Chapter Eleven: Supernaturalism
It is of course impossible to talk about God without dealing with the subject of the supernatural. Most dictionaries define the term supernatural to mean something beyond or outside of nature. In relation to God it means both that God is supernatural and has supernatural powers. This distinction, between being supernatural and having supernatural powers, is an important one. From the viewpoint of a Deist, God created the world in the distant past, but has since let it run on its own according to natural laws. From the viewpoint of a Theist, God not only created the world, he continues to use supernatural powers to alter the natural world on behalf of human beings. An Atheist, in contrast, holds to no view of God at all.
In scientific terms supernatural power means the ability to violate a natural law. The religious term is usually a miracle. A miracle in this sense is not just something that is extremely unlikely. Supernormal might be a better word for a phenomenon that might happen through natural means, despite high odds against it. Winning a lottery twice or being hit by lighting several times are unlikely events, but their occurrence does not require a miracle in the statistical sense. By supernatural power I mean something that is clearly violating the laws of nature.
Richard L. Purtill in the book In Defense of Miracles gives five features of a religious miracle. First the violation of the natural law must be only temporary, the law itself is not being changed. Second, it must be an exception to what could naturally occur. Third we must have an accurate understanding of the law we are claims is being violated. Forth, we must be able to attribute the phenomenon directly to God. And finally, the miracle must have some purpose for God to human beings. In other words, a violation of a law of nature must have a deliberate purpose, such as demonstrating that God acts in human history. (In Defense of Miracles p 63-64)
It might be wise to examine some of these points in regards to how we verify a genuine supernatural miracle. What we presently consider to be the laws of nature may not be entirely accurate. There may, for example, be a way to travel faster than light despite Einstein's belief that it is limited to 187,000 miles a second. Respected scientific journals such as Scientific American publish articles that postulate how forces such as negative energy might squeeze space to allow travel faster than light in a relative sense. (Scientific American Jan 2000 p50) So if we find any good evidence that seems to establish a miracle we must first consider the possibility that our understanding of the natural laws is not complete.
Another problem with the definition of a miracle being a violation of the laws of nature is that more advanced technologies might be able to perform feats that, to those unaware of it, might be seen as miraculous. There is little doubt that a modern magician going back in time several thousand years ago could convince millions that he or she possessed supernatural powers. So when we examine claims to the miraculous we must, if we wish to know the truth, look at all claims with a skeptical eye. For it is certainly true that throughout history men and women who had no supernatural power have tried to convince others that they did.
An important point to make on this subject is the level of honesty or sincerity on the part of people making miracle claims. Most I think are simply describing an event as they perceived it to have happened. But there is no doubt that many charlatans knowingly perpetuate frauds or hoaxes for their own gains. Another problem is the tendency of many believers to commit a pious lie, to knowingly deceive people about a miracle in order to help foster their particular belief. Going along uncritically with a dubious miracle claim can also contribute to false belief in certain miracles.
What criteria are needed to prove a miraculous claim? On this we tend to have at least two very different views. The scientific view is one of skepticism. This means that no claim that would violate a well-established natural law can be accepted without overwhelming verifiable evidence. Carl Sagan was found of saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. In legal terms we might call this proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Some scientists take this a step higher. Since the laws of nature are so well established by multiple and independent evidence, the argument is that no single case, no matter how convincing, can be enough to prove a miracle.
