The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Physics Proves the Existence of Ghosts?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 24, 2011

I’ve blogged here before about “professional” ghost-hunters and their woo.  And in many cases I have taken such “professionals” to task for not really following any kind of decent, consistent protocols (such as knowing how their instrumentation works, duh) but instead favoring stories that seem to be a combination of the Blair-Witch Project and various kinds of techno-babble.  But now I just have to mention a couple of things about how many ghost-hunters just seem to get basic physics (pardon the pun) dead wrong.

My skeptical colleague Ben Radford recently wrote an article for LiveScience.com on this very point…

Do Einstein’s Laws Prove Ghosts Exist?

… Despite years of efforts by ghost hunters on TV and in real life, we still do not have good proof that ghosts are real. Many ghost hunters believe that strong support for the existence of ghosts can be found in modern physics. Specifically, that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, offered a scientific basis for the reality of ghosts. …

Now hold on a minute.  As we’ve seen before, it is not uncommon for pseudoscientists and cranks of all kinds to try glomming onto Einstein’s coat-tails as one of the most well-known and respected scientists of the 20th century as a way of trying to gain traction for their ideas.  It is as if they think that by simply invoking Einstein’s name and theories, despite the fact that they have no real understanding of those theories, that it will somehow, magically make them correct.  Of course, this simply displays a fundamental flaw in the thinking of ghost-hunters, because it shows they have no real knowledge of how science (much less physics) works.

Specifically, in this case the ghost-hunters are claiming that Einstein’s theory of relativity “proves” the existence of ghosts:

… For example, ghost researcher John Kachuba, in his book “Ghosthunters” (2007, New Page Books), writes, “Einstein proved that all the energy of the universe is constant and that it can neither be created nor destroyed. … So what happens to that energy when we die? If it cannot be destroyed, it must then, according to Dr. Einstein, be transformed into another form of energy. What is that new energy? … Could we call that new creation a ghost?”

This idea shows up — and is presented as evidence for ghosts — on virtually all ghost-themed websites as well. For example, a group called Tri County Paranormal states, “Albert Einstein said that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. When we are alive, we have electrical energy in our bodies. … What happens to the electricity that was in our body, causing our heart to beat and making our breathing possible? There is no easy answer to that.” … [emphasis added]

Actually, the answer is pretty easy, as long as you understand how energy is related to matter as outlined in Einstein’s theory.  It can all be summed up in what is probably the most well-known, but one of the least understood, equations in all of science…

E = mc2

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

… also known as the mass-energy equivalence formula. The equation basically states that matter is a form of energy, and it quantifies the amount of energy bound up in a certain amount of matter (if you want to calculate it, E stands for energy in Joules, m is mass in kilograms, and c is the speed of light – equal to about 300,000,000 meters/second).  We know this formula is an accurate representation of reality because we have performed numerous experiments where matter is annihilated into pure energy (and vice versa), which confirms this equation.  Not to mention, we have technology – such as nuclear power plants and PET scans – which operates based upon the physics summed up in this equation.

So when the ghost-hunters are talking about the “energy” of a person going off into some ethereal realm to form a ghost, I think they are simply making stuff up and abusing Einstein’s famous equation.  That’s because when someone dies, the matter (i.e. energy) forming the person’s body is simply redistributed when they decay away into the environment.  I like the way that Ben Radford puts it:

… After a person dies, the energy in his or her body goes where all organisms’ energy goes after death: into the environment. When a human dies, the energy stored in his or her body is released in the form of heat, and transferred into the animals that eat us (i.e., wild animals if we are left unburied, or worms and bacteria if we are interred), and the plants that absorb us. If we are cremated, the energy in our bodies is released in the form of heat and light.

When we eat dead plants and animals, we are consuming their energy and converting it for our own use. Food is metabolized when digested, and chemical reactions release the energy the animal needs to live, move, reproduce, etc. That energy does not exist in the form of a glowing, ghostly ball of electromagnetic energy, but rather in the form of heat and chemical energy.

