As much as we talk about the idea of a spirit, you’d think it was a well documented entity, but is their any empirical evidence that proves spirits actually exists?
The Science of the Soul
Since science usually limits itself to studying that which can be observed, measured, and experimented upon, there’s seemingly little work that can be done in the area of the spirit.
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 actually used to try and photograph the soul.
MacDougall weighed 6 victims volunteers before and after their death, and claimed they lost an average of 21 grams.
But MacDougall’s results don’t hold much weight (pun intended) with scientists because: 1) the small sample size (four people, two of them he discounted), 2) inconsistent results (one lost weight, two lost and gained, and the final one lost, gained, and then lost weight again), 3) imprecise scales, and 4) not controlling for other factors.
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.
The Out of Body Experience (OBEs)
The great thing about OBEs is that thousands of people have them and it’s something that can be tested empirically.
OBEs can be brought on by any number of things: 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 too much 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: leave your body and read a sign placed in another room. Think you can do it? The Amazing Randy has a million dollars waiting for anyone who can prove it.
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.”
But 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 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 and easily personalized.
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 exact GPS coordinates of a missing person?
James Randi’s million dollar offer goes out to psychics who claim they can speak to the dead. Randy says that hundreds of psychics from around the world have tried, but all have failed when tested under well controlled 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 evidence. And ghost stories are just 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 (i.e. spirit) must control these functions.
If we still wish to maintain a belief in the spirit/brain connection, we have to insist that this brain activity is actually signaling something else, like perhaps the physical brain is downloading information from an invisible source. But how exactly does that work?
According to Dr. Pim van Lommel, quantum physics can be applied to biological systems which results in electromagnetic fields forming a consciousness that broadcasts to our brains which act like receivers. This explanation is what some physicists call ”quantum flapdoodle,” as quantum physics has been used to try and 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 try and 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 empirically prove because:
- We can never be absolutely certain the child has never overheard the information or isn’t 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 like to imitate every character in every movie they’ve ever seen. Multiply this tendency times billions of children and we might expect a few weird stories. Further linking these stories to dead people may also be easy, since billions of people have died in different locations from many different causes (i.e. if a child says he died in WWII in a plane crash, well… lots of people died in WWII in plane crashes).
What we need is a child who can recite copious amounts of very specific information. For example, a 5-year-old who says he died in Pearl Harbor, who can still speak fluent Japanese.
If proven true, it raises a few other interesting questions…
- Where are the memories stored between each incarnation?
- What’s the point of memories if we can’t remember them?
- 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 of it remains so elusive. Either God has some kind of weird spiritual protocol that limits how much proof can exist for the spirit, or proof is elusive because there’s nothing to prove. At some point we have to ask, “If there were proof, wouldn’t we have proven it by now?