On the other hand, those without a dedication to the scientific method opt for a more lenient degree of proof to establishing a miracle. One common claim by those who wish to support claims of the supernatural and paranormal ideas is that scientists refuse to objectively deal with their evidence because of their prejudicial acceptance of the philosophy of naturalism. Naturalism, also know as materialism, is the belief that nothing exists outside of the natural world. A somewhat more extreme form of the doctrine is the claim that nothing can exist beyond the natural world. Ronald H. Nash puts the complaint this way: "Clearly, any people in the grip of these naturalistic habits of mind could not be expected to believe in the miraculous, for it would be inconsistent for them to do so." (In Defense of Miracles p 123) Nash goes on to make this statement of naturalism:
"Naturalism claims that every individual object or event can be explained in terms of something else within the natural order. This dogma is not an accidental or nonessential feature of the naturalistic position. All that is required for naturalism to be false is the discovery of one thing that cannot be explained in the naturalistic way." (In Defense of Miracles p 124-125)
The example Nash presents as a discovery that requires the overthrow of the usual naturalist worldview of science is human reasoning and self-awareness. Taking a page from C.S. Lewis, Nash writes:
"In metaphysical naturalism, "acts of reasoning are not interlocked with the total interlocking system of Nature as all its other items are interlocking with one another. They are connected with it in a different way; as the understanding of a machine is certainly connected with the machine but not in the way the parts of the machine are connected with each other. The knowledge of a thing is not one of the thing's parts. In this sense something beyond Nature operates whenever we reason."" (In Defense of Miracles p 126-127)
In other words, Nash and Lewis believe that rational thought involving knowledge of self is something beyond the world of nature. This is a very ancient belief. The Vedic philosopher Sankharacharya (510-478 BC) once made this same observation about the relationship between the conscious self and the physical body:
"The food-formed vesture is this body, which comes into being through food, which lives by food, which perishes without food. It is formed of cuticle, skin, flesh, blood, bone, water; this is not worthy to be the Self, eternally pure. The Self was before birth or death, and now is; how can it be born for the moment, fleeting, unstable of nature, not unified, inert, behold like a jar? For the Self is the witness of all changes of form. The body has hands and feet, not the Self; though bodiless, yet because it is the Life, because its power is indestructible, it is controller, not controlled. Since the Self is witness of the body, its character, its acts, its states, therefore the Self must be of other nature than the body. . . Of this compound of skin, flesh, fat, bone and water, the man of deluded mind thinks, "This is I"; but he who is possessed of judgement knows that his true Self is of other character, is nature transcendental. . . Therefore, O thou of mind deluded, put away the thought that this body is the Self... discern the universal Self, the Eternal, changeless, and enjoy supreme peace..." (Reincarnation in World Thought p45-46)
While Nash and Lewis no doubt would take exception to Sankharacharya's avid acceptance of the doctrine of reincarnation, the argument that acts of reasoning involved with consciousness cannot be the result of a mere physical body is very similar. Most modern theologians support this view. For example, theologian Paul Williams has this to say about science and the soul:
"The idea that human beings are just bodies is one phase of the notion that nothing exists but matter, that spirit is nonexistent, that mind is but matter in motion. This position is one that some scientists have expounded dogmatically. Because of the prestige of these men, many people have jumped to the conclusion that anyone who is thoroughly abreast of modern thought will discard faith in a soul. Yet there are other scientists, men of equal prestige, who do not accept that faith that the universe is composed exclusively of matter and assert their belief that faith in a future life is rational. But as a matter of fact scientists are in no better position than are the rest of us to decide whether matter and mind are both real. That is a question for philosophy. And we must all, consciously or unconsciously, be philosophers..." (Reincarnation in World Thought p7)
As ancient and widespread as this argument might be, it does runs contrary to the view of modern science. Self-awareness is believed by the scientific community to be a product of the brain's massive and dynamic interaction of billions of neural connections. Exactly why a highly complex natural system such as the brain, once established, has to violate the laws of nature because it is self-aware is unclear to me. To boost his argument a bit more Nash gives another quote from C.S. Lewis:
"... no account of the universe [including metaphysical naturalism] can be true unless that account leaves is possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court." (In Defense of Miracles p 126)
I would again comment that it is unclear to me why a human brain has to violate a natural law in order to have an accurate insight or be self-aware. Lower degrees of insights and understanding are certainly made by animals without the apparent need to call them supernatural or other-dimensional. For example, Jane Goodall made these firsthand observations about the abilities of chimpanzees:
"In fact, all those who have worked long and closely with chimpanzees have no hesitation in asserting that chimps experience emotions similar to those which in ourselves we label pleasure, joy, sorrow, anger, boredom and so on. Some of the emotional states of the chimpanzee are so obviously similar to ours that even an inexperienced observer can understand what is going on. An infant who hurls himself screaming to the ground, face contorted, hitting out with his arms at any nearby object, banging his head, is clearly having a tantrum." (Through a Window p 13-14)
