Some of the best advice I have ever received on paranormal investigating was from a physicist. When I asked him how to employ more objective methods, he told me about how they get those awesome pictures from the Hubble telescope. The original pictures are filled with noise from outside of the target, noise from the camera itself, gamma rays from space etc. Basically if you want a good picture remove the background noise. For me that equated too many of the stories attached to places I had visited, and phenomena I was there to investigate. The stories were the background noise.
While writing my first book, Leaps of Faith: Ghost hunting and Objectivity, I dove into how objectivity should be at the core of good paranormal investigations. While doing this, and during investigations, I am struck by how many different beliefs there are as to what the paranormal is and how it supposedly works. I decided that to understand how the paranormal was represented today, I had to find out where the different narrations come from. How do we get the belief “going into the light”, and what was that belief? Where do spirit guides come from? I thought that to remove the background noise I would have to first have been able to identify it, and separate it from any true background.
There are so many narratives about what happens to us after death that are strong beliefs to many people. However, many ideas that agree on substance still vary on details. It is interesting to me that there seems to be a parallel with science, as things are observed theories (beliefs) are formulated or strengthened, or replaced with new ones. Belief systems need no empirical evidence, just a personal intuition that if feels right. Indeed too many beliefs that feeling is evidence that spirituality, not science, is pointing us on the correct path to understanding.
Many people believe in strange unsubstantiated explanations of things that are supposedly happening all around us. Indeed a study on “the generality of belief in unsubstantiated claims” published 07 June 2019 in Applied Cognitive Psychology, found indications that some people have a general susceptibility to believe unsubstantiated claims. That includes everything from Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts and conspiracy theories. However, not everyone that believes in some sort of paranormal phenomenon is treated equally. Religion is also unsubstantiated, as are many current working theories in science. We consider the people that have these beliefs to be mostly rational individuals. So what is the basic parameters we can accept to take a belief system seriously, and not commit it to the raving lunacy pile?
In my experience it’s a statement of what’s true and what’s possible, as well as how established a belief may be. For example, there are archaeologists pursuing proof of the stories in the Bible, although they can only prove the material truths, they feel it would validate the whole truth of the Bible. Compare these to people looking into ruins for technological inconsistencies attempting to further their idea of ancient aliens. The methods are similar, the proof of the ultimate idea (it was God, it was Aliens) will be just as subjective, and yet they are viewed through different cultural lenses.
There is a branch of psychology called Anomalistic Psychology which studies the human minds reaction to many things that are considered paranormal. It has many valid explanations for things we find spooky or uncanny, for example a friend calling when we were just thinking about them. Experiments have repeatedly shown that claims such as dowsing and psychic abilities cannot be demonstrated under double blind lab experiments. In many cases the practitioners of such claims will list many excuses as to why this is, and will in no way change their belief in either their abilities or the existence of such abilities. My favourite researchers, such as Chris French, are skeptical but allow for the possibility that the claims are true (within reason). To me that is a truly objective viewpoint, and I urge the reader to look up some of these experiments.
The core idea of a belief seems to gauge the testable possibilities of that belief, and the rest seems to be a narration of how and why this idea is the correct answer to what is being observed, and everything that derives from that observation, for example the whys and how’s.. The Bible is a narration, string theory has years of work leading to a narration, the ancient alien theory has a narrative, psychics narrate how their abilities work, Ghost hunters narrate hauntings etc.
In my experience in the paranormal field, there is a root belief that gets covered in the detritus of narration, and yet every statement of what’s “true” has its implications. Furthermore people do not have these beliefs in a vacuum. They talk about it with peers, read books and the internet, watch documentaries and shows. With each of these, some narration sticks to the core belief and not only grows the narrative, but reinforces the idea. Many shows, books, podcasts etc. are indeed preaching to the choir, adding just enough spin to make adherents to that belief feel they have found out something new, or putting forward a new idea to add to the feeling that the “field” is being advanced in some way.
The beliefs become truths. A book that is critical to a belief is usually only popular with sceptics that care enough to read it. To be worth writing, the sceptics that care enough to write a book have to either have a strong opposing view or an agenda. A good example is “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. It has sales in the multi-millions because many lifestyles are affected by attitudes formed by religious teachings. It has yet to be seen that maybe a book called “The Ghost Delusion” would be as popular. I doubt it. In fact it has been shown that paranormal sceptics that find publishers for their books in Europe fail to do so in the USA.
Much of this has to do with the externalizing of internal beliefs. Unlike religions that have a holy book which acts as a handbook on the belief system, modern spiritualists do not have this. Rather they have a huge pool of ideas and legends to pick and choose what they feel are “true”. Whereas established religions have priests and holy men to closely guard rigid tenets and unanimously defend their belief, there is little hierarchy in spiritualism, and each has their own truth. This truth is formed by the narration that individuals surround themselves in, which is a constantly evolving moving target.
It is interesting to me that this being the case, so many people, although removed from religions such as Christianity are more than ready to believe in negative forces such as demons and shadow people. While many modern “Ghost Hunters” use the trappings of science, it really is pseudo-science, not just because the equipment and methods are not valid, but because they are using this as a means to externalize a belief, attempt to make it more credible, and will use any readings to validate what they believe to be happening.
So could there be anything to the paranormal? Of course, just the idea that invisible energies are all around us is credible (how else does your cell phone work?). Is it then so incredible to think that we haven’t discovered all of them? We have discovered many species in the last 100 years that we thought were extinct, or didn’t know existed, are it possible that an evolutionary branch of Gigantopithecus could still be around somewhere? We are finding many more Earth like planets with the Kepler space telescope than we believed existed, so the chances of intelligent alien life existing is increasing.
