As much as we speak of the spirit, you’d think it was a well documented theory. But what evidence is there that it actually exists? I have several questions related to the spirit (or soul), but I’d like to start by exploring the evidence for its existence.
The Science of the Soul
Since science usually limits itself to studying falsifiable claims that can be observed, measured, and experimented upon, there’s seemingly little work that can be done in the area of the spirit. Like God, the spirit appears to be an unfalsifiable, elusive, article of faith.
But there have been a few studies (oft labeled “pseudo-science” by skeptics) that infer the existence of spirit, such as: near death experiences, out of body experiences, communication with the dead, ghosts, the mind/brain connection, reincarnation, etc.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s dig in…
21 Grams – Weighing the Soul
Back in the 1880s, pictures of ghostly images caught on film were used as evidence for the soul. Later, in 1911, the x-ray machine was used to try and capture images of the soul.
MacDougall weighed 6 victims volunteers before and after their death, and claimed they lost an average of 21 grams.
MacDougall’s results don’t hold much weight (pun intended) with Scopes and others for numerous reasons, and no one has bothered to repeat the experiment.
But even if his findings were accurate, how do we know that weight came from the soul? Maybe his polite volunteers were simply holding back their flatulence until they finally died. Seriously — has anyone ever weighed a fart? I bet they average exactly 21 grams.
Measuring Escaping Energy
Personally, I like Gerard Nahum’s idea of surrounding a dying body with various kinds of sensitive energy sensors. Nahum has pitched this idea to Yale, Stanford, and Duke universities; and even the Catholic Church, none of whom were interested. He believes they all rejected the study because they already knew what would happen (nada). Still, it’s a worthwhile experiment, even if it’s just to dispel the popular notion that the spirit is energy, so I volunteer.
The Out of Body Experience (OBEs)
The great thing about OBEs is that thousands of people have them and it’s something we can test empirically.
It’s said that OBEs can be brought on by: near death experiences, drugs, high fever, traumatic situations, meditation, lucid dreaming, powerful magnets, sensory deprivation, electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe, virtual reality, dissociative disorders, brain damage, Pink Floyd, and high fructose corn syrup.
With so many people putting frequent flyer miles on their souls, it’s a wonder no one has ever been able to prove it with a simple test. The Amazing Randy has a million dollars waiting for anyone who can check out of their body and read a sign posted in a nearby room. It’s not a difficult test, so why no takers?
(I’ll be covering OBEs a bit more in my next post.)
Speaking to the Dead
Some scientists, like Gary Schwartz, PhD, take psychic mediums very seriously (though his methods and bias are debatable). Personally, I have difficulty moving beyond psychics’ subjective and vague statements, high failure rates, and their inability to prove themselves.
High Failure Rate
The insufferable psychic Sylvia Browne once told grieving parents that their missing 11-year-old son was dead. Fortunately, four years later, he was found alive and well. She told another woman that her missing granddaughter was alive… but being sexually exploited in Japan. She was later found in a shallow grave in Texas.
Fast talker and famous TV douche John Edwards once did a reading for the staff of 20/20. They later counted 41 misses and 1 hit. (With those odds, you’re probably better off just guessing what your dead relatives would want to say.)
Both Sylvia Browne and John Edwards readily admit they’re often wrong, but if they’re wrong so often, how do we know they’re right about anything?
If we really could talk to the dead, wouldn’t it be much more amazing and convincing? Shouldn’t the reading go more like: “Hi Ted, it’s me, Aaron Wood! Remember that time we drove up to Mt. Hood in Gary’s mom’s ’93 Buick Riviera? And you got totally drunk and we dared you to make out with that dead squirrel? Those were good times, man.”
Most readings are not that specific. They’re more like: “I’m getting a name… it sounds like a T… or an A… and I also see a mountain.” And the listener says “OMG! My friend’s name was Ted, and mine is Aaron, and we once went on a trip to Mt. Hood!” Meanwhile, someone else hears the same reading and says “OMG! My grandma’s name is Tina Ann Smith, and she lived by a mountain!”
To prove this point, a teacher once did a written psychic reading for each of his students. When they were asked, most reported that his reading was quite accurate. The teacher then admitted to giving them all the exact same reading. Such cold readings are highly subjective.
Inability to prove themselves
While our dead ancestors seem eager to make vague and erroneous statements via mediums, they balk at the idea of having to provide proof. Why do they work so hard to convince us, yet refuse to prove their existence by, say, floating into a nearby room and retrieving some randomly generated letters and numbers? Or by giving us the GPS coordinates of a missing person?
