Sorry, YouTube just told me that my video was too long and that it was removed. I’m going to work on a less-long winded video, but probably not tonight. Grrrah. :(
I usually like to refer to myself as a bleeding heart hippie liberal. I believe in a lot of things that the right-wing conservative front does not. I believe that the rich people of the world should help to take care of the poor. I believe in a single-payer health care system. I believe that if two people love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together, they should be able to get married, no matter what the squishy bits in their pants look like. So I’m honestly not being invited to Joe “You Lie!” Wilson’s house any time soon.
But if I’m being honest, (not that it would matter to Joe) I have to admit that there are certain things about the left-wing, bleeding-heart liberals with which I don’t quite jive. Sure, I believe in welfare, and I don’t think that every Spanish-speaking person is an illegal alien. (and even if they are, so what? I don’t think they’re the drain on our economy that people think they are) Anyway, there are a few issues that are clearly “left-wing”, that I disagree with.
For example, I remember watching a news story once on CNN. This must have been at least a decade ago, but it was about “Irradiated Foods”. These were foods that had been exposed to radiation in order to kill diseases and bacteria that might be on the food. This was often done to produce, and other foods that humans tend to eat “raw”. During the subsequent man-on-the-street interviews, reporters put the microphone to an older woman, who disgustedly shouted:
“I DON’T WANT THEM PUTTING RADIATION ON MY FOOD!”
Now, leaving aside the semantic problems of that statement, I found myself bemusedly wondering aloud: “I guess this woman doesn’t own a microwave, then, huh?”. But this was the kind of thing that has always bothered me about many of the issues in news and politics today. It’s where “common sense” fails us. This woman was not a nuclear scientist. She was not a physicist, and likely not an agriculturalist. She was someone who heard the term: “irradiated”, and immediately imagined scary men in radiation suits, Hiroshima victims, nuclear power plants, and possibly even giant mutated ants.
I recently read that World’s-best-person Norman Borlaug died. I vaguely remembered that Penn & Teller did a bit where they spoke on this man, so I looked to find it. You can watch it here: (Warning, some NSFW language)
As you can see in the clip above, the same argument is used against genetically-altered food. It’s not that the guys for Greenpeace, or the (admittedly kind of hot) chick from California are geneticists, or biologists, or any kind of scientists, it’s that they hear the words: “genetically-altered”, and they think of a thousand horror movies. They know that once you start messing around with an organism’s genetic makeup, you’re just asking for trouble. Why do you think they call them: “Frankenfoods!” [thunder]
But these are the things that get my skepticism acting up again. Many of the same hippies who claim that the FDA is a huge bureaucratic monster [thunder] that constantly prevents their miracle alternative health remedies from being made available to the public, are the same hippies who think the FDA just shrugs its shoulders and looks away whenever some bozo waves a radioactive isotope around some supermarket produce. I’m not a physicist, or a geneticist, and I am a hippie, but I have absolute faith in my government on the subject of: “making things as complicated and tied-up-in-red-tape as humanly possible”. So I’m not really worried about any process that’s made it through a bureaucratic department and judged to be harmless. [shrugs] Maybe that’s naive of me, but in many of these cases, it’s the opposition, rather than the treatment, that makes me skeptical.
That, and Norman Borlaug just kicks so much ass, I can’t imagine anyone being against him. [peace sign]
So someone just sent me an e-mail that was written by Ben Stein. It spoke about the sorry shape that the world is in, and how those despicable atheists have allowed it to get this way by taking God out of our schools and removing Christmas decorations from government buildings. And apparently someone asked Billy Graham’s daughter how a benevolent God could let a disaster like Katrina happen, and she said that we’ve spent so much time taking God out of our schools and government, that He respectfully stopped protecting us from natural disasters. I guess it’s truly a shame that God couldn’t have figured out a way to make it so that ONLY atheists died in that tragedy*, but I mean, what do we he expect? It’s not like he’s OMNIPOTENT or anything, right?