"Then it was proved, experimentally and beyond doubt, that chimpanzees could recognize themselves in mirrors -- that they had, therefore, some kind of self-concept. In fact, Washoe, some years previously, had already demonstrated the ability when she spontaneously identified herself in the mirror, staring at her image and making her name sign. But that observation was merely anecdotal. The proof came when chimpanzees who had been allowed to play with mirrors were, while anaesthetized, dabbed with spots of odourless paint in places, such as the ears or the top of the head, that they could see only in the mirror. When they woke they were not only fascinated by the spotted images, but immediately investigated, with their fingers, the dabs of paint." (Through a Window p17-19)
"People sometimes ask why chimpanzees have evolved such complex intellectual powers when their lives in the wild are so simple. The answer is, of course, that their lives in the wild are not so simple! They use-and need-all their mental skills during normal day-to-day life in their complex society. They are always having to make choices-where to go, or with whom to travel. They need highly developed social skills-particularly those males who are ambitious to attain high positions in the dominance hierarchy. Low-ranking chimpanzees must learn deception-to conceal their intentions or to do thing in secret-if they are to get their way in the presence of their superiors. Indeed, the study of chimpanzees in the wild suggests that their intellectual abilities evolved, over the millennia, to help them cope with daily life." (Through a Window p 19)
Frans de Waal provides additional evidence of at least a low level of self-awareness in his study of captive bonobo chimpanzees:
"I saw them wipe undesirable expressions off their face, hide compromising body parts behind their hands, and act totally blind and deaf when another tested their nerves with a noisy intimidation display. It is not hard to see how concern about signals emitted by one's own body relates to self-awareness -- these chimpanzees acted quite differently from the puppy chasing its own tail." (Good Natured p 77)
Certainly humans have vastly greater mental abilities than chimpanzees. But the differences according to first hand researchers are more one of degrees, not all or nothing. There seems to be no valid argument that human consciousness requires a non-physical-based component. What if future generations are able to make a computer powerful enough to pass tests of self-awareness and reasoned insights? Would this argument say that a HAL9000 type computer as envisioned by Arthur C. Clark would constitute a violation of the laws of nature? Would believers in the theory that the mind can't be based on the physical have to then claim that a computer is a supernatural-based being?
Another argument made against science's naturalistic worldview is that we shouldn't have confidence in our mental abilities in the first place:
"If they are consistent with their naturalistic presuppositions, they must assume that our human cognitive faculties are a product of chance, purposeless forces. But if this is so, they appear grossly inconsistent when they place so much trust in those faculties... if they assume that their cognitive faculties are trustworthy and do provide accurate information about the world, they seem compelled to abandon one of the cardinal presuppositions of metaphysical naturalism to conclude that their cognitive faculties were formed as a result of the activity of some purposeful, intelligent agent." (In Defense of Miracles p 129-130)
The first dubious part of this argument is describing the evolution of the human brain as "a product of chance, purposeless forces." This is a common charge by creationist against evolution, and is no more informative now that it was back in 1859. The type of chance Nash seems to be thinking about would be equivalent to throwing a dice and getting random results. Evolution by natural selection is vastly more constructive and selective than that. For the sake of this argument we have to explain how the brain of Homo sapiens evolved from archaic Homo sapiens, and how their brain evolved from that of Homo erectus.
This degree of change, measured in terms of about 1000 cc of brain mass of say Homo erectus to 1400 cc of anatomically modern humans, is not the product of random "chance" as creationists seem to think. There are obvious reproductive advantages to a hominid being smarter. The naturally occurring trait of slightly larger and smarter brains was retained generation by generation for very specific reasons. The variation of the trait is in part caused by randomness. The specific selection within that variation is anything but random. Over the course of generations individuals with slightly larger brains had, according to the fossil record, more offspring that survived to pass on the trait. Over time the advantageous trait came to dominate the population of the species.
There is simply no reason to believe that a selective process that retains naturally occurring larger and smarter brains could not add 400 cc of mass and the corresponding greater intelligence over the course of a million years. This advantage of larger, smarter brains is directly related to an ability to increasingly manipulate their social and physical world, as their superior tools elegantly demonstrate.
The reason we can be sure that scientific thinking is providing an increasingly accurate understanding of the world comes from the reality of our increased control over the environment. We are able to create more powerful tools in the world because we more clearly understand the physical principals behind them. We are able to make more predictions about the world today because our understanding is more accurate than in the past. Our continuing increase in technology is overwhelming evidence that our scientific understanding is providing increasingly more accurate understanding of the physical world. It is not a question of wishful thinking or blind faith to some philosophy.
