Give Up the Ghost?

As I was organizing my books, I came across a book that I had found in a used bookstore but had never really read. It’s called “Give Up the Ghost” and it’s by Victoria Branden, who as far as I can recall isn’t specifically a scientist but has associated with some in examining supernatural phenomena. The point of the book is to demonstrate two things: a) that some phenomena that we consider supernatural really does happen but b) there’s nothing supernatural about it, as it can be explained by strictly natural theories. This is a tall order for a book that’s less than 200 pages long and covers a wide variety of phenomena.

I have a mild interest in paranormal or supernatural phenomena. My current position on it is that I can’t rule out these claims — even to the extent of UFO sightings — but I also have to concede that in a number of cases they can be explained with much more ordinary causes. In theory, what I really should do is investigate some of those claims to see if they are supernatural or not, but in practice I really don’t have the time nor are the questions that important to my life for me to make the effort. So Branden’s main thesis — that there’s enough evidence and repeatable experiments that scientists probably should study them in more detail — is one that I’m interested in. And from dealing with self-proclaimed rationalist naturalists, it’s entirely reasonable to me that so many scientists would insist that those things are simple frauds or delusions without ever bothering to investigate them in any detail.

Branden does give some interesting cases, with the most interesting one being the one that she claims is easily and consistently repeatable of making a table move around the room. One would think that if skeptical scientists wanted to disprove such an example, they’d be falling all over themselves to refute that one. Then again, all I have for that is Branden’s comments and the problem is that while it is quite likely that skeptical scientists would dismiss it without investigating it, it’s also entirely possible that some of them did investigate it and come up with explanations that don’t satisfy Branden. This, I think, highlights an issue with supernatural claims, as what we need is honest investigation but in general both sides have strong commitments that would bias their conclusions, either wanting them to be real phenomena or wanting them to be something other than the odd phenomena that they seem to be.

Branden also comes across as being a bit hypocritical in the book, as she regards the phenomena that she has personally experienced as being definitely the case and chides skeptics for dismissing it out of hand but dismisses out of hand those that she hasn’t experienced, like UFO sightings. So it left me, at least, with the impression that she wasn’t really practicing what she was preaching. Additionally, I found it odd that she would defend ghost sightings as a natural phenomena by relating them to poltergeists and caused by the minds of disturbed teenagers in the house. Essentially, her claim there — which underlies her entire theory — is that it’s not really ghosts but is really telekinesis, which is hardly less supernatural or paranormal.

I think her underlying thesis is basically sound: there’s enough odd phenomena that has reasonable evidence for it that it should be part of some science to figure out if these things have anything in common and what the underlying cause is. After all, we have so many sightings of, say, ghosts and the like that there at least has to be a common psychological consideration there, and dismissing it as simply people dreaming seems to dismiss it too lightly. I’m not as convinced that her theory is correct or is properly evidenced. Ultimately, if these things are natural in nature then we should be able to demonstrate that, and given how common the belief is it would be worthwhile doing, because if naturalists want these beliefs to go away saying “You’re stupid and superstitious to believe in such things!” is not going to cut it.

One Response to “Give Up the Ghost?”

  1. They Dost Protest Too Much … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] in line with my post from last week that talks about finding natural explanations for supernatural phenomena, I came across two essays on various forms of naturalism. One is a post from Richard Carrier, which […]

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