Phil at Bad Astronomy opined (and it is a common opinion) that the supernatural is incoherent:
If you posit some thing that has no perceivable or measurable effect, then it may as well not exist. And as soon as you claim it does have an effect — it can be seen, heard, recorded, felt — then it must be in some way testable, and therefore subject to science.
Joshua was not so sure about this. The supernatural could, perhaps, interact observably with the universe at some times but not at others. Under normal circumstances the normal laws apply, under others, supernatural stuff happens. Chad weighed in on that:
The obvious rejoinder to this, leaped upon by a bunch of people in comments, is that if the supernatural doesn’t behave according to known laws of nature, that just means that the known laws are incomplete, and some more complete theory would encompass the seemingly supernatural. Which is true as far as it goes, but misses a subtle point, namely the determinability of those laws.
He went on to give the difficulty of observing quantum effects on a macroscopic level as an instance of even “normal” laws of nature being difficult to completely verify.
Basically this is a long-running argument which is interesting but basically totally irrelevant to the perennial arguments between theists and atheists (of New or other varities). In practice, no one cares if God or other possible forms of the supernatural would somehow ontologically “above” the laws of nature, or whether they would simply be a part of nature obeying laws that aren’t normally apparent in everyday life. Most people only care whether God exists in a way that could be empirically verified by, say, dying and waking up in Heaven.
But I’m not about to make this the bazillion and first post on ScienceBlogs to wade into that tar pit. I care about Saruman’s grad students.
In Lord of the Rings, we have a universe in which magic unambiguously exists. Sure, you could argue it doesn’t exist in the philosophical nitpick sense, since magic might just be part of natural laws that are incompletely known. But again, nobody really cares about that. In the practical sense, there’s magic. Magic rings, ghost armies, enchanted ropes, spoken incantations, a realm of gods reachable by boat, etc.
Professor Saruman lives at the top of a tower noodling around his library while his employees work underground doing arcane biology and chemical engineering experiments. At least some of this is manifestly ordinary science, in the sense that we wouldn’t consider it magic if it happened in our world. They build war machinery. Arguably they develop and deploy gunpowder weapons:
Even as they spoke there came a blare of trumpets. Then there was a crash and a flash of flame and smoke. The waters of the Deeping-stream poured out hissing and foaming: they were choked no longer, a gaping hole was blasted in the wall. A host of dark shapes poured in.
‘Devilry of Saruman!’ cried Aragorn. “They have crept in the culvert again, while we talked, and they have lit the fire of Orthanc beneath our feet…”
In the book this might be interpreted as pure magic, though both I and the films think gunpowder is more plausible. Sauron’s grad students have managed to figure out quite a bit of actual science despite living in a world where magic exists.
Conversely, not all magic in the world is available for scientific examination despite manifestly existing. The One Ring by its nature tends to spend its time on the finger of someone who’s not going to make it available for peer review. No doubt knowing there was a Nobel in it, Saruman convened professional conferences on the topic, with little success. Systematic scientific methods just didn’t work very well.
Ok, ok. I admit this post isn’t serious. But I hope it illustrates why I can’t take the whole “the supernatural and science are/aren’t incompatible by definition” argument seriously either. In any practical sense, the question of the philosophical comparability of science and the supernatural is completely orthogonal to the question of whether the supernatural exists in a way that most people are likely to care about. Nor do I claim that science is irrelevant to that question; some claims about the supernatural are testable by science. By all means feel free to argue apologetics until you’re blue in the face. But the particular philosophical question being batted around here is basically on the level of speculating whether we’re really in the Matrix.
Which I’ll admit is also fun to argue about…