Question from Markian:
Ok so sometimes people make claims that they saw something that some would file into the “paranormal” or “supernatural” category. Two examples come to mind. 1) a girl wakes up at 2:30 am, sees a transparent image of a girl she hadn’t talked to in 10 yrs. Then she sees the devil’s face, prays to God, the images go away. 2 days later she sees in the newspaper that this exact girl died at 2:30 that night from an accident. Another one actually happened to my parents. They were at a Church event, and they claim that suddenly things turned demonic. One blonde haired lady suddenly had black hair, people were choking, and finally the priest shouted at “demonic spirits” to leave and then everything turned back to normal. Both of these events are anecdotal and I know many would reject these as hearsay. Although you are being rational by doing so, let’s just say for argument’s sake that these events somehow took place, just give them the benefit of the doubt for a second. Would that confirm the supernatural or paranormal? Or would it still be more appropriate to say that we don’t know what caused these events therefore we could never say they are supernatural or paranormal? I personally believe that even if these 2 events are totally real that they don’t necessarily confirm the existence of spirits, gods, supernatural etc. I want your opinions on my opinion. I know many will say these events are bull but I want to know hypothetically if they were real, does that mean supernatural or is it just something currently unknown? People used to think thunderstorms were gods fighting. Others thought lunar eclipse was something to do with gods. Now we know this isn’t true, so could these cases (granted that they actually occurred) be placed into that category?
Answer by SmartLX:
Thanks for getting the basic point about whether the stories are true out of the way for me.
So, say as far as we can tell one of these things really did happen as described and wasn’t essentially made up by the witnesses. The first thing to ask would be whether or not a hoax can be ruled out. Someone could have scared the first girl with a projection of a photo from Facebook and a devil mask, and turned the clock back to allow for several hours of preparation after the news of her death. The church could have had a quick spray of a noxious gas or odour that affected people sharply before dissipating, and if the woman was a plant she could have had a wig. Elaborate in both cases, yes, but if something apparently amazing has really happened, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that someone just went to a lot of trouble. Some of Derren Brown’s shows have put people through some incredible stuff and not told them right away that it was a trick.
So then let’s say it can’t have been a hoax (the kind of evidence for this would have to be pretty convincing), and therefore you can finally say with confidence that something supernatural or paranormal (the definitions are practically the same) has happened. The nature of both events you describe have elements specific to Christian mythology: the antagonist is the devil or the location is a church and, most importantly, invoking God makes everything all right. That does suggest that an otherworldly intelligence is behind it if it can respond to a specific declaration, but there are several possible reasons why it might do so. Maybe it really is Satan and he fears God. Maybe it’s some lesser poltergeist pretending to be Satan, or who fears God regardless – whether God is also real or not. (If humans can fear a God who appears to be non-existent, why can’t a spirit?) Maybe a living human psychic/telekinetic is making it happen, consciously or not. Use your imagination, but the point is that even if the supernatural occurs exactly the way believers expect they may still need to wonder whether they’re being supernaturally had. Lots of them fall for false miracles done in old-fashioned ways as it is, or Peter Popoff would never have got anywhere.
Question from Jourdua:
Are there any skeptics out there who have done research on slender man, aliens, and alien abduction?
Are pictures of slender man fake?
Can you give me any information on skeptic research on this topic especially slender man and child abduction?
Answer by SmartLX:
In the Slender Man, we have a rare opportunity to witness the birth and early dissemination of what we know for a fact to be an urban myth. As explained on Know Your Meme, the first images of Slender Man were created as entries for a Photoshop contest on Something Awful, the object of which was to deliberately fabricate images of paranormal phenomena. (The KYM link even has an interview with the creator.) The images captured the imagination of the online community, which started cranking out videos, games, cosplay and every other conceivable kind of contribution to the Slender Man mythos.
Right now nearly everyone knows it’s made-up, but who can say how long it’ll be before a significant number of people have heard of the Slender Man without also hearing that he’s not real? At that point, he will become a bonafide mythical humanoid creature alongside Bigfoot and the Mothman – which goes to show how easily those could also have been made up years ago. The important thing, though, is that real children have nothing to fear from this new blank-faced boogeyman.
Aliens and alien abduction are of course a much broader subject, and one to which skeptics have devoted considerable effort, especially since the idea was massively popularised by The X-Files. An overview of the subject can be found on RationalWiki, and here for instance is an active forum (aligned with world-famous skeptic James Randi) devoted to analysing any such claims that may surface. The consensus at the moment is that there’s no credible threat to children or anyone else from alien monsters. Sadly, there are plenty of ordinary but monstrous humans capable of being as cruel to children as any imagined creature.
Really, the skeptical material on aliens is all over the place if you do a simple search. As they say down here, get amongst it.
Question from Chris:
What would you say about ghosts and paranormal activity?
It is hard to deny the existence of ghosts or haunted places. There are many videos like this –
– that show ghosts on tape and such.
How can you as an atheist explain this?
There are many documented cases of ghosts. Assuming that there is no God then how are there ghosts and spirits?
