The Trouble with Proving the Paranormal and Supernatural

As a professional haunter and horror enthusiast, I like to include creepy and allegedly haunted destinations in my travels whenever possible. Some recent examples include Black Horse Lake in Montana (allegedly haunted by a hitchhiker), Bowlin’s “The Thing”, a number of ghost towns and abandoned buildings (most recently including a tour of an abandoned sanitarium at night), and other various commercial attractions.

Paranormal

“I am not prepared to let my beliefs be determined by my desires or needs.”
Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver)
Red Lights (2012)

Unfortunately, I do not believe in the existence of ghosts. I was raised and educated in science, and so far, evidence in support of the paranormal doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. Wish I was wrong. I would love to live in a universe where ghosts and demons exist. It would be fun! Fortunately for me, a place need not be haunted to be creepy. And that’s great, because it means the haunter in me can still enjoy himself and have fun, even if there are no ghosts around to amuse me.

Personal Paranormal Anecdotes

In my life, I’ve experienced a number of creepy and unexplained events. Two stand out above the rest.

The first happened when I was much younger – about 15 or 16 years old – and living in Milwaukee. I was home alone one day watching television in the living room. The family dog was with me, but my parents had gone out somewhere. In the adjacent dining room, an old-fashioned phone was mounted on the wall. We had it from before the days of cordless telephones. It had a very long, coiled cord that reached the floor so that the phone could be carried through most of the main floor.

Out of the corner of my eye while I was watching television, I thought I saw the phone cord levitating – suspended in mid-air near the chandelier. When I turned my attention to focus on it, the phone cord was clearly bouncing and flopping against the wall as though someone had just dropped it from the position I thought I saw it in.

More recently, in 2015 when I was working at Terror on the Fox, Ethan and I both felt footsteps go right by us one night in my room (the Cells). No one else was in the room besides us. I just happened to be staring at the floor and at both of our feet when it happened, so I know that neither one of us stomped our feet. We had both been working there long enough to know what it felt like when customers or house runners walked by us in the room. We also knew what it felt like when people were walking through adjacent rooms – so we’re pretty confident that the footsteps we felt were in the room with us, and not somewhere nearby.

Ethan further claimed that some props suspended above us began swinging on their own when we felt the footsteps. I did not witness this. On a separate ocassion, I thought I saw a figure run toward and disappear into our animatronic “Cathy” creature, but I was alone when I saw that.

To this day, I have no logical or rational explanation for these events, or others like them. I have some theories, but the alternate theories – quite frankly – seem less plausible than ghosts. And yet, I remain unconvinced that I witnessed anything paranormal.

Other friends and family have come to me with their own ghost stories. They are adamant about the truth of their stories, certain that they have proof that ghosts exist, and quite emotionally-invested in the fact. If I dare express doubt or scrutiny, they will often get upset or offended, and (probably unintentionally) leverage our relationship to try to dissuade me from poking holes in their story.

I don’t doubt that these people believe they’re telling the truth, just as sure as I am telling the truth in my stories. The difference is, I’m not willing to extrapolate the existence of a creature based on the lack of another explanation.

The Logical Fallacy

At one time in history, our ancestors saw ethereal objects in the sky. They knew they weren’t rainbows. They knew they weren’t clouds. Having eliminated the rational explanations, they concluded that these ethereal objects were spirits.

Today, we know that these ethereal objects are solar winds striking Earth’s magnetic field. So we call them something else. We call them auroras.

The problem with attributing the unexplained to the paranormal is that – with increased knowledge and understanding – the realm of the paranormal continually shrinks its way out of its own existence. But more importantly, it’s an example of faulty logic.

“I don’t know, therefore… GHOSTS!” Or demons. Or God, or aliens, or etc.

Formally, this is referred to as an “argument from ignorance.” I don’t have an explanation for what caused this event, therefore, the event proves the existence of a thing.

A lot of skeptics will just point out that the logical fallacy is an argument from ignorance, drop the mic, and walk away – convinced that they won the argument. And while they’re technically correct, they’ve also gone about it in a very insulting manner and in a way that will not convince a believer whose identity and reputation is now tied to this unexplained event. I don’t know that I’ve got a better chance of convincing believers that their beliefs are flawed. But I am going to give it a shot. And I’m going to do it by illustrating the inherent problem of creating a “positive object” out of “negative information” by way of a thought experiment. Whether you’re a paranormal believer or skeptic, I encourage you to follow along with this exercise.

First of all, let me explain what I mean by “positive object” and “negative information”. A positive object is any person, place, thing, cause, or concept that has qualities, attributes, characteristics and – most importantly – implications. Creating a positive object out of negative information means to infer the existence of such an object not out of evidence that supports the qualities or attributes of the object, but rather out of the lack of information in support of a different positive object. We’ll expand more on this later.

