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Do Ghosts Exist?

by Brian Dunning, Aug 30 2012

Ignorance and Want from A Christmas Carol, John Leech, 1843. Public domain image.

Since so many of my acquaintances know me as “that skeptic guy”, it’s not rare for one of them to challenge me with an experience they had, often reporting something like a ghost experience and saying “Disprove THAT, Mr. Skeptic.”

Of course, this completely misrepresents what I do, and where the process of skeptical science leads us. I’m far less qualified than my friend to prove or disprove his ghost experience; I wasn’t even there. In fact I’m always a little disappointed to find that my friends think I’m obsessively out to tell people that they’re wrong. If there is one thing that obsesses me, it’s the challenge of finding solutions to interesting mysteries — and telling people that they’re wrong is not relevant to that process. Proving alternate explanations wrong is collateral damage when a mystery is eventually solved, but it’s never the goal.

Yet, plenty of unsolved phenomena exist, and so the field for possible explanations remains wide open. Perhaps some strange experiences are caused by ghosts. However, I don’t think that’s a very satisfactory hypothesis, and the main reason is that the rationale for the existence of ghosts is — forgive the term — illusory.

Here, in brief, are a few of the reasons I give most often why it’s never right to jump to the conclusion of “It was a ghost”:

  1. There is no theory in any life science that makes a prediction that ghosts exist.
  2. Ghosts have no properties that can be described.
  3. There has never been a reproducible ghost event. This makes it unlikely that the perceived phenomenon was a real one.
  4. The logic that most people use to arrive at a conclusion of “ghost” is faulty. It’s usually “Something inexplicable happened, what else could it be?” A ghost is an unknown. By no logic can a set of unknown properties be considered consistent with your experience. Any other unknown – leprechauns, sorcery, Bigfoot – is an equally valid match.
  5. No evidence of ghosts exists. Evidence of strange events exists, but see #4 for why we can’t say what it was.
  6. “Unexplained” ≠ “Explained as a ghost.”
  7. When searching for the explanation for a strange experience, a process of elimination of causes can never logically leave “a ghost” as a reasonable explanation. See #4 above.
  8. It’s OK to say “I don’t know what that was, that was really weird.” In fact, a genuinely unsolved mystery is always more interesting than a wrongly solved mystery.

Maybe ghosts do exist; I certainly don’t deny the possibility. But I submit to my ghost believing friends that, by making the conclusion prematurely, you are doing yourself at least two unkindnesses:

  1. You’re missing out on the excitement of solving a real mystery. By stopping at “It was a ghost”, you are robbing yourself of the rest of the journey. You may be missing learning about some cool new perceptual error or state of consciousness that you didn’t know about. There may be an engineering, optical, electrical, or auditory sensation that’s really neat. You’ve stopped at a detour that almost certainly leads nowhere.
  2. You’re making your world really complicated. By shoehorning the idea of “ghost” into what we know of our world, you’re breaking up established theories of life, consciousness, neurology, probably others, and re-assembling them into a patchwork theory of the world that no longer accommodates all the things that we do know.

Don’t look at the world through goggles that are broken. Instead, learn to say “I don’t know” and keep your goggles in one sound piece. You’ll be far better equipped to understand and interpret your next mysterious experience.

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51 Responses to “Do Ghosts Exist?”

  1. Jeffery2010 says:

    Of all your responses, my favorite is #6. It really cuts through the noise. Untill you prove there are ghost it can never be a valid possible solution to your conundrum. Simple.

  2. Eduard Habsburg says:

    Dear Brian, concise and clear as always. However, when you say that

    “Here, in brief, are a few of the reasons I give most often why it’s never right to jump to the conclusion of “It was a ghost”:”,

    are you not actually saying

    “Here, in brief, are a few of the reasons I give most often why it’s not scientifically possible to arrive at the conclusion “It was a ghost””?

    What you mostly do is explain why ghosts don’t fall into the categories that science could apply. The conclusion “it was a ghost” is still valuable if you don’t claim it is a scientific one.

    Does that make sense?

  3. noen says:

    Ghost Hunters on the SciFi channel is probably the best testimonial *against* the existence of ghosts I know. Eight years later and not one ghost. Hard to beat that.

  4. shnarkle says:

    I was thinking about this “ghost” thing the other day, and it occurred to me that there doesn’t seem to be many, if ant reports of people seeing naked ghosts. They are all either dressed as a Roman centurion, or wearing a 19th century period dress etc, etc.

    Now, if we accept for a moment that a ghost is the disembodied spirit of a dead person, then the spectral representation of that person should appear naked. Where did the clothes come from? A frock coat or wellington boots don’t possess a spirit, so how did they make the transition over into the spirit world.

