On “Guilty Pleasures”

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Estonian heavy metal group Remote Silence perf...

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I enjoy listening to classical music and jazz, especially bebop. I also enjoy listening to heavy metal music, something that I count among my “guilty pleasures.” I cannot explain the attraction, although the groups I like the most (Anthrax, Zao) tend to write more intellectual lyrics than are found in other heavy metal bands. Another guilty pleasure may relate to this interest–I love horror fiction and horror movies. Black Sabbath became successful when they tried to reach horror fans with their music, and other groups followed. From Rob Zombie to black and death metal, horror themes are found in heavy metal music. Now some people would say I should be ashamed of this guilty pleasure, and perhaps they have a point. Richard Weaver, the author of the fine book¬†Ideas Have Consequences, thought jazz to be decadent, and he would have rolled over in his grave if he had lived long enough to have heard heavy metal music.

As for horror fiction, I prefer books of higher literary quality–not only the classic works such as Frankenstein and Dracula, but also works of fine contemporary horror writers such as Ramsey Campbell and, yes, Stephen King. Dean Koontz is not as strong, though his writing has improved over the years. I love his Frankenstein series. Now and then I don’t mind reading a trashy horror novel–or seeing a trashy horror movie. With a red face I admit I like both the movies Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator. H. P. Lovecraft would have fainted if he saw how his work was adapted, but there is a campiness to these movies that eases the shock of their graphic imagery.

Another guilty pleasure is that I collect animal skulls–so far I have several dog, cat, and deer skulls, a cow skull, a horse skull, a goose skull, and perhaps more if my old brain could remember them. I do not know the source of that interest entirely–as a child I was afraid of skulls and skeletons when they appeared in horror movies or shows. I remember watching, in the late 1960s as a child, an episode of the horror soap opera Dark Shadows. Someone was sitting down and glanced up to look at a bookcase. Several skulls floated in the air. I screamed, got in trouble, and eventually was…. punished….. for insisting on continuing to watch the show. While an interest in skulls could be explained by my fear-fascination with death, such a pleasure becomes less guilty due to my fascination with form in nature. So many patterns repeat in nature, not only in different living organisms, but inanimate ones, too. That’s the excuse I give myself to feel better about this interest.

Last but not least is ghost investigations. I have no idea whether or not ghosts exist.  I do believe (and have experienced) things that are difficult to explain via conventional science. But I enjoy being in the dark, feeling like a child in the woods listening to ghost stories. It is not that I do not take this activity seriously, but I find it to be lots of fun despite the work involved.

Everyone probably has at least one guilty pleasure, something he enjoys that seems incongruent which his known character and interests. Someone who likes fine wines may have a cheap white Zinfandel now and then. A person who enjoys fine dining may enjoy the occasional splurge as a cheap, greasy fast food restaurant. I’m not convinced that these guilty pleasures are worth feeling guilty about. They reveal human beings to be interesting and complex creatures who can tie together disparate, even contradictory, interests together in their minds. If quirks and guilty pleasures do not harm a person and make this short life a little more interesting, then more power to them.

Orbs are Dust, Bugs, or Rain

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Orbs in Austin

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It amazes me that some individuals in the paranormal investigation field believe that “orbs,” those globes of light that appear on some night photos, are anything more than dust and bugs. On one investigation I took several photos by a pond with my digital cam (10 megapixel). They were full of orbs. At another investigation at a graveyard, the team was walking down a dusty path. The photos I took of the graveyard were filled with orbs. I suppose if I had looked closely long enough at any of the orbs, I would have eventually “seen” a face. The human mind is programmed to recognize faces, and a person can easily “see” faces when they are not actually present. Try looking at almost any surface for a few minutes, focusing on the same general area. How long does it take you to “see” faces? Try looking at the photo of orbs in this post. Zoom in. You will “see” faces before very long–but they are illusions.

