ears, wiggle the fingers, stick out your tongue and whine: “nyaa, nyaa, nyaa-nyaa! Take THAT, you abominable disbelievers!”). Why, its so easy any 6 year-old child can do it.

    You know, I’ve been wondering for ages just where precisely atheists so grievously ‘misunderstand religion’. Thank you for the insight pointing out the “major flaw in this logic”…um, “if you understood religion the way a lot of people believe it.”

  • AnotherSean

    Of course science doesn’t understand immortal minds. It doesn’t understand living ones very well yet either. My guess is tremendous progress will be made in the future, but its less than clear the extent to which the project can ultimately be completed. Will we ultimately find that we need souls in a causal description of oursevles? I doubt it, but such descriptions nevcr require the whole reality, and so this doesn’t mean much.

  • The Barber of Civility

    @Martin –

    Of COURSE that is how he defines it. Don’t you?

    @Joseph Smidt –

    If immortal minds (God) exist (and, mind you, there may be one or more, but we can’t prove there are, yet), then we would try our best to find out how they work. It might take a while. It’s going to take a long while to understand how OUR minds work, but, someday, we will. If you can show us an immortal mind, we’ll start working on understanding it immediately.

    The key here is that, unless there is some manifestation of what someone believes in that can be pointed at directly (touch, taste, smell, hear, etc.), then we can believe it exists and begin to understand. Belief without that direct interaction is simply a form of fantasy until we can prove it exists.

  • Kevin

    @ #7, Joseph Smidt:

    No, that’s not how most Christians view the world. They pray to God to intervene, thank God when good things happen, and believe that God causes miracles. People only retreat to the view that you describe when they feel that their beliefs are in danger of being falsified. See the article Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    The common understanding of miracles is essentially that something supernatural interacts with things that are wholly natural in ways that naturalistic approaches like science are not capable of explaining, because natural beings cannot replicate miraculous events. The comic is simply wrong.

  • Fraser

    @ Kevin

    Occam’s Razor – most ontologically efficient explanation

    @ Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    What science is capable of explaining is not limited by what it is possible to replicate, but what it is possible to observe. It is possible to observe miracles, one would think. Having never observed one I wouldn’t know. The point is that ‘scientific knowledge’ is no claim to the universe necessarily being a certain way i.e. god existing or not, it is simply the best explanation for the data that is available. That data comes from observation. If there were sufficient data to suggest that there are such ‘supernatural interactions’ then it would be necessary to assimilate those interactions into scientific theory. What the comic is assuming is that the scientific data we have is representative of all of human experience, and that it does not suggest that there are interactions of this ‘supernatual’ type. To say the comic is wrong is to say that there are interactions that occur and that affect the natural world, but that for some particular reason have never shown up in instances of scientific observation. Can you explain that reason?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’m not defending the belief in miracles, but the point is that, being miraculous, there’s always a loophole. I could, according to the logic of a believer in miracles, easily explain why miraculous events are never subjected to scientific scrutiny: God does not want them to be. God only wants the faithful to see them. So, fine, expand the definition of “scientific” to accommodate uncontrolled observations (though I think single observations of extraordinary and unique events are problematic in the context of science).

    Unless the comic means to suggest that anything that happens is not miraculous, and hence miracles never happen, there’s no useful point being made, as far as I can see. And even then, the only interesting aspect of such an argument apparently would be suggest that if God (or some other supernatural agent) acts on a natural plane, He/It ceases to be supernatural. I don’t think arguing against the supernatural by assimilating it is a valid defense of science or naturalism. I tend to think that if the two concepts, the natural and supernatural, have meaning, then they can be distinguished. And if they can be distinguished, then magical thinking is simply impossible to refute with non-magical thinking. Magical thinking has no constraints. It utterly lacks rigor as a result, but the point is not to praise its imperviousness, but to simply acknowledge it, however worthless it might be.

    In summary: Don’t waste your time arguing against it. Faith is unfettered by reason, and quite beyond it.