    Just a point.

  5. David Hewitt says:

    Of course, ghost believers are operating with the unstated major premise that ghosts exist. Inasmuch as ghosts cannot be shown to exist, every conclusion must be held as invalid.

  6. d brown says:

    If you think there is something, you find it.

  7. MadScientist says:

    Of course ghosts exist. In my line of work I routinely study ghosts of circular and rectangular apertures. Depending on the type of instrument I use and how well it is adjusted, it is possible to observe ghosts of ghosts. Ghosts of ghosts come in two types: symmetric and antisymmetric. Then of course there are the unrelated ghosts that were common on analog TVs – unfortunately they have been exterminated in many countries.

  8. karstensrage says:

    Replace “ghost” and “a ghost” with God and there you have it.

  9. Max says:

    Hehe, ghost of the gaps.

  10. Karl Withakay says:

    “d brown says:
    August 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    If you think there is something, you find it.”

    In other words: Seek, and ye shall find.

  11. Janet Camp says:

    Brian, you are too generous with your “it might be a ghost” even though you say (almost parenthetically) that is probably is not. Is this just a way to not be outright rude to simpletons or do you actually hold on to the idea that something unexplained could be a “ghost”–whatever a ghost is to begin with?

    • Well, I don’t call ghost believers simpletons… as I’ve written extensively, their brains are simply doing they evolved to do.

      I am confident ghosts do not exist, but that’s an opinion, not a scientific conclusion. That’s not a place science leads us. I will happily change my opinion if ghosts are discovered, but I expect it to happen just about as much as I expect a blue elephant to fly through the room.

  12. Onyango Makagutu says:

    What I like most here is what you say those who come to the conclusion it was a ghost deny themselves. They end midway of a beautiful journey to discover what lays deep in their psyche

  13. Phil says:

    One wonders if ghosts are incorporeal why they persist in moving in the same plane as humans. One also wonders if they are detected by simple electrical field detectors what is the source of energy which produced this phenomenon. Which organ in the body continues to produce electrical energy after death?

    • noen says:

      You’re not supposed to ask questions. You’re supposed to just believe.

    • Max says:

      Right, at least when ghosts are sensed by humans but not by instruments (as in “I see dead people”), it plays into the whole mind/body dualism, where your mind taps into the supernatural realm. But when they’re sensed by instruments and not by humans, how is that explained? I bet quantum physics gets thrown around.

  14. Dennis says:

    As a skeptic/non-believer,i have to ask these questions and hopefully you guys can give me a good scientific explanation/answer.

    Tonight I had dinner with my family in a town down in Owatonna, MN. We started talking about the minnesota state school for dependent and neglected children that is located there. My Uncle stated that he will not work there anymore due to the events that happened to him on the infamous 4th floor, so I asked him what happened and he responded that his tools he used would be thrown at him or would move…Yes I know Uncles are infamous for “telling stories” but why would he try to impress me, a 30 yr old male, with a ghost story. So after hearing a hand full of other stories my uncle has heard from other people who would do work at the school, I decided to look for more stories and show them to you good folk. Since I know you would understand why I find a need to get answers instead of just “believing” what I hear. Please read the following story from a book written about ghost stories relating to our state, Minnesota..

    Link: Go to page 46

    http://books.google.com/books?id=XZ_aTVyIbHoC&pg=PA46&lpg=PA46&dq=minnesota+state+school+for+dependent+and+neglected+children+haunted?&source=bl&ots=I74fFhH3Uz&sig=oENPV9SlrmYywwlyOnf02ZcUM-w&hl=en#v=onepage&q=minnesota%20state%20school%20for%20dependent%20and%20neglected%20children%20haunted%3F&f=false

    • Max says:

      “why would he try to impress me, a 30 yr old male, with a ghost story.”

      Why not? You sound impressed.

      • Dennis says:

        I’m interested. Any ideas on the story? Any explanations?

      • Max says:

        Who knows, maybe he’s just messing with you. Maybe he doesn’t want to tell you that he was fired. If he’s not making it up, then the next question is whether he actually saw tools moving by themselves, or if he just misplaced them, and later found them where he didn’t expect. And were the tools really thrown, or did they just fall?

      • Dennis says:

        He was fired? I’m sure my uncle would appreciate being told that he is no longer employed, since he still works for the same company. When I say he won’t work at that building anymore, I mean he won’t go back and work there because of the things he saw and what happened to him. I did ask him a bunch of questions about the tools because obviously objects don’t move without some sort of force acting upon it. I asked him if he saw tools move, and he responded, “yes, and they would move or be thrown in my direction.” I was obviously not there with him nor do I believe in ghosts/gods/aliens or anything without evidence to prove it’s existence, that’s why my curiosity drives me to find answers. Did you read the entire story?

