Archive for the ‘Supernatural’ Category

Ouija Boards

I have to say, this Derren Brown clip uses a pretty clever trick to test a Ouija board.

I liked Penn and Teller’s test as well.

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Ghost in Disneyland?

My guess? It could be a hoax, or it could be that the video recorder is re-using old videotapes. The recorder isn’t completely writing-over and old recording, so an old image is bleeding-through the new one. (Kind of like if you record over an old cassette tape and the old recording is still faintly audible in the background.) The fact that the video-cameras don’t move would also help everything align correctly in the old and new recordings.

Then again, I just looked up the Disney Haunted Mansion attraction, and the fact that the “ghost” is leaving the Haunted Mansion makes me think this was faked by Disney to add to the mystique.

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The Ghost of the Rue Jacob

I occasionally hear ghost-stories from people I know. I actually don’t believe in ghosts, and on the few occasions where I have attempted to investigate these types of things I’ve always ended up with only two results: either no unusual phenomena happens, or I discover that people are misattributing something normal to a ghost.

Even though I don’t believe in ghosts, I’m always interested when people say that there is some verifiable ghost-phenomena going on. It makes me want to investigate, if for no other reason that the possibility that I am wrong about my naturalistic beliefs and the existence of an afterlife.

Here’s a few of my stories of encountering ghost/supernatural phenomena:

When I was younger, there was a story in my town about a section of woods that was haunted by two spirits. This patch of woods also happened to be directly adjacent to a large cemetery. There were a variety of stories about these woods, and strange things that happened there during the night. One night, I was talking to a guy I knew, and he said that whenever he drove through those woods, you could hear something walking through the woods behind the right-side of the car. So, a group of us went out there and drove through the woods. Sure enough, as we drove through the woods, you could hear what sounded like the faint sound of someone in the darkness stepping on leaves and branches to the right/rear of the car. It kept perfect pace with us, and was genuinely scary and strange. Once we got out of the woods, we were all talking about it, and I got an idea. I jumped out of the car, and told him to drive forward slowly. Sure enough, there was a sound coming from his right rear axle that sounded just like breaking branches. The sound was apparently bouncing off the forest trees, and only seemed like it was coming from off in the distance.

A year or two later, some friends and I went into those same woods around midnight looking for something, anything. At this point, I was very skeptical about the supernatural and I wanted to find evidence that I was wrong. We ended up seeing nothing strange at all.

Another time, just days after I had moved into an apartment in a very old building, I was falling asleep one night when I heard a slight sound coming from the other (empty) bedroom. I turned on the light and went to investigate. But, there was no sound. I went back to bed, and within a few minutes, I heard something again. My hair was starting to stand on end. I snuck into the living room and turned on the light. The sound disappeared, and I checked all the windows. Everything seemed perfectly in order. I went back to bed and waited for the sound again. Within a few minutes, it started again, so I snuck around in the dark. As I got closer to the second bedroom, I heard what sounded like someone slowly crushing a piece of paper. I was very creeped-out. I turned on the light, and a little mouse came running out of my garbage.

A few people have told me their encounters with ghosts. A neighbor of mine said that, when she was in college, they lived in a house that they “knew” was haunted. She said the kitchen towels would disappear, and no one could find them. One night, they had a Ouiji board, and they started asking it questions. The Ouiji board told them to go look under the stairs. When they looked, they found all the missing kitchen towels, and no one knew there was even a space under the stairs. There were a couple doubts I had about her story though. One possibility is that one of her roommates had put the towels there, and controlled the Ouiji board to tell them to look there. The other one involves the fact that this neighbor of mine was a known sleepwalker. She’s been known to walk around her building, sleep-walking and sleep-talking. In one case, she knocked on a neighbors door at 4am and started to have a half-coherent conversation with the just woken neighbor. She didn’t remember what happened the next morning. Given her history of sleep-walking, it seemed quite possible that she was moving the kitchen towels under the stairs in the middle of the night and not remembering it the next morning. Maybe she even subconsciously had the Ouiji board tell everyone to look under the stairs.

This is one of the problems I have with second-hand ghost stories. You never quite know what’s fact, if someone is embellishing or misremembering, or if there are clues that you don’t know because you aren’t there when the phenomena happens. It’s a little like trying to explain a magic trick based on someone’s second-hand memories of what they saw.

