The logical paradox of ghost hunting

paradox inception meme Arthur Joseph Gordon-LevitMany people believe in the paranormal, and a great deal of time and effort is spent searching for evidence of it. Indeed, shows like “Ghost Hunters” are extremely popular, and the notion of using scientific equipment to detect the supernatural is well ingrained into our literature, movies, and culture more generally. The reality is, however, the ghost hunting is a perfect case study in pseudoscience, and it is based on a series of logical fallacies and amusing paradoxes.

Most obviously, ghost hunting (along with related pseudoscientific ventures such as UFO spotting, searches for Big Foot and Nessy, Creation Research, etc.) suffers a serious flaw which automatically removes it from the realm of science. Namely, it starts with a conclusion (i.e., ghosts exist), then tries to prove that conclusion. In contrast, real science always starts with the evidence, then forms a conclusion based on that evidence. This distinction is extremely important, because  if you start with a conclusion, you will inevitably find a way to twist the evidence to fit your preconceived view, even if it results in ad hoc fallacies. For example, suppose that ghost hunters go into an abandoned building and detect electromagnetic energy (EM). They will view that as evidence of a supernatural presence, but to those of us who aren’t already convinced that ghosts exist, that energy could be a bad wire, a faulty transformer outside, the cameras, lights,and other equipment being used by the ghost hunters, etc. You see, the explanation that the energy is coming from a ghost is only convincing if you are already convinced that ghosts exist. This is why real science always has to start with the evidence, then form a conclusion. If you set out to prove something, you will always find a way to do it (at least in your mind).

Ghost hunting also suffers a serious paradox which is somewhat unique to it, and which I find highly entertaining. Ghosts are supposed to be paranormal, supernatural, metaphysical, etc. yet ghost hunters try to document their existence by looking for physical clues. This is problematic because, by definition, science is the study of the physical universe. It is inherently incapable of answering questions about the supernatural. So anytime that you are looking for the metaphysical, you are automatically doing pseudoscience, not science.

aliensTo put this another way, you cannot prove the existence of the metaphysical by documenting the physical. Let’s say, for example, that a ghost hunter goes into a room and documents an EM field, strange thermal readings, a garbled voice recording, etc. Further, let’s say that this was in an isolated area and somehow the “researcher” had accounted for all known sources of energy. Would he have just succeeded at proving the existence of the supernatural? NO! Because he document physical readings. All that he would have shown was that something happened that we don’t currently understand. You cannot jump from “we don’t understand X” to “X is caused by ghosts.” That’s a logical fallacy known as an argument from ignorance.

This is the hilarious paradox that entertains me to no end: if supernatural ghosts exist, then they are, by definition, untestable using science. Thus, using scientific equipment to look for ghosts is inherently self defeating!

We basically have three possibilities:

  1. Ghosts don’t exist
  2. Supernatural ghosts do exist, but cannot be tested using science
  3. “Ghosts” exist, but are a actually natural, physical phenomena, in which case they can be documented using science

There is no option 4 in which supernatural ghosts exist and can be documented using physical means. That’s just not possible. If ghosts are supernatural, then their existence cannot be demonstrated using science, and conversely, if their existence can be demonstrated using science, then they aren’t supernatural. If you document an unexplained physical clue, then all that you can say is, “we don’t understand this.” You cannot assume that the physical clue was caused by the metaphysical. Indeed, if you think through the history of science, there have been numerous physical phenomena that were attributed to the supernatural before we properly understood them.

Additionally, there is the paradoxical nature of ghosts hunter’s equipment. The equipment that they use to “detect” ghosts is generally designed by them and is based on question begging fallacies. For example, ghost hunters generally argue that ghosts put off an EM field which their equipment can detect, and we can set up their argument like this:

  1. Ghosts emit an EM field
  2. I can detect a ghost’s EM field using this device I built
  3. I went into an abandoned house and detected an EM field
  4. Therefore, a ghost was present

The problem is premises 1 and 2. I would not accept that ghosts put off a detectable EM field unless I was already convinced that ghosts exist. In other words, before you can use an EM field as evidence of a ghost, you have to demonstrate that ghosts put off EM fields, but you can’t demonstrate that ghosts put off EM fields, unless have already demonstrated that ghosts exist! Round and round in a circle we go.

