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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, October 31, 2014

An Unconvincing Explanation for Ghosts

Today is Halloween, so my topic is predictable: ghosts. 

A few days ago the British newspaper The Independent had an article entitled Do you believe in ghosts? Leading psychologist claims it's 'all in the brain.' The article then discussed the views of Christopher French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at the University of London. French champions the theory that ghost sightings are caused by psychological issues in those who report the sighting.

French is not actually a “leading psychologist” in the sense of being well known. He is the only professor in his Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, whose staff consists only of himself, a research assistant, and some PhD students. French founded the unit himself. Judging from the front web page of the unit's web site, this particular academic unit seems to be basically a kind of ideological arm designed to support Professor French's skeptical prejudices. The third paragraph of the unit's web page creates the strong impression that its investigators have pretty much already made up their minds before they even do their research:

In general terms, Anomalistic Psychology attempts to explain paranormal
and related beliefs, and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms
of known or knowable psychological and physical factors...
Anomalistic Psychologists tend to start from the position that paranormal forces
probably don't exist and that therefore we should be looking for other kinds of
explanations, in particular the psychological explanations for those experiences
that people typically label as paranormal.

Also, the front web page of this unit's web site brags that French is a “Special Advisor and former Editor-in-Chief of The Skeptic Magazine, the UK's foremost and longest-running sceptical magazine.” It even includes a large cover photo of The Skeptic magazine in the middle of the text describing the unit's mission. Since magazines such as The Skeptic are famous for being rigid, inflexible scorners of all things paranormal, and since the very thing French's unit is investigating involves claims of the paranormal, it seems almost as if French is throwing away any pretext of scientific objectivity, and implying that the purpose of his academic unit is to gather evidence for his pet theory that people have paranormal experiences because of psychological issues. This is the opposite of the way that a scientific academic unit should be operating, which is to conduct impartial, unbiased, objective research in which conclusions are derived after research rather than before it, and in which preconceptions do not influence analysis and experiments.

But let's look at the points French makes. First, he tries to discredit ghost reports by dismissing them as a “sense of a presence being nearby,” implying that sensible people just “shrug off” such a sense. “That paranormal feeling can be induced artificially when brain surgery is carried out," French says. “Different parts of the cortex when stimulated produce experiences like that and that for me is very strong evidence that it’s something in the brain rather than something out there.”

This is a very weak argument. First, the mere “sense of a presence being nearby” is a pretty minor part of ghost reports. The main reason why ghost reports may be worthy of attention is that people actually report seeing ghosts. The mere “sense of a presence being nearby” is just a kind of interesting detail that normally attracts little attention from researchers into ghost reports or the popular press. Explaining that part of ghost reports would still leave one with the far larger problem of explaining reported sightings of ghosts. Secondly, it is clearly fallacious to mention feelings during brain surgery to try to explain anomalous feelings when one is not having brain surgery (because 99.9% of ghost reports come from people who are not undergoing brain surgery). Third, it is absurd to be referring to people's experiences during brain surgery as support for anything, because the last I heard people are totally unconscious when brain surgery is performed on them.

French then attempts to suggest that ghost sightings may be hallucinations, saying "we could all have them under appropriate circumstances." He seems to insinuate that ghost sightings are produced by fear. An interesting hypothesis – you go to a haunted house or graveyard, and then you get scared so bad, you start hallucinating. However, the idea is pure bunk. There is no significant evidence that fear can cause people to have visual hallucinations.

Artisitic depiction of a ghost sighting

This link discusses the reasons for hallucinations, mentioning things such as brain disease, substance withdrawal (such as an alcoholic's delirium tremens or DT's), drowsiness, poisoning, taking certain types of drugs, sensory deprivation, and so forth. There is no discussion at all of hallucinations caused by sudden fears, because there is no real evidence that such a thing can happen. This link mentions dozens of causes of visual hallucinations, but does not list fear or anxiety as a cause.

This PDF discusses dozens of causes of auditory and visual hallucinations, but does not mention fear or anxiety.