To be fair, I actually like Christmas. I’m not offended by religious displays, and I think the idea of a week or two where everyone is nice to each other is really not a bad idea. But let’s look at this from a different point of view. Christians are pretty big on tolerance and understanding, so let’s see if we can help Ben Stein get this mote from his eye. ;)
Let’s pretend that we’re Christians. For some of you, this won’t be too difficult, but let’s imagine first that we weren’t BORN Christians. What if your parents were a different religion than you? Let’s say that your parents worshiped THOR.
Let’s go one step further and say that 70% of the world’s population are “Thor-ists”. Let’s examine for a minute what it means to be a Thorist.
Thor is a god of War, so let us assume that he embodies all of the “noble” war traditions; Bravery, Honor, Love of your Country, and Brotherhood with your fellow Countrymen. There’s nothing wrong with these traditions, now is there? Don’t you wish that every child was imbued with a love for their neighbors and bravery in the face of adversity? What if every holiday and observance was devoted to the Norse Gods? Can you imagine a landscape in which every cross that sits atop every church were replaced with the Hammer of Thor?
I mean, it kind of looks the same, right?
Now suppose you’ve grown-up in this Thorvian landscape, and your entire world culture revolved around the God of Thunder. Suppose that Thor represented the best in humankind. Suppose that “In Thor we Trust” was on our money. That’s not … offensive, is it? You wouldn’t be “pissed off” to hear songs of praise sung to Thor during the time of Yül, would you? Especially if those songs represented Peace and Harmony?
But … even in a world of Thor worship, where every sneeze was met with a hearty: “Thor Bless You?”, would you really believe in Thor? When a great storm came barreling through the area, wouldn’t your friends sound a little silly when they said: “Thor’s wrath sure is terrible, isn’t it?”. If you went to your child’s grade school open house and found a small warning sticker inside their science book saying: “This textbook contains information about the theory that lightning is electricity. This controversial concept is a THEORY, not FACT, and should be approached with a critical mind”, wouldn’t you be a little upset? If you saw Conservative Thorists standing up at school board meetings and protesting the “Franklinian theory of electricity”, wouldn’t that annoy you?
And why SHOULD it annoy you? I mean, didn’t you just say that Thorism is a benevolent religion that teaches bravery and honesty? Don’t you like the season of Yül and all it brings? Doesn’t it give people comfort to know that Thor is watching over them? Let’s go a step further, and assume that YOU have lost someone that you love. Let’s imagine the worst possible thing that could happen. You’re mourning the loss of a loved one, wondering how to go on, wondering how to cope with this loss, and someone puts a hand on your shoulder and says: “Don’t worry, they’re drinking mead with Thor in Valhalla now…”. Would that REALLY make you feel better?
So then, how do you feel when someone asks you why you athorists were always so cranky. Why were you always so cynical? Can’t you just let ordinary people worship Thor the way that they want without trying to shoot down their beliefs? You know … it’s actually athorists like you that allow these disasters to happen. If you weren’t so strident on taking Thor out of our schools and removing passages from the Volsung Saga from government buildings … this NEVER would have happened. :(
*In fact, if that type of thing happened … ever, it would only serve to glorify his existence. If it could be statistically proven that only atheists are killed by natural disasters, there probably wouldn’t BE any atheists!
One thing that I’ve always been kind of “on the fence” about, is the relationship between “skeptics” and “atheists”. Even though this blog is clearly named “Jersey Skeptic”, and is clearly about “skepticism”, I will occassionally go off on a few atheist rants without concerns for any theist skeptics out there.
Truthfully, “Atheism” and “Skepticism” are not synonyms. You can be skeptical about paranormal claims, disbelieve ghosts, aliens, and the Loch Ness Monster, and yet still pray the rosary every night or bow to Mecca five times a day. It is even possible for the religious skeptic to be skeptical with regard to religious claims of the paranormal! Not everyone who holds a cherished belief in the divinity of Jesus necessarily believes that he would choose to use his divine power to appear on a tortilla shell or to make a statue cry. Many skeptics make a careful distinction between belief in a religion, and a belief in the paranormal.
