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.

Survival Research and Culturally-Based Conclusions

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I have just returned from an excellent talk presented by Dr. Pamela Rae Heath, a medical doctor and leading researcher in parapsychology, at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina. She spoke on a number of issues in mind-matter interaction (MMI) or what is also termed psychokinesis (PK). I was pleased that her talk, while containing some of her conclusions that go beyond current evidence, was for the most part based on the best current research in parapsychology.

However, prior to her talk, I browsed her book, Handbook to the Afterlife. The quality of her talk was a surprise given the loose extrapolation from the survival evidence I saw in her book. Basically, life after death is envisioned as a process of personal growth that parallels growth and development (at least mental and spiritual development) in the present life and which includes a reincarnation component. This goes way beyond the actual survival evidence and was based, to some extent, on “channeling.”

How could someone give a scholarly presentation to the lay public and yet have a book that would fit into any fluff-brained New Ager‘s library? I fear that Dr. Heath was guilty of the same thing of which she accuses religious interpreters of MMI–that they interpret their experiences in terms of their cultural expectations. Now if Dr. Heath said, “That’s okay–we cannot avoid cultural expectations when interpreting data,” I would have no problem. But she seemed to assume (and I may have misunderstood) that parapsychological lacks such cultural expectations when it examines the data. That is simply false, and when we are dealing with survival research, cultural assumptions are unavoidable.

Take Dr. Heath’s position on the afterlife. It fits well into the American idea of evolutionary progress which has continued, unlike in Europe, to heavily influence American thought. Europe has suffered through two World Wars on its soil; America has 9-11, which was but one attack, and the War Between the States, which is distant to most Americans. Thus Americans buy into the idea of progress–and a life after death of continual evolutionary progress fits into American culture. The notion of multiple reincarnations, which in Eastern religions is something to be avoided if possible, becomes a positive thing in American New Age thought. A Hindu or Theravada Buddhist would be horrified by the American New Age interpretation of reincarnation.

I will be the first to admit that I am biased against reincarnation. As an orthodox Anglican Christian, I cannot accept reincarnation unless the evidence for it were so overwhelming that only a fool would reject it. That is not currently the case, even with Ian Stevenson‘s research. Stephen Braude has pointed out serious methodological flaws with the Stevenson research (for which see his book Immortal Remains). The problem of super-psi also plagues survival research; it seems to me that the best mediumship evidence (Leonora Piper‘s readings, for example) and the best near-death experience cases support at least a minimal survival of death of the individual personality in some form. But this does not justify a specific picture of the afterlife, at least at this stage of the research. Current research would be incompatible with non-survivalists and with the “no-self” view of Theravada Buddhism in which only five aggregates survival with no survival of the self. Beyond that, the research paints a picture of survival that is compatible with some Jewish views, some Christian views, with Pure Land Buddhist views, and even with the American progressive view that Dr. Heath espouses. But the evidence does not clearly support one of those views over another. For me, the evidence is a preparation for faith–it removes a barrier to my acceptance of the full Christian revelation on life after death. For Dr. Heath, the evidence supports a more “secular” or “natural” developmental view of life after death in which we evolve to higher levels of human accomplishment, with reincarnation being a part of that process. My point is that both Dr. Heath and I, to some extent, interpret the survival evidence in terms of our own cultural expectations. To expect that anyone could do otherwise is naive.

Mediums and Christianity

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How should a traditional Christian regard mediumship, the intentional contact with the dead? Probably most traditional Christians oppose mediumship, referring to its clear condemnation in the Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t help matters that some mediums make no secret of their hostility to Christianity (although others would consider themselves to be in the Christian tradition). I believe that genuine mediumship (as opposed to fake mediums who prey on the gullible by “cold reading” the speech and body language of sitters) can be reconciled with traditional Christianity if such a gift is used with care. The Hebrew Bible condemns mediumship because of its association with pagan religious practices in the ancient world, so those passages condemning it do not necessarily apply to Christian mediums. I am assuming throughout this post that some gifted mediums receive genuine messages from the dead rather than messages from the living through enhanced psi abilities (the so-called “super-psi hypothesis”). The case of the famous medium Mrs. Leonora Piper (1857-1950) convinced me beyond a reasonable doubt that a talented medium could communicate with the surviving personalities of persons who have died.

Everyone probably has some psi ability, whether that ability be telepathy (mind to mind communication apart from normal means), clairvoyance (receiving information from the non-human environment), or psychokinesis (PK, the ability to move objects using the mind alone). But some individuals are especially gifted in one or more of these skills. After all, not all of us have the same athletic skills, mechanical skills, or intellectual abilities–why should the situation be any different with psi? And since a medium would be communicating with the dead through psi, a good medium would have at least good telepathic abilities.

All talents, from a Christian point of view, are gifts from God over which we exercise a stewardship. We have a moral obligation to use whatever talents we have been given in a responsible way. For example, someone with the gift of persuasion might be able to sell snake oil and make a great deal of money, but this behavior would be a misuse of the talent God gave the person. A genuine medium may care only about money and overcharge clients, or may be seeking power from the dead. These are both bad motives for mediumship. Seeking power from the dead is more dangerous than money lust, since all power is of God and is given on loan from God–it should be used for His glory and not ultimately for our self-gratification or use to manipulate and dominate others.

The proper motive for using the talent of mediumship is to help people deal with their grief, and perhaps to remove barriers to their faith in an afterlife. Mediumship can only provide, at best, a kind of “natural knowledge” of the afterlife which should be completed by Scripture and the teachings of the Church. However, if knowing that a loved one is okay gives comfort to a grieving person, I see no problem for a Christian medium to contact the dead loved one for that reason. Or if someone who is agonizing over doubts about faith comes to a medium, the communication with the dead can at least remove one major barrier to accepting the fullness of Christian faith.

Such a gift should be used very carefully, with much prayer and with discernment. If the medium senses that the communicator may not be the person he claims to be, the medium should immediately break the link. Traditional Christianity accepts the existence of Satan and other fallen angels, who could try to twist what is a good gift into something that damages a vulnerable person. So mediums should tread with caution. But if they take proper precautions, pray, and practice their talent for the right motive, I do not see any reason why someone could not practice as a Christian medium.

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.”