But there is perhaps an insight in Nash's argument. Philosophers have long ago discovered that humans are not automatically going to come up with the correct understanding of the world on their own. The obvious biological purpose of the evolution of the human brain is to successfully reproduce other little human brains and raise them to adulthood. The more the merrier is certainly the case in our biological evolution. But we should note that evolution has not necessarily favored those humans who had the most accurate understanding of the world in each and every subject matter. We are all prone to some degree of self-deception. We all tend to have an overwhelming bias in favor of ourselves and those we identify with. We are all naturally more forgiving of weakness in views we accept and more critical of weakness in arguments that we oppose.
Many thinkers use this fact in their arguments against naturalism by claiming that scientists must not rule out the possibility of the supernatural. Philosopher Jose Ortega Gasset made this observation of the relationship between science and the supernatural:
"Scientific truth is characterized by its exactness and the certainty of its predictions. But these admirable qualities are contrived by science at the cost of remaining on a plane of secondary problems, leaving intact the ultimate and decisive questions. . . If the physicist detains, at the point where his method ends, the hand with which he delineates the facts, the human being behind each physicist prolongs the line thus begun and carries it on to its termination, as an eye beholding an arch in ruins will of itself complete the missing curve..." (Reincarnation in World Thought p388)
Thomas H. Huxley, the passionate supporter of Darwin's theory of evolution, had this to say about the question of naturalism:
"I understand the main tenet of Materialism to be that there is nothing in the universe but matter and force. . . Kraft and Stoff-force and matter-are paraded as the Alpha and Omega of existence... Whosoever does not hold it is condemned by the more zealous of the persuasion to the Inferno appointed for fools and hypocrites. But all this I heartily disbelieve... There is a third thing in the universe, to wit, consciousness, which... I can not see to be matter or force, or any conceivable modification of either...
"The student of nature, who starts form the axiom of the universality of the law of causation, can not refuse to admit an eternal existence; if he admits the conservation of energy, he can not deny that possibility of an eternal energy; if he admits the existence of the immaterial phenomena in the form of consciousness, he must admit the possibility, at any rate, of an eternal series of such phenomena... Looking at the matter from the most rigidly scientific point of view, the assumption that, amidst the myriads of worlds scattered through endless space, there can by no intelligence, as much greater than man's as his it greater than a blackbeetle's; no being endowed with powers of influencing the course of nature as much greater than his, as his is greater than a snail's, seems to me not merely baseless, but impertinent. Without stepping beyond the analogy of that which is know, it is easy to people the cosmos with entities, in ascending scale until we reach something practically indistinguishable from omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience." (Reincarnation in World Thought p389-390)
We should keep these points in mind as we examine the differing claims to the supernatural. Remember, everyone is out to some extent to verify their own views and refute those that disagree with us. All the more reason to use the criteria of the scientific method in our study. The scientific method is the only self-correcting way to establish fact from fiction in the world. Why is this? Because for something to be scientifically established it must be verifiably by multiple, independent researchers. The global scientific community deliberately and tenaciously tries to disprove all the theories that are presented to it. We must acknowledge that some true theories might well be missed by science because they don't have sufficient evidence to support them. But scientists accept this weakness because it helps to keep false theories from being mistakenly endorsed.