Unfortunately, the meat in my head just doesn’t work that way. For me, atheism and skepticism are each part of the same belief. When I say that I am skeptical about a paranormal belief, it doesn’t mean that I am completely convinced that strange creatures, supernatural entities, or extraterrestrial visitors do not exist. It merely means that I’ve seen no evidence of these things, and can’t accept them as truth until I do. If I could be shown that something paranormal genuinely exists, I would be forced to modify my belief structure to allow this new reality. If a plesiosaur washed up on the shores of Loch Ness, I would proudly declare my belief in the existence of this creature. I am willing to be proven wrong, and sincerely hope that I am someday.
But my brain simply can not hold a belief in a Diety to a lesser standard. I don’t necessarily want to not believe in God. I happily believed in God for most of my life. But it simply seems to me that if God existed, we’d live in a much different world. In a world where God existed, I’d think that things would just work differently. You wouldn’t need to believe in God, you would just know. The laws of religion would be indistinguishable from the laws of Science, and prayer would be provable. Since I have yet to see this kind of incontrovertible truth from religion, I cannot find it in my heart to believe in it.
But theist skeptics do make this distinction. A belief in God is something more than just an unverified claim. With a belief in God, you’re not limiting yourself to a single claim, you choose to believe in an entire world-view that includes a creation story, various tales and histories, stories of miracles of magic, and a set of moral standards. Faith in a religion is not just a quirky belief, it’s a whole package. So it makes sense that someone would hold hold their worldview to a different standard. I personally believe in some kind of natural science view of the universe, including fun stuff like Big Bangs and Evolution. But I cannot prove that this is truth. I can only prove that the laws of science have explained reality in the many cases that it has been applied. I cannot prove the theory of Gravity. (where are all the no anti-gravity-ists protesting observatories chanting that Gravity is ONLY A THEORY??) I can only prove that Gravity works in nearly all of the cases that have been observed by science. Similarly, I cannot prove that the universe was not created by God. So there’s really no reason for me not to believe that the entire universe wasn’t made by an old man with a white beard and long flowing robes who lives on a cloud. It just doesn’t seem likely to me.
Truthfully, I’m not just limited to Christianity. A lot of atheists like to pick on Christianity, simply because it’s the most popular one. In fact, this is often cited as proof of the “truth” of Christianity. Two billion Christians can’t be wrong, can they? To this, I merely remind Christians that “popularity” doesn’t equal “truth”, or Britney Spears would be the most talented musician on the planet. ;) But it isn’t only Christianity that earns my skepticism. I am more than willing to accept that Islam, Shintoism, Hinduism, or even Santeria is the “One True Religion”, if just one of them would show me some kind of proof. I was almost inclined to believe that Wicca was the one true religion after one man actually won the lottery after praying to the Gods and Goddesses of that religion. Unfortunately, nearly everyone who has ever won the lottery credits their Gods for winning, so this is not quite so shocking. Perhaps I’ll pray to: “The meaningless random chance in a non-sentient universe” and buy a lottery ticket, just to see what happens. :)
But for these reasons, organized religion seems to hold the same position as any other unprovable claim in my mind. I am willing to be proven wrong about any number of unverified claims, but until then, I simply can’t accept them as truth. I can understand why a theist would hold these different types of belief to different sets of standards, but unfortunately I cannot. :(
I feel like the word “believe” really needs to be split into two different words. Sometimes when I’m talking about a person’s “beliefs”, I get the feeling that the idea of the word “believe” is just too ambiguous. You can believe in something, without believing in it, but it’s just SO much harder to believe in something without believing in it. [nods]
Let me check the Oxford English Dictionary. (I’m a librarian, I can do that) The first definition on the word “believe” (v.) denotes a confidence or faith in something. So if you were to say: “I believe in Christianity”, it means that you hold the tenets of that religion as being true and meaningful. If you were to say: “I believe in Capital Punishment”, it means that you agree that certain crimes should be punishible by death. Controvertly, if you were to declare: “I don’t believe in drugs, it means that you are opposed to the idea of using drugs. In fact, you can “not believe in drugs”, and be perfectly content to let your friends snort up lines of coke right in front of you. “Not believing in drugs” doesn’t necessarily mean that you condemn them and wish for the immediate prosecution of drug users. It might just mean that drugs aren’t for you.
