More than a theory

Jayman writes:

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.

 
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Posted in Science, Superstition, Unapologetics. 27 Comments »

27 Responses to “More than a theory”

  1. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jayman’s theory does not “cut it” because it is not testable. There is no calibration available that tells me “ghost/no ghost”. If I can’t calibrate, then I can say nothing about any negative “ghost” data I collect. This means the ghost believer can always say “the ghost was there, you just couldn’t detect it.

    Without calibration to known controls, no scientific test is possible. Ghosts are like God and miracles They never actually show up in way that is distinguishable from natural phenomenon.

    I spent quite a bit of time a few years ago with ghost hunters. I proved to them that no one could identify “ghost voices” unless prompted. I proved that “ghostly orbs” do not appear unless a flash is used (violating the ghost hunter criteria that the difference between dust and a real orb is that “real” orbs emit energy. I demonstrated that ghost detecting EMF meters measure only AC fields, which are always man-made.

    None of this mattered of course. As one ghost hunter told me: “I know that a ghost was in the room. If was independently verified by a psychic”.

    They seem to think this somehow qualifies as a scientific methodology.

  2. Jayman Says:

    DD, I don’t see why additional information about ghosts is necessary to test my hypothesis. If we identified a ghost as a deceased person my hypothesis would be confirmed. It doesn’t matter whether you would still have additional questions about ghosts or souls or spirits.

    R. C. Moore, suppose we define a ghost as an entity that has the form of a human and can appear and disappear suddenly from the visible light spectrum (we’ll keep it simple here). With enough time, energy, and money I think you would be able to test this. I also think you could compare the appearance of the ghost to the appearance of deceased persons who inhabited the ghost’s house. If that’s the case then my hypothesis is easily testable.

  3. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jayman wrote:

    “suppose we define a ghost as an entity that has the form of a human and can appear and disappear suddenly from the visible light spectrum (we’ll keep it simple here).”

    Ok, I set up my equipment to calibrate the “no ghost” condition. I wait and wait. Am I calibrated? Or have I not just waited long enough? Maybe I just missed him. Maybe we can add the ghost appears every midnight in the attic of an abandoned house. But how do we know unless we have first calibrated and measured this?

    Keep trying!

  4. Tacroy Says:

    Further, going back to the original definition, what defines a “deceased human”? When you really think about it, death is a vague proposition. Sure, it’s simple in the common case, where you live and then you die and that’s it, and for some reason that’s all anyone ever thinks about when they’re talking about ghosts.

    What if, though, you suffer a head injury that completely changes your personality? Your old personality is as dead as anyone whose body has stopped functioning; the only difference in this case is that there’s still a physical body walking around. Why do we never hear about ghosts that come from such events? After all, despite the fact that your body still lives, I don’t see how it could be argued that your old personality has not died.

    This raises some interesting theological problems too. Which Phineas Gage does God judge? Through no fault or sin of his own save bad luck, Phineas’ personality was utterly changed from that of an upright Christian to that of a lazy, foul-mouthed slacker.

    The idea of dualism (upon which the concept of ghosts and many other things are founded) is so fundamentally flawed as to be unsalvageable. There’s absolutely no evidence that we are anything more or less than thinking meat; there is nothing that points to some ephemeral part of us which exists independently of our meat.

    (if you want to read more about this topic, the guy who wrote Ebon Musings and now writes Daylight Atheism has a really good treatise on the subject here.)

    Which is why it always irks me that almost everyone takes the existence of the soul for granted. If scientists have to prove that the simple, basic things are true, then so should apologists.

  5. Jayman Says:

    R. C. Moore, if your equipment picks up visible light it’s calibrated to pick up evidence for a ghost as I’ve defined it. Of course you could be too impatient or looking in the wrong place but this applies to nearly every subject. If, instead of a ghost, we were looking for a new species of deep sea fish and we did not find one we could ask whether we have been impatient or are looking in the wrong place. Yet I doubt you will claim it is impossible to test for the existence of a new kind of fish. Why is that? (If it’s because we’ve seen other kinds of fish, assume we have never seen any fish before.)

  6. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jayman said:

    “If, instead of a ghost, we were looking for a new species of deep sea fish and we did not find one we could ask whether we have been impatient or are looking in the wrong place.”

    But we have good past scientific evidence for deep sea fish, which is why we are looking (your constraint of no previous fish destroys the basis for the question, making it moot. But see x-rays below). There is no such background for a ghost. Scientists often discover new things in research, but usually the new things are a natural extension of a previous thing, for which the “equipment” is calibrated for.

