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.


14 thoughts on “Ghosts and the Paranormal”

  1. A couple of good books to read discussing the supernatural and the spiritual with regards to the human brain and natural sciences are: SPOOK by Mary Roach and SUPERSENSE by Bruce M. Hood.

  2. here again, is more proof of the insanity of religion or the belief in gods. In the first place the bible of the christian religion, in both the old and new testements states over and over that once a person is dead, there is nothing- no existence of any kind until the reserrection, which is not to occur until christ’s return. I do not understand how some people can read the book, profess to believe what it says and then say it says something else. I figure it is either insanity, stupidity, or both. I am an athiest. I do not believe in gods or an existence of some kind after death. I am 70 years old and am a very observant and intelligent being and I have NEVER witnessed any thing beyond the scope of reality. I believe these “ghost stories” and “out of body experiences” and all other such nonsence is just wishfull thinking and an overactive imagination. Truth is, most people just can not accept the fact they are going to die, and that will be the absolute end of thier conciousness for ever. So they make up these fantacy scenarios and if they can convince others that the bible or some religion supports that believe it makes them feel more at ease with thier own eventual demise.

  3. My opinion on the whole ghost thing….
    Just because people have experienced something they perceive as a ghost does not a god make. I have seen something that was paranormal to me but I have drawn the conclusion that just because I saw it doesn’t truly mean that a god exists.

  4. Back at the old family house, we had a mean ‘spirit’ who looked a lot like a Mr. Smith, a mean old dude who had died on the property. He and his wife had lived in a one-bedroom shack in the backyard, but upon his death the woman had to move due to the ‘disturbances’ (being pushed out of bed, dishes breaking, the usual) that suddenly plagued her when at home. Soon after she left, whatever was bothering her seemed to move into the front house and scared the wits out of my grandfather and granny (moving dining room chairs at night so loudly they thought someone was continuously breaking into the house). Soon after, the family dog began whining and crying out in the yard. Worse yet, Mr. Smith’s ‘voice’ was heard calling out to the dog and seemingly not liking its reponse, the voice get gruffer until the dog was almost howling in fright at the sound of its name. At other times Smith’s floating head – complete with the hat he always wore, could be seen striding past the tall windows looking out on the backyard. Now, permitting the idea that my grandfather, grandmother, mother, aunt, and other family members who witnessed these events are all just mind f***ing me, I’d have to say that they believe whatever they witnessed was the ‘real deal’.

    I do believe that whatever Mr. Smith was: ghost, shade, anomalies in the brain – it really did occur. Personally, I’m tired of the stigma associated with the topic and would like more answers. Serious answers, not just religious propaganda or total dismissal. Answers on things such as manipulation of air pressure to move items across the room, or if these spirits are bound by the religion which they grew upon (and thus a ‘Christian ghost’ could successfully be exorcised by a priest, or a Native American spirit appeased by the gift of fruit and a ceremonial blessing. Would it be the ghost that honored these familiar techniques or the folks living in the home that believed these ceremonies worked and that they had vanquished the troubling apparition?). I can understand the contempt thrown at what is seen as primitive superstition, but ignoring the matter as simply ‘fancy’ in every single case of a ‘ghost’ sighting is ignorance and pretentiousness. What we need is some good damn proof! Of course, most skeptics would need that proof to come up and bite them on the broadside before they would stop and consider the teeth marks…

  5. If only there were fresh teeth marks that could be traced to someone long dead, it would all be so much easier.

    A lot of research into the paranormal happens only because people first adopt a working hypothesis that a phenomenon is real and then try to discover how it works. It’s a safer approach for the researchers, because they don’t discredit the whole field if they get no result; they just cross off one potential mechanism and think of another. This is basically the approach you’re taking, but if you’re already convinced that your family’s haunted it’s the most promising avenue for you.

