When asked if the church has a position on ghosts during the 2016 Christmas episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage, the Bishop of Leeds replied that ‘Christian theology says reality goes beyond what you can simply measure and see and what is – which is why we’ve talked before about how science can address the questions of how and what but not the meaning questions such as why. So, reality has to go beyond simply what you can measure and what you can see … I think theology takes seriously that there’s a huge dimension beyond what is simply physical.’
This is a claim that many involved in paranormal research make too and it’s a statement that lacks any substance, really. If we have to take seriously that what we research exists beyond the physical this suggests that, as we can’t measure it, we just have to accept that it might be true. It is like the biggest get out clause ever when it comes to owning the burden of proof with paranormal claims you make and is right up there with “I know what I saw,” and “some things have to be believed to be seen.” At the same time, it’s also an approach to tangible evidence that seems to divide ghost researchers, many of whom use equipment that takes measurements beyond what the human body is able to sense and present this data as evidence of the spiritual existing in the homes of experiencees.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who was also a guest for this episode, touched upon this indirectly when he pointed out that ‘our five senses are by modern standards of scientific measurement some of the most feeble data taking devices there ever was, so when someone says they have a sixth sense, I can walk in as a scientist and say I have a dozen senses – I have methods of detecting infrared, UV rays, x-rays, gamma rays, polarisation, gravity vectors, ionising radiation… There are all manner of things going on around you that your senses are oblivious to and science has access to them, so for science, it’s never about the human sensory system because it only really becomes science after you’ve replaced the human sensory system with apparatus that can make objective measurements.’
He is correct, of course, except that it’s vital to acknowledge that when it comes to alleged paranormal experiences that were not captured on any kind of recording device, the only data we have is anecdotal data. Anecdotes are not evidence but paranormal researchers often have to start by focussing on the human sensory system and how it may have caused the experience. We also have to consider the problems with memory recollection, too. Humans have awful memories and are generally just rubbish at interpreting what they see, hear, smell, feel etc.
The Bishop of Leeds responded to Tyson by pointing out that as humans are involved in the measurements that Tyson has mentioned they can bias the results.
This is true when it comes to ghost hunters using infrared cameras, electromagnetic field detectors, ion detectors and similar equipment in a way that backs up their hypothesis that there’s a ghost hanging around. They are taking scientific equipment and using it incorrectly as a bias-confirming tool. It is also true that in science there is always a risk of human bias or contamination of this nature but as Tyson pointed out, ‘I can have a device that measures Infrared and reports that to me in a way that my senses have access to, yes, I get that. But I can set it up in a way that reduces the likelihood that my senses will misinterpret what’s happening and science is about minimising the chance that your senses are the only data taking device around and to the extent that we have succeeded at that, that has produced the entire industrial revolution and all the modern things we enjoy and love and experience in modern life.’
‘So, when someone says “oh, we admit some existence beyond your senses” I got that [measurements beyond senses] and yet we don’t find ghosts. So, you now have to say beyond our senses AND beyond all the scientific apparatus that measures things that the human physiology cannot so that makes it less tenable to me that what you want or expect there to exist beyond someone’s sensory experience is some spirituality that is beyond the access of our machines or tools.’
He added, ‘with our without our senses we measure things. I cannot assert and will not assert that everything that can possibly happen in the universe is accessible to our apparatus today or tomorrow. All I can say is that every time someone thinks something spiritual is going on it succumbs to the application of the methods and tools of science that decode the thing that was previously spiritually presumed.’