But there is another definition of “believe”, and this fits in with the third definition given by the OED. You can believe in the existence of something, without believing in its truth or principles. If you say: “I believe in extraterrestrial life”, it means that you believe that life exists on other planets. If you were to say that: “I believe in ghosts”, it means that you believe that the spirits of the deceased continue to roam the Earth. When I say that I don’t believe in God, it means that I don’t believe in the existence of God. But I feel that sometimes it’s easy to get these definitions confused.
If someone were to tell me: “Well, I don’t believe in abortion …”, it wouldn’t occur to me to bring that person to a family planning clinic and ask the receptionist: “Excuse me, can we observe an abortion taking place? See, my friend here doesn’t believe in them, and I want to prove to him that they exist …”. When someone tells me that they do not believe in abortion, I assume that they are telling me that they don’t approve of the idea of abortion, and not that they doubt its existence.
Though sometimes when I hear religious people speak of their belief in God or various dieties, I get the impression that they are arguing for belief in the principles of (their version of) God, and not in the existence of God Himself. Sometimes I get the impression that the faithful have the misguided notion that atheists believe that there is a giant invisible man with a white beard and long flowing robes, who created the entire universe, and sits in the judgment of humanity, awaiting us at our hour of death and possessing unlimited power … but that we just don’t agree with him.
I think that a big part of this notion comes from the fact that for the faithful, God just IS. They can’t imagine an atheist doubting the existence of God, because … well, I mean look at all the proof. God exists because their parents raised them in a religious tradition that includes the presence of a Diety. God exists because the world of nature is beautiful and awe-inspiring, and because “incredible” is synonymous with “created”. It’s ludicrous to think that something beautiful and complex and awesome could happen without an intelligence directing it, right? Theists know that God simply must exist, because that one time, when they were lonely and depressed, they saw a pretty bird flying by, or watched a beautiful sunset, and could not imagine that it wasn’t a sign meant specifically for them. Ergo, when atheists claim that they do not believe in God, it must be because they’re just not down with his policies, right?
This is why so many theists will point to the Bible and explain to an atheist exactly why the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. Because obviously, any rational atheist would read that passage and say: “Oh, well if the BIBLE says it’s true …”. These are often the same theists who feel that atheists believe in the precepts of Evolution because we just have such a blind devotion to Charles Darwin. That “Darwin said it, I believe it, that settles it”. All of these arguments seem to come from a belief that atheists are just being ornery. As if we’ve all just had a nasty tiff with God and aren’t speaking to Him anymore. :( Why else would Christians quote John 3:16? If atheists don’t believe in the existence of God, why would we believe in the truth of John 3:16?
But when I say that I don’t believe in God, I mean that I believe that the universe is not under the watchful eye of a Deity. I don’t believe in the giant white-bearded man in flowing robes any more than I believe in the existence of a rainbow-colored winged serpent or a one-eyed Viking with a penchant for crows. If I did believe that such a being existed, I might be inclined to give him some sort of acknowledgement, if not outright down-on-my-knees worship and penance. But I don’t. [shrugs]
Ironically enough, I do believe in Jesus, in both senses of the word. I believe that in the first century a.d., there was a totally cool hippie dude who lived in Judea and went against the prevailing teachings of his religion in an effort to get people to be nice to each other, forgive their enemies, and help those less fortunate than themselves. I believe that he existed. Furthermore, I feel that the world would be a much a better place if people would actually be nicer to their fellow humans, and love their enemies, and all that other junk. So by many definitions, I am a believer in Jesus.