If fear were a cause of ghost sightings, then we would often hear about ghost sightings in the situations where people are most afraid. It would be very common to hear reports like the imaginary reports below:

I was there in my foxhole, and the enemy started to shell us with their artillery. I could see and hear shells exploding not far away. Then suddenly I saw a ghost in my foxhole.

As I walked down the narrow dark alley at night, I saw the shape of a big hulking guy ahead of me. I was terrified that he would mug me. Then suddenly I saw a ghost in the alley.

I was driving when the road was rather icy. Suddenly my car went into a 180 degree spin. I was terrified! Then suddenly I saw a ghost in my car.

Nobody makes reports like these, because fear does not cause people to have visual hallucinations of ghosts or anything else.

Looking at it from a Darwinian standpoint of natural selection, it is easy to understand why evolution would probably never allow a situation where fear was the cause of hallucinations. Having hallucinations in a threat situation would lower the chance of an organism surviving. If you have a hallucination while faced with some threat such as an attacking animal, you are less likely to focus on the real threat and survive the situation. Organisms which had such hallucinations would be more likely to die out, less likely to pass on their genes, and more likely to become extinct. 

French also advances a suggestion of mistakes spreading in a fear situation. He gives an example: “If you’re in a reputedly haunted place and someone says they hear footsteps someone will believe them.” So if me and my friend are at a haunted house we think is empty, and my friend says he hears unexplained footprints, that may explain why I think there are unexplained footprints, but it doesn't explain why my friend reported the unexplained footsteps in the first place. Not a very fertile hypothesis.

One reason why French's explanations fall flat is that most reports of ghost encounters do not occur at a moment when people are scared (although fear often follows such claimed encounters). One common type of ghost encounter seems to be what are called “crisis apparitions,” a type where one person reports unexpectedly seeing an apparition of a recently dead person. Cases of this type were exhaustively documented in the classic work Phantasms of the Living (which can be read here). There are also sites that are involved repeatedly in ghost reports, but the “ghost encounters” at such sites seem to occur at unpredictable, random intervals, with typically years between reports. In the latter cases, the reported ghost sighting typically occurs as a sudden surprise, not as something that was preceded by fear.

As I reported in this post, one of the stereotype-busting findings of a recent study on ghost sightings is that 64% of the people reporting sightings said they occurred “during mundane or normal times in their lives.” This is not a finding compatible with the idea that fear causes ghost sightings.

Along with near-death experiences, the phenomenon of apparition sightings is an ongoing thorn in the side of materialists who rigidly cling to the idea that consciousness cannot exist outside of the brain. Conceivably one day after we unravel all the mysteries of the brain, we might have some purely psychological explanation of ghost sightings. But judging from his newspaper interview, French doesn't seem to have got to first base at such a task. If he wants to score on the matter, my first suggestion is that he start out by abandoning the blatantly ideological “we've already made up our mind” attitude glaringly shown on his academic unit's web page, and that he investigate his subject matter in an impartial, objective, unbiased manner, like a good scientist should.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Look at the New "UFO Near the Sun" Claim

The Mysterious Universe web site came out yesterday with a story entitled “NASA Photo Shows Earth-sized UFO Orbiting Sun.” That is quite a sensational claim. Let's take a close look at the matter.

The photo given to support this claim is the one below (the alleged UFO is on the right edge of the sun, in the vertical middle of the photo):

UFO near sun

The photo is part of this NASA photo:

Now, at first glance the photo may seem fairly convincing. It basically looks like half of a gigantic bowl, one that is either entering into the sun, or orbiting behind it. Seeing this “half a bowl” shape makes one think of a flying saucer, but it actually is not half of the classic flying saucer shape, but merely half of a bowl shape (as the visual below shows).

But there is at least one problem: the “half a bowl” shape does not look any different than the nearby solar material. The “half a bowl” is a shade of green very similar to nearby solar material that is part of the sun.