    • Ray Butlers says:

      I hate to say it, but people lie over the dumbest stuff.

  15. Dennis says:

    Sorry, the story starts on Chapter 6: Owatonna, titled: Forget Us Not, on page 44.

  16. Denver jay says:

    i don’t know why the tools would move, but please go read number 4 again

    • Dennis says:

      I don’t know either. I’m not saying it’s a ghost, I’m just wondering how something like that would move. Do you have an idea?

      • Dave says:

        It sounds like a classic anxiety dream. Your uncle presumably knew the haunted reputation of that building(?) – have you considered the possibility that he had one or more anxiety dreams about it that had a sufficiently strong emotional impact that he misinterprets the memory of it/them as real events?

        Much of our everyday experience is encoded to memory during sleep, and I know from personal experience that mistakes can happen (although not usually with recent events).

      • Dennis says:

        Not sure. I too have had dreams that were so realistic that I couldn’t decipher between it really have happened or not. I wonder what the response from the lifeguard would be if we suggested that her experience may have been an anxiety from a strong dream. Strange stuff I guess. Who knows.

      • LovleAnjel says:

        We only have the lifeguard’s word that she was the only one in the building. She never actually went to see if anyone else was there.

        1. Someone else could have been there. Janitor finishing a shift by wiping down the machines?

        2. Banging pipes in the ceiling or walls – very heavy & metallic. Sounds like knocking or banging. During the day, this would be covered by the sound of the patrons.

  17. Taylor Bennett says:

    “Don’t look at the world through goggles that are broken. Instead, learn to say “I don’t know” and keep your goggles in one sound piece.”

    I agree with this article, but I don’t like this metaphor. It could be interpreted as saying “don’t entertain new ideas if they conflict with your established world-view.” The range of inexplicable and insufficiently explained phenomena known to current science is wide and rich. Any proper thinker and researcher would have goggles that, while not broken maybe, have many cracks and fissures that make the world look just a little off from what it really is. But like I said, I agree with what is being said here.

  18. Gary says:

    Ghosts, as usually described, are said to have contradictory properties: immaterial, and thus able to walk through walls and other solid objects, but also able to wield objects (e.g. rattle chains).

  19. Derek says:

    As a statement of casual conversation, why can’t we just say ghosts don’t exist? I mean come on. A line needs to be drawn somewhere. There is zero evidence for them and lots and lots of evidence against coming from psychology and basic common sense and humour too actually. I think sometimes we give too much credibility to that which isn’t dis-proven 100%. In the meantime, I don’t leave the possibility of ghosts open due to the complete lack of evidence. Sorry if that sounds close-minded but we have looked everywhere for them and they are not there.

  20. Henry Hawkins says:

    Ghost sightings are typically reported as a visual event, therefore ghosts must either reflect, refract, or emit light into the witness’s eyes for him to have seen it. Ghosts that are reported to make sounds must set, ahem, our dimension’s atmosphere in a wave to the witness’s ears, that it will be heard. Likewise through all the physical senses by which reporters witness ghosts. This, I think, kills the idea that ghosts are ‘paranormal’ or outside the purview of science. Of course, some believers will invoke essentially magical circumstances to get around the scientific problems, and little can be done by the rational to address that.

    The more productive vector is to consider what the putative existence of ghosts implies:

    1. The human soul or essense survives corporeal death; death is not final.

    2. When a loved one dies, it remains possible to continue contact; our most cherished relationships need never end – even if I (you) die.

    3. Given the dramatic themes that often attend ghost accounts, justice may be served post-mortem, often by said ghost. Revenge, too.

    4. The existence of ghosts confirms much religious doctrine; even a seeming confirmation of religious ideas that previously had to be taken on faith is powerful.

    The reader will think of other implications and together they provide some very powerful, heart-wrenching reasons for a leap-of-faith belief in ghosts. Emotional need is thrust between the ghost experience and, not one’s ability to reason, but one’s willingness to reason. Willful ignorance wins out over intellectual consistency when the motivations (rewards) are sufficient. The above list makes it so for many.

    The most cogent and effective arguments against the concept of ghosts have existed for centuries, but have had little effect over the prevalence of belief in ghosts. Individual ‘converts’ to scientific reason are common enough, but these are blades of grass to a thousand acre field. The great emotional value of ghost belief has not gone unnoticed by those who would exploit them, hence the psychics, palmists, seers, ghost hunters, and a media always ready to use it to raise hit and ad rates. There is also the factor found among those who witness ‘real’ UFOs, alien abductees, bigfoot witnesses, etc. – that so many of them feel very special to have been chosen or honored with their unique and rare experience. Then too, the average Joe has little chance of being asked for an on-air TV interview – until he reports a UFO. This too is very powerful stuff.

