Do Ghosts Exist?

hand reaching out through mist - do ghosts exist?
Photo by Pedro Figueras on

Do Ghosts Exist?

When people hear I wrote my dissertation on ghost hunters, they often ask what I think about the reality of ghosts.

My dissertation was actually not designed to answer that question. Instead, I analyzed ghost hunting as a social and cultural phenomenon. Nevertheless, I did formulate some opinions on the topic of whether ghosts exist, even if I am not properly an expert on that particular question.

It may be frustrating to read that, when it comes to the existence of ghosts, I am agnostic. I do not know whether ghosts exist. I am not ready to rule out the possible existence of ghosts, neither am I ready to affirm it.

There was a time when I absolutely believed in ghosts, but my education in religious studies and my research with ghost hunters has raised some doubts. Allow me to explain why.

Deciding whether to believe in ghosts

When one is deciding whether to believe in ghosts, a few key things must be considered. First, are you a materialist? A materialist is someone who believes only material things and that which derives from material things truly exist. A materialist believes nature or the physical world are the ultimate realities.

In other words, a materialist does not believe in the supernatural. For a materialist, minds can be equated to or are phenomena which completely arise from and subsist upon the physical brain.

The American biologist and prominent critic of religion Jerry A. Coyne, whose primer book on evolution I very much enjoyed, is a well-known example of what I mean by a materialist. If you are a materialist, then you have a very good reason to rule out ghosts, which I will get to soon.

Some materialists believe in ghosts

Though rare, It is sometimes possible to be a materialist and still believe in ghosts. For example, perhaps the strangeness of quantum physics allows for psychical phenomena such as hauntings. The prominent American mathematical physicist Henry P. Stapp, for example, has written, in the edited volume Beyond Physicalism, that some psychical phenomena may be possible due to the mechanisms of quantum mechanics.

There are also parapsychologists working today who would argue that these phenomena do occur and are not explainable by reference to traditional laws and mechanisms, yet there may be new laws and mechanisms not yet understood that may come under the purview of science with more research to explain these phenomena.

Many parapsychologists would claim that psychical phenomena are natural, even if they are perhaps immaterial. Parapsychologists doing this kind of research can be found at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, in the Division of Perceptual Studies. 

Two big factors in ghost belief

I am not a materialist, so that barrier to ghost belief is removed for me. If one is not a materialist, or not sure if one is a materialist, two main factors must be weighted against each other.

On the one hand, you have testimony from perhaps millions of perfectly rational people across the world and throughout time that ghosts exist. Paranormal belief and experience is perfectly normal statistically. It is embraced by the majority of the US population and it is common across all demographic groups for which recent survey data has accounted, including the highly educated.

You probably know someone personally whom you respect and find of sound mind who has a ghost story. To rule out anywhere near all ghost accounts from around the world and across time as due to unsound mind seems preposterous. Surely some accounts can be ruled out in this way, but not anywhere near all. So, in the column for the existence of ghosts, you have the sheer weight of collective testimony.

In the other column, you have well-documented patterns of human misperception. Due to the way our senses and reasoning faculties have evolved, humans are constantly misperceiving the world. It is documented that we, for example, find patterns where none actually exist.

This often occurs in the form of seeing faces, as our brains are hardwired to find faces in nature. We have selective memory and confirmation bias, meaning we become convinced of an idea, forget the evidence against it and highlight the evidence for it. So, for example, you may become convinced that the full moon makes people act crazy. You will tend to forget the full moons where nothing unusual happened and highlight in your memory the full moons where a crazy event did occur.

We have a flawed concept of probability. For example, we wildly underestimate the chances that a room of twenty people will have two people with the same birthday. So coincidences often seem determined to us. Finally, and especially relevant for ghost belief, we detect agents where none exist. We are more likely to assume some sort of mind is behind an event even if the event is just occurring randomly.

Human senses often fail

Beyond our patterns of misperception, human senses themselves often fail. Even perfectly healthy people hallucinate or see and hear things that are not really there. It has been demonstrated in a laboratory that people routinely misperceive. For example, one study found that people frequently are unable to correctly identify the location of a sound source or a visual stimulus.

So then, we are left to weight two things: the weight of testimony by potentially millions of perfectly rational and sane people across time and space, and the flagrant misperceptions humans are prone to by nature. The materialist will most often make an easy choice to choose the latter. Though I am tempted, I hesitate to be so completely skeptical of so much human testimony.

Ultimately, I cannot decide which to weight more, so I am agnostic. Something else to consider would be personal experience. Some people swear by their own personal paranormal experiences. I have never had a clear paranormal experience.