So we must consider that this “half a bowl” shape may be merely a solar prominence, which is when the gas from the sun gushes out beyond the outer circumference of the sun. But is it very improbable that we would see a solar prominence as big as this given the current solar conditions? I could show a photo of a solar prominence showing gas shooting out much farther than this “half a bowl” shape. But that might not be fair, because perhaps such a photo was taken at a different stage in the solar cycle.

But it would be fair to look for very recent solar prominences, to see whether any of them jut out as far as this “half a bowl” shape. As it happens, on Oct 19th there was such a prominence. It is shown below on the left side of the sun:

This prominence is about the same size as the “half a bowl” shape. The photo below compares both of them:

The “half a bowl” shape and the Oct 19th prominence are about the same shape, size, and color. The only difference is that the Oct 19th prominence is a little more irregular-looking, and has a little kind of curl at its end.

Is this little difference enough for us to conclude that the “half a bowl” shape is actually a UFO? Certainly not. What we simply seem to have here is a solar prominence that coincidentally seems to have a somewhat artificial-looking “half a bowl” shape. You are unlikely to see something this artificial-looking if you look at solar prominences on ten or twenty consecutive days. But if you look for fifty or a hundred days, you would have a decent chance of seeing something as artificial-looking as the alleged UFO.

In short, we do not have any sufficient visual basis for concluding that this “half a bowl” shape is an extraterrestrial spacecraft. Moreover, there are three credibility problems with the “giant UFO” hypothesis:
  1. It is hard to believe that extraterrestrials would create a spaceship the size of an entire planet.
  2. If they did create such a spaceship and send it to our solar system, we probably would have detected it, because it would be so huge it could hardly escape the attention of astronomers.
  3. If extraterrestrials did send such a spaceship into our solar-system, it is very hard to believe that they would send it so close to the sun, where it would presumably be damaged by the extreme heat, and would be in great risk of being dragged into the sun by the sun's enormous gravity.
As indicated in previous posts, I am certainly quite open to ideas that extraterrestrials may be running around here and there in our solar system. But because of all these reasons, I must for the moment reject this “earth-sized UFO near the sun” theory.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

7 Possible Explanations for the Strange Objects on Mars

There has been a very strange series of unusual things found in photographs taken by unmanned robots on the planet Mars. One object recently noticed on this NASA data page is the “traffic light” structure shown below (which almost seems to have been placed on a smoothed surface to make it more noticeable):

Mars traffic light
 Image Credit: NASA
Then on this NASA page there was the Mars object resembling a femur bone:

Mars femur bone
  Image Credit: NASA
Then there was the Mars object resembling a small statue of a human:

Mars statue
Image Credit: NASA

This photo is cropped from a spot on the bottom left corner of the very large image here.

Then there was the Mars photo showing what looked like a perfect sphere:

 Image Credit: NASA

There were also two consecutive days on which a Mars rover showed a mysterious light on the horizon. Skeptics claimed that both were caused by cosmic rays that coincidentally appeared near the horizon, although a calculation suggests that the chance of this happening on two consecutive days is something like 1 in a million.

More recently, there was a NASA photo of what has been called a “Celtic cross,” although it can be more properly described as just being an “X” within a circle. The photo is below:

Mars Celtic cross
 Image Credit: NASA

Skeptics have tried to debunk this photo by claiming that it is a screw imprint from the APXS instrument on the Opportunity rover that took this picture. My previous blog post refutes this hypothesis. As I explain in that post, according to the NASA activity log for the Opportunity rover that took this picture, the APXS instrument was not used at the site where this photo was taken until the night after the photo was taken. That means this strange “X within a circle” cannot be explained as a screw imprint.

So we seem to have some anomalous observations on the planet Mars. It is time to look at what “out of the box” explanations might help to explain such unusual sightings. When considering such possibilities, we should consider a very wide spectrum of possibilities. Below are some of the possible things that might be causing some of these strange observations.

