Welcome to the Mad Scientist Podcast, I’m your host Chris Cogswell, the previously mentioned Mad Scientist. Tonights episode hopes to give insight into a fundamental question with concerns to the paranormal, namely in a world where the sciences are very quickly becoming merged into an all encompassing whole, and the space leftover for spirituality and religious explanations is rapidly shrinking, why do paranormal beliefs persist, and is there a place for them?
Witch hunts really began in earnest around 15th century. Europe always had “cunning folk” or people that practiced folk magic with natural cures for ailments. However also had high magic, with things like alchemy of course being quite prominent and with many famous scientists of the time practicing the art (e.g. Newton). Witches initially then were healers, then people who were tricked by the devil, until around 15th century became thought of as people who were actively working with the devil. This was around the time that the Malleus Malificarum 9the hammer of the witches) was published. 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued Summis disiderantes affectibus, papal bull where he said witches existed and gave OK for trials. Trials peaked around 16th to 17th centuries, then declined until the Salem witch trials.
Does the paranormal have a place in the modern world? Does it make any sense that we continue to search for things like ghosts, demons, poltergeists, angels, out of body experiences, all of the various spirit related phenomena people claim to have experienced? To start with, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to make any kind of religious claims here. I think it will be obvious by the end of this episode that despite my own skeptical beliefs I don’t think we can out of hand deny that things like the soul or heaven or hell CAN exist, for the philosophical reasons that will be laid out in a little bit. However for the purpose of full disclosure, although I was raised Roman Catholic I don’t have any particular faith at this point in my life, but again can’t deny the possibility for the existence of things like ghosts and whatever.
Secondly I think its important to state that although this particular episode doesn’t deal with things like Bigfoot, which incidentally is one of my favorite para-scientific or fringe topics, those will eventually make it onto the docket. I have a huge backlog of topics to go into the history on and the philosophy and science behind, but I think a good start is really the elephant in the room. I don’t think it is hard to imagine that just maybe something like Bigfoot could exist, but for a lot of people ghosts and demons are just too fringe to even accept. But I think there is a lot of interesting questions still out there on these topics, and weird things that historically have led to our current thoughts on these spirit things that have not only somewhat choked the discussion on the topic but also led to a whole lot of scientific phooey that gets used all the time. These more magical aspects of the paranormal are really the crux of this episode, and specifically how our mindset when from one centered on a magical way of thinking to a scientific way of thinking.
To start asking the question if the paranormal can still find a place in the modern world, I think its important to begin by seeing how we got to our current view on spirits, and more fundamentally our scientific worldview. If you ask anyone what they know about the current search for ghosts they would probably tell you about searching for EVP or measuring electromagnetic disturbances, but why do we take it for granted that ghosts needs to be natural things? What reasoning is there for us to think that ghosts will have some affect on molecules or particles when they are in a room? At the other extreme there are supposed mediums who can speak to our relatives, who I’ll say have never had one of those ghost hunting crews in the room with them despite the fact that they are in theory communicating with ghosts that are near them. I would seriously pay pay per view money to see an episode like that. If the ghost hunting people are telling the truth, and they can measure ghosts in a room, and the medium is telling the truth, and they can basically see ghosts when they are in a room and speak to them, then it seems like a no brainer to put the two together and get some verifiable measurements here. But both of these teams are operating on different wavelengths, no bad electromagnetic pun intended. The medium may not expect the ghost to be a physical thing, while the ghost hunting teams seem to take that as a basic assumption of their method.
When did ghosts become a physical thing? I think one of the most fascinating case studies of this transition, and one that thankfully has garnered a lot of study over the years, is the change that happened to witchcraft or demonological thinking up to the present day. This really showcases how our magical way of thinking was changed by the presence of true scientific discovery, although magical thinking has not fully lost its power over our everyday lives. Besides things like podcasts on ghosts and TV shows about mediums, we see leftovers of our magical worldview every day. One thing that has become fetishized recently has been WHERE our food or items actually come from, as opposed to WHAT they are. For instance, despite the fact that two tomatoes, A and B, are completely identical on a molecular and genetic level, the fact that tomato A was grown in an open field while B was grown in a factory farm indoors will leave a lot of people to choose tomato A whenever possible. Despite the fact that the two things are identical, we still choose A because the history of the object matters to us for some reason. Rationally it has no affect, but in our minds we still want one that has the sheen of a more “natural” providence, because we just sort of feel that tomato A is more trustworthy.