Many ghost hunters say they can detect the electric fields created by ghosts. And while it’s true that the metabolic processes of humans and other organisms actually do generate very low-level electrical currents, these are no longer generated once the organism dies. Because the source of the energy stops, the electrical current stops — just as a light bulb turns off when you switch off the electricity running to it. …

Let’s think about it this way: if ghost-hunters were correct that a spiritual realm indeed exists and is populated by the “energy” given off by someone when they die (that is, ghosts being a manifestation of this “energy”), then this poses some pretty sticky questions for the ghost-hunters.  First, how much “energy” does it take to make a ghost?  And, in relation to this question, exactly how much matter from a dead body must be somehow annihilated to form this mysterious “ghost energy”, since we know that mass and energy are interchangeable?  And if, by some miracle, ghost-hunters actually are able to somehow quantify either of the above questions (they haven’t), do they have any way to empirically prove that 1) such a transfer of matter into pure energy indeed takes place and 2) provide an explanation for a physical mechanism which would facilitate such an transfer?

Not to mention, there are other problems.  For instance, if people keep dying and this keeps on generating ghosts and disembodied spirits formed out of “energy” which previously existed in the form of living beings, then eventually would we not have some kind of massive “energy crisis” with too much energy supposedly filling up the spiritual realm at the expense of the physical world?  And if this spirit world really is populated by “ghost energy”, wouldn’t all of the supposed interactions between ghosts and the physical world be generating a helluva lot of entropy, speeding up the onset of the heat death of the universe?!  Wow, and I thought dealing with the future production and distribution of oil was problematic!

In conclusion, it seems clear to me that when ghost-hunters try to talk physics, they just end up looking stupid.  They have nothing even closely resembling a coherent theory, they have no consistent protocols, they have no solid definitions (just try asking one of them to provide a clear-cut definition of a “ghost”!)  What they do have is over-active imaginations and over-blown stories which they think is all that is necessary to do science.  And science just doesn’t work that way.

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26 Responses to “Physics Proves the Existence of Ghosts?”

  1. [...] more here: Physics Proves the Existence of Ghosts? « The Skeptical Teacher Share and [...]

  2. Tom said

    Yeah well, they said Galileo was wrong too! (Kidding! Nice writeup Matt)

  3. Lenny said

    While I totally agree with the idea, I don’t think your line of thought will convince people. Mainly because they are talking about the energy in our brains. Sorry, English isn’t my native language, so I am fishing for the right words ATM. The EEG measures electrical activity in our brain. I think that it’s that energy they are talking about.

    While the answer remains the same (heat) I think that the line of thought is more important in this case. ;)

    Thanks for your blog,
    -Lenny

  4. brandy said

    I have a ghost following me its a good ghost

  5. hari said

    what about the animals

  6. Roger said

    “Ha HA Ha! Look at me! Im Laughing at you because you believe in ghosts!”….. Ok I understand Where you are comming from. I really really do. You have the inability to belive in something you cant experience with your 5 basic senses. I really do feel sorry for you, just because you are dogmatic. You choose not to believe in an afterlife because it (so far) cannot be proven. However it can not be dissproven. Instead of waisting you’re time making fun of people who are not so rooted in science, why dont you take some time to devlop a scientific way to disprove that a person’s conciousness does not carry on after death. While quantum mechanics says we should hae every reason to believe that it is not only possible, it is probable. I really dont mind skeptics, but i dont like the snide remarkes some of you make. Rather than trying to help educate in a constructive way, you put people down.

    By the way.. A ghost is the still existing conciousness of a person after they’re physical body passes on.

    I could talk about this all day, and throw soo many differnt things at you, but i have more important things to do. please, if you would like to discuss this more, feel free to email me.

    • HunterBuck said

      Nobody has to have to disprove anything. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim which in this case is an afterlife. If I told you I had an invisible gnome living in my ass you wouldn’t have to disprove it. Keep in mind that the more extraordinary the claim the more evidence you need. Evidence that will of course not be found because it doesn’t exist.

    • Jon A. said

      I was going to say exactly what HunterBuck said but he put the nail in the coffin, thank you. Since I don’t want to “WAIST” my time saying more, I’ll say this. please don’t ever go on all day about how you think a ghost is a still existing consciousness of a once physical person. I’m not sure how many of us could endure it that kind of torture.

