More than a theoryMarch 24, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
I get the sense that skeptics want even more than a theory and predictions. Perhaps you can tell me why the following theory and prediction does not cut it?
One may theorize that ghosts are the spirits of deceased humans that generally inhabit a location known to them when they were alive. Such a theory allows one to predict that at certain locations ghosts will be observed and that one may be able to identify the ghost as a deceased person who lived at that location.
Have at it.
Technically, of course, Jayman is describing a hypothesis rather than a theory, but that’s a quibble. Let’s look at the larger question(s). What do skeptics really want? Why isn’t it necessarily scientific to have just a theory and some predictions? And how can we tell when someone’s theory (or hypothesis) is just superstition in disguise?
Jayman is right: it’s not enough to have just a theory and predictions. What skeptics want, quite simply, is a set of hypotheses, predictions, and observations that combine to give us an reliable and objective basis for determining which possibility is closest to the real-world truth. Not all theories and predictions do that.
For example, it’s important to have predictions that are the natural and inevitable consequences of the proposed cause, and not just some arbitrary prediction chosen chiefly to reach some predetermined goal. “If Jesus is the Son of God, then I predict the sun will rise tomorrow.” Obviously, this is not a valid set of theories and predictions; the “investigator” has simply taken a very predictable outcome and arbitrarily attached it to the premise he wants to “prove.” Jayman’s hypothesis, above, passes this test: it’s not an arbitrary prediction, and has some reasonable connection to its premises.
The next thing is that the given prediction ought to tell us something about whether or not the hypothesis is true. “My theory is that there exist magical elves that sit around all day making all kinds of shoes. If this theory is true, then we can predict that we will be able to observe the existence of all kinds of shoes in the real world.” Ok, this passes the first test well enough, but it tells us nothing about whether a given pair of shoes is more likely to be the product of magical elves or outsourced shoe factories. It’s a prediction, but it’s not a helpful prediction because it predicts the same results as the alternative explanation.
Jayman’s hypothesis is a bit shakier here, depending on what you count as satisfying the requirement that we be able to observe and identify “ghosts” at particular locations. But let’s say that we’re going to give it a fairly rigorous and objective definition, and insist that it be demonstrable in front of both believers and skeptics (and in particular, skeptics like James Randi who are trained and experienced in detecting ordinary hoaxes). And let’s further specify that if we go to the specified location, and observe that no such ghosts are indeed present, the hypothesis will have been disconfirmed, and less likely to be true.
The next requirement that we need to satisfy is to specify what alternative(s) exist that we are comparing our hypothesis to. Too often people propose this hypothesis or that as being scientific without ever even mentioning what the alternative hypotheses are, let alone how the predictions of one hypothesis measure up to the predictions of the other(s) as compared against the standard of objective, verifiable, real-world evidence. This is something of a weakness in Jayman’s hypothesis, or rather, in his presentation of it. It’s not that the hypothesis itself is entirely lacking, it’s just that the absence of alternative hypotheses makes it more difficult to draw strong conclusions about what it really tells us.
The real failing in Jayman’s hypothesis, though, relates back to the first requirement: the predictions need to be the natural and inevitable consequences of the proposed cause. That means that we need to know enough about our hypothesized cause to be able to determine analytically what consequences it ought to produce. In other words, in order to know whether Jayman’s prediction is indeed correct based on his hypothesis, we need to know first what the characteristics and behaviors of “human spirits” are.
Unfortunately, we don’t. We have no verifiable scientific model for what a “human spirit” would be. All we have are folkloric traditions and superstitions, the stuff of legends, myths and (let’s face it) ghost stories. What’s more, whenever we try to describe what a spirit (or soul) is, even in mundane terms, we end up describing materialistic, biological processes.
Get a case of beer, and start drinking. A spirit (or soul), being immaterial and non-physical, will not be affected by the ethanol in the beer, but physical, biological processes will be. At a certain point, our intrepid scientific investigator will pass out, thus eliminating the physical/biological components from consideration. What’s left, then, to be the soul and/or spirit? Consciousness? Nope. Thought? Feelings? Nope. Desires? Will? Conscience? Memory? Nope, nope, nope and nope. Life? Hmmmwell, hopefully, though enough ethanol will eliminate that too, eventually.
So what’s left to be the spirit? There has to be something, so that we can observe and verify the characteristics and behaviors of spirits well enough to confirm that our prediction is the correct prediction for the “ghosts are spirits” hypothesis. Yet we have nothing, or at least nothing but folklore.
This is where Jayman’s hypothesis really falls down, which is probably what he intended, since he was only suggesting a hypothetical case for us to consider. It’s no reflection on Jayman, he just wanted to know exactly where our criticisms would fall. And this is the big one, at least for me. My guiding principle is that truth is consistent with itself, and that means (among other things) that if you have one proposed cause (like “human spirits”), you should see a lot of areas in which the existence or non-existence of spirits will make a difference. In other words, it’s more than just a question of seeing ghosts (which could be better explained by alternative hypotheses like psychosocially-induced delusions, etc).
If we have spirits, then there must exist some factor which connects our immaterial spirits to our physical bodies. What is that factor? And why/how is it physically attached to us? Why/how does it exist in any particular physical location, let alone following our bodies around? Why do our spirits not encounter and perceive one another in the spiritual “dimension” where they naturally exist? When do they form? How do they form? Why don’t animals, whose bodies form by the same biochemical processes which form our own, also have spirits? Why don’t plants, and bacteria, and viruses, and prions?
We’ve got lots of questions about spirits, but no real answers, and certainly no verifiable basis for predicting what kind of consequences would result from having them. The prediction that Jayman associates with his hypothesis is arbitrary, with no demonstrable connection other than the fact that ghosts and spirits are frequently associated in folklore and fairy tales. That makes his hypothesis at least understandable, but it’s not scientific, and won’t be until we can make some solid, verifiable observations of the character, behavior, and real-world impact of “human spirits.”
Skeptics aren’t unreasonable. We don’t set unreasonable or impossible standards. We just want our conclusions to be based on solid, reliable scientific reasoning. That means we don’t want to fall prey to mock predictions that imitate only the form of genuine science, without conforming to the substance of the discipline.