We should also keep in mind that the naturalistic assumption used in the scientific community does not mean that all scientists don't believe in God or the supernatural. To quote the skeptical physicist Milton A. Rothman: "Many scientists privately believe in higher powers, but rely on natural laws to analyze the behaviors of physical objects. Their success over the centuries indicates that the hypothesis of an orderly nature governed by laws is a good one." (A Physicist's Guide to Skepticism p191)
But that said, it is clear the functional, if not official, position of modern science is to always look for a natural cause to any event. Scientists, having many different views regarding God's influence in the natural world, do tend to adopt the policy of requiring exceptional evidence to establish a miracle in the supernatural sense. Many scientists dogmatically do refuse to believe in the possibility that any supernatural miracle can actually occur. This of course would violate one of the basic tenants of science as an empirical method. If science bases its beliefs on verifiable evidence, then any preconceived view must give way in the face of overwhelming proof to the contrary. One thing that most scientists generally do agree to is that no single supernatural event in human history has so far been so well documented that it requires a supernatural explanation. This view was stated quite unambiguously by the philosopher David Hume:
"For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men." (David Hume, Concerning Human Understanding, Sect. X, Part II, p. 491)
This does not of course mean that individual scientists don't believe that supernatural events have occurred during our history. Many scientists passionately believe in the supernatural claims of their particular religion. Many also hold paranormal beliefs that are at odds with the scientific community's view of the world. But it's a fair thing to say that according to most members of the scientific worldwide community there is no single event in human history has been so well verified that a supernatural explanation is required. Regardless of what the scientific community thinks, billions of people believe that ghosts haunt people the world over. (Passport to the Supernatural p 14) These apparitions from the other side take on a variety of forms. Sometimes they are said to look entirely human. Other times they have a semi-transparent, "ghostly" look to them. While they often seem to be relatively harmless to the living, some people claim to have been physically abused by ghosts and produce the scares to prove it.
A seance is also said to be able to contact the spirits of the departed, at least in voice. This usually takes place when the Medium lets the departed spirit speak through them. Some individuals claim to not even need the seance setting to make contact. They can simply hear the spirits psychically and relate any message they have for concerned relatives or friends, although often at a price.
Theological conviction, personal experience and anecdotal stories are certainly enough to convince many people that at least some of these claims are true. But when we apply the scientific method of investigations to these types of claims it becomes much more difficult to discover a convincing body of persuasive evidence. One of the first problems encountered is the need to rule out the possibility that a supernatural or paranormal claim is actually an ingenious hoax. Charlatans, practical jokers and sometimes even well meaning pious individuals always have and always will attempt to fool the public into believing a claim by the use of trickery. Skeptical investigations attempting to discover the truth of a paranormal claim must always take this unfortunate possibility into account.
For example, if a psychic claimed that he could bend spoons with paranormal ability, how would we scientifically verify this? First there would need to be some plausible force that could explain the phenomenon. In the case of our psychic, that force would be a form of ESP called telekinesis. This force must be demonstrated under controlled experiments to actually exist. This does not mean a group of physicists or metallurgists conducting a test with the psychic. This means that a test must be conducted by a group of professional magicians who know several ways to secretly bend spoons without the use of psychic powers. Their testing must be carefully controlled to rule out any other reasonable possibility. A level of control that some might find tedious and extreme is required to eliminate the fact that, unlike rats in a maze, human beings are capable of absolute genius when it comes to deceiving other people.
One way that magicians can bend spoons is by simply bending them with their hand or onto some solid object while the audience's attention is momentarily directly somewhere else. It is remarkable how effectively a talented magician can perform this deft little move while surrounded by onlookers. When they then start to shake the spoon you simply can't tell that it has already been bent. The magic occurs when the spoon slows down and dramatically reveals that it has, somehow, been bent. Since the audience's attention was diverted at the split second it took the magician to bend the spoon, this can appear quite impressive if you don't know the secret and weren't looking attentively for the sleight of hand. And this is only one of many ways that the trick can be done.
In addition to the problem of deliberate fraud paranormal investigators must deal with a much more difficult dilemma. Most people with a vested interest in something being true will tend to interpret what they see to fit in with their pre-held beliefs. Someone who really believes that some psychics can bend spoons with paranormal powers will believe that they can actually see the spoon bending as the psychic slows down the rapidly shaking spoon. Because they were emotionally conditioned to actively look for the spoon to bend, that is exactly what they report seeing. In actuality they are seeing an already bent spoon slowing down. But because their brains are actively trying to perceive what they expect to perceive, they are simply unaware of the optical illusion and come away convinced that they saw a genuine example of psychic power.
A third point we need to establish is that our memories are not perfect. As we saw in the chapter on reincarnation our memories are not like a video tape recording of the past. We tend to remember key images or concepts from an experience and fill in whatever details we can't precisely recall. Over time and especially over many retellings our memories can begin to accumulate confabulated features and details that were not a part of the actual event we are attempting to recall. This is not a deliberate attempt to alter a story, it is just a natural part of everyone's memory recollection.