    In a rare case that a new thing appears out of nowhere — x-rays for instance, a phenomenon that was already present, we just lacked the equipment to detect it, or even the theoretical basis to suspect its existence. This situation does not meet the expectations of your example, as the scientist has no reason to suspect x-rays a priori any more that one can expect ghosts.

    “if your equipment picks up visible light it’s calibrated to pick up evidence for a ghost as I’ve defined it”

    No, it is just calibrated to pick up visible light. Evidence for a ghost is an unsupported judgment you are making. This is similar to ghost hunter using EMF meters. Sure the meter picks up EMF (that is what it does). To show that thing is a ghost, you must show the EMF meter registers zero only in the absence of a ghost, and there is no way to do that, unless you have another piece of calibrated equipment that shows “no ghost”

    We are beginning to go in circles. I am being expected to design calibrated equipment to detect phenomena I have no reason to expect exists, so that once detected I have proof the equipment was correctly designed and calibrated to detect the phenomena in the first place.

    Yikes. I though science was hard enough already!

  7. pevo Says:

    A missing element here is what the hypothesis is meant to explain. A ghost was defined as something that gives of visible light. Ok. Well, lots of things do that. What unexplainable source of light are we dealing with? If I go into a ‘haunted’ house will I see random lights not caused by fixtures, flashbulbs, glow sticks, or other known source of light? Cause if that’s true, then by all means lets go figure it out.

    I don’t see how you could even *begin* to suspect the source of such mysterious lights is the soul of dead people. Why would you make that leap? What lead you to that claim? Intuition? Guess? What’s a soul? What is the proposed mechanism it is using to generate light? Does it have to obey energy conservation laws? What is it about soul-light that makes it a more likely source of the mystery light than any other hypothesis?

    This theory does not build on established theories nor does it attempt to replace established theories with a new theory that maintains or improves all previous predictive power. It relies heavily on the *undefined*. That makes it untestable in its current form and effectively a supernatural claim.

  8. Jayman Says:

    R. C. Moore, are you saying you could not distinguish between a video with a ghost (fish) in it and a video without a ghost (fish) in it? I’m trying to figure out how you would go about looking for a new being. Or would you not even use science to do it?

    Pevo, the hypothesis would explain lights that (1) take on human form, (2) appear and disappear suddenly, (3) have no currently known source, and (4) are not explicable according to any current theory. Such lights might be linkable to a deceased person if they (1) look like a deceased person, (2) act like a deceased person, (3) verbally claim to be a deceased person, etc. If we’re looking for something new we are going to have questions and may have to come up with completely new theories.

  9. jim Says:

    I’ve always wondered what holds a ghost in place. I mean, how does non-corporeality interact with gravity? Or, is there also ‘ghost gravity’? How do they manage to walk without weight or surface tension? And since the earth is hurtling through space at many thousands of miles per hour, wouldn’t a spirit wind up floating somewhere back in the planet’s previous orbital path shortly after leaving the deceased body? I know that some ‘ghostologists’ claim that spiritual remains have a little bit of weight, measurable in fractions of grams, but wouldn’t they then be whisked away on any errant breeze?

    It seems that we need a new ‘ghost physics’ that somehow works remarkable like normal physics…well, except when it doesn’t, of course. Pass through walls when it suits you, but rattle plates when the need arises. That sort of thing.

  10. jim Says:

    Oops! I forgot, all that kind of stuff is covered by magic, isn’t it? I withdraw the questions.

  11. pevo Says:

    Jayman,

    So, where is all this evidence you have of lights looking like, acting like and claiming to be dead people? If you actually have it, then your hypothesis ‘well, maybe they *are* dead people’ actually deserves considering.

    “If we’re looking for something new we are going to have questions and may have to come up with completely new theories.”

    You’ve got that backwards. Not if we are *looking* for something new, if we *find* something new. Observations come first, then the theories to explain them. Although I do understand the convenience of your approach. If I want to find ‘ghosts’ (even without defining them), all I have to do is come up with theories that explain how I have already seen them. Of course, that is intellectually dishonest.

  12. Jayman Says:

    Pevo:

    So, where is all this evidence you have of lights looking like, acting like and claiming to be dead people?

    As DD mentioned in the post, it was a hypothetical example. I am interested in how we would construct a theory. This is not an argument for or against the existence of ghosts.

    If you actually have it, then your hypothesis ‘well, maybe they *are* dead people’ actually deserves considering.

