Why Professor Brian Cox can dismiss ghosts from his armchair

In my last post, I praised Brian Cox for standing up for science and brazenly criticising the “woo-merchants” who promulgate its misunderstanding. This prompted an exchange on Twitter from Fortean UK about ghosts, which you can see below:

Twitter ghost conversation

I’m firmly of the opinion that you can dismiss the existence of ghosts without the need to investigate ghost claims. Please allow me to make my point with a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that you get a phone call from a very excited friend, claiming that they have drawn a four sided triangle. You know from your school mathematics lessons that a triangle has to have three sides, not four, so you can safely conclude that your friend has not drawn a four sided triangle as claimed. What do you do next? Here are a few options.

  1. Launch some profanities at your friend and point out how stupid they are before slamming the phone down
  2. Politely explain to them why they can’t have drawn a four sided triangle
  3. Ask them to explain what they have drawn so you can tell them the reality of the situation

Clearly, option 1 could be argued as being correct but rude and not in the least bit helpful. Option 2 is much more preferable, as it gives you the opportunity to educate your friend. However, best of all is option 3 as it will set everyone straight, but it requires the most effort.

So how does this relate to ghosts? Firstly, we need to consider what a ghost is supposed to be. I know that there are differing opinions, but for argument’s sake I shall define a ghost as a manifestation of a dead person. Let’s consider how preposterous this is. The mind of the person would somehow need to keep living even though their body is dead and cold. Science tells us that the human mind is the product of brain activity, so no living brain, no concious mind. That fact alone should make the very concept of ghosts laughable, but even if there was some sort of medium for the mind to be independent of the brain, that mind would somehow then have to manifest itself. How could a ghost appear to and communicate with someone? The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. I would even go so far to say that anyone who thinks that there is a possibility of ghosts existing (at least according to my above definition) is either totally ignorant of science or they lack respect for it, just as someone who believes a four sided triangle can exist is either ignorant of or disrespectful towards mathematics.

To that end, ghosts are a four sided triangle.

9 Comments

  1. Rather a straw-man argument. As you say, there is no agreement on what ghosts may or may not be. You then plump for one definition that you believe is easy to refute and declare the entire matter resolved!

    I’d be very interested to see this science that “tells us that the human mind is the product of brain activity”. What neuroscience has achieved so far is to show a direct correlation between thought processes and brain activity – only the most dogmatic materialists claim, by invoking Occam’s Razor, that this should put an end to a scientific debate that is in fact still very much alive.

    As for Brian Cox, I’m fairly sure that calling people “nobbers” falls under option 1!

    • Tom

      So by what definition could ghosts exist?

      As for the issue of the mind, I believe the neuroscience is pretty conclusive. The idea of the mind being able to exist independently of the brain is a very extraordinary claim indeed, and if there were any robust studies that provided evidence for this I’d love to see it.

      And yes, calling people ‘nobbers’ certainly comes under option 1!

  2. kungfuhobbit

    triangle analogy mixes up synthetic with analytic knowledge.
    secondly, ‘science’ isnt predisposed against any dualism afaik- it would require modification of principle of conservation of energy amongst other things – and no evidence so far is pointing that way… but consciousness is a rather unknown area of study, we may discover new phenomena/never say never etc.

  3. Kl

    I’m a few years late to this party but Tom, I do feel your triangle analogy far too simplistic in dismissing ghost phenomena.
    Before the discovery of Quantum Physics people would dismiss the possibility of particles existing in more than one place at a time as “woo woo” talk……….. and yet we know this phenomena is real…….but poorly understood………even Quantum physicists admit that if anyone lays claim to understanding Quantum physics then they clearly have not understood Quantum physics!
    Who is to say that “Ghosts” are not somehow linked to Quantum physics………. in the “normal” world they shouldn’t exist………but quantum physics suggest that the “normal” world is not the only reality out there.

  4. Daniel

    All you believers are doing is arguing that they may exist. It is possible that science is wrong and its possible for a mind to exist without a body but that’s all you have. A possibility with no evidence outside of that other than the appeal to anecdotal and other sophistry. You could argue that it is possible for the earth to be flat too. I would say that is more likely because it has better arguments behind it.

  5. Neon White

    When I hear people speaking with certainty on subjects that are inherently uncertain, I find it undermines their credibility. I mean, he’s basically saying he’s certain that ghosts don’t exist cuz he never saw one and thought they were impossible to begin with. I think, at least until humans have attained omniscience, the appropriate scientific answer to the question of whether ghosts exists is a firm, “I don’t know. What does this have to do with anything?”

  6. Stuart Grist

    If there are phenomena that are both rare and unpredictable yet real nevertheless, then by definition supporting evidence is scant and most likely anecdotal.

    Believers in scientism routinely dismiss such reports out of hand because it makes them feel clever, but these are really just cheap shots. Their arguments and cod-theories, generally cloaked in sarcastic “humour”, are never carefully thought through or presented seriously.

  7. Archie_Meijer

    Science can only prove that the human mind is the product of brain activity if we make some unproven assumptions.

    Assumption #1 is that a person’s behavior is 100% reliable for telling us what is on their minds or that they even have one. Imagine if you will we lived in a Universe where consciousness was immaterial but where our actions resulted entirely from physical causes, consciousness not causing anything but merely being a passive observer. Imagine that only half of people actually had a consciousness in this Universe. In this case the people with no consciousness would behave exactly the same as if they had one. While I can’t prove the Universe is like this, neither is there anything that could ever disprove it. The only person anyone can prove is conscious without making assumptions is themselves, and they can only prove that to themselves.

    Assumption #2 is that if brain activity results in consciousness then it is the only thing that could ever result in consciousness. This is flawed, because for example you may have a bridge made out of wood or made out of metal. A person concluding that you can never have a bridge made out of wood because he has only ever seen metal bridges would be in error. Likewise, brain activity resulting in consciousness is not definitive proof that consciousness can not come from other sources as well.

    And here’s another point, we only conclude that brain activity causes this or that behavior through correlation. If we couldn’t see the brain but could test the blood we’d notice changes in its contents and in blood pressure and we’d probably call the heart or the circulatory system the “mind” (and in fact some ancient cultures did). And then if someone came along and pointed out correlations in the brain they would probably be dismissed as cranks, because they didn’t get there first and so have less power to set the narrative, mainstream science would probably dismiss it saying that the brain is merely routing electrical power according to the needs of the heart/mind.

    More recently it’s been shown that our microbiome has a huge influence on our thoughts and behavior. So why couldn’t that instead (or in addition to) be considered the source of our mind? And if that were the case then since some of our microbiome does survive our death there would be life after death. Although that still wouldn’t prove “ghosts” in the classical sense people think of, since given what we know so far it would be very unlikely for the microbiome to retain memories of who the person was during life, and also because the microbiome would disadhere and the surviving microbes would go their separate ways and over time join in with new colonies of microbes.

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