What makes a belief enter the paranormal orbit? The word means “beyond normal”, or not scientifically explainable. If we think about this for a moment most things we observe about the universe are either in this category or were in it at one time. If we consider lightning for instance, the Vikings attributed it to Zeus or Thor, The Hindus to Indra, and so on. As science evolved, it explained lightning as a naturally occurring discharge of electricity. So it moved from paranormal to normal. If we continue the example of lightning however, Scientists are still discussing the details of the charging process, the nature of electromagnetic energy, which shows that for all explanations there are still unknowns as we continue to delve deeper. The paranormal aspect can never really go away; it just gets smaller boundaries as science explains more aspects of a phenomenon. As we will see, human consciousness has not been sufficiently explained, although science is always advancing on how the human brain functions.
I think the crux of the matter is probability. Paranormal beliefs are attempts to explain phenomena reportedly observed, felt or experienced with unlikely scenarios. The chances of Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts etc. are improbable due to the lack of empirical evidence. This may then also lead a dedicated believer to deduce that because they believe them to be real, then the evidence must be hidden. Enter the conspiracy theory, and the innate power of a belief to influence how we view the world. A belief, especially a paranormal belief, becomes a part of an individual’s makeup. It creates a lens through which we see and judge the world around us. It can impact our everyday lives and decisions. Many of the beliefs we will discuss in these articles have an overriding effect on daily decisions. Throughout history generals, kings and emperors have sought out astrologers, oracles and seers in the belief that gods, otherworldly beings, ancestors or fate have bearings on our current lives and futures. In modern times this has been replaced by empirical data (the D-Day invasion decided on weather readings for example) However the older beliefs still exist today through astrology, mediums and religion (praying to saints for example), even at the highest levels of power.
Today psychologists strive to explain why people experience what they believe to be paranormal. There has been much study into things such as dejavu, or the feeling you have been somewhere, or done something before. The Bader Meinhoff phenomenon is the perceived increase in coincidences, for example you have just bought a new car, and now you see many more of them on the road. Psychology has determined that this works because our brains either discard non relevant facts or concentrate on what is relevant to us (our new car model is now relevant), or our brains are trying to priorities information that backs up our beliefs (we bought a good car). In fact the Bader Mein off phenomenon is very important in the belief of the paranormal. If we believe in ghosts, and visit a place that is supposedly haunted, our brains will prioritize any “spooky” thing that confirms that belief, such as an irregularity on a photo, and can enhance other effects on the mind such as pareidolia (the brains need to see patterns from chaos, especially faces). This information is important to help an investigator filter out what is noise, and what is there.
There is thankfully a small but growing trend away from materialist science to a more agnostic study of phenomena. Some reports of phenomena are too vivid and have widespread medical documentation to be able to just shrug off as fantasy. One of these for example, is near death experiences (NDE) which are intrinsic to human continuance. There are now some quite serious studies into the phenomena surrounding NDEs including studies into reincarnation. These studies are being carried out by accredited scientists into these phenomena under organizations such as IANDS (International Association for Near Death Studies -iands.org). Indeed some organizations such as the Society for Psychic Research have been conducting studies since the 1800s using (mostly) the scientific method.
So why do we have so little empirical data? There are two possible reasons, either the phenomena reported are not paranormal and have rational explanations, or we have not yet developed equipment or methods that can detect how spiritual paranormal phenomena is interacting with us. To design such methods and equipment we have to focus on the phenomena and what we think is happening. Hence the narration of the paranormal becomes important. Just as the narration of what the Universe is made of is based on conjecture of observations and experiments, so we must do it with the paranormal. If we look at all the narratives we have as to what types of hauntings have been observed, we must filter out the detritus clinging to the narrative to try to find any common elements. The power of belief is skewing any results we may get in paranormal investigation. Scientists are aware of the power of bias and acknowledge it in their working as best they can. The paranormal field usually does not.
Another thing that strikes me about the power of the belief in the paranormal is the almost obsessive need for something to be true. If I believe that my neighbour’s dog is an Australian Shepherd, and he then tells me it’s a Golden Retriever, I would take that at face value, because obviously he is more knowledgeable in the breed of his own dog (one would hope) and has nothing to gain by lying to me. However many paranormal beliefs that get disproved go on regardless of whom does the debunking. There are many psychics that have been caught in fraudulent activities, and yet still have legions of followers. Orbs in pictures have been shown to be normal dust, hair or insects, yet you can get venomous arguments as to the reason why they are spirits. Experiments in which the exact same astrological readings are given to different people who then agree with that reading are ignored. The attack on a paranormal belief seems to be an attack on the individual on a much deeper level. I have a feeling that humans are intrinsically wired that way, filling in reality with a belief, and perception becomes reality. To attack this is to attack what is for that person real, with no replacement at hand to fill the void for that particular person.
So if we can explain the paranormal through science or psychology, why is it such a big deal still? I think the answer to this is that we feel (rightly or wrongly) that there is more to us and the universe than the sum of the parts as material science would have us believe. As we delve deeper into quantum physics, and the theories springing from it, we discover that the universe is a mysterious place. There are many things about the absolute fundamentals we have no idea how they work or even what their nature is. I am willing to allow that the paranormal phenomena may be real in some ways, but I doubt that any of the narratives on how it works have it completely right. If it exists it is seen through an individual’s perception of what it is, because at this time we have nothing else to measure it against. Indeed I feel materialist scientists have grown complacent in this field because they have evidence (or lack of) on their side, and it’s not in their agenda to spend time or money on such a subject. It is also the wild narrations of many people that believe in paranormal occurrences that make mainstream science reluctant to entertain the notion.
I also feel that without a benign form of paranormal belief the world would become a grey place indeed.