  7. Mark B said

    Relying on Einstein to disprove ghosts is rather laughable for these and other reasons: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2094665,00.html

  8. synclaire said

    As far as physics, we are not even close to having a complete, understanding of our environment or the complexities of the universe and our relationship within it. We are only beginning to understand the relationship between consciousness and what we perceive as reality.
    In fact our science is in infancy. Today’s brightest hypothesis will be outdated hundreds of years from now.
    We don’t know everything and as long as we arrogantly cling to what we think we know there will not be any advancement in scientific understanding.

    • mattusmaximus said

      So your argument basically boils down to “we don’t know everything about physics, so therefore ghosts are real”. Well, by that ironclad reasoning, we’ve also just proved the existence of leprechauns :)

      • Mark B said

        The argument “we don’t know everything about physics so, therefore, ghosts are NOT real” is worse.

  9. Woody said

    It sounds like a bunch of subjective views being posted in these comments. People are trying to pretty-up their bias with ‘we can’t disprove that, therefore …
    This is a skeptical site, so rather than repeat description for the millionth time of how insisting that skeptics disprove a negative is a really lame and ineffective tactic, i’ll just say;
    Can’t prove, can’t disprove, so we dont know, have no idea except what the many passionate anecdotes tell us. The result for critical thinkers, rational types who don’t like to make stuff up is WE DON’T KNOW. Assume what you want about the fact that we can’t disprove, none of the assumptions is better than another if we have no consistant or even reliable authentic data to judge by. To me not knowing is a perfectly acceptable answer without raising a heap of boring, time-worn-myth material and expecting critical thinkers to take your words to heart.

    I had to get that off my chest, thank you all for reading.

  10. asha said

    dead bodies are convertd into chemical energy and are mixed up with soil …. is it not

    • Mark B said

      Ghosts are just a creation of the fake professionals? I wonder if God is just a creation of some religious nuts. In any case, disproving something by association is not a very strong argument.

  11. One thing that always annoys me about the skeptics and the scientists is their arrogance in assuming that all amateur paranormal investigators are gullible fools. My group is a hobby, but if anything I think we err on the side of skepticism. In 90% of the investigations we do, we get nothing, pro or con. In another 9%, we get results that can possibly be explained applying Occam’s Razor. If there is a possible natural explanation, however farfetched, we dismiss such data. But there’s still that 1% that leaves us wondering not easily explained. We are people of integrity, intelligent even if laymen, and generally well grounded in the sciences. We do not imagine ghosts around every corner.

    Skeptics should also be held to the maxim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” People have believed in ghosts since the beginning of time, and not all of them were superstitious, gullible fools. I for one would welcome a serious, well funded and and equipped investigation by experts in the sciences, especially physicists, skeptical going in but consciously shedding any overriding bias pro or con. But it seems all that we get is derision and flat denial–minus any attempt to gather objective data–that such phenomena exist.

    It may have been Roger Penrose (not sure about that) who said something like that anyone who claims to really understand quantum physics/theory is a liar.

    A lot of what quantum theory suggests in counterintuitive to say the least–the idea that something can be in two places at once, spooky action, etc. etc. I remember reading a book about black holes–according to the author, beyond the event horizon of such an object, the rules of physics we accept as immutable simply don’t apply. The title of that chapter was evocative if fanciful: “C’thulhu Exists.” My personal feeling is that as we advance in the sciences, scientists will be surprised to find that a lot of phenomena they currently dismiss as superstition are real. If multiple universes do exist, each with their own “immutable” laws of physics, ghosts may simply be the inhabitants of the next universe over accidently manifesting themselves in ours in a way currently unexplanable. Nor does this, in my opinion, preclude the existence of a God/Supreme Being/Creator.