But, I just can’t behind the whole “Son of God, Also God Himself, Came Back from the Dead, Performed Miracles, yada yada yada” garbage. Which is a shame, because he seems to me like he might have been a pretty decent guy. :(
I’ve told this story a few times before. I even wrote this as a letter to James Randi once, and he included it on the JREF newsletter. So if this seems familiar to you, that’s probably why. I just figured that since I’m writing about skepticism, I should include this past experience of mine. Especially since it was instrumental in causing me to become a skeptic.
A lot of you probably don’t remember this, but way back when I was a kid, (in the 70s) there was a TV show called: “The Ghost Busters“. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Of course, everyone knows about Ghostbusters! Egon, Stantz, Spengler, Hello?? It was a movie first”! Well, long before the movie, there was a TV series starring O’Rourke and Agarn from F-Troop, and also a gorilla. I am totally not making this up. By the time the movie with Bill Murray, et. al. came out, no one really remembered the original TV series with the gorilla. The movie was completely different. In the TV series, the three ghost hunters would bumble around in a haunted location, being chased by ghosts and scared witless at every turn, until they’d suddenly remember that they had a “ghost de-materializer” that would vaporize any ghost they pointed it at.
When I was a kid, this sounded like the perfect profession for me. Unfortunately, I eventually discovered that ghost de-materializers didn’t actually exist. Also, that there was a surprising lack of professional organizations that went to haunted houses exterminating ghosts. My life’s true calling was not to be.
By the time I was in college, though, things had changed. I discovered that Ed and Lorraine Warren, the famed ghost hunters, had started up an organization in New England where they used Lorraine’s psychic powers and Ed’s cold scientific methods to discover and eliminate ghosts from haunted locations around the world. (They must have watched the same TV shows that I did!) This would have been the perfect organization for me, except that they were in New England. There didn’t exist a similar organization for a Jersey ghost hunter like me, at least, not that I knew of. :(
By the late 90s, I discovered that there WERE, in fact, a few New Jersey organizations based on the hunting of ghosts. I contacted one of the groups, and was welcomed into the organization. Having done quite a bit of research on hauntings and the paranormal, I was aware of several different “scientific methods” for tracking ghosts. Many of these will be familiar to fans of the SciFi (now called: “SyFy”) network’s “Ghost Hunters”. You see, in the GhostBusters movie, the ghost hunting quartet carried a vast array of scientific equipment that could be used to track ghosts. In the film, this made perfect sense, but I wondered how practical this would be in real life. Had science somehow managed to isolate the mysterious “ghost particle” while I was sleeping? How exactly does one detect a ghost?
As it turns out, ghosts are powered by electro-magnetic energy. I hadn’t known this, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Ghosts are immaterial, so therefore they must be made of some form of energy, right? After all, ghosts always seem to appear during a fierce thunderstorm, and they always seem to make the lights flicker, right? Therefore, it is scientifically logical that ghosts are made of energy. This made perfect sense to me, and at the time I was completely unaware that this was Not How Science Works. So, by using a device to measure the level of electromagnetic energy in the area, you can also detect ghosts. See how scientific this all is? Also, ghosts are fairly easy to locate because they lower the temperature in a room when they are present. We know this incontrovertible fact from countless horror movies, as well as anecdotal evidence. Therefore, an electronic temperature guage is another useful tool for ghost detction. A third ghost detection method is the use of portable tape recorders. Ghosts will often speak to us at wavelengths too low to hear, but any reliable audio recording device can pick up these speech snippets. These are called EVP, or “Electronic Voice Phenomena”. I don’t know of any historical/cinematic mentions of EVP before the recent Michael Keaton movie “White Noise”, but I do know that EVP is used by ghost hunters around the world. Why? because it’s creepy as all hell when you hear a garbled bit of speech that you can’t identify. If it’s a growly voice saying: “Get Out!” or a girly voice saying: “Help Me!”, it comes very close to what scientists refer to as: “pants wettingly freaky”. For this reason, many EVP are identified as one of these two phrases, even when they usually sound like the voice is clearly saying: “phRgglhKhiiphLllk …”.