    For these reasons and many others, the belief in ghosts, born outside of reason, is ultimately immune to reason.
    ————————————————–

    An aside…. I have a way of discerning between two basic types of paranormalists:

    1. The ‘believer’ – Believes in ghosts (or UFOs, bigfoot, etc.), but hasn’t the skeptical skill set necessary to prevent or overturn the belief, nor does he have the insight that he hasn’t the skill set. Offered without condescension or abuse, this type of believer is amenable to new info, better reasoning technique, and skeptical methodology.

    2. The ‘bleever’ – Believes in ghosts (or UFOs, etc.), hasn’t the skeptical skill set necessary to prevent or overturn the belief, nor does he have the insight that he hasn’t the skill set, BUT.. will adamantly refuse to hear new info, better reasoning technique, or skeptical methodology. The bleever throws up impenetrable barriers the instant he realizes one is out to question his belief.

    • Ever The Great Fool says:

      A good blog post, as well as an informative reply. I agree wholeheartedly with both of these posts, but I take a much stronger stance against the existence of ghosts.

      Personally, I think that people believe ghosts exist because of fear that borders on paranoia; the simple act of believing that ghosts exist can alter an individual’s perspective so drastically that things are believed to exist when they don’t. I’ve taken a midnight walk with a friend around an unlit cemetery before, and at first, I felt scared because, even though I believed there weren’t ghosts, at the same time, I was unable to prove that ghosts really didn’t exist; what if there really were ghosts? However, once I managed to subdue my fear, all the nauseating feelings bated, and the cemetery felt deserted and devoid of anything spiritual as it really was.

      In the end, the purported ghosts that I was feeling were all in my psyche, and non-existent. Nonetheless, I still haven’t found concrete proof that ghosts cannot exist, so I can’t really rest easy just yet.

  21. Josh says:

    Brian, when you said how “There is no theory in any life science that makes a prediction that ghosts exist.” I don’t really think that is a good enough reason of why Ghost don’t exist. How come so many people can believe in God who is apparenly way up in the clouds or where ever people think he is when we have no actual proof he even exist? We have A LOT of videos and recordings of paranormal events that have occured and yet people are still sceptital about if Ghosts exist? People need to open up their minds I tink and accept that Ghosts and spirits DO exist because we DO have proof. I guess it’s just the persons choice to decide if they want to believe it though. But all I’m saying is it’s funny how we can believe they’re are angels, a God and a place called Hell and Heaven and yet there’s NO proof of any of that. Yea we have all these trees and what not but do we ACTUALLY know how they got here and how we got here? No, were just going off of whats been being told for so long and we believe it because it’s from a book that was apparently made a very long time ago. Oh and don’t get me wrong I like to believe there is a God and a Heaven. :)

  22. Keith says:

    I am in the same boat as you. To me it is trying to find the reason for something. I attend many ghost hunts with my partner and I am also known as Mr Skeptic in our groups. Don’t get me wrong I would love to be proved wrong one day but although I have seen and heard things I can’t explain I still remain a skeptic.

    Regards…. Keith
    http://www.DoGhostsExist.org

  23. mike says:

    @ josh
    “Yea we have all these trees and what not but do we ACTUALLY know how they got here and how we got here?” yes we do its called the big bang and evolution

  24. Ryan says:

    I agree that vigorous skepticism is necessary but not to a point where it holds back progress in the name of science.

    It’s very easy to say that something doesn’t exist end of story. But sometimes as a skeptic you have to look carefully at your own explanations as to why something unusual happened. In a lot of cases a skeptics seemingly logical conclusion is just as unlikely as the ghost conclusion. Most common explanations being “you must have just imagined it” or “you told lies for kicks”. Honestly how likely is it that most of these people are doing the above?

    By listing numbered points above you have tried to sound logical but:

    #2 is wrong. Here are some ghost Adjectives : invisible, cold, white, scary etc.
    #3 is illogical. There are lots of established real things/events that cannot be reproduced. That does not mean they are not likely to exist. How many boson particles did you see flying around a few years back?

    The rest of your numbered points seem pretty well founded. Although the problem to me is that some skeptics believe everything that happens can be explained by a known science. In point #7 you say this yourself but this is an unkindness that skeptics do to themselves. You are basically saying that this phenomena is not a “ghost” it’s unknown but an elimination of causes can never logically leave an “unknown”.
    Yes it can.