    I think so too. But, from what I can gather, R. C. Moore seems to think there is a problem even gathering evidence concerning ghosts.

    Observations come first, then the theories to explain them.

    That’s correct. Note I said we may have to come up with new theories, as in the evidence may compel us to do so.

  13. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jayman —

    I know, this is getting confusing, and I am so lost in the hypotheticals at this point…. I am trying hard to relax real world experience to try to come up with a methodology to collect evidence for your non-real world phenomena.

    If you were to come to me, as an experienced electronics engineer (which I am actually) and ask me to build you a ghost detecting device, what specifications would you give me? You mentioned “a ghost as an entity that has the form of a human and can appear and disappear suddenly from the visible light spectrum”

    Ok, I can build that device. It would be good to know how suddenly it appears and disappears, but we could put some boundaries on that. The device could just be a digital video camera, that runs for hours, storing the data to a hard disk, so I really don’t have much work to do.

    My next question is for you then. If we let the camera run, and we catch something that suddenly appears and disappears, by what process do we classify it as a ghost?

  14. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jim said:

    “It seems that we need a new ‘ghost physics’ that somehow works remarkable like normal physics…well, except when it doesn’t, of course. Pass through walls when it suits you, but rattle plates when the need arises. That sort of thing.”

    Maybe ghosts can help us with this, through EVP’s (ghost voice recordings). It turn out they are pretty smart, as they are able to navigate the myriad of complex algorithms required to place their digitally compressed voices on the new digital recorders. (Ghost hunters were forced years ago, in the analog tape days, to claim that ghosts bypass microphones, amplifying circuits and filters, etc, and instead place their voices directly onto the recording media itself) Digital recorders made this claim impossible, but the ghost hunters are unfazed of course.

    Evidently, your long dead Aunt Sally, who only went to 8th grade, knows a lot more about Discrete Fourier Transforms than most people today.

    Wait, a new theory! Ghosts, with all that “dead” time on the hands, go to a University of the Dead and learn Ghost Physics and Ghost Engineering.

    How to test it?

  15. pevo Says:

    Jayman,
    You seem to be missing my point. The theory is invalid until we have evidence to work with. That’s what’s wrong with it. That is why it is not acceptable. If there was evidence, ie observations, of the sort that you are claiming then your hypothesis would be one step closer to being ok.

    Also, you didn’t actually ‘explain’ anything with the theory. You said it would explain where the light came from, well, no, it didn’t. It is huge gaping holes in that it makes no attempt to quantity ‘ghost’. Again, it relies on the *undefined*.

  16. R. C. Moore Says:

    pevo said:

    “The theory is invalid until we have evidence to work with. ”

    I agree with this, but with caveats. Einstein developed the theory of special relativity by resolving a paradox he created in his own mind, without any measurements, as devices capable of such measurement were decades away. This is one reason we hold his achievement in high regard, but I am sure you would not claim Einstein was foolish or incorrect in his endeavors.

    I am sure you would also agree that people have seen (and photographed) phenomena that they were unable to explain, creating a paradox. They have proposed as a possible explanation that the phenomena are spirits or souls of the dead interaction with our natural world from the grave.

    The difference between these people and Einstein? Einstein demanded logical consistency at every step. Einstein dealt with all competing theories thoroughly. Einstein was content to leave his hypothesis as a hypothesis, awaiting experimental verification.

    In other words, Einstein did not first form his conclusion, and then go looking for rationalizations, forcing others to supply the burden of proof, or invoking special pleading to his cause.

    No real disagreement, just trying to cover all the bases.

  17. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jayman –

    If you are still around, I came to me that a better example for you to use would be the SETI program, rather than ghosts. SETI is a serious scientific program that has no past evidence to support it, no theoretical basis, no calibrated equipment. It is a complete shot in the dark, fueled only by unfounded faith.

    It value is based upon the fact that if it succeeds, it changes a lot of science and culture.

  18. John Morales Says:

    RC Moore, SETI is based on the mediocrity principle.

  19. pevo Says:

    R.C. Moore
    I don’t think you are right about Einstein. The speed of light had been measured and had been shown to be consistent regardless of the relative velocity of the observer. He then took that to it logical conclusion. Also, the precession of Mercury’s orbit was well observed. If his theory hadn’t been able to explain anything new, no one would have bothered with it.

  20. R. C. Moore Says:

    John Morales said:
    “SETI is based on the mediocrity principle”

    I had to look that up. Not sure it really applies to our discussion here, if you bang it up against the criteria I gave.