There are also investigators who may not see faces in orbs, but still believe them to be ghosts. But digital cameras especially are prone to “interpreting” dust and bugs as orbs. Paranormal investigators often bring their own New Age assumptions into their interpretation of the evidence. Before long they find ghosts everywhere, even when the evidence does not support any paranormal phenomena. Most ghost investigation groups are not respected by parapsychologists (although there are groups who do a solid job at investigating, such as Tuscon Paranormal–but its head is married to a parapsychologist!). And parapsychologists are not often respected by other scientists and academics. The field has enough problems gaining respectability without people seeing a ghost in every particle of dust and in every mosquito in front of the camera.

Rain will also appear as bright orbs if a flash is used at night. I suppose hail, sleet, and snow would also cause orbs to appear. Again, there is no need for a paranormal interpretation of a normal phenomenon.

Could there be a case in which an orb is legitimately interpreted to be of paranormal origin? I cannot a priori rule that out. Suppose I saw a large orb without taking a photo, and it floated toward my ear and a voice that is not identifiable as a member of the team says, “Michael, I’m Granddaddy. Remember guessing car colors at the side of the Old Highway?” I would interpret that as paranormal. Until then, I will not waste my time with dust and bugs.

Fear of the Paranormal and EVP

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I learned a valuable lesson today–that an area that fascinates me may be frightening to other people. I often go “ghost hunting” for fun although I am neutral on whether such entities exist. It is more a part of my being an overgrown child in some respects–I love going out in the dark, taking photos, recording sounds, wondering if the group with which I am working that night will find anything interesting. One interesting thing that I constantly record on my DVR is electronic voice phenomena (EVP). When no one else in the group records a voice, or only records one or two, my recorder will pick up thirty or forty, most Class Cs (unclear, one cannot make out the words), but some Class Bs and now and then a Class A (clear as a bell). Voices have called my name (more than once), and some have a sense of humor. At Gettysburg National Cemetery, near the burial place of a number of unknown soldiers, I asked, “What is your name?” When I played back the recording, a voice replied “Guess.” At the Lake Lure Inn someone in my group said, “I found you!” On playback, a clear voice replied, “Not yet!” At Cross Creek Cemetery in Fayetteville, NC, I addressed the deceased by the name on the tombstone; a polite Southern female voice replied, “How do you do?” One of the strangest EVP I have recorded is when I asked, “Do you reproduce, do you have sexual intercourse where you are?” A female voice answered, “F..k you! We do!” This was from a private home in Autryville, NC. But the scariest EVP was from a cemetery in Fairview, TN, in Williamson County. I addressed the deceased (a teenager) by name, and a voice replied, “Michael…. Michael…. I killed her.”

Now these voices do not bother me in the least. I do not know what causes them, and I am neutral regarding theories. Perhaps my own mind encodes the DVR through psychokinesis, or some other living person’s mind does. Perhaps there is a ghost of some kind communicating. Perhaps an angelic or demonic entity is speaking. Perhaps there is a field of information from which the recorder “draws.” Or perhaps every EVP, even those that yield meaningful answers to questions, is just a stray radio, television, or communication broadcast that happens to arrive at the “right” time. The right answer is a mystery, and I do not see how this issue can be resolved.

Today I decided to play some of my best EVP to my classes–I thought it would be a fun break before we got into the real business of class. Many students were entertained and fascinated. But others were frightened, which was not my intention at all. (Note to my Asperger’s self: Do not assume that another person will feel the same way as I do about EVP or anything else). But why is the paranormal so frightening?

I think it is because if paranormal experience has its roots in actual reality, the world suddenly becomes much bigger than before. Something, perhaps spiritual, perhaps something in the matter-energy framework, comes through that cannot be explained, is unique, a “surd,” as philosophers like to say. Perhaps there is a supernatural realm populated with real supernatural entities who can communicate with us. Fundamentalist Christians may fear that EVP are evidence of contact with demons. Secularists may fear that there might be something to the religion they despise. Or perhaps there is fear of something appearing in the night or whispering into one’s ear at three a.m. The paranormal, including EVP, can literally turn one’s world view upside down, especially if a person interprets them as voices of the dead. A person lives his life according to his worldview–changing that worldview is almost as painful as attempting to change one’s entire personality–the world is ordered in a different way that before. Atheists fear the paranormal and desperately try to find naturalistic explanations–some atheists would not believe in the paranormal if a putative ghost kicked them in the a.. But however one resolves, for instance, the problems with EVP, a person should be true to the evidence that is present, even if it goes against one’s worldview. But that is too frightening to some people, and that means those who have experienced the paranormal should be sensitive to those fears, as I should have been more sensitive in this morning’s classes.

