As much as we talk about the idea of the spirit, you’d think it was a well documented fact, but is there 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 a spirit, such as near death experiences, out of body experiences, communication with the dead, the mind/brain connection, reincarnation, etc.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s dig in…
21 Grams – Weighing the Soul
In the 1880s, pictures of ghostly images caught on film were once used as evidence for the soul. And later, in 1911, the x-ray machine was even used to try and photograph the soul. These things are hardly considered evidence today, but there one experiment that is still rumored to have some truth, and that’s Duncan MacDougall’s 1907 experiment where he claimed you could shed weight quickly and easily by simply dying.
MacDougall weighed six volunteers before and after their death, and claimed they lost an average of 21 grams. But MacDougall’s results didn’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 then 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 even seriously pitched this idea to Yale, Stanford, Duke University, and even the Catholic Church, though none were interested. He believes they rejected the idea for 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 some form of spirit energy escapes our body the moment we die.
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, including 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 so many frequent flyer miles on their souls, it’s a wonder why 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 to you.)
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 kiss that dead squirrel? Those were crazy 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, and she lived near a mountain!”
This is known as the Forer effect, made famous by psychologist Bertram R. Forer, who once gave his students a personality test and the corresponding results. On average, they rated the results a 4.26 out of 5, indicating the results were excellent. Then Forer admitted to giving them all the same results, demonstrating that we humans have a tendency to personalize vague generalizations.
Inability to prove themselves
While our dead relatives seem more than happy to make vague and erroneous statements via mediums, they seem less eager to provide proof. For example, why can’t we ask the dearly departed to float into a nearby room to retrieve some randomly generated piece of information? Information that the medium would have no way of knowing? Or why can’t the dead give us the precise location of their dead body? Why must it always be by a road, or near a tree, or by some water?
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 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. And ghost stories are just too easy to manufacture.
The Mind-Body Connection
While many scientists believe that the mind is what the brain does, others suggest that things like consciousness go beyond the ability of the brain, and might be evidence for the existence of a spirit.
This goes back to the 40s and 50s, when Dr. Penfield probed the brains of conscious patients and concluded that the brain controlled only the mechanical functions of the body. He made this assumption because he was unable to isolate a part of the brain where thinking occurred, and he theorized that an invisible mind (i.e. spirit) must be responsible for conscious thought.
Fast-forward to modern functional neuroimaging and we now have a pretty good idea where thinking occurs (SPOILER ALERT!) — the brain. In fact, there’s never a time when you’re thinking that your brain is not active. All our thoughts appear to be died to brain function.
If we still wish to maintain a belief in the spirit/brain connection, we might suppose that the brain and spirit are interdependent, and brain is simply responding to spiritual input, perhaps uploading and downloading information to this invisible spirit 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 is used to try and justify 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 from somewhere, why not from the brain?
Like most good Christians, I never took reincarnation very seriously. (Christians believe in being born again, not in being born again, and again, and again. See Hebrews 9:27.)
In taking my first look at the evidence for reincarnation, I found the stories of young children like Cameron Macauley and James Leininger to be pretty impressive. On the surface, these individuals seem to hold “insider information” that links them to another past, 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 about the “hits” and not the “misses.”
- The parents may have incorrectly understood the child, or are applying their own interpretations.
- The parents may have (intentionally or unintentionally) encouraged the child with leading questions.
- The “recovered memories” are often sketchy and or missing seemingly obvious details, like names.
- 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 improbable (but not impossible) stories. Linking these stories to dead people may also be relatively easy, since billions of people have died in different locations from many different causes (i.e. if a child says he once 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.
Adult reincarnation is far less impressive, and even reincarnation researcher Ian Stevenson is skeptical of these stories. Information about these 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 if the spirit exists, I have to wonder why proof 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 found it by now?”