Ghost fear

Image by doug88888 via Flickr

Haunting phenomena are familiar: rappings, strange lights, apparitions of the dead (usually, but not always engaged in repeating the same action) that are associated with a particular place. There are six main explanations for hauntings: (1) fraud, (2) mental illness, (3) materialistic (EMF radiation, geomagnetic energy); (4) ESP and/or psychokinesis from the living, (5) the “residuals” or “psychic footprints” hypothesis, which holds that emotionally significant events may be “stored” in a particular place, or (6) in the case of hauntings in which there is evidence of intentionality (“intelligent hauntings”), a spirit of a person who has died. Although fraud and mental illness explain some cases of haunting, there are others that involve neither. Of the explanations parapsychologists propose for the latter class, a popular one among contemporary parapsychologists is (3), a reductionist materialist explanation. Among those holding this position are William Roll and Michael A. Persinger. They summarize their position on hauntings (and on poltergeists, on which I shall not focus here) in their chapter, “Investigations of Poltergeists and Haunts: A Review and Interpretation,” from the book, Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Houran, Lange, and Beloff (McFarland Publishers, 2001). They argue that since all phenomena associated with hauntings can be adequately explained as being due to the effects of electromagnetic and geothermal radiation or of a high level of positive ions, then those factors are what cause hauntings. All three factors can cause changes in the brain associated with hallucinations, and all three can cause the physical effects associated with hauntings (although Roll and Persinger go through many “mays” and “mights” to show how the process “might” work). Even pets may be affected by such factors; thus, the common argument that pets can detect haunting phenomena is no proof of its objective reality–the only objective reality is the physical cause or causes of hallucinations, of objects falling on their own, and of elecrical disturbances. Even a case that seems to make a convincing case for the paranormal, the Gordy Case in Georgia, in which a young girl had visions of three people who had died in the area whom she had not previously known and had long conversations with one of them (the information was verified) is explained in terms of a high level of positive ions.

Are all hauntings associated with the three factors Roll and Persinger discuss? If not, then how would they explain the negative findings? If so, a spirit may require a certain amount of energy to manifest and may use the positive ions or geomagnetic or EMF radiation to communicate. In the case of a nonintelligent haunting, the energy required to manifest a residual may be so great that strong fields of energy are required. These are “mays” too–but who has the stronger arguments? Even if Roll and Persinger could explain some hauntings, others, such as the Gordy case, must at least involve a level of paranormal explanation. If Roll and Persinger appealed to Occam’s Razor to claim that their explanation is the simplest, my answer would be that how can one even judge complexity and simplicity in the case of explanations for hauntings? What kind of simplicity? Simplicity of the theory? Roll’s and Persinger’s seems very complex. Simplicity of number of entities required? How do you count the entities required? By individuals of the same class? By classes of entities? Simplicity or parsimony will not help here.

There is a very telling quotation in the last paragraph of Roll and Persinger’s article: “Descartes extracted the ghost, divine and demonic, from matter and delivered [emphasis mine, M.P.}] science from theology. Science has now retruned the ghost, in the form of living human minds, to material objects.” Roll and Persinger are philosophical materialists. They accept the Enlightenment position that science has been “delivered” from theology, and thus an explanation of hauntings in terms of the matter/energy framework is required. Even when they admit psi into the equation, as they do with poltergeists, such psi is only of the living and can ultimately be explained in terms of current laws of physics, matter, and energy. Reductionist parapsychologists do not realize the extent to which world view is important for how a person interprets paranormal phenomena, sitting, as they do, on the edge of science, philosophy, and theology. In that sense they are as blind as the radically materialists critics of psi, and also hold just as naive view of science as the only adequate source of the explanation of phenomena in the world.