Answer by SmartLX:
There are many documented claims of ghosts, but not one confirmed actual ghost. Shows like Ghost Adventures in the video above do everything they can to convince viewers that that supernatural experiences occur, but with all the “evidence” they supposedly accumulate after multiple seasons they never bother to take their case to mainstream scientists for analysis. You eventually have to wonder whether the hosts and producers are at all sincere. (To their credit, the Ghost Adventures guys essentially filmed a retraction after their night vision camera caught a guest very obviously faking a poltergeist event. Whether or not they’re honest ghost hunters, that had to be embarrassing or at least annoying.)
There are indeed many videos purporting to capture ghosts or ghost activity, but they fall into two categories: those which have not been proven to be genuine, and those which have been proven not to be genuine. There are so many of them because not only are there many ways to fake such a video, there are many reasons to fake such a video. Many of these reasons, though not all, have to do with money. I’ll let you work out what they are. In the end there is just no available, substantive evidence for ghosts, so there’s no more reason to believe in ghosts than in gods. If you know of a particular video or story which you think does constitute substantive evidence, link to it in a comment and we’ll discuss it.
We actually have had a few people write in who claim to be atheists and yet believe in ghosts. Most of the time it’s because they’ve had an unexplained personal experience which convinced them, which is no good for then convincing anyone else but is very effective for creating belief in one person. The resulting rationales tend to posit that souls and an afterlife do exist but they’re not created or controlled by anything resembling a god, instead relying on supernatural energies and other non-divine phenomena. These atheist spiritualists therefore have a very decentralised concept of the afterlife, and of whatever non-ex-human spirits may exist in addition to ghosts. I say the same thing to them as I say to believers in gods: produce your evidence.
Question from Lukas:
First of all I want to thank this site for the answers I received so far. It really helps in discussions with believers.
Now to my new question which is rather long. A friend of mine who is a believer sent me a web address of a blog where he gives his reasons why he is a believer – he is a fan of Michael Prescott. I could not find good answers for these things:
(Shortened for quick reading, but see the full piece here)
1. The anthropic principle and cosmic coincidences. It is now a commonplace of astrophysics and cosmology that our universe appears to be “fine-tuned” to be orderly and habitable.
2. The origin of life. The old idea that the first living cell came together spontaneously by pure chance is no longer seriously argued, now that scanning electron microscopy has shown us the fantastic complexity of even the “simplest” cell.
(Points 1 and 2 are the ones that apparently persuaded Anthony Flew.)
3. All attempts to ground morality in naturalistic laws or brute physical facts have (in my opinion) failed, leaving us with two choices: either moral values are subjective and arbitrary, or they are objective but grounded in something outside nature.
4. Materialism, the view that the physical world is all that exists and that mind is, at best, only an epiphenomenon (i.e., trivial side effect) of matter, leads to a debased view of human beings, who are seen as mere animals, machines, robots, or vehicles for genetic reproduction. The dignity of man is incompatible with philosophical materialism.
5. On a personal level, I feel that life simply has no meaning if “this is all there is.”
6. In studying history, I became aware of the very large contribution to human happiness, well-being, and moral advancement made by religion.
7. Finally, after being an extreme skeptic with regard to paranormal phenomena, I began to study the field and found that much of the evidence was unexpectedly strong. This includes evidence for life after death, such as near-death experiences and the better-documented cases of apparitions, deathbed visions, and mediumship.
If you could please answer these questions I would be very glad.
Also thanks again for your time and this site its really great. Thanks for the answer and have a nice day.
Answer by SmartLX:
Your friend has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at you, and it only took him one link. Let’s dive into the pile, and see if crime writer Prescott has uncovered any real-life mysteries.
1. See my pieces on the fine tuning argument together here. Some of the main points:
– The term “fine-tuned” presumes a tuner in the first place.
– The fact that life is only supported on one tiny world within light years suggests that if it’s tuned at all it’s very poorly tuned.
– Some of the “tuned” constants could actually vary by a great deal and still allow life to form.
– We know at least one universe exists, and a multiverse hypothesis merely posits the existence of more of them. A god is completely without precedent in science and observation.
2. Prescott is just plain wrong here. The idea that the original proto-biology coalesced without being directed to do so is seriously argued, and there are a number of quite detailed models currently in play. He’s also wrong about the unlikelihood of new information emerging from disorder without a capital-M Mind to guide it, because it happens all the damn time. I recently argued this very point here.
3. We can argue about religious vs secular morality, but when you get down to it Prescott is just arguing that if there’s no god there’s no objective morality and this would be bad. Something is not more or less likely to be true based on whether it’s good or bad for us; an earthquake that kills millions is just as real as the discovery of a vaccine that saves millions. To suggest otherwise is a well-recognised logical fallacy called an argument from consequences.
4. Similarly, here he’s only saying that it’s better not to look at ourselves from a materialistic perspective (I disagree), and not bothering to actually argue that materialism is false. Same issue as #3.
5. If he can only find meaning in life if there’s a god, that’s his problem. To say it’s an actual argument supporting the existence of one, even to himself, is a third argument from consequences. Besides, I can find meaning in life without a god, and so can others.
