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.

Slender Man, Aliens, and Kids, Oh My!

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 Lukas:
Here goes. Some time before my friend told me about Dr William Bengston. I as an agnostic of course didn’t believe in the story of this person that he cured cancer in mice but I could not give him any reasonable answer to his experiment and even could not find any skeptic information on this guy on the Internet. Therefore I am asking here if you could help me. Dr. William Bengston claims he can cure people from cancer with his energy healing. The complete info is here:

Thanks for your time reading this and if you could answer it – mostly the pdf. research that my friend send me I would be glad. Thanks very much.

Answer by SmartLX:
This is of course an atheist website, and I dabble in skepticism of the supernatural mainly because claims of the supernatural are often used to support claims of the divine. I’ll address this particular topic because it looks interesting, but supporting theism does not appear to be Bengston’s intention. In fact, he claims that even people who don’t think his healing-hands cure will work can perform it successfully, which contradicts most religions’ claims about the exclusive power of belief.

Anyway, you’re right, there’s hardly anything on Dr Bengston online by skeptics. I see two main causes for this.
1. He hasn’t been targeted as a charlatan as he does not appear to be aggressively pursuing monetary gain – until recently, with the release of his new book and audiobook, so he may soon attract that sort of attention.
2. When Dr Bengston addresses a group of skeptics, he says in the linked interview, he starts by telling them that he’s the only real skeptic in the room, and everyone else is a believer – who believes from the outset that he’s wrong or lying. Telling people right away that they can’t be persuaded is a terrible way to actually persuade them of something, or engage them at all, because it shifts the focus from the evidence to the people and puts them on the defensive. I can think of only two possible reasons why Bengston does this: either he wants a hostile, dismissive response so he can continue to claim prejudice, or he’s genuinely, obliviously bad with people and he seriously needs to let someone else present his findings.

His paper from the first link was published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration which is derided, along with the similarly-titled society that makes it, as a haven for fringe science. Apparently the experiment on breast cancer in mice has been repeatedly successful in saving the lives of the mice, and there’s nothing which obviously contradicts that. There is however something crucial which is missing from the paper: the method, the actual energy-healing technique.

The “Methods and Data” section has plenty about the mice, the cancer and the human participants, but nothing at all about how they went about healing the mice. It’s implied that the core technique is not the placement of (or clothing on) the hands but rather the mental activity of the practitioner, but there isn’t a single hint about what’s involved in that critical aspect. This means that the experiment cannot be repeated without consent and instruction from, and probably the participation of, Bengston himself or his associates. By withholding the details of the very thing which is tested in the experiments, Dr Bengston has retained absolute control of all relevant experimentation and research. If anyone tries without him, he can say they’re doing it wrong and declare the results invalid. This is not conducive to the advancement of science, and the fact that the experiment can’t be done without Bengston does not speak well for its merits.

As I said, he’s got a book out, and reviews of the book on Amazon contain plenty of anecdotes of people healing other people with its help. Any one of these, if genuine, and demonstrably not caused by other factors, could make headlines as a medical “miracle” or win James Randi’s million dollar prize if repeated under experimental conditions. Neither is happening thus far, to my knowledge. Despite all the claims and stories, Dr Bengston’s method is apparently not having an effect on the world at large, and that to me is very important. Something as amazing as a drug-free, doctor-free cancer cure should have a huge impact on the medical community, if only in the form of a huge pushback by the money-makers as Bengston claims, but as we’ve both found, there isn’t even a visible effort by any party to discredit Bengston. He’s a medical non-entity, and will probably remain so until we get more results than the endless parade of tightly controlled but apparently very fortunate mice.

Piercing the Shroud

Question from Peg:
I am an agnostic and skeptic. I am curious and confused about the Shrould of Turin and wondered if you know anything about it. I have heard that the carbon dating that was done was incorrect in that the piece of cloth cut for the dating came from a re-sewn area from when the shroud was in a fire, so another carbon dating has to be done.

Also, the person who said he re-created the shroud was proven inaccurate as well. Evidently, it was not exactly the same as the shroud. From the documentaries I have watched on this, it seems the experts are at a loss to know how it was done. They even went so far as to say that the image could have been made by a “light”.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
Sometimes you don’t have to know how a hoax was achieved to know it’s a hoax, and the Shroud may well be one example of this.

In 2010 Gregory S. Paul published a study of what the markings on the shroud imply about the position and dimensions of the body it would have been shrouding. Most significant (but not alone) among his findings is the fact that the corpse’s head would have been abnormally small relative to the body. The fact that no likely method of fabrication or duplication has yet been found hardly matters when the end result is apparently the imprint of a seriously deformed man. (I find it interesting, but not surprising, that no Christian has attempted to answer this study by supposing that Jesus really was deformed, for example by microcephaly.)

Meanwhile Dr Raymond Rogers, the man who concluded that the earlier carbon dating was of a newer patch of cloth, has given his own estimate. (Scroll down in this article, but read the stuff on the way there if you like.) He places it in the period between 1000 BC and 1700 AD. This estimate does include the time of Jesus but is broad enough to include the entire Medieval era and many others besides. In fact, it includes every period anyone has ever suggested as the origin of the shroud, and is therefore useless for purposes of elimination or deduction. Assuming that we can now identify which parts of the shroud are original and which are not, a new carbon dating analysis of the original material would be nice to see.

To speak more generally, the two points you bring up are instances where people debunked apparent evidence that the shroud is not that of Jesus. That’s very different news to the discovery of positive evidence that the shroud is that of Jesus, which hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen.

Ghosts: Physical Evidence (…not)

“…just because you can’t explain something doesn’t make it supernatural. It merely makes it unexplained – so far.”

Question from Edgar:
I’ve met people who claim to have experienced, or known someone who has experienced, physical encouters with “ghosts”. They claim to have been scratched and had witnesses who testified to them(the scratches). Also, some claimed that they shared paranormal experiences. By that I mean, multiple people seeing or hearing the same thing. How can two or more people hallucinate, or imagine the same exact thing?

I am 19 years old and have considered myself an atheist since 8th grade. When a theist finds out I am a non-believer, they feel they have to challenge me. I have no trouble providing overwhelming evidence(to them) regarding evolution vs creationism. However, I am always stumped when the subject of ghosts emerges. When I am at a loss for words, and they feel they have “defeated” me, they inform me(in their most condescending tone) that I am so naive. That I will one day learn the error of my ways. I need help.

If people feel they have to challenge you, imagine what they throw at a website called Ask the Atheist.

To address the specific claims above, just because someone has real scratches doesn’t mean a ghost made them (anything could have), and assuming you have several people claiming the shared experience instead of just one guy saying others had it too, if something looks or sounds like a ghost in the first impression when multiple people are present, they may well think it is a ghost and reinforce each other’s belief or credulity.

Speaking more generally, what you’re dealing with is either anecdotal evidence or at best circumstantial evidence. The stories of shared experiences are not accompanied by photos or recordings so that others might share in them, so stories or anecdotes are all they are. The scratches might have been made by a ghost, or they might be from scraping a wooden bookcase without noticing before or during the event. None of it proves anything, or goes any distance towards establishing any facts.

Even more broadly speaking, just because you can’t explain something doesn’t make it supernatural. It merely makes it unexplained – so far. Out of the possible explanations, even if they’re quirky or unintuitive, it’s worth asking out loud whether all the natural explanations combined are less likely than an actual ghost of which there is now no trace.

If you’re dealing with any famous claims, rather than friend-of-a-friend stuff, send them in as questions or comments to this question and I’ll see if I can help with some basic research.


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.