There are other methods of ghost investigation, but these are the main ones. It should be noted that these methods all made perfect sense to me when I heard them. Why wouldn’t an EMF detector be able to register “spirit energy”. It’s not as if I’d ever said to myself: “Well shucks, it works in the movies, so it MUST BE TRUE, a-hyuck!!”. It was just the way that things were. Of course ghost investigations must be done at night, alone, with all of the lights out. How would you expect to find a ghost in broad daylight?
The reason that I stress these points is not because I don’t want you to think that I’m some kind of fool for credulously believing these things, but because I want to stress that there was never any intent to defraud.
There is a growing community of ghost hunters in the world, but I want to emphasize that hardly any of them are out to perpetuate any kind of hoax. At no time did I ever sit around with a bunch of ghost hunters and discuss methods for faking an EVP. No one ever got together and floated dust particles in front of a camera to simulate orbs. I have no doubt that these people genuinely believe in every facet of their investigation. There was simply no reason to test anything, because all of the rules of ghost hunting were self-evident.
Having said that, I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with these hunters. Truthfully, I only went on 3 or 4 investigations, but I had a great time. I got to hang out with a bunch of fellow paranormal geeks and sit in darkened rooms waiting for something weird to happen. Many times, I’d get to sit alone with an attractive member of the opposite sex and just chat in the dark. That in itself has an appeal that goes beyond mere scientific curiosity. ;)
So every investigation basically went like this: We’d hear about a haunted location and get permission to investigate. If this was a private residence, the homeowners would often invite us into their home because they’d experienced something strange or unexplainable. If this was a public location, we’d usually clear it with the caretakers of the building. You would be surprised how easy this is. Many locations were very excited to have ghost hunters visit. If you had a restaurant built on a historic location, being able to say that you have a resident ghost is just sexy. If members of your staff have experienced unexplainable occurances, knowing that there is an “official” ghost on the premises just makes everyone feel better.
Try this yourself sometime! Think of a name, something old-timey sounding. Now think of a personality to fit that name. Picture an old Civil War general named Tobias, or a serving maid named Elizabeth. Okay, so the next time you hear a strange noise, or notice a shadow moving out of the corner of your eye, just say aloud: “Hi Toby!”, or “Good Mornin’, Lizzy!”. See how much better you feel. :) (may not work with everyone)
So we’d go to a haunted location and set up our equipment. We’d usually arrive just before “bedtime”, and discuss our investigation with the caretakers of the location. Sometimes the location would have a “backstory”. The inhabitants of the house would have prior knowledge of a family that had lived there, or would have seen some kind of apparition. This was “helpful”, since it gave us something to work with. Personally, I’d always felt as though it would be more important to go in with NO information, in order to get independent corroboration of our experiences, but I wasn’t an expert.
After walking around and getting some “base readings”, we’d begin the investigation. This was also strange to me, since I didn’t understand the concept of “base readings” in a haunted location. How does one “turn off” the ghosts so that we can establish a baseline for non-haunting activity? Once we’d done a preliminary sweep of the location, we’d shut off the lights and “go dark”. We do this because ghosts simply don’t come around in the light, haven’t you read a ghost story?
Now some people might disagree with me on this next point, (I’m looking at YOU, James Randi) but when you’re sitting in the pitch black darkness of a “haunted” house, it is scary. There was just something primal about not being able to see that puts you on your guard. Every sensation is heightened, and you start to get a little nervous. Maybe the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. This is another thing that you can try yourself. Turn off every light in your house and tell yourself that there’s a ghost in the room, standing right next to you. Or better yet, tell yourself that there’s NO FREAKING WAY that there’s a ghost in the room. Now listen for anything that can prove or disprove this hypothesis. Make sure it’s good and dark. :)
After sitting in the dark for an hour, monitoring every creak and groan of the house, you start to notice a very peculiar thing. You start to notice that nothing is happening. No headless apparitions screaming down the hall, no vampire children scratching at the window, no demonic animals snarling in your face. It’s all very disillusioning. :(
In my mind, no evidence meant no ghosts. But for this particular group, there was plenty of evidence to go around. First of all, the entire experience was creepy. As previously mentioned, it’s very difficult to sit in a darkened room and not be at least a little nervous. Why are you nervous? There’s no one there, is there? Does it feel like someone is here? So in other words, you say that you feel … a presence? Personally, any time I spend more than a few minutes just thinking about feeling a presence, I feel a presence. Our token psychic seemed to feel a presence even when there was no other evidence available. She would get a feeling, an impression, a sense and pretty soon she’d be able to describe the older gentleman who committed suicide in the house in full detail.