What about hunters’ evidence?

You may now be asking, what about ghost hunters’ evidence? Unfortunately, I do not find much of the evidence ghost hunters gather very compelling. I could be dead wrong, but I find people’s personal narratives of encountering unexplainable things much more compelling. I just do not think much of ghost hunters’ evidence meant to be scientific holds scientific muster.

For example, what scientific evidence do we have that EMF fluctuations indicate spirit activity? Most ghost hunters are not experts on EMFs or EMF meters. Certainly anomalous fluctuations could be many natural things in the environment that the average person is not aware of. Also, much of the photo evidence is less dazzling and more inconclusive. Much of it seems like video or photo anomalies that likely have normal explanations in the mechanics of video and photography.

Many of the anomalies fall prey to the human tendency to see figures and faces where none exist. On top of that, video manipulation has become easier and easier, so it is hard to know what to trust. I just do not see this kind of evidence convincing a working scientist.

Electronic voice phenomena (EVP) is often considered by ghost hunters to be some of the strongest evidence they gather. According to skeptics, EVP can be explained by a combination of forgotten or overlooked background noise in the environment where recordings are taken and the flaws or anomalies of recording equipment. We all recognize how a recording can distort sounds compared to what we hear in person.

So, for example, EVP could be caused by the particular configuration of a digital recorder laying on a table as someone subtly scrapes their arm across the table. People do not notice and/or forget the original sound, the sound is altered by the recording device, and then when the audio is reviewed, investigators interpret the sound as a voice. I find this very believable, as most EVP that have been presented to me barely seem to resemble words, and I wonder if the investigators are once again finding audible patterns where none exist.

Some ghost hunters will point to the confluence of evidence in certain situations. For example, an investigator will ask the spirits a question and then an EMF meter or other device will go off just as an EVP that is a direct answer to the question is recorded. Here I wonder how much our selective memory and confirmation bias comes into play.

How many more times have investigators forgotten cases when a nonrelevant EVP was recorded or times the EMF meter went off with no correlation? If you investigate enough, coincidences are bound to happen. If a device flashes enough, it will eventually flash at a significant time.

I study ghost hunting as a social and cultural phenomenon and am obviously not an expert on environmental EMF or audio or photography, so I welcome the input of researchers with more experience than me in these areas. From what I do know, this is where I stand. I am open to having my mind changed by future research.

How should we investigate ghosts?

Given all of this, is there a type of ghost investigation I would accept? It seems to me that the best way to investigate hauntings is the old school way, the way of people like the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Society for Psychical Research and, later, Harry Price. One has to analyze reports of hauntings like a detective. The scene has to be examined and the witnesses have to be interviewed. One has to see if a credible case can be made for the haunting.

Perhaps skeptics would not accept this kind of evidence, but given the nature of a haunting, it seems like the best evidence on offer. If one wanted to go further, one would have to have exclusive access to a haunted location for weeks. Harry Price may or may not have been a con artist, but there is something to his description of how he scoured every corner of a house, sealed entry points completely, then put trustworthy people there to make observations that could hopefully be recorded.

In the twenty-first century, video and audio recording could be set up in case something truly remarkable might be caught. Video and audio experts should be on hand to set up the equipment and examine the evidence. Expert contractors and geological experts ought to examine the house. I am basically making the case for careful investigation and technical expertise over digital dowsing and flash-in-the-pan investigations.

Once again, even evidence gathered this way may not convince a materialist, but a haunting cannot be examined in a lab.

Being ghost agnostic

At the end of my research, I find myself in the position of being a ghost agnostic. I sometimes hold this position uneasily in my family. My father thinks the issue is I just haven’t experienced what he has (it’s true, I haven’t). My wife thinks I am too rationalistic and dismiss the evidence in front of me.

I remember my sister one day turning to me and saying something along the lines of, “so what, you just don’t believe in ghosts now?” Whether or not I eventually decide I do or do not believe in ghosts, people I love and respect are certain they exist. 

I have greatly enjoyed interacting with all the ghost hunters I have met and spoken to over the years, and I hope they can forgive me for disagreeing with many of them about what constitutes effective investigation. I suspect many of them will roll their eyes at how obtuse I am. Others will relate to my skepticism, as they themselves are skeptical of the endeavor.

Remember, all ghost hunters cannot be put in the same box. They are diverse in their ideas, and I respect their passion for exploration and their willingness to push the boundaries of what we think we know.


One response to “Do Ghosts Exist?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: