Question from Jacob:
Hello, so it’s me again, got some more questions for ya. Throughout history, there have been many reports of supernatural phenomena. Most of them usually have a religious undertone, for example, some people levitate others do healings, sometimes divine or demonic figures appear. In any case, these reports range from various cultures and time periods seen by hundreds of thousands of people which continues to this day. How could someone have imagined all this?
Answer by SmartLX:
“Someone” didn’t. Millions of people across the globe imagined it all cumulatively over a period of millennia. That’s a lot of imagination.
To say it’s all pure imagination is an oversimplification, of course. Here are some more specific sources.
– Unexplained phenomena will be rationalised in terms of whatever faith-based supernatural concepts people hold, simply because it’s in the right category. It looks like magic, my god is magic, therefore my god did it. This is a formal logical fallacy, but it’s as far as many people’s thinking goes.
– When religion holds social or political power, it affects the historical record. If priests claim an occurrence, or claim credit for an event on behalf of the ruling god, few dare dispute them.
– Any supernatural effect which is faked, or exploited for material gain whether faked or mistaken, is far more effective when linked to the majority religion. It goes from a curiosity to a possible call to action, and compels believers to consider it very carefully. They must think, “Why did my god do this, and how should I react?” This gives it a much bigger profile in the public consciousness.
Similarly to my approach to prophecies, each claim of a supernatural event has more possibilities than the false dilemma that it was either genuinely supernatural or it was made up from nothing. Once you consider a few of your favourite stories from the standpoint of just how many different ways they could have come about, the sheer number of supernatural claims throughout history is severely tempered by the high probability that any given event was something other than an act of God.
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 Halil:
Hello guys, I wanted to thank you so far for answering my questions, all answers are much appreciated and most were very logical and rational, which is what I was looking for.
Today I wanted to ask you guys what you think of out of body experiences or OBEs. I am not exactly sure what to make of it. I have read that G Force pilots sometimes have OBEs while they are in flight simulator, as the brain loses blood, oxygen, and is confused. Therefore, from that it would make the most sense to assume that OBEs are a result of a confused brain, struggling to locate exactly where it is in relation to the body. However, I have noticed that some of these OBEs that you read about, from Dr. Jeffrey Long, from Peter Fenwick, sound a bit complicated. For example, people will report floating to another room and obtaining information that they could not have obtained. My aunt had an OBE where she apparently floating outside the hospital, and saw her son with a cigarette in his mouth. Apparently, that was the first time he ever did it, so it was believed that she could not have known that if it wasn’t for the OBE. Other people claim to have left hospitals, gone to a friend’s house, and confirmed later on that what they saw their friend doing actually occurred. One case was interesting where a guy dreamed that his friend died. She actually got into an accident that day, and he didn’t know. Then she apparently had an OBE where she floated to his house and saw him sleeping.
It is experiences like this that make me wonder. They sound too complex for the brain to make up. What are your opinions?
Answer by SmartLX:
Cases where OBEs or NDEs (near death experiences) are claimed to provide the subject with information that was otherwise inaccessible are never successfully pinned down. The accounts remain mere anecdotes, and the ways they can fall through as evidence are myriad. Take your cousin and his first cigarette: for non-smokers there is no urge whatsoever to go out and have your first cigarette in times of stress That’s an urge only smokers get so I doubt very much that it was his first, despite what he told her. Therefore, if your aunt smelled cigarette smoke on him previously, even subconsciously, that would have been enough to inspire that image.
As for the complexity of what these people see, it’s no more complex than the things that happen in dreams. It’s just people walking around doing real things after all, so it’s all well within the capacity of the human brain to fabricate. The only valid way to claim a supernatural occurrence is to establish that there was absolutely no way that the subject could have known a certain piece of information, and even then there’s the chance that it was a fluke. The fact that all you ever have in these cases is anecdotes, often from the family of the subject, does not make for objectivity. No offence. Get evidence on camera, of an event happening and of someone coming out of an OBE and describing it before anyone has a chance to spoil it, and maybe you can get somewhere with one of these.
Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back with more questions and stuff particularly about the portrayal of the supernatural in the mainstream media, for example Hollywood ghost or demon movies like The Exorcist. Another thing that followed some of these are curses or strange phenomena surrounding them, like in the case of The Omen some of the cast during production died. and one guy supposedly crashed near a sign in the Netherlands that said Ommen 6,66. Upon further investigation that turned out to be an exaggerated claim although, he did crash in the area but not near the sign. also not surprisingly after movies like the exorcist came out more people reported demonic signs. it would seem that Hollywood would do everything in their power to make people believe this baloney. Nevertheless there is a large pseudo-acceptance of these things. Now recently some guy on The Thinking Atheist posted something about a sun miracle. i would appreciate it if you could help me debunk or explain these things.
Answer by SmartLX:
The supernatural is very, very common in Hollywood fiction. If it’s a movie where ghosts are real, or magic is taught in school, or demons are literally clawing to the surface from underground, then we accept it and view the rest of the movie in that context. IF ghosts were plainly real, we think to ourselves, how would these people behave? How would the world be different? Between our own imaginations and where the movie actually goes with the concept, we can arrive at a rough understanding of this hypothetical state of affairs, and ponder and discuss it for a long time afterwards. (For instance, at some point nearly everyone reading this has probably talked through the physics and practicality of a lightsaber while not watching a Star Wars movie.)
It’s a fun mental exercise to imagine alternative realities and contrast them with ours, and fiction helps us do this by inspiring concepts of alternative realities. If people believe these supernatural phenomena are real simply because they’ve seen them in a movie, then we consider them to have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction, and generally encourage them to get it straight or get help. Stories surrounding movies, like the idea of The Omen being cursed, do tend to be exaggerated as you say, and skeptics have made a meal of that one in particular. Here’s one discussion. Hollywood publicists do nothing to stifle or correct the stories because they’re happy with anything that gets people talking about a movie, which means more ticket sales.
As for the “sun miracle” at Fátima, I did a piece on that one a short time ago at your request, so I hope you got to read it.
Question from Chinx:
If there’s nothing supernatural, what’s magic and how does it break every known law?
Answer by SmartLX:
What’s magic? What magic? If there actually is some magic around that isn’t simply an illusion, that would be big points for the supernatural, but it still has to be there. So do comment and let us know what you’re referring to, would you kindly?
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.
“…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.
“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.