Possibility 1: Coincidences

This is the simplest explanation, although it seems to stretch credulity. For example, while it may not be too implausible to imagine that an X shape would coincidentally appear on Mars due to a random arrangement of matter, and while it may not be too implausible to imagine that somewhere else a circle shape would coincidentally appear on Mars due to a random arrangement of matter, it seems very implausible that an X shape would coincidentally appear within a circle shape only slightly larger, due to a random arrangement of matter (as shown in the “Celtic cross” photo above).

Possibility 2: Remnants of an Ancient Civilization That Naturally Arose on Mars

It could be that some of the things we are seeing on Mars are remnants of an ancient civilization that naturally arose there. This possibility is rather farfetched, but not totally unthinkable. We know that billions of years ago Mars was a lot more earth-like than it is now, and scientists think that it might well once have had flowing water. But scientists think that if flowing water existed on Mars, it only existed during a small fraction of the planet's history. For most of the past 4.5 billion years, Mars has apparently been very arid. Judging from the history of evolution on Earth, there would not have been time for intelligent life to have evolved on Mars during the time when there was lots of water around.

But it is just barely possible that life could have got a foothold on Mars billions of years ago, and then life could have moved underground as conditions on the surface gradually worsened. It could be that for billions of years life has been evolving underground on Mars, where there may be more water (along with shielding from cosmic rays). Just possibly, intelligent life and a civilization may have developed. Subterranean creatures on Mars might occasionally journey to the surface of the planet, just as earthly scuba divers occasionally visit the bottom of the sea. They might occasionally leave some junk behind, just as earthly scuba divers sometimes discard things at the bottom of the sea.

Possibility 3: Remnants of an Extrasolar Civilization That Colonized Mars

It could be that some of the things we are seeing on Mars are remnants of a colony or base that appeared on Mars because of interstellar colonization. Intelligent life could have arisen on some planet revolving around another star, and creatures from that planet could have eventually traveled to our solar system, establishing a base or colony on Mars. This possibility averts the objection that there probably wasn't enough time for intelligent life to have arisen on Mars itself.

One might object that if such a colony or base had been established on Mars, it would have left large traces that we would have detected by now – that such traces would have shown up in pictures taken by various Mars orbiters. Such an objection is not necessarily decisive. Extrasolar colonizers might have abandoned a colony set up on Mars, and might have decided to remove most traces of it, like natural park visitors cleaning up their campsite to leave their campsite area in its natural state. But such a cleanup may not have been perfect, and a few traces might have been left behind. Or, a colony or base might have become uninhabited because of mission failure, a plague, a supply problem, or some other reason. Then natural geological processes (and the ferocious Martian sandstorms) might have covered up almost all traces of the colony or base, except for a few scattered remnants.

Possibility 4: Deliberate Signs Left by Current Extraterrestrial Visitors

It is possible that our planet is under surveillance by extraterrestrial visitors, as suggested by the many UFO sightings. Perhaps they don't want to suddenly land a flying saucer on the White House lawn, because the sudden shock might be too much for us. So is possible that such visitors are trying to gradually wake us up to their existence and presence. Having UFO's appear in our skies would be one way to do that, but it is almost as if we have stopped paying attention to such sightings. So extraterrestrial visitors might be using other techniques to gradually alert us to their existence.

One such technique might be placing artificial-looking objects on the surface of Mars, in the same places that the two Mars robotic rovers (Opportunity and Curiosity) are exploring. The plan might be to place more and more of such objects in the path of the robotic rovers, with increasingly artificial objects appearing. Eventually, perhaps, the whole world will gradually be alerted that man is not alone in the universe. Then, when we are psychologically prepared, extraterrestrial visitors might finally appear in some undeniable way such as a White House lawn landing.

Possibility 5: Deliberate Signs Left by a Divine or Angelic Power

It is fairly easy to adopt the previous hypothesis to make it fit more old-fashioned theological assumptions. We just replace “extraterrestrials” with “God” or “angels.” We can imagine that some divine or angelic presence wishes to leave some kind of sign, and is using Mars as part of that plan. Why Mars? Because it is harder to explain away any object left on Mars. If a divine or angelic being were to leave some physical sign on our planet, skeptics would immediately say: someone faked it. But if an object appears on Mars, there is no possibility that someone faked it.