These realities of how our brains work can make a powerful influence on claims involving the supernatural. If we have a preconceived idea about a supernatural phenomenon, such as ghostly visits, we are likely to perceive certain types of sensory experiences quite differently than a disbelieving skeptic might. Over time our memories of those experiences may also alter subtly or even dramatically. Since few beliefs are as deeply felt as the ideas of life after death and divine intervention, we must naturally expect to find high levels of subjective bias entering into many of the claims.
We tend to find a similar situation with the claims of spiritual visitations. Despite what many "psychic ghost hunters" may claim on paranormal television shows, there is currently no clear evidence that anyone can actually detect and communicate with visitors from the afterlife. There is an immense body of research now that does show clear cases of deception being used by certain "spiritualists" to take financial and emotional advantage of their hopeful customers.
Believers claim that ghosts routinely can move furniture, turn off ovens or irons, open and close doors, turn lights on and off, throw about pots and pans and make ghostly noises. Unfortunately no one seems to be able to get a ghost to move physical objects on cue. Mediums who will say that a certain person's ghost is in the room seem unable to get the spirit to simply move an object to verify their presence. That certainly would make for a convincing demonstration, and with all the ghosts that are claimed to exist it seems odd that none will cooperate to verify their existence.
Some mediums will provide information to their clients as a form of proof that they are in contract with a departed loved one. But a careful examination of these claims tends to provide a more prosaic explanation. Talented mediums will simply begin to make educated guess about the category of people most likely to have recently died. A grandparent for young people, a parent for middle age people are the most common supposed contacts mediums report. The most common technique is to make a series of rapid guesses and careful monitor the client for any response. Once an educated guess is successful, the medium then continues to make logical inferences about that person and their probable relationship with the client. Many talented people, both those that believe in ghosts and those that don't are able to create this performance.
What is suspiciously missing is the ability of mediums to actually give the exact name, birthday or address of the person who they are claiming to be in direct contact with. Unpredictable personal information, again without any clues being given by the client, could easily establish whether or not the medium was in some form of psychic or spiritual contact. The fact is that a talented magician using a probability technique called "cold reading" can make the same impression of hits with a believing client. If they are allowed to resort to trickery they can make astonishing "hits" without the client knowing they are being deceived. The desire to believe ensures that the mistaken guesses will be forgotten by the client and the partial hits will be remembered as if they were more fully detailed than they actually were.
If in fact a medium existed who could, under a carefully controlled situation, give detailed information about deceased people such as their exact name, birthday and address, who they could not have know ahead of time, the reality of ghosts would be quite easy to prove. If a medium could get a single ghost to simply levitate an object in controlled setting that too would provide a simple way to prove the reality of ghosts. But the real life cases of ghosts fail to achieve these simple levels of verification. Why should this be so? We might try to speculate about the motivation of spirits. They obviously want to interact with the living, because that is exactly what all the stories of their activities are about. If the reported conversations with mediums are to be believed they obviously often want to relate some type of information to the living. If all these things are true, why won't a single ghost who wants to assure people of the existence of an afterlife cooperate with skeptics?
One thing worth noting about ghosts is that they seem to be as culturally dependent as the reports of the NDEs are. Ghost beliefs in India, for example, are quite different than ghost stories in Europe and America. In India the idea of ghosts is connected with the Hindu belief of life after death and reincarnation. Many Hindus believe that ghosts remain at the cremation grounds for 13 days after a person's death. The spirit then travels to the afterlife for a year, to be either reincarnated or to become a wondering ghost. (Ghosts: Life and Death in North India p62) Sometimes ghost can also visit the physical world during their year in the afterlife. (Ghosts: Life and Death in North India p269) Ghosts can take possession of certain people, causing a "ghost illness." These traumatic events tend to coincide with the most stressful time during the victims life, such as before an arranged marriage or after the death of loved ones. (Ghosts: Life and Death in North India p 306). Victims will physically shake uncontrollably and fall to the ground unconscious. They will then fall into a delirious state, and at times the voice of the ghost will speak through them. According to researchers Freed and Freed:
