In your mind, if you can, picture a supernatural object.
I wonder what you saw. Perhaps the Holy Grail? Maybe a magic wand from Harry Potter, or a copy of the fabled Necronomicon? There are a lot of options.
When you think about it, though, none of them really count.
The supernatural is the domain of that which is unexplained by science. Insufficient detail or knowledge isn’t enough to justify the label. The supernatural is anything whose properties or behaviour stand at odds with, or entirely beyond, a conventional scientific explanation. Accordingly, I put it to you that an object in this world can be either real — and thus genuinely visualisable, and without supernatural properties per se — or supernatural only in the sense of being consequentially imaginary.
If you pictured something from the realm of visual fantasy like movies or TV, it wasn’t supernatural: it was either a conventional physical object with the benefit of special effects, or it was a digital creation and thus illusory. Religious artefacts likewise don’t count, because supernatural properties must by necessity be demonstrable in order to be verifiably excluded from the realm of scientific explanation. A holy book, ornament, pendant, and so forth are all just physical objects, like a movie prop, and subject to the same wilful suspension of disbelief.
It’s valid to point out, though, that supernatural objects aren’t necessarily at odds with philosophical naturalism or materialism; they just aren’t yet part of those spheres. A great many facets of contemporary society would have been perceived as supernatural in previous eras — a classification which would have been accurate at the time, no matter how incorrect retrospectively.
Even so, I think it’s fair to say that when I asked, you didn’t imagine a mobile phone, or an autonomous vacuum cleaner, as viewed by a person from the past. The supernatural is a shifting target, when you get right down to it; forever subject to perception and context.
So far, so boring.
But there’s still room to manoeuvre. As a writing exercise, say, we can imagine what it might be like to encounter such an object. Nothing specific, but rather in the general case. If we were just going about our lives — our real, actual lives here — and we stumbled upon something that didn’t fit within our understanding. Something that didn’t fit within any accepted understanding. An anomalous, incongruent, uncooperative thing.
What would that be like?
There would be an attempt at explanation, of course. Perhaps many attempts, but in this scenario those attempts would all fail. The object would remain stubbornly there nonetheless — and it’s the there-ness that would begin to frighten us. Because a supernatural object (or phenomenon; they’re one and the same, after all) isn’t dissonant for its specific effect or unnaturalness, but rather for what it portends. That’s the problem. It’s like the P=NP question in computing science.
If this can exist, what else can?
The thing about science is that it’s always in progress, and precarious, and internally interdependent. If you could pick away some tiny but fundamental corner, much more would also fall. A truly supernatural object would be less of a figurative box, and more of a bomb — where the consequential effect is what’s so formidable.
If you found one, a supernatural object would — by its very existence, and regardless of what it was or what it did — afford one cataclysmic insight above all others. Probably the worst and most destructive knowledge possible, which gains all its damaging power by having shifted from eternal suspicion to now-undeniable fact.
A supernatural object, confirmed to exist, wouldn’t need to directly do anything at all. A fool would be immune to its implications, but a considering and reasoning person would be poisoned forever from the first moment of insight. To just know of it would be a catastrophe of spiralling realisations and questions. It would be a crack, spidering outwards, opening a network of ravines that everything else would topple into.
Nothing would escape the reframing of knowledge that would be required. Not just science, but also philosophy and religion and politics too. A single supernatural object, as soon as it was known to be such, would be Pandora’s box for the human mind, and for all that we’ve built. It would implicitly append “but not necessarily” to all of our rules and observations. It would change who we are, and we could probably never change back.
It’s a thought exercise, and what it’s really about is writing — or creativity generally. The object itself isn’t what matters. In my own mind, I saw it as something dark-coloured, mineral-like, with a definite symmetry but unrecognisable as a likeness of anything. Perhaps with the barest suggestion of detailed contours. Small enough to grasp in one hand, or throw into a bag. It’s cold; more so than its surroundings would warrant. I think that animals are instinctively afraid of it. I think that sophisticated machines become unreliable in its presence.
But that’s just because of the images and ideas I was brought up on — and it’s only one of infinite possible forms. As I said, the object doesn’t matter, because it’s really a category: an isolated one, hidden at the edge of our consciousness, difficult to even think about clearly, much less to articulate.
What matters is how we’d react to the hypothetical objective fact of its existence. That’s where the interesting stories lie; at that junction between person and plot device. The moment in a tale that’s already run for thousands of words, but which really begins with a person silently making a realisation that can never be taken back for as long as their faculties remain intact.
The universe doesn’t work the way we think it does.