The Unexplainable

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Two years ago, a colleague and his wife started a paranormal investigation group. Since I have always been fascinated by the possibility of the paranormal and since I have read too many horror books, I decided to join. Later, I also worked with another group, the group with which I work now, PROOF of Fayetteville, North Carolina. To go out at night, look up through bare branches at the full moon and feel the chill of the air, or stay in a darkened room at a purportedly haunted house made me feel like a kid again. I knew that however careful we were in our investigations, we would never reach the rigor of a scientific field study. I was also skeptical of actually finding anything. At first, that skepticism seemed confirmed. I did not see anything that looked like a ghost, and my digital voice recorder picked up background noise and nothing more.

It was about the third investigation in which I was involved that my recorder picked up an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon). It was clearly a voice, although I could not make out the words. But I figured I could not rule out a stray television, radio, or emergency broadcast signal. But as I participated in more investigations, my recorder picked up more voices, many quite clear. Some voices were interactive; that is, they responded to my questions. Since the group had controlled for other people in the area, it seemed that the best explanation for such voices was paranormal. Because no one heard the voices at the time they were recorded, it is most likely that someone’s psychokinesis (PK) affected the recording portion of the digital voice recorder and whatever signal was encoded came through as a voice.

Later, I took a photo that I could not explain–behind me my friend shined a flashlight; I was in front of her and took a photo of a wall at an old jail cell. When we checked the photo at the screen on the digital camera, to our surprise we found a black figure with arms, hair, eyes, a nose and mouth, a dress, and legs extending from an almost three-dimensional blackness. Now it could be that the photo was a trick of the lighting in the room. But it seems unlikely. In another photo, taken at the Bell Witch Cave in Tennessee, my brother’s face was blurred while the rest of the photo was clear. Perhaps some bug or piece of dust caused the smudge, but it seems unlikely.

I do not know how to explain the things I have heard and seen. For those phenomena clearly paranormal (some of the EVP I recorded), no one can say whether the recording was caused by PK from the living or by some residual “memory” in the location or by PK from a personality surviving after death. These phenomena bring up interesting philosophical issues. Does “residual memory” in places make sense (Stephen Braude has argued that the notion of residual memory “recorded” by a place is incoherent)? If the living can affect a recording device via psychokinesis, how do they do this? What, if any, is the implication for the nature of consciousness and of the soul (assuming there is a soul)? If the phenomena reflect PK from personalities surviving after death, what is the nature of such survival? Is it wholly disembodied? It is embodied? Descartes denied that the body is essential for personal identity; Aristotle, Aquinas, and Merleau-Ponty sharply disagreed. If it is embodied, what is the nature of that embodiment? If not, how can a disembodied being affect the physical world?

Obviously there are skeptics who will deny that such experiences occur. As William James pointed out, this kind of evidence is convincing to the person having the experience, but is usually not convincing to others. Some philosophers will a priori rule out such experiences in advance. I do not have time for them. Others are more open-minded, but believe that the burden of proof should be on the one claiming such experiences. I agree–but it is difficult to specify the level of proof required.

Although as an orthodox Christian I believe in life after death (the resurrection of the body), I do not believe what I have experienced thus far is proof of the afterlife. Some evidence, such as the meaningful responses to questions, suggests survival of death. One could argue that the answers are PK from the living–but by what motive? If individual personality survives death, such personalities could have a number of motivations to communicate with the living–trying it out to see if it is possible, comforting family members and friends, or being mischievous. In one investigation I asked, “Do you have sexual intercourse where you are?” and a voice replied in a harsh whisper, “F… you! We do!” I played that to my students, who immediately laughed when they heard the “answer.”

So other than claiming that some of my experiences are paranormal, I cannot make any more specific determination of their nature. They may well be unexplainable–to me, the element of mystery in life is something that has brought back a childlike wonder and curiosity about aspects of reality that are currently unexplainable. Reality itself is, to a great extent, “an undiscovered country.”