Being a vocal skeptic can be challenging, but it can also be a lot of fun. Believers will sometimes present me with stories of the strange and the supernatural either to gauge my reaction or to try and get me to concede that their story is evidence for whatever belief they are trying to sell. Truly, I don’t mind. I like these stories. They are sometimes spooky or thought provoking. More importantly, they help me to flex my critical thinking muscles. I like to crank up my bullshit detector and ask plenty of questions. I am confounded by the complete lack of skepticism with which these stories are accepted as true or as evidence in the supernatural. In every experience I’ve had, the believer telling the story has overlooked or rejected natural explanations of the occurrence in favor of a supernatural explanation. One, by the way, which always confirms the storyteller’s already deeply-rooted belief system.
Take for example a story that was told to me a few weeks ago by a believer. The person relating the story to me is a professed christian and someone who believes in a life after death. The concept of life after death is something most skeptics and atheists reject based on (among other things) lack of sufficient evidence and lack of a plausible mechanism (how can your consciousness carry on after your physical brain is no longer functioning?).
A girl who lost her father at a young age has grown into a young woman. One day she accidentally falls, suffering a traumatic brain injury. She is unconscious for a time and wakes up in the hospital surrounded by family members. She claims that her father was there and that he was speaking to her. He was saying that he would not leave her side and that he would take care of her. Her astonished family then reveals to her that she has been staying in the exact hospital room where her father died many years before.
Now, please keep in mind that this story was told to me in the context of “Ah HA! Silly atheist! There is life after death! How can you deny it now when clearly there is such compelling evidence!” Also keep in mind that responding critically to such a story put me in an unfortunate position. If I ask questions and point out that the story probably does not mean that there is life or consciousness after death, I risk coming off as quite insensitive. After all, this poor girl has not had an easy time of it. She is dealing with some sort of brain trauma as well as feelings about losing her father.
So, in keeping with cupcakiness I asked some questions. When did her father die? What sort of brain injury did she suffer? What parts of the brain were affected? How long was she unconscious? Then I began to think things through.
Early Childhood Loss: I’m not sure what losing a parent will do to someone. I’ve never experienced it myself, but it seems reasonable that such an experience at a young age would have life-long impact.
Brain Injury: She suffered a head injury, which means that her brain function was likely impaired. This means that she might have experienced or imagined things while unconscious that didn’t really occur. Neuroscience has repeatedly shown that our perceptions of what we experience can be dramatically altered by things like magnetic pulses, pharmaceuticals, sleep deprivation, and of course brain injury. It is far more likely that her experiencing the presence of her father is the result of brain function and not that she was actually hearing the voice of a dead person.
Social Conditioning: I’m not sure what religion the young girl was brought up with, but what is clear is that she was raised in a culture where the duality of the body and the soul is widely accepted. She was raised around people who believe that a soul succeeds you after your body dies and goes… well… somewhere.
Verdict: Her experience was most likely the combined result of her early childhood loss, her brain injury, and her social conditioning. One thing that does seem odd is that she was in the same hospital room as her father. I’m doubtful of this because it seems far too coincidental and plays too nicely into the punchline (Ah HA! Silly Atheist!) of the story. However, let’s concede that it was the exact same hospital room that her father was in. What would that mean? Surely the hospital has undergone some changes in the past 15 or 20 years? The room isn’t in the exact condition as when her father stayed there. Is the implication then that her father’s spirit or soul resides there permanently? Have any of the other patients in the hospital experienced contact from her father? I think the option that requires the least number of crazy assumptions is that hospitals have a limited number of beds. Either that part of the story is a fabrication or simply coincidental.
I would categorize this story with many of the other “near death” experience stories I’ve read or heard. The operative term here is “near.” The brain is still functioning, but in an impaired state. I don’t feel like the story goes very far in arguing a case for life after death or the existence of the soul. Like most ghost stories, if you are looking for a supernatural explanation you are absolutely going to find one.
However, if you turn on your bullshit detector and you try to rule out all possibility of a natural explanation usually you find that a supernatural explanation is unnecessary, implausible, and requires far too many assumptions to be reasonable.
Do you have any great stories of the paranormal or supernatural that you’d like to share? Comment here or you can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org