6. Even if he’s right about the historical benefits of widespread religion, it’s a total non-sequitur to say that means there’s a god. Religion can have done everything it’s reliably recorded as having done over the millenia without the assistance of a single real deity. Such is the power of human belief and cooperation, for good or ill.
7. Even if paranormal phenomena were real, he’d have a lot of trouble linking them to any particular god. As for near-death experiences, that consciousness survives death is exactly the claim which lacks empirical evidence. I had my biggest discussion of this almost exactly five years ago on the old site (now archived, so don’t try to comment there) and in my estimation little of relevance has changed since.
So, all up there’s not much “philosophy of religion” from Prescott which is new. If Prescott is happy to use this stuff to convince himself, fine, but it doesn’t convince me.
“If someone’s really interacted with a ghost and can prove it, wouldn’t we all want to be the first to know? Until then, I take each claim as it comes.”
Question from Robert:
What is an Atheists position on the paranormal, and what do you say to people who have experienced paranormal activity?
Answer by SmartLX:
Save the capital A, please. It’s not named after anyone, it’s not a complete philosophical “school” and it doesn’t trigger the special case for deities. You wouldn’t capitalise a theist, so you shouldn’t capitalise an atheist either.
There is no one atheist position on the paranormal – by which, from your title “Hauntings”, I assume you principally mean ghosts. We’ve had self-proclaimed atheists here arguing with other self-proclaimed atheists over whether ghosts exist. It’s not necessarily a contradiction for an atheist to believe in ghosts if he/she sees a way people can persist after their own deaths without the help of a god. Personally, while I know people leave behind great legacies when they die, I don’t think they continue to exist as literal ghosts. And I don’t think there’s any available, substantive evidence for any other “paranormal” phenomena, which for me puts them all in the same category as gods.
Thus, there’s nobody I’ve ever spoken to who I can be confident has actually experienced paranormal activity. When people say that they’ve experienced paranormal activity, which sometimes they do, I ask for their evidence and I discuss alternative explanations with them. If someone’s really interacted with a ghost and can prove it, wouldn’t we all want to be the first to know? Until then, I take each claim as it comes.
“…if the basketball at the next NBA finals were to suddenly fall upwards and get stuck under the scoreboard, the theory of gravity would be challenged and science would have a lot of catching up to do. That does not mean it’s at all likely to actually happen.“
Question from Rory:
When confronted by the issue of the existence of ghosts or spirits by a religious person I find myself stumped to find a scientific explanation to respond with.
Obviously many supposed sightings of ‘ghosts’ have been misunderstandings, camera trickery or an exaggerated memory.
Much like the stories of religion and the image of god, our perception of what a ghost is is entirely manmade; usually the image of a transparent human figure.
But suppose someone really did see something paranormal, irrefutably standing in front of them, maybe a human figure or some other unexplainable entity. Are there any scientific theories to explain these things? Is it possible to see reflections of the past, for example?
I should point out, I do not believe in the existence of ghosts and have never seen anything that I could ever perceive to be anything paranormal.
I am an atheist and don’t believe in much more than what we see and can be proven.
Neither do I believe in ghosts. I simply feel that when combatting an argument against someone who claims to have seen a ghost, the argument of the sighting potentially being anything and simply a misunderstanding comes across as vague and weak (although almost certainly true).
IF someone really did see a ghost, spirit or other supernatural entity, and could prove beyond reasonable doubt that they did (have fun imagining how), then naturalistic views of the universe would be challenged. That’s a big if. Significantly, this has not happened (or even been convincingly faked) in centuries of investigations and claimed sightings.
Thinking sideways for a moment, if the basketball at the next NBA finals were to suddenly fall upwards and get stuck under the scoreboard, the theory of gravity would be challenged and science would have a lot of catching up to do. That does not mean it’s at all likely to actually happen.
That said, since science is permanently in the business of correcting itself when new information and evidence come to light, it’s probably quite likely that phenomena will be observed which at first do not seem natural, but will ultimately be furnished with a natural explanation which is then confirmed by experiment.
James Randi has a word to describe such phenomena: perinormal rather than paranormal. Peri, as in “periphery”, implies that such things are right on the edges of human knowledge waiting to be discovered. When Randi was running his Million Dollar Challenge to test self-proclaimed psychics, it was his faint hope that a candidate would pass the test and demonstrate a real perinormal ability, and that the discovery of its mechanism would be well worth the prize money.
For the moment, however, there are no unambiguously demonstrated perinormal phenomena to consider, let alone genuinely paranormal. So we wait, and we investigate claims. The burden of proof is on those making the claims. Responses to unsubstantiated claims are necessarily vague, since an unsubstantiated claim tends to be devoid of useful, verifiable details. That doesn’t make the responses weak relative to the claims, it simply makes them appropriate.
One other point I should make is that if religious people are making claims of ghosts in order to support their religions, it’s worth asking them and yourself whether what they describe actually links exclusively to one religion. Otherwise they may in fact be describing events which, if true, suggest that they’re worshipping the wrong god or gods.