A horrible story from France reminds us yet again why it’s always a bad idea to jump to supernatural conclusions.
Thirteen people were watching TV in a flat, when one of the men heard the baby crying. So he got up to get a bottle for the baby. Apparently he wasn’t wearing any clothes at the time.
“The man got up to prepare a bottle for the baby when his wife, seeing him, screamed ‘It’s the devil, it’s the devil’,” she explained.
In the confusion following this apparent case of mistaken identity, the naked man’s sister-in-law stabbed him in the hand and he was ejected through the front door of the flat. When he attempted to get back in, panic erupted.
“The other occupants of the flat fled by jumping out of the window,” Faivre said. According to police, one man jumped with the two-year-old in his arms and crawled two blocks away to hide in bushes, screaming: “I had to defend myself.”
The two-year-old died in hospital, another victim of superstition.
If you’re trying to explain something, you can go with natural explanations or supernatural ones. Natural explanations are always better. For one thing, you can check them out. And if you have two natural explanations for something, it’s possible to figure out which one is better experimentally. But how do you distinguish between two supernatural explanations? Who made the world, Elohim or Zeus? Or perhaps the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
But supernatural explanations are extremely tempting. They’re easy to come up with and they don’t require understanding anything at all. Saying that a god made the world is easier than understanding biology and cosmology.
In my Mom’s final days, she would sometimes call out the names of deceased family members. My family tended to favour a supernatural explanation for this: the spirits of these people were in the room, waiting to take Mom to a heavenly world. (That they were waiting to take her to Hell didn’t seem to occur to them. Observation: People only arrive at supernatural conclusions that support whatever narrative they buy into.) But there are many natural reasons why she might have called out names. Perhaps she was seeing hallucinations. Perhaps she was calling out lots of names at random, and we only noticed those that were dead. I noticed that she also called out the names of living people, as well as the names of people not in the family. (There was ‘Warren’ — we don’t know a Warren — as well as Charlemagne.) It took a bit of thought and knowledge to come up with these natural explanations, but in general my family liked the supernatural ones better.
The idea of spirits is a very pervasive one, but imagine the implications. There are unseen beings which could possibly be all around you. They might be watching you (yes, even in the bathroom), listening to you, and forming opinions on the things you’re doing. It would be easy to see how this belief could lead to a kind of paranoia. How could it do otherwise? Why wouldn’t you jump out of a window to avoid an evil supernatural enemy?
Supernatural thinking does nothing to advance our understanding. It’s the kind of thinking that kills people.