    Pevo said:

    “The speed of light had been measured and had been shown to be consistent regardless of the relative velocity of the observer. He then took that to it logical conclusion”

    You make it sound so easy. I have always considered Einstein’s intellectual achievement one the greatest in human history. Do you have a link to the experimental data that showed the speed of light to be constant for all relative velocities? That would be one astounding experimental design using 19th century equipment.

  21. Jayman Says:

    R. C. Moore:

    My next question is for you then. If we let the camera run, and we catch something that suddenly appears and disappears, by what process do we classify it as a ghost?

    Assuming this entity is something new, it would be in its own class. The name we give to that class is arbitrary.

    If you are still around, I came to me that a better example for you to use would be the SETI program, rather than ghosts.

    I was almost going to give an example along those lines: how would you determine whether life exists on another planet and how would you classify any lifeforms you did find? But shouldn’t that answer be the same whether we are speaking of Earth or an alien planet?

  22. Jayman Says:

    pevo, since this was purely hypothetical, I was assuming there was evidence. Suppose you have conclusive video evidence of ghosts (as I defined it) from multiple sites and that these ghosts look like deceased people. In that scenario, do you think one could theorize that ghosts and deceased people are linked in some (unknown) way? If not, what conclusions would you draw from such evidence? Would you still doubt the existence of ghosts? Would you admit ghosts exist but claim we can no absolutely nothing about them?

  23. John Morales Says:

    RC Moore, the lead up to relativity was Maxwell’s equations and the luminiferous ether.

    Regarding the mediocrity principle, I raised it in response to your claim that “It [SETI] is a complete shot in the dark, fueled only by unfounded faith.”
    I think it takes more faith to believe we’re unique than the converse.

  24. Chigliakus Says:

    This month’s Scientific American had an article, which I can’t find on their website, regarding dark energy and the mediocrity principle. The idea was to abandon the mediocrity principle by positing that our solar system does occupy a unique place in the universe. Apparently the maths for the observed red shift of distant supernovae work out when we’re at the center of a vast cosmic void. The universe appears to be accelerating in its expansion because the denser parts of the universe outside our bubble are pulling matter away from us, so no need for dark energy. They propose some ways to test their theory using the cosmic microwave background, so we should know if it holds up in the next few years.

  25. R. C. Moore Says:

    John Morales:

    “I think it takes more faith to believe we’re unique than the converse.”

    Well, maybe so. I am not much of philosopher. But this discussion is not about philosophy. It is about the gray area of how to apply science to the unknowable. Please answer each of my points on SETI, if you are really interested in applying some brain power to this, rather than folksy homily:

    1. How has the SETI instrumentation been calibrated to detect an alien life whose attributes are completely unknown.

    2. What scientific (not philosophical, which the mediocrity principle is) basis is their for expecting that alien life forms are present and producing the EM signatures that SETI is looking for?

    3. How does faith in SETI differ from faith in God?

  26. pevo Says:

    1. How has the SETI instrumentation been calibrated to detect an alien life whose attributes are completely unknown.

    It hasn’t been. It has been calibrated to detect a class of EM radiation.

    2. What scientific (not philosophical, which the mediocrity principle is) basis is their for expecting that alien life forms are present and producing the EM signatures that SETI is looking for?

    That’s backwards. *If* SETI were to detect the EM signatures it is looking for it would imply that there is extra-terrestrial intelligence as we currently believe there is no non-intelligent means of producing such signatures. SETI is looking for ‘intelligence’ not ‘alien life forms’.

    3. How does faith in SETI differ from faith in God?

    You haven’t defined ‘god’ and are equivocating by using two very different definitions of ‘faith’ while claiming they are the same.

  27. John Morales Says:

    RC, to take them backwards.

    3. It is curiosity, not faith, that drives SETI. Are we alone in the universe? If not, how can we find out?
    As an analogy, consider that the existence of extrasolar planets was, for a long time, only a hypothesis. There was dispute as to whether any such existed, and, if so, if they could even be detected.
    The situation today with respect to extrasolar intelligence is very similar to the that with respect to extrasolar planets a century and a half ago.
    2. The mediocrity principle is a heuristic, and only a philosophical dictum a-posteriori. The “laws of nature” are empirically derived and considered to be universal, thus the process of planetary formation and genesis of planetary life on this solar system is unlikely to be unique.
    1. How would extrasolar intelligences detect human intelligence? The only clearly artificial artifact humanity has yet produced that can be detected at a stellar distances is our modulated EM, so that’s what we search for.