Paranormal Activity

Try as may, I cannot watch this movie or its sequels. I am a huge horror movie fan. But as much as I like horror movies since I became a freethinker I haven’t been able to really get into movies with supernatural themes. The major exceptions to this are horror movie classics of the 80’s and early 90’s, like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween. But ghost stories don’t usually do it for me, it’s probably because I can’t suspend my disbelief long enough to get into them. I mean ghosts while being incorporeal, are somehow simultaneously and inexplicably able to interact with physical things at will. I mean swing at a ghost your arm goes through it, but if the ghost swings at you-it’s over. How is that possible? Well it’s not if you believe that the natural world is governed by physical laws. Things that are able to interact with physical things must have physical attributes allowing them to do so and are therefore physical. But this logical line of thinking is not common for many reasons. For one it seems that animals and people are somewhat prone to superstitious thinking. What is superstitious thinking? It’s a belief that events are related by a non-physical cause. Think about it, we all know the commons superstitions like breaking a mirror means 7 years bad luck, throwing salt over your shoulder, knocking on wood, etc.

We are also afraid of death or the unknown. This is one of the fears that religion often addresses by suggesting there is an afterlife and that consciousness extends beyond death. This is extremely popular and reinforced throughout our culture in horror films, heartwarming stories like “Ghost”, and ridiculous pseudoscientific television shows like “Ghosthunters”. These cultural phenomena reinforce many people’s beliefs concerning and afterlife along with religion but it would also seem that these beliefs start to form early on.  Children it seems are natural dualists. They seem to believe from early on that there is a difference between mind and body. Ask a child about death and they generally understand that death means the end of biological function but in their minds this doesn’t mean the end of a person’s ability to love, for example. This is due to how the brain constructs consciousness.

Scientifically speaking consciousness or the mind is what the brain does.  Several case studies and investigations demonstrate this fact. One famous case is that of Phineas Gage.

Despite the distortions that many people cite, this is one of the first clear cases that demonstrate personality or behavioral changes occurring in a person following brain injury. Now if the mind is separate from the body, one would expect that changes to the body would have little effect if any of the personality of the individual since the mind is elsewhere. But if the mind is separate from the body why is our consciousness susceptible to being altered by drugs and perceptual illusions?  Scientist, Michael Persinger,  accomplishes this with the use of “The God Helmet“.

Studies like this demonstrate that out of body and near death experiences are generated by the brain, rather than some disembodied consciousness and thereby make the existence of the soul or spirit less likely.

But ask yourself, with all the evidence that demonstrates that the brain is the seat of behavior what exactly would a soul be doing? Thoughts, feelings, perceptions, personality, memories, etc are all functions of your brain. Altering its function can alter its ability to perform any or all of those functions to varying degrees. The more we learn about the brain the less room there is for anything spooky kicking around in there. Ask yourself how would a soul control the brain anyway? Almost universally souls or spirits are regarded as nonphysical. So how then, would a soul, being nonphysical, interact with a brain that is physical? If a soul could do that it would have to have some property allowing it to interact with the physical world- and therefore it would have to be physical. There is not a single thing we know to exist that is nonphysical. Even if it did exist how could one tell a nonphysical thing from a thing which didn’t exist at all? You couldn’t.

But suppose we put aside the fact that in order to perceive the world around you that you need sensory organs and a nervous system, maybe you are one of those people that thinks that the soul or consciousness is energy. What evidence is there that energy is conscious? What evidence is there that energy has some sort of storage mechanism  to retain aspects of our personalities or emotion? There is none. In fact people who claim consciousness is energy usually have no clue what energy is. The second mistake they make is that they often argue for this position based on the first law of thermodynamics and ignore the second. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. What that has to do with a soul or consciousness is beyond me, since its clear by most religious and spiritual beliefs systems that souls and what have you are created. But say I accepted that, I still think that believing that consciousness is simply energy is unlikely given that the second law of thermodynamics concerns entropy. Entropy is used to determine the amount of energy available for useful work in a system. Even in an isolated system entropy (or disorder) will either increase or remain constant. Reducing entropy in a system that is not isolated means increasing entropy in another (Wikipedia has a helpful example in its section on the second law of thermodynamics found here). Although, energy cannot be created nor destroyed we know that over time its ability to do work is diminished, so the idea that it can continue or interact within the physical world, retain a personality, or do anything at all, is extremely unlikely. So ultimately even if there were reason to believe a soul existed, and there isn’t, there is no scientific justification that it is energy.