James Randi’s 1 million dollar offer also goes out to psychics. Randy says that hundreds of psychics from around the world have tried, but all have failed when tested under scientific conditions.
Photos and Videos of Ghosts
Personally, I find ghost photos and videos to be a lot like UFO videos: they’re usually grainy, ambiguous, shot from a distance, optical illusions, or manufactured hoaxes. They’re fun to look at, but I’ve never seen one that would stand up in court as direct evidence. And ghost stories are too easy to manufacture.
The Mind-Body Connection
While many scientists believe “the mind is what the brain does,” some believe that we have a spirit/mind/consciousness and a brain, and suggest this as evidence for the spirit.
This goes back to the 40s and 50s, when Dr. Penfield probed the brains of conscious patients and concluded that the brain only controlled the mechanical functions of the body. Because he was unable to isolate a part of the brain where thinking occurred, he theorized that an invisible mind must control these functions.
If we still wish to maintain a belief in the spirit, we have to insist that this brain activity is caused by something else… like… uh… downloading information from an invisible mind. But how exactly does that work?
According to Dr. Pim van Lommel, quantum physics can be applied to biological systems which (somehow) results in electromagnetic fields forming a consciousness that broadcasts to our brains which act like receivers. I believe this is what some physicists call “quantum flapdoodle,” as quantum physics has been used to rationalize everything from time travel to quantum jumping.
The other possibility is that there is no mystery about the brain that requires an invisible, quantum mechanical, electro-magnetical, 21 gram transmitter to explain it. If a thought must originate somewhere, why not in the brain?
Like most good Christians, I never took reincarnation very seriously (we Christians believe in being born again, not being born again, and again, and again).
Taking my first look, I found the stories of young children like Cameron Macauley and (especially) James Leininger to actually be pretty impressive. On the surface, these stories seem to contain some “insider information,” but is this enough to prove such an extraordinary claim?
These claims are very difficult to formally prove because:
- We can never be absolutely certain the child hasn’t overheard the information or is being fed the information (intentionally or by accident).
- We may only be hearing the “hits” and not the “misses.”
- The parents may have incorrectly understood the child, or are applying their own interpretations.
- The parents may have encouraged the child with leading questions.
- The recovered memories are usually sketchy and often missing obvious details, like a last name.
- It’s difficult, if not impossible, to subject reincarnation to a double-blind study or other rigorous scientific tests.
Personally, I don’t recall any past lives of my own, but I have observed that my own children pretend to be every character in every movie they’ve ever seen. Multiply this tendency times billions of children and I’d expect a few weird stories. Further linking these stories to dead people may also be easy, since billions of people have died from just about every cause.
What we need is a child who can recite copious amounts of very specific information. For example, a 3-year-old who reads and speaks fluent ancient Egyptian and can give us the exact secret burial locations of several mummies.
If proven true, it raises a few other interesting questions…
- Where are the memories stored between each incarnation?
- What’s the point of memories we can’t remember?
- Why did the reincarnated person die if it wasn’t their time?
- Where did these spirits originally come from? Were they created? If so, what created them and where did it come from?
- What about other compelling stories that contest reincarnation? Such as the Bible’s insistence that man is appointed once to die (Hebrews 9:27)?
Adult reincarnation is less impressive; even reincarnation researcher Ian Stevenson is skeptical of these stories. Information about past lives is often retrieved through regressive hypnosis, which is known for generating false recovered memories. How else do you explain 1,500 women all claiming to be the reincarnated Cleopatra?
I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but these are some of the more popular claims cited as evidence for the spirit. (I’ve skipped the Near Death Experience so I can cover it more fully in my next post.)
I’m open to the idea of the spirit, but I have to wonder why proof remains so elusive. Either God has some kind of weird spiritual protocol that says “all spirits and visitors to the spirit world are hereby ordered to only provide limited shitty evidence,” or proof is elusive because there’s nothing to prove.
If the spirit doesn’t exist, finding proof is like trying to find proof of fairies, or bigfoot, or aliens, or dragons, or unicorns, or trolls, or goblins, or Mormons, or leprechauns, or angles, or demons, or the Loch Ness monster, or gods. All of these characters also wish to avoid detection! We may search for them and find compelling stories, miracles, photos, videos, artifacts, and eyewitnesses, but real proof always remains elusive. And that’s exactly the way it should be, we shouldn’t be able to find proof for things that don’t really exist.
The other possibility is that proof is forthcoming, but at some point we have to say “If there were proof, we probably would’ve found it by now.”