Alright, so tomatoes aside, Witchcraft and magical thinking go hand in hand, and we can track our change from magical to scientific world views through the changes in witchcraft prosecution and thoughts on the topic. Witchcraft has always sort of been part of European culture, with folk magicians or “cunning folk” providing healing and other sorts of help in local villages and towns. Eventually however these healers or herb sellers began to take on negative connotations. While in the beginning of witchcraft lore religious leaders considered witches to be victims to the devil or his demonic subjects, over time witches became viewed as people who actively sought out demonic powers. Another interesting aspect of this change is that witches were considered to be primarily female, something that there is a really great literature background on. One quote that really shows this way of thinking comes from Nicholas Remy from 1595, and he said quote “It is not unreasonable that this scum of humanity, witches, should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex” “The devil uses them so, because he knows that woman love carnal pleasures, and he means to bind them to his allegiance by such agreeable provocations”. Pretty insane stuff.
So witchcraft persecution really started in earnest in the 15th century, culminating in a number of pretty wide ranging witch trials and mass killings, before finally petering out around 1750. Salem was one of the last big cases of witch persecution, and is often put as a shocking case specifically because it occurred so late in with mania. This decline in witchcraft persecution came about partially because of changing views on what witches or demons could actually achieve, with skeptical views of witchcraft really starting to take hold as our more scientific worldview came into focus. One huge division that began this trend is the switch that occurred with Thomas Aquinas, who divided the religious spheres of influence into three categories. These were the natural, or as he said Natural is “What happens always or most of the time”, preternatural , which is “What happens rarely, but nonetheless by the agency of created beings…Marvels belong, properly speaking, to the realm of the preternatural” and finally supernatural, which is “God’s unmediated actions”.
From this shift witches and demons went from being things that we could not have any hope of measuring or quantifying through scientific study to something that we could find proof for. The reasons for this are multiple, but one interesting take is that this shift occurred so readily because it gave us proof of God’s existence outside of the miraculous. If witches and demons were real, and we could actually find them in our lives and study them, then in a strange way we could study God second hand. Furthermore this meant we could combat witchcraft and demons in a way that was much more down to Earth than asking God for help, instead we could act against demons as human beings ourselves and thereby have some mode of control over something that previously was considered truly supernatural.
This distinction doesn’t seem all that important at first glance, but some clarification shows just how different it was. Lorraine Daston has said that “Although demons, astral intelligences, and other spirits might manipulate natural causes with superhuman dexterity and thereby work marvels, as mere creatures they could never transcend from the preternatural to the supernatural and work genuine miracles”. This means that preternatural things are almost trickery, like a fake miracle that we cannot really understand as being different from the work of God at first glance. So while before witches were thought to actively cause the death of cattle by magically inducing them to die, now witches were taught how to brew potions by their demonic guides that when given to the cows caused them to become sick. While this may not have meant much to the witch who was being put on trial for something she did not commit, it shows a striking change in the way of thinking about demons, witches, spirits, and God. Demons went from being something we could not study, to something that science could be applied too. And with this new application, Demons and Ghosts and Witches lost some of their credibility as ideas. As Daston says again, “To simplify the historical sequence somewhat: First, preternatural phenomena were demonized and thereby incidentally naturalized, then the demons were deleted, leaving only the natural cases”
This slow shift from a purely magical explanation for witchcraft, to a preternatural explanation, to a fully natural explanation for the observed phenomena attributed to witches and subsequent deletion of witches from the natural world completely is the same sort of path that all magical ways of thinking take before they disappear. As science moves ever forward, the place for magic shrinks until all that is left is the phenomena which magic was initially used to explain, and a shiny new scientific explanation for the same way of thinking. And you can see that even today we are in this same position with things like ghosts. No one seeks for ghosts by invoking magical rituals, instead we look for them with EMF detectors and thermal cameras. Ghosts have become a set of observable, quantifiable variables that we can look for, and it isn’t hard to see how in a century or so we will look back at our search for ghosts and realize that maybe these things we called ghosts were really just electrical disturbances, or infrasound, or any other scientifically explainable phenomena.