And yet this belief that consciousness can somehow out live the physical body is persistent in cultures throughout the world. So much so that a recent study demonstrated highly religious people are more likely to believe that dead people possess more consciousness than people in a persistent vegetative state.

No your eyes are not deceiving you.

The fact that this type of thinking persists despite the ever increasing evidence to the contrary can have serious if not tragic consequences. It also promotes the growth of pseudoscience, like the popular show Ghosthunters (Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson covered this subject of the paranormal recently on his Star Talk radio program. Check it out). These ghosthunters may use scientific equipment but they tend to do so in an unscientific way. Like using equipment for detecting heat signatures without bothering to check if their readings could be due to electricity, or heat left by someone leaning against a wall, etc. Part of the scientific process  is eliminating other possible explanations for the data you’ve gathered by eliminating extraneous or confounding variables prior to the experiment that may taint or possibly invalidate your results. So far the paranormal investigative community has failed to demonstrate results that are free of these issues.  So the existence of the paranormal, particularly the existence of  ghosts, is not just unproven but unlikely.

I guess that is why I can’t get into most of these paranormal movies. Things that go bump in the night are much more mundane than most of us want to believe. But those things will always scare us if all we do is allow them to remain mysterious or supernatural without first eliminating all the other possibilities.

Don't let your fears get the best of you.

What’s the harm’s page on ghosts

Summary of the article “More dead than dead…”

One million dollar paranormal Challenge

Superstitious pigeons

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12 thoughts on “Paranormal Activity

  1. brent mosher says:

    Yep, me too. There are only a handful of horror movies I like. After all the blood and carnage, the big climax is usually “he was abused” or “she was murdered by her best friend” or some other very worldly event. They are always unconvincing, because the cause never supports the “para”normal events that follow.

    Enjoy your work.

  2. Justin says:

    Thanks for sending that to me… it was incredibly thought-provoking and very eloquently stated. First rate material. I hope to see you on the stage with Richard Dawkins one day.
    – Justin

  3. OK… now, allow me to offer a refutation based upon good old Christian logic… See… the reason why you can’t substantiate Ghosts existance, or God for that matter, is because God is a transcendental force… Instead of focusin on evidence, you should be focusing on his unwavering love for you. For example, God loved the world so, that in Genesis, he murdered everyone, including all unborn fetus’, babies, and handicapped people. Hell, even the new covenant law that ushered in the era of Christianity, was completely contingent upon a blood sacrifice… of God’s son, no less. Why can’t you you “freethinkers” understand the principle that God shows his love through sensless acts of murder. I mean, THEY say that God is omnibenevolent. So, certainly anything he does (including the myriad times that he contradicts his own commandments) must validate the fact that he’s Omnibenevolent. It’s a perfectly reasonable circular logic. And you know that “circular reasoning” trumps anything that you “Godless heathen” freethinkers can come up with. Logic… Evidence. Hah! I scoff at your logic and evidence. What is logic and evidence compared to 2,000 year old, archaic, mythology written by biggoted, dessert roaming savages?
    I rest my case.
    Christianity – 1
    Freethinking – Zero
    Chalk another one up for the good guys!

  4. D Frederick Sparks says:

    I am definitely not spooked out by the Exorcist like I was as a Catholic kid. You know, when I was supposed to believe all this stuff was possible

  5. I like paranormal shows because I like to think about “what if” it was true for a little bit. But paranormal activity (the first one – I haven’t seen the sequels) was scary. It took me 1/2 hour of eating ice cream before I was ready to go home. That’s a movie where- I don’t ever want to contemplate what if it were true. Yikes. But then, I’m quite happy to suspend my disbelief. I even loved The Gate and I Madman. Love the normal activity graphic though – relax, it’s just the cat. Perfect.

  6. Mary O'Grady says:

    Wow! Thank you for posting the picture of poor old Phineas Gage. I never saw it before.

  7. […] Paranormal Activity ( […]

  8. Winston Lorde says:

    I agree with you, Raina. As a kid in elementary school, even, I could not ever get into stories or movies having supernatural themes. Nor have I ever been a devotee of science fiction. (I have never really watched Star Trek, but I revere the character Dr. Spock because evidence and logic guided his beliefs.) I have been, I’m afraid, though I happily plead guilty to the charge, too much of an admiring pupil of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, the rigid and insistence pedagogue in Dickens’ HARD TIMES who cared only for cold facts.


  9. amazing work, carry on the great website.

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