  25. Bob Bencini says:

    BRIAN DUNNING, Aug 30 2012 Says
    “There has never been a reproducible ghost event. This makes it unlikely that the perceived phenomenon was a real one.”

    I do not believe anyone really reads these blogs. And the people that write that they are men of science and do not believe in Ghosts are not part of our world at all. I would imagine that if you could find one reproducible Ghost event, it would hold the statement untrue?
    Of course there have been many and one could make a very large list but lets call out one. Henry S. Olcott book, “People from Other World,” (America Publishing Co., 1875) clearly this is an example showing that the Eddy brothers repeated the reproducible ghost event, seven days a week, year after year. How people have come from all over the world and dissected their building/farm to show that they are a fake and walked away believing. They did it for free. They never became rich, it was open to the world. They did it outside of their farm and inside the house. This event was also visited by Madame Blavatsky (and many others including the Shakers) and although she could never conjure up a Ghost (Although she tried to get people to believe she could), we can thank these old farmers, the Eddy Brothers for the Theosophical Society and many other groups because people could see it was real. Created faith around it.
    OF course one also has to talk about Harry Houdini who spent his life trying to show these things were no real. (A man of Science.) Houdini offered a number of magicians #1,000 to expose a photo taken of the body of Mrs. McVickers, no one accepted. (Strange story, look it up.) Houdini was determined to expose all mediums and Spiritualists as frauds. No one today remembers that in 1923 the Scientific American Magazine offered $2,500 to Mina Crandon but Houdini found out and for his personal fame, tried very hard to prove she was a fake,so she would not get the money, and Houdini was caught putting a piece of rubber against a bell clapper(Along with other things) so the ghost could not ring the bell. Houdini’s assistant said later that he had been instructed to place it there in case Houdini could not find another way to prove she was a fraud. It turns out Houdini and his assistant had been working together with regards to destroying the Spiritualist. Houdini recovered but Mrs. Crandon did not get the money. So where do you stand with Ghosts? We do not know what they are or how it happens, they may not be from dead people but may be something else. But historically there is much on it or we would not be writing about it here.

  26. Eva says:

    This made me think about an arguement I had with my brother not too long ago about ghosts and such. He is a major skeptic, no matter what you say or show him he stubbornly refuses to believe even as evidence is shown right in front of his face. We got into a debate about God and ghosts. He said that the main proof that God exists is the bible, which made me scoff a litttle. Bible was writen by man, not god. There is no other physical proof (if the bible even counts) that god exists, yet people run on blind faith about hhim every day. No that I don’t believe in God, but there is more proof that spirits and ghosts exist than gd and heaven; I’m nottrying to sway anyone or turn their beliefs, I respect the skeptics and their right to be skeptics. I just want to point that out.

  27. adrian says:

    Go to a legit psychic and you will have no explanation. Some things can’t be explained, I believe only certain people have the ability to see ghosts. It depends on your own spirit. I have never seen one, but living in a “haunted house” as a kid and “haunted apartment” as an adult has made me a believer. I question the existence of spirits and god all the time. So foe the person who wrote this, i’m sorry, but you will have a rude awakening with a ghost experience. Maybe tomorow or 20 years. But like I said, some people do not have the spiritual capacity to see or be contacted.

  28. halina says:

    this is really good writing thing only

  29. medic says:

    I find your sober take so refreshing in a world over run with frenetic fanatics. However, I find it kind of sad that you ignore the possibility that everything in this world can and should be understood by us in our current state of evolution. Ghosts and ancestor worship have existed since the begining of recorded history and perhaps should be classed as a source of faith rather than scientific inquiry. After all “there is more to heaven and earth than can be explained by your philosophy horatio.”

  30. Jim says:

    It’s difficult to prove a negative which makes it difficult to address this question, the existence of God, or of anything that can’t be seen, felt, touched, recorded, or captured. Ghost hunters who are too quick to come to the conclusion that a phenomena is produced by a ghost do the field a disservice. But, it’s equally wrong to dismiss the possibility out of hand. We are a culture, perhaps a species, that dislikes ambiguity. We have to know the answers to everything. I remember a quote from Carl Sagan late in his life when he was asked about his religious beliefs compared to his scientific beliefs. His elegant answer was simply to say that he found that as he got older, he became more tolerant of ambiguity. He simply didn’t need to know the answer to everything. Too often, skeptics are seen as disbelievers, out to shoot down the beliefs of others. A skeptic is just skeptical, that’s all.

  31. jay says:

    As a person who has seen multiple ghost growing up my answer is no..why did i say no? cause i believe the mind is a pc if u program it to believe in something u will eventually see it