The Ubiquitous Supernatural

Question from Kelly:
I am curious about how atheists reconcile their belief in only the natural world, i.e. what can be seen and touched and scientifically proven, etc., with the mass amounts of eyewitness accounts of the supernatural? Every time we turn on our televisions we are presented with such accounts of these unexplained supernatural happenings. If you look back through history these occurrences are nothing new. I personally have witnessed such an occurrence. I am just curious as to what atheists have to say about this aspect of our world that has no other explanation than that it’s supernatural. Thank you

Answer by SmartLX:
Not everything in the natural world can be seen or touched or scientifically proven. A lot of it is too far away, or too small, or can only be detected in parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to which human bodies have no access. Fortunately, evidence for many of these otherwise invisible things can be gathered through scientific experiments and technological advances. In most or even all cases (depending on your philosophy) it doesn’t amount to absolute proof, but it makes these things likely enough to exist that we can confidently behave as if they do.

Supernatural phenomena, by contrast, have no such evidence available. Yes, there are countless accounts and claims of the supernatural, but the more one hears the more important it is to ask why none of these people have ever managed to produce substantive evidence for their claims. Not one verified ghost caught on camera, not one psychic established as reliable, not one faith healer with a better success rate than a placebo. Why? How?

My answer to this question has two major parts. One is that there are countless natural phenomena which can be mistaken for supernatural activity, or cause other natural phenomena to be misidentified. There are an infinite number of ways to be wrong about this stuff. The second part is that getting your supernatural story on television can be very financially rewarding if you spin it right. Whether or not it’s true, amazing = ratings, and everyone wants a piece of that. In these ways, an abundance of supernatural claims is entirely plausible in a world with no supernatural phenomena whatsoever.

It’s important to remember that to be wrong does not imply anything further. I think you’re probably wrong about the nature of what you experienced, even without hearing the story, simply because my opinion is that the influence of any supernatural entity is not present to be sensed or detected. But that’s all, I think you’re wrong. Not stupid, not crazy, not lying, not clinically delusional, just wrong.

You can tell us about your own supernatural occurrence and we’ll all see what we think of it, but in the end it will just be another account, another claim. You’re entitled to believe in it if you were convinced by your experience, but that won’t convince the rest of us. If you can’t back it up, you need to find someone else with a story they can back up, if you’re going to increase acceptance of the supernatural by even a tiny bit.

Ghosts and the Paranormal

“…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.


Ask from the Past: can it ALL be wrong?

“Only faith makes a miracle seem at all likely, all things considered.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from Mike1234:
What about all the things that people have seen like ghost or anything physical or somthing happening out of the norm, is it all just mental and in your head. There have been so many things that people have seen or strange things happening to people that you may of never heard, but in order to not believe in a god everything would have had to been mental or proved scientifically.

According to what i have heard people have had broken arms healed in front of their face and even someone on tv said they have seen a limb regenerate in front of their face.Yes i know some people can be liars, but for every sigle one to be a lie or just something mental would be really rare out of the all those people who had a experience which is probably tons and tons of people. People have become unblind physically at crusades or other supposable things happening according to what i have heard.

Or somebody on tv said that god took him to hell and then brought him back. He said he came out of his body and was physically in hell and then Jesus took him out telling him that many of his own people don’t believe in this place. His wife saw him on the ground holding his head and then jesus brought him back. He said it wasn’t a dream and it was real.or what about some guy getting hit by a semi or car or something and was told by police that he was dead on arrival but somebody, who happened to be a christian out of nowhere started praying for him for about maybe 15 minutes or so, and im not sure if he even knew the guy or not, and the guy cam back. The guy who was hit talked about his experience and how he actually saw a gate ahead of him and how the bible describes it and all, but as soon as he was approaching it he went back into his body.

I am not saying that this is true or anything even though the people sound like they are really telling the truth, but for every single experience to be a lie or something mental or something that can be scientifical would be hard. It would seem like it would take more faith to say that everyone of those is a lie or something else rather then to believe one and have to believe in some type of divine being.

It would take something akin to faith to say with absolute certainty that every one of those claims was utterly false, especially without hearing them all first-hand. That’s why atheists don’t tend to do that.

Perhaps a man did manage to regenerate a limb on the spot, I don’t know. I’ll wait for the evidence, if any. Since it’s extremely unlikely given the little that I know about human anatomy, I’ll assume for the moment that it didn’t really happen. If I’m wrong and evidence comes along later, I’ll be surprised and fascinated.

You raise an interesting point about the sheer number of extraordinary claims, Mike. Just how unlikely is it that all of these people are either wrong or lying? Not as unlikely as you’d think at a glance. Even if several such claims emerged every day, you must remember that such claims are picked up and trumpeted by the media wherever they’ve come from. Out of six billion people, if something has a chance of a million to one you would still expect it to happen to six thousand of them. If it’s newsworthy, the whole world might well hear about most of them.

What’s more difficult to calculate is the probability of a miracle, versus the probability of a lie or an error. What makes a lie likely is that telling an extravagant lie often gets a lot of attention, and can be profitable. You can usually understand why a claimant would be lying if he or she is. What tends to make an error likely, on the other hand, is usually the state of the claimant at the time of the event. You can imagine what I mean by that.

Only faith makes a miracle seem at all likely, all things considered.