After that, we naturally did some research into the history of the house to determine whether any of the previous owners had been an older gentleman who had committed suicide, right? Wrong. After all, we really didn’t need to do any research. Our psychic had already confirmed for us that there was a suicide in that building. No further research necessary. Even if we had done research and found nothing, what would that prove? How many suicides went unreported in the old days? How do we know that an older Native American gentleman hadn’t killed himself on this very spot long before the white man came to this country? You can’t prove that this suicide DIDN’T happen, can you?
As I said, this was not an intention to defraud. I have no doubt that our psychic believed that there genuinely was an older gentleman that died in the house. I’m sure she that she thought about it, imagined it, and then believed that the impression came to her through psychic means. To try and discredit her through research would have just seemed mean-spirited and overly critical. To the ghost hunters, a “skeptic” was someone who tried actively to disprove the existence of ghosts. A skeptic was someone who rejected any and all evidence of the paranormal, no matter how compelling. Skeptics were those cynical naysayers who would invent all kinds of ridiculous reasons to discredit the paranormal. Swamp gas, confirmation bias, the ideomotor effect, these were all just rationalizations and sophistry.
I really miss going on ghost investigations with groups like these. There are times that I hear about an alleged haunting, and want to organize a full fledged paranormal investigation. Sometimes in polite company, I’ll be speaking on the subject of ghosts, and as soon as I mention that I used to be a ghost hunter, people’s eyes just light up. For that moment, I’m a rock star. I tell people that I don’t believe in that sort of thing anymore, but that’s just not as sexy. I’ve often considered how easy it would be for me to start a reputable ghost hunting agency, get together with a bunch of friends, and sit in a dark room every week waiting for evidence of life after death. Then to be able to make people shiver at cocktail parties when I tell them what I do. But my conscience won’t let me. The mystery has already been broken for me, and I’m just not a good liar. I can’t pretend that I believe in something that there’s no evidence for.
Although, I’m not totally sold on the idea that ghosts DON’T exist. As soon as I find some good solid evidence on the existence of ghosts, I’ll quit this damn blog and start my own investigation team. But mind you, this would have to be some really good evidence.
Edit: 1975 Ghost Busters opening:
There is a convention in many movies and novels that suggest that skeptics and atheists are simply misguided people who need to be shown the “truth” of God and/or the supernatural in a convincing way. The Hollywood Atheist is usually represented as someone who disbelieves God out of an old grudge. The character in question was a perfectly devout sort of person until they met with a tragedy that destroyed their faith in the divine Father. After all, how could a loving God have allowed their wife/girlfriend/little sister/mother/father/chihuahua to have died tragically? Once the poor deluded atheist has been shown the error of their ways, however, all is forgiven. No matter how tragic the event which “caused” their sudden leap to atheism, a good solid plot resolution will “cure” it.
A similar thing happens when fictional skeptics are forced to see “evidence” of the paranormal. The angry, embittered skeptic will irrationally refute any bit of evidence presented to them, right up until the point where they’re standing face-to-bellybutton with the 12 foot tall slimy gibbering extra-dimensional Thing That Should Not Be from the lower reaches of the Abyss. This always gets a good laugh from the skeptic’s friends. Even though there is still a murderous supernatural creature out to kill them all, they can’t resist a hearty I-told-ya-so chuckle before continuing on.