"The strange voice that often speaks from the victim is identified as the ghost trying to seize the victim's soul, so the spectators talk to it. First, they try to identify the ghost; then they ask what it wants. Generally, the ghost states that the victim ate something special, usually sweets, and that the ghost wants its share. The idea here is that the ghost has been slighted or is jealous of the person eating the sweets, but in fact the cause of the possession may be that the victim has not been given as favorable treatment as other family members..." (Ghosts: Life and Death in North India p209)
Hindu exorcists use a variety of chants and rituals to remove ghosts and their effects. An exorcist from a small Indian village gives this description of his work. Notice how different these are compared to the rituals that exorcists in the Western world use to combat ghosts:
"Mainly what I do is cure people of ghost possession, which happens when a ghost of someone who died an unnatural death enters another person. The condition is known as ghost possession or sometimes fits. For ghost possession, I have the patient sit opposite me. I light incense and have a container of water, and recite mantras. Then I throw some water on the patients. The patient speaks and tells me what is wrong; then the ghost starts speaking and tells from whence he comes and what he wants. I then write three mantras on a sheet of paper, hold the paper over the smoking incense, put the paper in the water, and have the patient drink the water. The ink does not wash off the paper. After drinking the water, the patient feels as peace." (Ghosts: Life and Death in North India p197)
Chinese ghosts on the other hand follow a different pattern. They are historically sometimes envisioned more like vampires who can reanimate their bodies from only a few surviving bones. According to Bernhardt Hurwood: "With blazing red eyes, they have razorsharp talons, pale white or greenish hair all over the body, resembling mold or decay, and in addition to sucking blood from their living victims, like ghouls, they devour the flesh of the dead." (Passport to the Supernatural p51) But some Chinese ghosts, know as fox-maidens, are described as very beautiful and sexual. These ghosts can romance and even make love to the living, although sometimes at the price of their lover's life. (Passport to the Supernatural p50)
Eric Maple gives further details of some of the more gruesome ghosts depicted in ancient Eastern writings:
"Some Oriental ghosts are particularly loathsome. Those of Siam attack the feet and ankles, leaving the remainder of the body religiously alone. The ghosts of Japan are invariably deformed beings without legs, while the more horrific among them possess unusual combinations of eyes, ranging from one to a maximum of three, and are endowed with elongated tongues and snake-like necks." (Passport to the Supernatural p99)
Many Japanese Buddhists believe that ghosts are a normal part of the cycle of reincarnation. To be a mischievous ghost will therefore have a negative consequence on how you will be reincarnated in the next life. A Buddhist convert Lafeadio Hearn wrote this verse entitled Gaki (a tormented ghost) (Passport to the Supernatural p91) that describes this belief:"Venerable Nagasena, are there such things as demons in the world?"
"Yes, O King."
"Do they ever leave that condition of existence?"
"Yes, they do."
"But, if so, why is it that the remains of those demons are never found?"
"Their remains are found, O King... The remains of bad demons can be found in the form of worms and beetles and ants and snakes and scorpions and centipedes."...
The Questions of King Milinda (Passport to the Supernatural p89)
Europe has historically had a variety of different types of ghosts, from vampires-like demons to more benign but distressed hauntings. The Romanian idea of a vampire has captured much attention in modern Western folklore. These demons include the dreaded sexual criminals known as the incubus and succubus. Ernest Jones quotes an older source in saying:
"The nosferat not only sucks the blood of sleeping people, but also does mischief as an incubus and succubus. The nosferat is the still-born, illegitimate child of two people who are similarly illegitimate. It is hardly put under the earth before it awakes to life and leaves its grave never to return. It visits people by night in the form of a black cat, a black dog, a beetle, a butterfly or even a simple straw. When its sex is male, it visits women; when female, men. With young people it indulges in sexual orgies until they get ill and die of exhaustion. In this case it also appears in the form of a handsome youth or a pretty girl, while the victim lies half awake and submits unresistingly. It often happens that woman are impregnated by the creature and bear children who can be recognized by their ugliness and by their having hair over the whole body. They then become witches, usually moroiu. The nosferat appears to bridegrooms and brides and makes them impotent and sterile." (Passport to the supernatural p146-147)