In short, ghost hunting is inherently self defeating because it starts by assuming that ghosts exist and because no amount of physical evidence can ever demonstrate the existence of the metaphysical. To demonstrate the existence of the metaphysical, you would need metaphysical evidence, which science cannot supply for you. So if you want to believe in the supernatural, you are going to have to do exactly that: believe. You cannot, even in concept, support your belief with physical evidence.

ghost hunters

This is only tangentially related to my post, but it’s amusing and demonstrates another reason why ghost hunting is pure crap. I’m not sure who made it, so if it is yours please let me know.





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13 Responses to The logical paradox of ghost hunting

  1. Alex says:

    Thank you for the article. Very interesting. There are many things science is as of yet unable to explain. You wrote:” So anytime that you are looking for the metaphysical, you are automatically doing pseudoscience, not science.” Why? By your own definition, science is the study of the physical universe and categorize anything falling in the metaphysical realm as “pseudo”. Why would it be labeled false science when science itself is the wrong tool to use?


    • Fallacy Man says:

      I’m not sure that I understand your inquiry. Attempting to use science to look for the metaphysical is a false science precisely because science is the wrong tool. Science is inherently incapable of answering questions about the metaphysical; therefore, if you claim that you are using science to look for the metaphysical, you are inherently doing pseudoscience.


      • Alex says:

        I concur with the semantics comment below. If the law of conservation of energy (closely related to the first law of thermodynamics) telling us that energy cannot be neither created nor destroyed but only changed in form, then by definition you are studying the metaphysical or supernatural or paranormal in any chemistry.
        If energy can’t be created then how did it come to be in the first place?

        Since we live within the boundaries of the physical universe (matter, energy space and time) Any attempt to study anything observed or perceived as observed has to be done, at least started from, a physical universe perspective


        • Fallacy Man says:

          I truly do not understand how you have reached the conclusion that the study of chemistry is the study of the metaphysical/paranormal/supernatural. All of those are, by definition, the study of things that are not physical, i.e., not made of energy or matter. Whereas chemistry is, by definition, the study of matter (i.e., chemicals are physical objects). We have never confirmed the existence of anything that qualifies as supernatural, metaphysical, etc.

          Regarding the origins of matter, that is something that we still do not understand, but you absolutely cannot say, “we don’t understand it, therefore it is supernatural.” That’s an argument from ignorance fallacy. This isn’t semantics, its a basic application of the rules of logic.


  2. bbnewsab says:

    Reblogged this on Mass Delusions a.k.a. Magical & Religious Woo-Bullshit Thinking and commented:
    Mort of us know – and it’s reiterated over and over again by true woo bullshit believers – that supernatural phenomena can’t be tested or measured the same way as is the case for natural physical phenomena, because supernatural energy emanating from the spiritual world doesn’t behave the same way as energy from the real physical world does.

    Supernatural energy always hides from such equipment that is used to detect and measure “natural” energy.

    This is as plain as a pikestaff. *Shush, don’t question this woo-ish claim, or else you risk becoming insane; it’s not worth it, unless you intend to become a woo yourself.*

    So instruments and gadgets used to measure physical phenomena are worthless to use if you are aiming at detecting/measuring the supernatural, for example ghosts and other purely spiritual beings/entities/energy fields.

    Yet we can see/hear/read almost daily that ghostbusters use scientific tools in their search for ghosts.

    How come? Why is it so?

    This 64,000 US dollar question is a real logical one since it’s building on so illogical woo premises.

    The blogger himself prefers to call it a logical paradox. That’s very kind and humble by him, because some true woo believers can thereby misunderstand the whole thing and instead interpret that term (“logical paradox”) as evidence of something worth being considered as useful and taken seriously although it’s just ordinary woo bullshit.

    You need not be blind in order to not seeing that. It’s enough if you’re a woo.

    Woo-ish true believers won’t see anything contradictory at all by using scientific equipment to detect ghosts.

    This talented blogger, whose post I’m now reblogging, claims that the tradition to use scientific equipment to look for ghosts is inherently self defeating! He is so right.

    According to this blogger we basically have the following three possibilities:

    1. Ghosts don’t exist

    2. Supernatural ghosts do exist, but cannot be tested using science

    3. “Ghosts” exist, but then that must mean they are natural, not supernatural, physical phenomena, and that claim is proved by the fact that the ghosts can be documented using science apparatuses.


  3. SubGothius says:

    When I was on a paranormal investigations team informed by academic methods, the whole point of using EM meters, ion detectors, compasses, etc. was to measure environmental factors that are known to produce phantom sensations/perceptions in the human brain and nervous system, so those factors could be ruled in or out as contributing to any reported phenomena at the site. We’d even discussed creating a “synthetic haunted house” deliberately deploying such stimuli for entertainment and demonstration purposes.