Possibility 6: Deliberate Signs From the Other Side or Another Dimension or Plane of Existence

This possibility is not as outrageous as it may seem at first. Some people have reported that during seances (in which communication allegedly occurs between the dead and the living), there are sometimes physical objects that mysteriously appear – things such as coins and flowers. Such objects are called apports. Some believe that there is a spiritual dimension or plane that intersects or overlaps our physical reality, and that physical objects can sometimes be passed from this spiritual dimension or plane into our physical world. If that could happen on our planet, it could also happen on Mars.

Imagine that when people die, they go to some “other side” or dimension that overlaps or intersects our physical reality. Beings in such a dimension might want to leave a sign to our physical world that they exist. A physical sign left on our planet would probably be ignored or explained away, but an artificial-looking physical object left on Mars (and photographed by one of the Mars robotic rovers) would be much more likely to be noticed.

To many this idea will seem like a kind of concept clash. Just as we regard churches as only places for spiritual activities (and not places for chemistry experiments), we tend to regard Mars as a kind of scientist's playground exclusively for them, where any type of spiritual phenomena could not occur. But such an idea may be invalid. If there is an external spiritual reality, it might make itself known in any part of our solar system, not just on our planet. So the idea that “paranormal phenomena might occur on Earth, but never on Mars” isn't necessarily justified.

Possibility 7: A NASA Prankster

We must consider one other possibility designed to help materialists sleep better at night – the strange objects observed on Mars might be pranks. We don't know what NASA employees or subcontractors become involved with the NASA images before they are released on the NASA web site. It is just possible that someone is manipulating the pixels before they are released, inserting strange things and having a good laugh when others draw attention to them as amazing signs. This hypothesis can be a “last resort” for the skeptical.

While mentioning this possibility, I can also note that possibilities 4, 5, and 6 do not actually require material manipulation of objects on the planet Mars. Each of these possibilities could take place by some higher power merely manipulating the pixels that are transmitted from Mars to Earth. If you were some higher power wanting to make it look like something special was on Mars, you might merely manipulate the image pixels that are arriving on Earth from Mars, rather than physically manipulating something on Mars.

Part of a More General Phenomenon?

It is entirely possible that the strange objects discovered on Mars are aspects of a more general phenomenon, a phenomenon in which some unearthly intelligence or intelligence very gradually unveils its presence to humanity. Other aspects of the same phenomenon may include crop circles, orbs, and UFO's. We may see such strange phenomena occurring more and more often, with more and more dramatic manifestations. Eventually we may realize it is all part of some process by which some very patient unearthly intelligence (extraterrestrial or spiritual) very slowly makes itself known to us.

I will not be surprised at all if we start to see more and more cases of artificial-looking things on the planet Mars.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why the “Celtic Cross” on Mars Cannot Be Debunked as a “Screw Imprint”

There has been a very strange series of unusual things found in photographs taken by unmanned robots on the planet Mars. Recently yet another strange object was noticed on Mars. It was described in the press as a “Celtic cross,” although it does not actually seem to be a Christian cross, in that the two intersecting lines are the same size. It is more accurately described as an X shape surrounded by a circle. The image taken on Mars is below:

Martian cross
Image Credit: NASA

The photograph above was taken by the Opportunity rover, one of the two robotic rovers now on Mars. The NASA web page giving the photo says it was taken on Sol 3720, which corresponds to July 11, 2014.

If you do a Google search for “Celtic cross on Mars,” you will find quite a few Internet discussions about this photo. At first sight the picture seems to indicate something sensational – what looks like an image of something artificial on the surface of Mars, perhaps some artifact from long ago.