    I’ll just say that you’re probably on the wrong track with your air pressure hypothesis. To lift a solid object, say a dinner plate, using air pressure requires one of three effects:
    1. continuous upward airflow beneath the object, at the strength of an industrial fan,
    2. a similarly powerful airflow across the top of the object, lifting it according to Bernoulli’s principle, or
    3. an increased difference between the static air pressure below and above the object, to the point where either the air below is as thick as liquid or the space above is practically a vacuum.

    Any of these would have easily detectable effects on other objects in the room.

  6. Knowing that my own perspective can be flawed, I have seen strange things that appear paranormal. I am actively searching for a rational explanation, and refuse to jump to conclusions. Its a very tentative line I’m walking. In the words of Sir Arthur Conan, I must create the conclusion so it fits the evidence, and not the other way around.

    1. That’s a good approach to take but keep in mind that, ironically, Doyle himself was no Sherlock Holmes. He was convinced of the existence of fairies by what to our eyes were some pretty flimsy fake photos. (I won’t go into his adventures in spiritualism.) All I’m saying is to be very specific about what evidence you have; in the case of the fairies, it’s the difference between “there are photographs of fairies” and “the photographs purportedly of fairies could not have been fabricated”.

  7. I know that ghosts are Atheists who didnt get into heaven and they are very real. You cannot prove what you do in your dreams yet when you remember them they are very real. You have never seen your brain so how do you know its real? Just like the wind, we do not see it , but we see its effect and we know it is real. Have you ever heard of Howard Storm? Read his story.

    1. Actually, we have seen the wind. Google the pic of the hydrogen atom if you don’t believe me. You can see a brain too. People have seen hundreds of thousands of them, if not millions. Of course, if you really want to play the childish game of “seen it”, we need go no farther than the complete absence of god creatures.

      No one seriously doubts the existence of brains, or wind. We can predict where they are, what they do, and how they react with other things. Ghosts? As the original answer says, there is exactly zero claims substantiated by empirical evidence or data. Same for unicorns, leprechauns, and other bits of fancy. You want them to be real, then prove they are real. Until you can do that, there is no reason to think they are plausible…

    2. “You have never seen your brain so how do you know its real?”

      I’ve seen plenty of human brains, even held some in my hand. I’ve even seen my own. I have a screensaver of my brain undergoing an fMRI scan. It’s definitely real.

  8. The scientific explanation of paranormal sightings or hauntings is the land. Natural material or elements such as the earth or water, stone or wood can hold energy. Sometimes houses (made of natural elements) and/or the land can hold these impressions made by humans that once lived there or were there and they can replay them, making it seem like a haunting or sighting, when in reality like everything else it’s simple science.

    1. The land or a house can indeed absorb energy from the people occupying it, but there’s very little mystery about that energy. It’s heat energy from their bodies, sound energy from the noise they make (which is mostly stored as heat anyway), chemical potential energy from the skin they shed and other bodily outputs, and so on. There’s nothing to suggest that these everyday leavings can ever be reconstituted into recognisable images or sounds of the people that contributed them; it would require a tremendous reversal of entropy.

      The way you’re actually thinking of this, I suspect, is that people are constantly putting out some kind of undetectable spirit energy (or soul echoes? There are a lot of names…) which imbue their inanimate surroundings with incorporeal stored remnants of a person’s identity that can form apparitions more easily. It might qualify as a scientific hypothesis at least, but until the existence or effects of this kind of energy can be measured and tested it will never be more than that.

    2. The energy LX mentions, by the way, doesn’t last very long. The heat from our bodies that a house might absorb is dissipated into the surrounding environment in a matter of hours for example. The energy in, say, dust particles that are made up from our skin flakes doesn’t have enough potential energy to equal a match.

      Which is why “spirit energy” has to be invented, because no known form of energy can achieve such dubious claims. Of course spirit energy actually defies the law of entropy, and has zero empirical evidence backing it up, but that doesn’t keep people from believing the baseless claims of ghosts and specters…

Comments are closed.