So … recently, I myself was forced to deal with something that I could not quite explain. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) I was not terrorized by a horrible Lovecraftian creature from the depths. I was not even startled by a hungry Class V Full-Roaming Vapor. The terrible evidence of the supernatural that presented itself to me, was … … … a coffee pot.
My lovely wife and I were staying at a hotel in Milwaukee. We enjoyed a wonderful breakfast in the hotel lounge. (Best eggs benedict I’ve ever had) We were sitting at a rectangular table, adjacent to each other on one of the corners. On the far end of the table, sat the coffee pot which the waitress had just used to serve us. The restaurant was fairly empty. There were a few other diners, but no one sitting near us. The two of us were patiently waiting for our breakfast when the coffee pot fell of the table. Just like that. It was as if someone had walked by and given the coffee pot a gentle nudge, causing it to fall onto the floor. Being a supportive spouse, my loving wifey immediately asked: “What did you do?”. The busboy (actually, busMAN, as he was at least 40) backed me up, saying: “He didn’t touch it, I saw him!”. I gave the table a firm shake. It was neither lopsided nor wobbly. I looked around to see if there had been someone that might have knocked into the table and then ducked behind a potted ficus or something. Nothing. The best explanation that I could think of, was that the restless phantom of a deceased person was wandering the ancient, hallowed halls of the Wyndham Milwaukee Airport Hotel & Convention Center.
… and this is exactly what I wanted to believe.
There are a number of explanations for what happened. Did you ever put a cold glass down on a wet table and watch it hydroplane for a few inches across the surface? That could have been what was happening here. Perhaps the table was slightly tilted to the right. After all, I didn’t happen to be carrying my trusty carpenter’s level on me at the time. One thing that occurred to me as I was analyzing the situation was that the hotel was immediately adjacent to the airport. I had thought that maybe a passing plane shook the coffee pot to the ground. However, I dismisssed this idea as unlikely, since we were in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm that morning, (it was why we stayed indoors for breakfast) making takeoffs highly unlikely. Perhaps the thunder of the passing storm had shaken the coffee pot off the table, or the change in air pressure had something to do with it. Hell, for all I know, the busboy (busMAN) might have had an invisible thread reel up his sleeve in an effort to scare the hapless out-of-towners.
Or, it could have been a ghost.
Truthfully, which of these explanations is more exciting? That some guy with a mischievous streak used a simple magician’s gadget to scare us, that condensation on a listing table allowed the coffee urn to slide slightly to the right, or that an inter-dimensional entity just really hates coffee? I want to believe in ghosts, and I genuinely want the cafephobic phantom to be the only possible explanation. But I can’t accept that.
In 20/20 hindsight, I wish that I had leapt up from the table and grabbed the coffee pot to analyze it for tricks or defects. I wish that I’d run a hand across the far end of the table to check for moisture. I wish I’d had video of the event to rewind and watch again, to determine if perhaps someone had nudged the table, but just enough to cause the coffee to imperceptibly slide without anyone noticing until the pot hit the floor.
But the reason that I wish I’d done all of these things is because I want for none of them to be true. I want to believe in ghosts. I want to believe in spirits. I want to believe that the Wyndham Milwaukee Airport was built over an ancient Native American holy site. But I don’t want to believe any of these things at face value.
This is what makes me different from the Hollywood stereotype skeptic. It’s not that I refuse to believe in the paranormal, but rather that I want so badly to believe in the paranormal that I want the proof to be incontrovertible. I don’t want to see a screaming banshee running through my backyard and then later find out that M. Night Shaymalan was filming in the area. I don’t want to see the apparition of a mortally wounded Civil War general walking through the library, only to find out that someone slipped LSD into the water cooler. I want to have a paranormal encounter that is ironclad, and without alternate explanation. Does that make me a bad skeptic? Or is pretty much every skeptic this way? Should I steadfastly refuse to believe anything that doesn’t come with a full series of lab tests and rigorous analysis? Or is my deep and abiding love for the weird and unexplained actually an asset in this case?
Because seriously, if I could prove that that was a ghost that I encountered back in Milwaukee? How totally cool would that be? :D