Well, just in time for Halloween, Joan Juliet Buck has a story about a haunted apartment where she lived in Paris. I have to admit, if I had a lot more money and time, I would want to track down this place and verify the story. I doubt anything would happen, but it would make for an interesting YouTube investigation nevertheless. And, if I could be proven wrong about my beliefs, that would be a good thing, too. (I wonder how many religious believers would say that?) Here’s an mp3 of her story from The Moth podcast.
Joan Juliet Buck: The Ghost of the Rue Jacob

It occurred to me later that the phenomena Joan Buck experienced could be explained by carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas, but, being colorless, odorless, tasteless, and non-irritating, it is very difficult for people to detect. Carbon monoxide is a product of combustion of organic matter with insufficient oxygen supply and is often produced in domestic or industrial settings by motor vehicles and other gasoline-powered tools, heaters, and cooking equipment. (Source)

At high levels, it can kill you, but at low levels, it can produce “strange visions and sounds, feelings of dread, illness … listlessness, depression, dementia, emotional disturbances, and hallucinations.” (Source) It can also cause vertigo (explaining her dad’s fall). She mentions these things happening in October (10:25), so she begins to experience these things during the night as fall/winter approaches, which is exactly when the windows would be closed and an old furnace would be most active (potentially kicking-out carbon monoxide). Additionally, carbon monoxide is combustible, which would explain why her incense burned especially bright.

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One of the ideas I hear a lot when someone dies is that “it was his time to go” – as if fate or God dictated the time of a person’s death. Now, I understand that this belief has a certain emotional appeal when someone dies, so it’s not something I’m going to argue about in that circumstance. But, it does bother me from a logical standpoint. If we really sit down and think about this rationally, I think it can be shown that (in general) people are not “fated” to die at a particular time. What would it really mean if each person has a time to die?

1. Geographical and historical differences in life spans are due to “fate” or “God”, not external factors like medicine, diet, sanitation, or safety.

In the real-world, life-spans appear to be correlated with access to health care and sanitation. The world map shows life-expectancies by nation. (Green is 67 years or longer. Yellow is 60-67 years. Red is 40-60 years. Black is less than 40 years.)
Apparently, “fate” or “God” decided that people in less-developed nations die much younger on average than people living in developed nations.

Historically, lifespans have also been much shorter. Even a few hundred years ago in Europe, diseases killed a lot of children before they reached adulthood, and lots of women died in childbirth.

Humans by Era Average Lifespan at Birth (years)
Upper Paleolithic 33
Neolithic 20
Bronze Age 18
Classical Greece 20-30
Classical Rome 20-30
Pre-Columbian North America 25-35
Medieval Britain 20-30
Early 20th Century 30-40
Current world average 66.12

Admittedly, life-expectancy numbers are skewed by high infant morality, but adult mortality was also higher than they are modern times.

The existence of these differences should be puzzling for anyone who thinks that fate or God determines the time of our deaths.

2. If fate or God determines the time of our death, then, logically, we shouldn’t be concerned about safety or health. If you want to smoke or skip the seat-belt, it shouldn’t matter because the time of your death has already been determined. Disease isn’t the cause of death, but merely a tool used to bring about death at the appointed time. If we correct any of these problems, then we should expect something else to bring about death, instead. These actions should have no effect the average lifespan within a society:

* Finding a cure for a disease
* Reducing gang violence
* Preventing the spread of HIV with condoms or abstinence
* Getting a vaccine, an antibiotic, or going to the doctor
* Increased sanitation (leading to a reduction in water-borne illness, such as cholera)
* Quitting smoking
* Increased safety on work sites, such as mining or construction
* Increased automobile safety, including seatbelts, crash-test standards, etc

Of course, we don’t believe any of this is actually true. We do believe that eradicating smallpox saved lives, that sanitation leads to fewer cases of cholera and reduced mortality. When the panama canal was being built, it was discovered that mosquitoes transmitted malaria. It’s very evident that the death-rates of panama-canal workers dropped significantly when they controlled the mosquito populations.

3. If the time of our deaths is predetermined, then we cannot blame people for actions that cause death. Murderers are merely acting as tools to bring-about death at the appointed time. If the murder hadn’t killed that person, they would’ve died from some other cause. Hitler cannot be blamed for the deaths of tens of millions (both in the holocaust and the war). The 3,000 people who died on 9/11 would’ve died anyway. “Fate” decided it was their time to die. And, it’s not your fault if you drive drunk and kill someone. That person would’ve died regardless.

Therefore, we cannot blame murderers or reckless behavior for causing the deaths of others. In fact, it would be pointless to spend time and money tracking down murderers – because doing so will not decrease the number of deaths in a society. The whole idea of tracking down a killer “before he kills again” is nonsense if each death is predetermined.

Now, I realize that someone could argue that there are human-caused deaths and “fated” deaths. This would allow them to condemn the murderer or the reckless driver. (Although, I’d bet there are plenty of people killed in drunk-driving accidents where people say, “it was their time”.) In general, I think people tend to use the “fate” or “God” idea when the death is outside any reasonable human ability to prevent it. If that really was the case, it should be pointless to find cures for diseases, and the geographical/historical gaps in life-expectancy should be perplexing (at least when those deaths are not caused by humans).

Of course, once you abandon the idea that God determines each person’s lifespan, and realize that people’s deaths occur for mundane reasons (rather than unknowable divine ones), it raises the question: “Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent death?” I have an answer to that, but it isn’t one theists are comfortable with.