    Unfortunately, other more credulous groups came along and started copying the methods of academic paranormal investigators without understanding the reasons for them and, finding anomalous readings where paranormal phenomena were reported or experienced, mistakenly attributed the readings as “detecting ghosts” rather than detecting mundane phenomena which can produce the illusion of ghostly presences.


    • Fallacy Man says:

      An “academic paranormal investigator” is an oxymoron. As I at least attempted to explain in this post, there is no possible way, even in concept, to scientifically test the paranormal because science is, by definition, the study of the physical universe. Its simply not possible to use physical evidence as support for the metaphysical.


      • Steve Peterson says:

        I believe that you are getting a little caught up in semantics. While I can agree with your idea of investigators being biased (both for the existence of phenomenon and against it also as many investigators are skeptics trying to prove theories.) most people today prefer the term paranormal to supernatural because this field deals in things beyond the normal. Once evidence has been established it is no longer paranormal it would be considered knowable.


        • SubGothius says:

          Indeed, this semantic-paradox line of argument seems to be begging the question and setting up a straw-man caricature of serious paranormal research; it presumes that paranormal/metaphysical phenomena are not in any way physical, thus any attempts to study such phenomena by empirical means are foolish because no such empirical evidence exists, therefore such phenomena are imaginary (i.e., not in any way physical).

          Aside from credulous amateurs and reality-TV entertainers, serious academic parapsychological researchers such as Drs. William Roll and Gary Schwarz do not presume or define paranormal phenomena to be non-physical; they seek physical and psychological explanations for phenomena which have heretofore, perhaps mistakenly, been characterized as metaphysical — i.e., the whole point is to identify what “metaphysical” phenomena may actually be physical in nature and just poorly understood, a pursuit consistent with the entire history of empirical science.


          • Fallacy Man says:

            This is not a minor semantic point. It’s an absolutely critical one. If you want to study an unexplained physical phenomena, that’s fine, and you can do that within the confines of science, but the instant that you start looking for an answer that isn’t physical, you are no longer doing science. Terms like “paranormal,” “supernatural,” and “metaphysical” by definition refer to things that are not physical, and therefore cannot be studied by science.

            Now, if you want to say that “ghosts” are actually physical phenomena, then you could, in concept, attempt to study them, but at that point there would be no reason to study them as “ghosts.” In other words, you could ask a question like, “what did someone see in this house?” but there would be absolutely no reason to think that it was some for of disembodied spirit. You would be trying to study a physical phenomena that is so detached from the typical image of a ghost that it is no longer recognizable as such.


  4. Cleon W. ross says:

    very nice article, as usual I think


  5. Richie says:

    I enjoyed the article and share your frustration. I am a sceptic who has happened to have experienced unexplained phenomena. My Grandfather and I witnessed a UFO from his back garden during a particularly intense sunset. Neither of us has claimed to have seen an alien spacecraft. I previously suffered from sleep paralysis with terrible succubus-type nightmares. These were very disturbing for me until I realised that I could actually induce the nightmare. I had been reading the moth man prophecies which discusses the Wednesday phenomenon (a claim that most paranormal reports are made on a Wednesday evening) and hypnotic hallucination. Sure enough that evening (a wednesday) I had another sleep paralysis event involving a dark shadow visiting my bed and attempting to choke me. This time there was a blinking light on the ‘entity’ s face. After the nightmare I had realised that researching this type of nightmare had led me down a path that had exposed me to more paranormal trash which had furthered my state of anxiety about the dreams. This had influenced my dreams and since that realisation I have attributed the ‘encounters’ to mere tricks of the mind and have never since had one. It may be disappointing for some but I suspect all paranormal events are explicable and are either psychological or have unidentified physical causes.


    • clanton1934 says:

      As you well know, much to my puzzlement and chagrin, the community of people that I grew up in, are believers. At least 50% of people in the US believe in angels and ghosts.
      One sees billboard advertisements for seances and palm readers. There is a prevalent sign which is a big red hand [palm]; a sign which does not require the ability to read. RED =
      the past tense of read; the hand meaning palm of hand. So the illiterate can find their way to the “Fortune-tellar” who will relieve the dupe of $5 to more. This reader requires no knowledge or training. I suspect the human “believing brain” is going to require many more Centuries to shed this primitive characteristic.


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