So where does this leave us with the paranormal? Does the search for ghosts have to go the way of the search for witches? I don’t think so. And the reasons I hesitate to say that it must be the case that ghosts or spirits or whatever will become fully scientific things is that I don’t know if philosophically the world is reducible in that way. Well what do I mean by reducible? Reductionism is a philosophical idea whereby more complex systems, in this case scientific systems, can be explained by the properties of the less complex systems that they are made up of. So if everything in the universe is made up of subatomic particles, and we know how subatomic particles behave, the reductionist argument is that we should be able to, with enough computational power and time, describe chemical and biological phenomena by the interaction of these subatomic particles. However clearly this argument falls short in a number of important ways.
One of my favorite philosophical arguments, both because when I tell people at parties that I have a philosophy degree they always bring it up and because of just how powerfully instructive it is in this case, is that of color. At the bulk level atoms that come together into a molecule and then molecules which come together into macroscopic items will have a color. However, where does the color of these items end? If I took a piece of aluminum, and kept breaking up the piece into smaller and smaller pieces, would I eventually come to a point where the color of the aluminum is no longer observed? What if I broke it up into individual aluminum atoms? Into electrons, protons, and neutrons? In this case it may be that the color of the bulk item seems to not be a property of the individual pieces that make up the bulk item. This sort of property is known as an emergent property. A great quote on this topic is by J.S. Mill.
All organised bodies are composed of parts, similar to those composing inorganic nature, and which have even themselves existed in an inorganic state; but the phenomena of life, which result from the juxtaposition of those parts in a certain manner, bear no analogy to any of the effects which would be produced by the action of the component substances considered as mere physical agents. To whatever degree we might imagine our knowledge of the properties of the several ingredients of a living body to be extended and perfected, it is certain that no mere summing up of the separate actions of those elements will ever amount to the action of the living body itself. (A System of Logic, Bk.III, Ch.6, §1)
While color as an emergent property is interesting, the most important application of this sort of argument for this discussion is to that of consciousness as emergent property of the brain. Consciousness is what many of us would consider to be that thing that is most closely associated with the soul. If ghosts exist, if demons are out there, we imagine that they are probably some thing that has a consciousness, or maybe is that consciousness free of the physical body. But that only works if consciousness is not connected ultimately to the brain itself. In this idea consciousness would need to be fully separated from the brain, it is not even an emergent property but a secondary sort of thing that exists on its own. An interesting quote on this dilemma is given by Elizer S Yudkowsky, an AI theorist. He says that “[P]art of the rationalist ethos is binding yourself emotionally to an absolutely lawful reductionistic universe — a universe containing no ontologically basic mental things such as souls or magic — and pouring all your hope and all your care into that merely real universe and its possibilities, without disappointment.”
While I can’t say anything about the soul as its own sort of thing, I think that the question of whether or not consciousness can be explained through reductionist argument is very much still unanswered. The mind cannot be reduced to the body, and so the mind-body problem is very obviously still a real issue for scientists and philosophers. And it is this unknown that still leaves room for the paranormal. Could ghosts feasibly exist, could the mind not be completely wired to the body but instead act as an emergent property, or even as its own fundamentally different sort of thing? I think an argument could be made that yes, maybe that is possible. There isn’t really anything to completely stop that from being the case. So although our search for ghosts currently relies on physical testing, maybe that is a completely failed endeavor. If the mind or soul is linked to the body through a material sort of reduction, so that the soul can be detected with an EMF reader, than there is reason to think that perhaps it is only an emergent property and so cannot be separated from the brain at all. If however the soul is its own sort of thing, then maybe measuring it is not possible at all, since it is of a different kind entirely from the physical universe. In either case we lose at least one science fiction fantasy. If the mind is an emergent property of the brain then we can have androids, but maybe no ghosts. If however the mind is separate from the body completely, then perhaps we can’t have androids but can continue to look for ghosts in haunted houses and graveyards.
This show would not have been possible without the help of the crew at Astonishing Legends, who not only gave me the first insight into their process but also the encouragement to start something of my own. I highly suggest you give them a listen! The musical intro features myself on Bass guitar, Steven Bacas on lead guitar, Megan Gaul on Trumpet, Michael Scionti on Sax, Rich Molloy on Trombone, and Christopher Peters on Drum. For questions or concerns please reach out to me on tumblr, wordpress, or email at TheMadScientistPodcast@gmail.com. Next weeks episode will focus on the Pyramids of Giza and the crazy sorts of theories people have put out on them over the years!