Dress can also be different from culture to culture. Ancient Greek ghosts are typically described as wearing drab, black colors. (Passport to the Supernatural p44) Other ghosts, such as those that died in the American Civil War, are described as still wearing their uniforms, bullet holes included. Many European ghosts are described as wearing all white, or as a semi-transparent image. Poltergeists, or noisy ghosts, often are claimed to do mischievous things such as breaking dishes and lighting fires. Although believers blame the ghost, skeptics tend to blame the phenomenon on "the cunning pranks of a naughty youth or disturbed adult." (Entities p80) Whether we can attribute all poltergeist activity to pranksters is impossible to prove. But we must honestly take note that people are definitely fooled by these mischievous individuals. Skeptics as far back as the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus have taken up the challenge of trying to debunk the claims of specters in the night. (Passport to the Supernatural p44)
One of the more famous cases of Mediums who seemed to attract their fair share of poltergeist activity was the Fox Sisters. We know quite a lot about how they performed their pranks because one of the sisters eventually confessed to causing all the "ghost" antics by using tricks. As paranormal investigator Joe Nickell points out: "As Margaret confessed some forty years later, she and Katie were "very mischievous children" who began their shenanigans "to terrify out dear mother, who was a very good woman and very easily frightened... She... did not suspect us of being capable of a trick because we were so young." (Entities p 81-81) The sisters once targeted a brother-in-law they disliked. "... the children secretly threw slippers at him, shook the dinner table, and displaced his chair so that as he attempted to sit down he fell on the floor." (Entities p81)
Joe Nickell provides other examples of confessions of poltergeist activity by the living. A famous 1772 case in Stockton, Surrey provides a classic example. A poltergeist engaged in all types of mischief until it is realized that the same maid seems to always be present at each incident. When the maid was fired, the activity abruptly ceased. The maid, Ann Robinson, eventually confessed to faking the poltergeist activity. Her list of techniques is somewhat impressive:
"Ann Robinson had confessed to the clergyman that she had thrown some of the objects whose movements were attributed to "an unseen agency." She had pelted the cat with an egg, hung the hams and bacon so they would fall when their weight caused the hooks to tear through their skins. She had dropped a chemical in the pail of water to make it bubble. Rows of plates were dislodged when she yanked a wire she had earlier arranged behind them. Long horsehairs were attached to other objects to give them sudden life. They seemed to jump or fall when she pulled the ends." (Entities p81)
A more recent claim to poltergeist activity is the story of the Lutz family who bought a now famous house on Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York. Ghost activity included the violent opening and closing of doors and windows, green slime oozing from the ceiling, levitation of the poor wife, moving a four-foot ceramic lion around the house and a sinister voice saying "Get out!" (Entities p122) A serious of psychic ghost hunters investigated and declared that the house was indeed haunted. A book entitled The Amityville Horror, a True Story came out in September of 1977 followed by a movie.
But the man who later lived in the house reported "I have never heard sounds of ghosts, ghouls, or the supernatural." (Entities p125) Skeptical investigators quickly came to the conclusion that the whole affair was an elaborate hoax. Eventually this was confirmed by the Lutz's own attorney, William Weber. According to Nickell:
"Weber said the Lutzes had come to him after leaving the house, and he told them their "experiences" could be useful to him in preparing a book about the Ronald DeFeo trial. "We created this horror story over many bottles of wine that George Lutz was drinking." Weber told the Associated Press. "We were really playing with each other. We were creating something the public wanted to hear about."" (Entities p128)
Several lawsuits back and forth followed which were settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. (Entities p128) According to Hoaxes by Gordon Stein and Marie J. MacNee:
"In a transcript of a trial that was held in September 1979 (Lutz v. Hoffman), the Lutzes admitted that almost everything in the book by Jay Anson was fiction. In fact, whenever the Lutzes, Anson, and Weber had to swear under oath about the so-called facts in the Anson book, no one could confirm any of the strange happenings as they are portrayed in The Amityville Horror." (Hoaxes p67)
Joe Nickell and Robert A. Baker had this to say about their search for ghosts in Missing Pieces: "Our own investigations over the past twenty-five years clearly support the work of McKay and other ghostbusters. As of this date and after investigating a total of forty or more individual claims, we have yet to find anything that defies a natural explanation for the reported phenomenon." (Missing Pieces p125)
What these types of investigators expose is the relative ease with which many people can be mislead into believing they are being visited by beings from the afterlife. But this type of ghost busting can't of course disprove that some cases of hauntings or visitations aren't the real thing, and me must be cautious not to overstate the case. But as far as the scientific community is concerned there is no verifiable evidence that ghosts are really visiting people in the physical world. Again it is something that ultimately must be taken on faith or, just perhaps, a personal experience.