  • AJKamper

    I think that phenomena that are fundamentally unpredictable–that is, that can’t be predicted even based on probability like QM functions–could interact with the real world yet be impervious to science, which requires repeatability and testability in order to function.

    Heck, from a scientific perspective, it’s basically inconceivable. It shatters all our notions of causality. But for example, if free will did exist, you couldn’t make any hypotheses about it, because you couldn’t test the answer. Nonscientific, yet “real.”

  • Anchor

    “Faith is unfettered by reason, and quite beyond it.”

    I would say it lies or lags considerably beneath or behind it.

  • Gammaburst

    Occam’s Razor is essentially an intellectual aesthetic preference for the simplest answer that explains the data. Occam’s Razor itself is not a provable proposition.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I think to conflate the probabilistic nature of the results of certain experiments involving quantum mechanical phenomena with bona fide miracles is improper. While the precise path of a photon in a double-slit experiment cannot be predicted with certainty, the probability distribution that describes the outcome of any such experiment is as predictable as the precision of our instruments can measure, completely reproducible, and the theory behind it is still entirely deterministic. If this were not true, in the decoherent realm of our senses, nothing would be predictable at all. There’s nothing miraculous about it, and to my mind quantum mechanics fits the scientific paradigm as well as anything human beings have ever conceived of.

  • Lord

    People argue against the existence of everything for which they have no evidence or any theory by which such evidence may be found. People even argue against the existence of anything for which evidence is ambiguous or simpleminded theories that can’t explain what evidence there is. There is always value in keeping an open mind to the appearance of such evidence or theories in the future though. Science is not a closed endeavor.

  • AJKamper

    @LM,MI (#19)

    “I think to conflate the probabilistic nature of the results of certain experiments involving quantum mechanical phenomena with bona fide miracles is improper”

    Not sure if this was directed at me, but I completely agree. Any apparent unpredictability seems to be much more the fault of our perception of the world than the world itself, and the probability distribution is (as you say) entirely deterministic.

    I can, however, conceive of unpredictable and NON-deterministic phenomena. It’s just that QM ain’t one of them.

  • Kevin

    @ #18, Gammaburst:

    That is not correct. Occam’s Razor can be stated in a mathematically rigorous way, informed by such concepts as Bayes’ Theorem and the conjunction rule. This leads to minimum message length, as I referenced in #6. It’s a statement of basic truths of probability: if several hypotheses explain the same evidence equally well, and the hypothesis with the fewest details (i.e. fewer entities that must exist together) is the most probable.

  • Gammaburst

    @ #22, Kevin:

    Thanks Kevin. I am not at all surprised that there is a mathmatical formulation of Occam’s Razor nor am I surprised that it identifies the most probable hypothesis. I too prefer the least complicated answers. One small point- “most probable” is not the same as “proven”. One larger point- we never know when our data set is complete. The possibility always exists that future data will reveal our current theories are incomplete or that they are a special case of a larger theory or that a phenomenon is heterogenious with multiple causes. We can’t wait forever to publish our papers or make our decisions. When we close the data set and draw our conclusions we are making a decision, albeit informed by education and experience, that is subjective and (in that sense) aesthetic.

  • Kevin

    Don’t forget, science never proves anything. This is why results should be given in a Bayesian way: conclusions stated probabilistically with confidence levels and conditionally based on the current state of the evidence. There may always be a simpler theory lurking out in the unexplored regions of theory-space, but that doesn’t mean we can’t rule out quite a few over-complicated theories in the regions that we have explored.

  • JimV

    It’s never funny when its your ox being gored. Most humor is based on someone else’s pain, preferably someone who deserves it. In any case, the classy reaction is to grin and pretend you see the joke. SNL once did a skit, long ago when I was a young engineer, called “The Engineer’s Fashion Show”. Every set of apparel modeled had a plastic pocket-protector, like the one I wore to work every day. When the guy came out in a bathing suit with a pocket-protector taped to his chest, I had to say, “Okay, touche’, you got me.”


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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