But almost as soon as the strange shape was discovered, skeptics came up with an explanation trying to explain it away. The explanation was that the “X within a circle” or “Celtic cross” shape was a screw imprint. It seems there is a scientific instrument on the Opportunity rover called the APXS, which stands for Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer. On this NASA page, the APXS is described as a “contact” instrument, leading one to assume that it makes contact with the soil or rock it is analyzing. The APXS is shown below:

The APXS instrument

Now here is the ingenious explanation of the skeptics. They noticed that in the image above, there are exterior flat screws, which have an “X within a circle” shape similar to the “Celtic cross” shape discovered on Mars. The skeptics then suggested that the “Celtic cross” shape was caused by a “screw imprint” when the APXS instrument made contact with the surface of the planet Mars.

Some initial visual analysis leads one to be doubtful about this explanation. The APXS instrument has quite a few screws that might make an imprint, but we see only one “X within a circle” in the Mars image of the “Celtic cross.” Also, there seems to be a kind of handle shape attached to this “Celtic cross,” something that is not explained by the “screw imprint” hypothesis. Also, the “X” part of the “Celtic cross” appears to be higher than the nearby rock or soil, an effect one would not see if the shape was produced by a screw imprint.

The real test of the “screw imprint” hypothesis is the timing of the Opportunity rover's activities. In order for this explanation to hold up, it would have to have been that the Opportunity rover was actually using the APXS instrument at the particular spot that the photo was taken, before or during the Martian day of July 11, 2014 (3720) when the photo was taken. What do the NASA logs say about this?

The relevant log is found here, which covers the period between July 9th and July 17th. Below is a screen shot from the NASA web page:

According to the log, between July 9th and July 17th, the Opportunity rover was mainly busy traveling. During this period, there was only one day when the APSX instrument was used for in-place “contact” science:

The one sol of in-situ (contact) science was the first sol of a two-sol autonomous 'touch 'n go' where the rover used the robotic arm (the 'touch') on Sol 3720 (July 11, 2014), to collect a Microscopic Imager mosaic of the surface target 'Trebia,' followed by an overnight contact integration measurement performed by the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).

So is the skeptical explanation of “screw imprint” compatible with this history of what the Opportunity was doing? No, it is not. The record above makes clear that the chronology was as follows:
  1. First, during the Martian day of Sol 3720 (July 11, 2014) the photos at the Trebia site were taken by the Opportunity rover, including the photo of the strange-looking “Celtic cross.”
  2. Then, during the following Martian NIGHT (as indicated by the word “overnight,”) the APXS instrument was used (presumably to make some type of contact with the ground), which was the only time that instrument was used to make contact with the ground during the period between July 9th and July 17th.
This chronology is completely incompatible with the skeptical explanation that this “Celtic cross” was produced by some kind of “screw imprint” caused by the APXS instrument on the Opportunity rover. If the APXS use had occurred at this “Trebia” site before the photos were taken during the day of Sol 3720, such an explanation might be tenable. But the chronology makes clear that the APXS instrument was not used at this location until after the photos were taken that include the “Celtic cross.”

So the official NASA chronology refutes the glib “screw imprint” explanation for the “Celtic cross” on Mars. Apparently the mysterious “Celtic cross” could not have been produced by the APXS instrument.

We are stuck with a big mystery. What in blazes is an X shape within a perfect circle doing on the planet Mars? In my next blog post, I will theorize about several possible explanations for this Martian surface anomaly and other strange anomalies on the Martian surface. These explanations will involve various awe-inspiring possibilities. 

Postscript: If you read the Opportunity activity log here (the same link given above), it becomes clear that it is something like standard operating procedure for the Opportunity rover to travel to a spot, use the Microscopic Imager unit first to take pictures (the unit that took the "Celtic cross" picture), and then later (usually overnight) to use the APXS instrument (the unit claimed as the source of the "screw imprint") on the same spot. It's easy to see why that order is preferred. Since the APXS has to make contact with the surface, it's better to take the pictures first, to capture the natural, undisturbed look of the soil and rocks being studied (rather than take pictures of the soil after it has been touched and zapped by the APXS with its x-rays and alpha particles).