In A Nutshell
The terms “paranormal” and “supernatural” are often tossed around to mean the same thing—something we don’t understand. They’re actually two separate terms, though. “Paranormal” refers to something that’s not understood by current scientific knowledge; there’s the potential that something paranormal will someday be explained scientifically, and there’s a likelihood there’s a good, natural explanation for it. “Supernatural” refers to a phenomenon that is beyond our capability to understand, now and simply forever, because it just doesn’t operate under our rules.
The Whole Bushel
We tend to think of paranormal and supernatural things as interchangeable terms. They’re things that we just can’t explain with rational, accepted science. While they’re certainly true, there’s more to it than that.
“Paranormal” refers to the idea that there are phenomenon that occur that we just can’t explain yet—but we might be able to one day. The word itself essentially means “something that exists outside of what we consider to be normal.” There are plenty of things that could have once been considered paranormal phenomena that we can now explain with science. Undoubtedly, the mysterious winter disappearance of birds and summer reappearance of more birds would have seemed bizarre to someone who wasn’t aware that they were actually just migrating south for the winter months. (So bizarre, in fact, that some medieval maps depict “Duck Trees” in an attempt to explain just where more ducks come from.) Rocks that fall from the sky were once a paranormal phenomenon, and now we know that they’re meteorites, and where they come from.
Things that are supernatural can never be explained by our sciences. They are governed by completely different rules than the rules that we’re subject to, and are, by nature, inexplicable. These are the things that we will never be able to document in our scientific methods, these are the things that go against all of our natural rules, they are things that we have no logical basis for.
The realm of the paranormal includes things that we might one day understand, and be able to duplicate in a scientific study or setting and figure out just how they work—once we catch up to them. That includes things like faith healing, telepathy and telekinesis, and clairvoyance. There’s also the field of cryptozoology: One day, Bigfoot might make the jump from paranormal to fact, much like the giant panda, the giant squid, the giraffe, and the okapi once did.
Supernatural things, on the other hand, we will never have a way to document simply because they don’t play by the same rules we do. We’ll never have a way to scientifically observe a god, a guardian angel, or a soul. We’re not going to be able to repeat a miracle in a laboratory. The supernatural is beyond our capabilities of understanding and is instead in the realm of the divine or otherworldly.
Religion and supernatural often go hand in hand. Religion and mythology have long been created to explain things that we just simply can’t. Christianity includes the ideas of a number of things that are defined as supernatural, although they might not commonly be thought of as such. These are things like resurrection, virgin births, and even concepts like grace: by definition, things that simply don’t exist in nature.
The idea of something that’s supernatural has been around most likely as long as people have been creating stories about otherworldly deities to explain what’s going on around them, and the word “supernatural” was first used in the 15th century. The term “paranormal” is a much later invention that came about only in the 1920s.