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Chi Master?

I remember seeing this video over 10 years ago. I was already leaning towards a completely naturalistic worldview, and I remember being taken aback by it. How did he do that? Is this proof of something more than the material world? Well, since then, I’ve discovered that it’s quite common to use electricity with acupuncture. If he had some sort of hidden electrical device, it would explain most of this video. He could also justify his deception by convincing himself that he’s helping people to believe, and it’s probably good for his “medical” practice. Needless to say, I’m not that impressed with the guy’s “powers” anymore – but he does have enough showmanship to convince a few skeptics. What do you think? Any other theories on how he’s doing this?

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Here’s an interesting story from This American Life. It’s a ghost story from 1921. In the story, a family moves into a new home, and they begin to experience some strange things: sounds of footsteps, knocking on the walls, a feeling of dread, the plants died, and then ghostly figures appeared. The audio is about six minutes long (right at the beginning of the podcast), and you can listen to it here, or read the longer version here.

I had no idea about that explanation. Apparently, it’s not the only case like it. More information here and here.

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I saw the trailer for 1408 the other day, and had meant to write something about it – specifically, the tendency of the media to write stories involving the supernatural skeptic who experiences the supernatural and has no choice but to accept its existence. But, it looks like Chris Mooney and PZ Myers beat me to the punch.

1408 Movie trailer:

Of course, a screenwriter or author has complete control over the forces and events in the story. It is just as easy to write about a skeptic who becomes a believer as it would be to write about a preacher who begrudgingly admits the non-existence of God, or a self-deluded psychic who comes to the realization that all psychics are either self-deluded or frauds. The author has the power to make “irrefutable evidence” that only exists in the fictional world. I think this has the tendency to make believers feel superior to skeptics because they can mentally frame the real-world skeptic as being similar to “that skeptic guy in the movie who will eventually come to see what we already know”. Why does the media do this? Simply because it’s a more interesting storyline, which means (hopefully) more viewers.

On a similar note, I had recently listened to some old episodes of Skepticality – specifically, Episode #38: A Very Houdini Halloween. They talked about Houdini (who was a skeptic and believed mediums were frauds) and how he and his wife had an agreement that when he died, he would attempt to make contact with her. They figured if anyone could make contact from “the other side”, it was Houdini because he was an escape artist, and now he had an agreement to make contact. They had even decided on a secret password that could be used to verify whether Houdini was really making contact from the spirit world – to prevent psychics from making false claims about being in contact with Houdini’s ghost. Predictably, quite a few physics claimed to be in contact with Houdini’s spirit, but none could ever tell her what the secret password was. (Or at least not until Houdini’s widow made the mistake of telling someone what the password was.) She gave up trying to contact Houdini after ten years of futile attempts. I’ve heard other stories of skeptics creating passwords before their deaths, but no psychics have been able to reveal the correct password.

Now, I’ve heard people claim to have experienced a ghost. Just a few weeks ago, some of my friends were talking about this. One of my friends says that she was sleeping in her old house when she felt someone sit down on the bed. No one was there, and she yelled at the ghost saying that it was her house now. My own theory on this story is that what probably happened was that her leg moved suddenly, making the bed move. With her half-asleep mind, she interpreted this as someone sitting down on the bed. I’ve had something similar happen just as I fall asleep. Every once in a while, just before I drift into sleep, one of my legs will suddenly and involuntarily lurch. It doesn’t move very far, but the force of it is enough to rock the entire bed – something that could easily be interpreted as someone sitting down on the bed, or pushing the bed. In the absence of anyone else in the room, this could be interpreted as a ghost. I think something similar happened to her.

While we were all talking about this, I told my “ghost story”. This happened a few days after moving into my new condo – in a building nearly a hundred years old. I was in bed trying to fall asleep when I heard a faint noise in the other room. It was just loud enough that I was sure I wasn’t imagining it. I got up, walked into the other room, turned on the light and looked around to see if I could figure it out. Nothing. The sound had stopped. I turned off the light and went back to bed. A few minutes later, I heard the faint sound again. I was getting creeped out. So, I got up again, turned on the light, and looked around. But, the sound had stopped again. This time, I turned off the light and waited. A few minutes later, in the darkness, I heard it again – coming from the other bedroom. I snuck in quietly, and when I figured out which area of the room the sound was coming from, I turned on the light. A tiny little mouse came running out of the garbage. It wasn’t a ghost, afterall. Some of my friends were disappointed that my story wasn’t a real ghost story (which is an interesting reaction to think about), but it was the closest thing to a “real” ghost story that I had. Actually, it was kind of a subtle anti-ghost story since it involved the debunking of what could have been a ghost.

One odd thing that I’ve noticed with people who tell their ghost stories, is that of the four people (off the top of my head) who have told me their ghost stories, all of them were women. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence, or what exactly that means, but it seems like an odd pattern.

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