    Perhaps the ultimate skeptic put it best–” I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” – J. B. S. Haldane

    • Mark B said

      Yes, Jerry, well said. You mentioned quantum theory and that reminded me statements in the very accessible book, “The Strange Theory of Light and Matter” by Richard Feynman, I read currently. As of today, nobody is able to explain why and how the light interacts with glass as it does in spite it can be presented in simple experiments. In fact, such a fundamental dilemma makes any person stating “when ghost-hunters try to talk physics, they just end up looking stupid” sounds equally inadequate as somebody saying “spooky action at distance is impossible because I do not understand it”. BTW, do you have any website for your group?

  12. vivek said

    if you want to know whether ghost exist o nt kum to mayung assam india…ul knw da real thing there

  13. Daynon Thiessen said

    1 question although this makes perfect sense the 1 thing I’ve never heard people talk about is the essence of the soul. If we are just matter and energy do we all NOT have souls? I believe that when certain individuals whom have had near death experiences say they see a white light, I believe this “light” is the speed of the soul transferring through the atmosphere to… Somewhere I don’t know, and then refreshed and pushed again to find a new vessel(body). The idea of “ghosts” comes into play with the souls that did not manage to make it off the planet and are stuck in a replay of what happened before they died. There is lots of things we don’t know and probably shouldn’t.

  14. Spiralina said

    “For instance, if people keep dying and this keeps on generating ghosts and disembodied spirits formed out of “energy” which previously existed in the form of living beings, then eventually would we not have some kind of massive “energy crisis” with too much energy supposedly filling up the spiritual realm at the expense of the physical world? ”

    There is actually a pretty creepy (and good) Japanese horror movie called “Kairo” that deals with this exact question. But yeah, this theory sounds bogus to me. I’m open minded to the possibility of a spiritual world existing, but I highly doubt it will ever be “proven” with science since by definition it’s not physically measurable.

  15. Dfaux said

    The site is called SKEPTICALTEACHER… hence it was started for the SKEPTICS to voice their opinions… feel free to explain with facts any beliefs in ghosts but I do not see how anyone can bitch about skeptical replies or rants when they are on a site for SKEPTICS!!! If this were a site called GHOSTSCIENCE then I might say otherwise ;-)

    • Woody said

      Well said, Dfaux, I’ve been bothered before by people’s arrogant views against skeptics for sharing their views on a sceptical site, then roll their same old story which is supported only by magical supposition and expecting critical thinkers to take their magical stories seriously. It’s good to read your view and I wish that the gullible, believing, skeptic-hating trolls could even understand what you are saying.

      P.S. Where better to share my views, there are about a billion sites that coddle the believers, can’t we appreciated others views too? Their views may or may not be like mine, but I have as much right as they do to voice my thoughts and where better than ‘The Skeptical Teacher’ ?

      • eworkflow said

        For some, however, that “bitching” you relate to, might be grounded in a fundamental philosophical position which states, in the most concise way I can think of, that skepticism does not guarantee accuracy. I can’t even attempt to explain it better than Thomas Reid in the Inquiry into the Human Mind:

        “It is obvious that the natural outcome of this system is scepticism with regard to everything except the existence of our ideas and of the necessary relations amongst them that
        appear when we compare them: because from ideas are the only objects of thought, and ideas have no existence except when we are conscious of them, it necessarily follows that no object of our thought can have a continued and permanent existence. We have been accustomed to regarding body and mind, cause and effect, time and space, as existing independently of our thought; but they are all turned out of existence by this short dilemma: Either these things are ideas of sensation or reflection, or they are not; if they are, they can can’t exist except when we are conscious of them; if they are not, they are words without any meaning.”

  16. physicist said

    WOW I cant believe how stupid this argument is … yes Einstein did state that energy conserves in our universe.. do u even know what energy is? Energy is not “in our body” like a supposedly a “SOUL”.energy is nothing near soul. Energy that humans have is contained in chemical form so its part of our body. These chemical dont disappear when u die. They stay in u. Think about it. If u die and a lion eats u then that lion will obtain energy. According to u that lion wont obtain energy by eating the corpse hahaha. Reason why we arent conscious and mobile is because molacular structure of the brain changes when blood circulation gets impeded which makes u loose consciousness. Cant believe there r ppl reading this and thinking its logical.

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