Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Human Senses and Ghosts

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.’


About Hayley Stevens 426 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

4 Comments on Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Human Senses and Ghosts

  1. As a retired engineer who’s field of expertise was the control of indoor environments for specialised buildings such as computer centres, pharma research, nuclear fallout shelters, etc., I watch and read the ridiculous claims of paranormal researchers in the built environment. The instrumentation often used is totally bogus, technocrap for the gullible who are easily parted from their hard earned cash. The language used to sell this stuff if laughable for anyone with a reasonable knowledge of electronics and instrumentation. What these ‘experts’ ‘feel’ in the built environment can be explained through both physical and psychological knowledge available to all with a bit of training and effort (MOOC’s are very good for getting to the facts of things and they are online for free). An open mind and good dose of commonsense usually resolve most UGA’s, Unknown Ghostly Apparitions, the rest some factual knowledge about the built environment and how it constantly changes through the day and seasons.

  2. What we call ghosts (and for that matter, all species of anomalous phenomena) are by definition manifesting in our reality – otherwise we would know nothing about them. Whether we investigate a phenomenon with our senses or with scientific apparatus, we are by definition investigating that aspect of it that manifests in our reality. Even if we could routinely document ghostly manifestations, we would be documenting whatever had manifested in our reality; we would not have explained ghosts or identified their source. I would argue that we HAVE pretty convincingly documented ghostly manifestations, both through the most unimpeachable photographs and through tens of thousands of reliable reports (some involving multiple witnesses). This evidence – and, yes, tens of thousands of reliable anecdotal reports most certainly DO constitute a body of evidence – is bolstered by similar evidence of apparitions, deathbed visions, after-death communications and similar phenomena suggesting the survival of consciousness after death. Survival is not the only explanation, of course, but the phenomena themselves are well-established. They do not, alas, perform on cue, which is why science finds them maddening.

    Christian theology is predicated on a reality completely outside of our reality – a reality that will never be susceptible to scientific investigation regardless of how sophisticated the scientific apparatus might become. It is not talking about a “higher” reality we might one day “reach” with better science, but a completely different reality. Yes, Christian theology does allow for godly, angelic and demonic influences and manifestations in our reality – apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example – but even if we could scientifically document these (see the photographs associated with the BVM in Zeitoun, Egypt, for example), we would be documenting only the aspect manifestating in our reality. A clear-as-day photo of the BVM, or an analysis of the physical composition of the apparition, would tell us nothing about the source or meaning of the apparition. At least insofar as Christian theology is concerned, we are not talking about a realm that exists “beyond our senses” but “completely outside our reality.”

    “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.” So what does this even mean? I believe it is beyond dispute that we DO find ghosts – just not as easily or predictably as Tyson would like. But even if we didn’t, who cares whether this makes Christian theology “less tenable” to Tyson? He is really doing nothing more than restating the axiom of naturalism that “There is nothing beyond what science can now measure or will eventually be able to measure, and that’s all there is to it.” OK, that’s your axiom – it’s not the axiom of Christian theology.

    • No, Lance, we have not ‘pretty convincingly documented ghostly manifestations’ and I think that your comments that anecdotes are evidence suggest that your threshold for evidence is pretty low. How can you just ignore all of the issues with eye-witness testimony so easily? You also say ‘why science finds them maddening’, which is weird because it sounds as though you’re talking about science as though it is a singular thing. This, to me, says that you’re invested in the “them vs. us” approach to belief. You also say that Tyson is restating the axiom of naturalism when he actually literally said:

      ‘I cannot assert and will not assert that everything that can possibly happen in the universe is accessible to our apparatus today or tomorrow. ‘

  3. I saw a ghost one time. I was completely sober and healthy. I was awake, but in bed and the room was semi dark. I looked over to the corner of the room and moon light was coming in from the open window a few feet from that corner. Very quickly the shadows that I saw became a form to my mind. The being was old looking and when I realized that this was a fully formed being of some sort I yelled out. The expression on the beings face became very distressed. We both scared each other. In a instant the being seemed to dissolve and rush out the window as smoke might. I think very logically and value the scientific approach to reasoning, I am an atheist as well and still am. I was measurably awake for this experience and it was very vivid. If my mind created the form of the ‘ghost being’ then it must be creating the form of every human being day to day in the same way. Of all phenomena. In any case I consider my experience as mundane and unimportant. How we use our minds to generate compassion toward each other is the most important super mundane experience. This has been my thinking so far.

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