Establishing the Conditions

Let’s imagine ourselves millennia in the future. Through science, technology, and exploration, mankind has achieved god-like knowledge of the universe. We’ve conquered quantum mechanics, defeated the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and developed a grand unified theory. We know how big the universe is, what caused the Big Bang, whether we are part of a multiverse or not, explored black holes, wormholes, and mastered time travel. We’re aware of all of the higher dimensions of space, time, and existence. We know what dark matter and dark energy are, we’ve developed faster-than-light travel, and explored the known universe. Our mastery of the physical and rational world is so thorough and complete that not only are there no more unanswered questions, but we can also accurately predict the future both on the classical level and on the quantum level.

No doubt, you realize that the human capacity for knowledge – impressive as it may be – is limited and will never reach such lofty levels, even if humanity survived until the end of time. But this is a thought experiment and in this scenario, we want to eliminate all sources of obfuscation that paranormal believers can seek refuge in. So in this hypothetical universe, we know literally everything. We are gods.

And if that wasn’t absurd enough… not only do we know everything – we KNOW that we know everything. We know that there is nothing left of the physical and rational universe for us to explore.

Therefore, under these conditions, the only remaining unanswered questions must – by definition – belong to the realm of the supernatural and paranormal. This may include things like ghosts, demons, God, magic, psionic abilities, vampires, werewolves, witches, and more. In this hypothetical universe, unexplained things still occur, and since we have comprehensive and complete knowledge of the physical universe, we know for a fact that something paranormal exists, too. The only thing we don’t know is what type of paranormal entity is causing the unexplained phenomena.

To simplify the example, let’s pretend that there are only three possible paranormal creatures: ghosts, demons, and God. For purposes of this thought experiment, ghosts are ethereal humanoids that resemble your late aunt Irene, who can walk through walls, float above the ground, and tell you where the family fortune is buried. Demons are dark-skinned corporeal creatures – perhaps humanoid, but more resembling beast than man – with malicious intent to harm and torture their victims. God is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being that created the universe, judges your actions, allows you into heaven or sentences you to hell, and whose moral and ethical feelings are clearly outlined in the Christian Bible.

So in this hypothetical universe, we know that at least one of these three creatures exists, but there’s massive disagreement about which one.

The Thought Experiment

Let’s take a fairly ordinary paranormal event – a door opening by itself. Science has determined that this door did not open by physical or rational means. There were no wind gusts, no pressure differentials, no thermal imbalance, no motors, no pneumatics, no strings, no wormholes or aliens, and it wasn’t a random quantum event. Every conceivable rational explanation has been ruled out by our omniscient future selves. Therefore, we know that the cause was paranormal, and we know that the cause was either a ghost, a demon, or God. There are no other alternatives in the universe we’ve established here.

A ghost hunter comes forward and says that the self-opening door is proof of the existence of ghosts. She says that the door opened in “just the same way” her late aunt Irene used to open doors, nice and slow so she could get that creepy creaking noise. She says that although ghosts can walk through walls, this ghost opened the door to send a message revealing a path to find the hidden family treasure.

A demonologist comes forward and says that the self-opening door is proof of the existence of demons. He says that the door opening was intended to be disturbing and frightening – a clear example of a demon attempting to frighten and torment its victims, and that if left unchecked, the paranormal events will undoubtedly escalate into more violent ones.

A religious person comes forward and says that the self-opening door is proof of the existence of God. She says that God was clearly trying to send a message about opportunities and a righteous path to follow.

Under the conditions we’ve established in this universe, one of these three people must be right. Each one of them is equally convinced that their explanation is the right one. But which one is correct? In the absence of further evidence, any one of these three people could be right. The self-opening door does not itself lend support to any of the three explanations. All three explanations are equally plausible and implausible at the same time.

The Ontological Argument

I attended Marquette University – a Jesuit college. Accordingly, I was required to take a number of classes in theology. In one of my classes, our professor introduced us to the “ontological argument” proving the existence of God. Basically, he said that something caused the Big Bang and created the universe. Whatever that thing is – is God. Whether it’s a humanoid creature, a man, a spirit, a force of nature, a subatomic particle, or a form of energy – whatever created the universe is – by definition – God.

This is a pretty nifty way to prove the existence of God. X must exist. Whatever X is, is God. Therefore, God must exist. It’s a bit of a cheat, in my opinion, but whatever – I can go along with it, for the sake of argument. (Not for nothing, but with our ever-expanding understanding of the universe, including concepts of non-linear time and causality, it’s improbable, but possible that nothing “caused” the Big Bang the way we traditionally think of cause-and-effect. So maybe even the ontological argument doesn’t hold up!)

Essentially, we’ve created the ontological argument in our hypothetical universe. We’ve set-up conditions that allow for the existence of unexplained events, but we’ve also exhausted all rational and logical explanations, therefore forcing the existence of a paranormal realm in our universe. Unexplained events exist. Whatever is unexplained, is paranormal. Therefore, the paranormal must exist. The only question that remains is whether our paranormal creatures are ghosts, demons, or deities.

Does it matter? Well, yes. And that’s why I said that the most important quality of a “positive object” is its implications.

Implications

If ghosts exist in our universe, then the implications include an existence after death and opportunities to reconnect with deceased loved ones. If demons exist in our universe, then the implications include the existence of hostile creatures that must be guarded against and defeated lest humanity suffer. And if the Christian God exists, then the implication is judgment to heaven or hell and a God who wishes us to abide by the rules set forth in the Bible.

None of these implications – nor the identity of the paranormal creature – can be divined by a self-opening door. The self-opening door proves something. It might be creepy or disturbing or haunting. The self-opening door – whether in our actual universe or this hypothetical universe we constructed – might imply the existence of a paranormal cause. But it isn’t sufficient to positively identify a ghost, a demon, or God, or all that is implied by their existence.

To believe in ghosts – and all that their existence implies – I should be able to observe (via at least one of the five senses, preferably by sight) and measure (in some manner) an ethereal creature that vaguely resembles my late aunt Irene, and that ghost should communicate with me and point me toward the buried family fortune.

To believe in demons – and all that their existence implies – I should be able to observe and measure a dark-skinned beast-like creature and observe its direct actions to torture, torment, and harm living human beings.

And to believe in God – and all that his existence implies – I should be able to observe and measure an omnipotent and omniscient creature capable of creating universes, capable of sending souls to heaven and hell (and demonstrating that such places exist), and one that can communicate and confirm that what is written in the Bible accurately reflects his will.

A self-opening door accomplishes none of this.

My Fundamental Problem with Religion

And this is where my hostility toward religion comes into play. I don’t care if you believe in God. I really don’t. If that belief gives you some measure of comfort or if it inspires you to be a good person – fantastic.

But religion is not so harmless. From the Spanish Inquisition to the Great Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, the KKK, the Holocaust, 9/11, and much, much more – nothing has directly or indirectly caused more harm or suffering than people carrying out these various crusades in the name of religion. Now I could be completely wrong. Maybe God does exist, maybe witches exist, and maybe it really was God’s will that those villagers in 17th century Salem be hung to death. But I am of the opinion that if you’re going to use religion as an excuse to carry out such serious actions, your proof of God’s will has got to be a LOT better than a self-opening door. It’s gotta be better than the Bible. And it’s gotta be better than “faith”.

Look online and see how many different English versions there are of the Bible. Then realize that any one of those English versions is a translation of a translation of a translation of a book written by man, with no empirical evidence whatsoever to support the idea that God inspired that which was written. And as any linguist will tell you, languages do not translate perfectly from one language to the next. Reading an English version of the Bible and believing that you are reading the literal word of God requires far too much suspension of disbelief. It certainly isn’t proof that can withstand scientific scrutiny.

And as for faith – or rather, the Christian insistence that faith is the highest virtue – that’s the most convenient plot device ever in the history of mankind. Batman’s utility belt is jealous of the convenience of faith.

Religion’s harm is not just in overt war and torture. Recently, one of my aunts was diagnosed and treated for leukemia. My deeply religious family keeps telling me to pray for her. I don’t because I don’t believe in prayer or God. They insist that I should do it anyway… just in case. What harm could it do?

But it does a lot of harm. Religion allows people to abdicate responsibility for their own actions by putting everything on God. In the specific example of my aunt, there’s not a whole lot I can do for her short of providing emotional support (which I did) or going to medical school and becoming an expert in oncology. But there are plenty of other examples of things we can do to improve the lives of others. Like gun control. Yet Congress does nothing to to regulate firearms, instead choosing to give thoughts and prayers for the victims.

Keeping an Open Mind – on Both Sides

My skepticism is not about insulting or offending people who believe. It’s about being able to trust my own conclusions. If ghosts exist, the implications for life on our planet are significant. We might be able to live our lives with less fear over death. We may be able to reconnect and say proper goodbyes to loved ones we’ve lost. Some of us might plan our deaths so we get a sweet spot to haunt in the afterlife. And creeps and haunters like me and my friends will get to live in a far more exciting and interesting world.

But… just because I (or other people) want these things, doesn’t mean that they exist. I’m not willing to change how I live my life based on a few unexplained events that my limited-capacity human brain is unable to understand. That’s not a sign of weakness. On the contrary! Pretending that you already know everything means closing your mind to new information, knowledge, and truth. Whereas admitting that there are things you don’t know indicates a willingness to pursue that knowledge.

I want ghosts and demons to exist. Few people will be as overjoyed as I will be if and when we prove their existence to scientific standards. Meaning that we can observe and measure these creatures, that we can divine their intentions and implications, that we’ve established proper controls and peer-reviewed the shit out of our examinations.

I’m sorry, but a self-opening door just isn’t gonna cut it, no matter how much you want me to believe that there can be no other explanation. I don’t doubt that you witnessed a door opening by itself. I’m merely unconvinced that you’ve identified the correct cause.

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