Are ghosts real?

We all have guilty pleasures, mine is paranormal activity. Not the movie series (I’ve never seen any but have heard they are horrible), but just the concept that bigfoot or ghosts or aliens are real.

Three reasons bigfoot isn’t real:

1: If he were real we would have hard evidence: remains, a captured creature, or unmistakable photographic evidence. We have little “good” photographic evidence.

2: Sightings correlate with interest over time. We’ve had few sightings before 1958, suddenly he appears not only in the Pacific Northwest but across the country, as far east as Maine and as far south as Florida. Basically, we’re to believe that he hasn’t appeared in the US at all, until he becomes culturally important, then he is suddenly ubiquitous.

3: The more likely one is to believe in Bigfoot, the more likely one is to find evidence of him. The most famous piece of evidence is the Patterson Gilmlin film (you almost certainly know what it is, but if you need a refresher, click here). Why were the people in the area? They were filming a fictional movie about bigfoot. There have been who knows how many movies filmed in California, thousands of people in the Californian mountains and woods, and the single best piece of evidence happens to be created from people already connected to bigfoot? It seems like a very unlikely coincidence.

There is one reason, however, to put some stock in the bigfoot legend. Take a look at this map:


(map by wikipedia User:Fiziker)

Bigfoot sightings seem to follow a general rule: the more people in a state, the more people who see Bigfoot. (New York doesn’t follow this rule, but this makes sense, most people in New York are in a single very urban metropolitan area). Almost everything on this map can be explained by a simple rule: when people are in rural areas, they see a bigfoot with some constant probability. That probability should depend greatly on not just the number of people in an area, but in the number of bigfoot as well, and it doesn’t seem to. There are few to no patterns with regard to geography within this map.

Except one. Washington has more than any other state, and Oregon has a disproportional number of sightings. Why is this? Is it some cultural reason, are people expected to see bigfoot more in those states? Are people more likely to perpetuate hoaxes in Washington and Oregon?

I think that either of those explanations is a better one than that Bigfoot actually exists, but I must admit that it does influence my belief somewhat (perhaps from a 0.2% to a 0.3% chance that bigfoot exists), there does seem to be some geographic pattern that bigfoot follows.

Regardless of all this, bigfoot isn’t a big deal. If somebody were to discover a bigfoot next year, it’d be a big story, then life would go on as normal. If bigfoot were to exist, it wouldn’t really affect our lives or our concept of our world at all. There are other such “cryptids” which are similar, the yeti, the skunk fox, ogopogo, etc. I doubt any of them exist, but they wouldn’t be a big deal.

Ghosts are another matter. If we ever determine that ghosts actually exist, many people will have to re-examine their entire worldview. Suddenly, physics will either have to deal with the fact that we have souls or that there is something really weird going on with ghosts.

If you were to ask anyone why they don’t believe in ghosts, the answer would probably be something like why hasn’t anyone seen them. But thousands, perhaps millions of people have seen ghosts. Well, why aren’t there any photographs of ghosts? But there are hundreds of photographs of ghosts. Don’t believe me, do a quick google search for ghost photograph, and see them.

But are they real? Is it possible that every single person who attributes something to ghosts is wrong about it? Yes, it is possible. Is it possible that every single photograph and video which has a ghost is some form of a hoax, optical illusion, or other mistake? Again, it is possible, people make mistakes about things all the time. We see faces all the time where they shouldn’t be.

So should we believe in ghosts? Quite frankly, I have idea. The amount of ghostly evidence seems to about fit the pattern of people frequently mis-attributing things to ghosts and sometimes making things up. But I have no idea what the evidence level of “ghosts are real” would look like.

Lets put ghosts in perspective by talking about bigfoot. If bigfoot was real, there’d probably need to be at least 2,000 of them to form a stable breeding population. If the population was spread out over the state of Washington, (area of about 70,000 square miles), and we were to monitor 5,000 sites throughout Washington (either through game photographs or people with cellphone cameras or the like), each of which covers a half acre. Finally, each bigfoot stays in a viewing site for 6 hours, then is randomly transported to another viewing site. This is an admittedly weird scenario, but it gives us something to go by; some assumptions are simplifications to be sure (bigfoot probably aren’t teleporting), but they go in both directions (a half acre may be too big, but six hours may be way too long. ¬†Also, there are areas of Washington we shouldn’t expect Bigfoot to live, such as Seattle). ¬†Anyway, lets see what happens when we run the numbers:

This boils down pretty quickly to a randomly drawn ball problem. If there are 91 million balls in an urn and 2,000 of them are red, the chances of drawing a red ball are only .00219%. Which means that there is a 99.99781% chance that, at any given time, you will draw a non red ball. The chances that you draw a red ball in either of two draws is the probability that you don’t draw a red ball in the first times the probability you don’t draw one in the second. To simplify, we can reduce the probability of drawing a red ball on any number of draws by using the formula x = 1- P^N, where x is the probability of not drawing a red ball in N draws, and P is the probability if not drawing a red ball in one draw.

We can use our example and ask a new question, how many draws would we need to make before we had a 50% chance of drawing a red ball? We can use a simple formula, .5 = .9999781^N. Or, to make it simpler,N = Log(base .9999781) of .5, which means N is 31,656.85. So to get better than even odds of drawing a red ball, we would on average draw 31 thousand balls.

Lets apply this to bigfoot. If there are 2,000 bigfeet in Washington, and we have a viewing sites of a half acre each, that means we would have to make 31 thousand observations before we expect to see one. Which, with 5,000 viewing sites, each observation taking 6 hours, would take us all of 36 hours. A day and a half to find bigfoot, given our parameters. Which means we should be seeing many many many more bigfoot sightings than we do right now; about 120 per year, not 593 all time. Now you can argue about my numbers, but that’s not the point. The point is we can have some sort of baseline, we can make assumptions to create some sort of a test, if bigfoot is real, how often should we see him. We can then get an estimate and compare it what we actually see, and see if it matches our theory.

I don’t think we can do that with ghosts. If ghosts are real, how common are they? I have no idea. If they exist, what are the chances that we see them in any given time period? Again, I have no idea, it matters a lot if they are supposed to come out once per day or once per year. Are they permanent or do they eventually dissipate (or cross over or whatever). I have no idea what the answer to any of these questions would be.

I’m not trying to argue that ghosts somehow exist – I am saying that i don’t even know how to determine if they are.

Perhaps the wisest thing I’ve ever heard in terms of epistemology is this: that true things become more obvious the more they are studied. I think that’s the only thing I can really say about ghosts, that they’ve been studied a lot, but we aren’t more sure of them now than we were 20 years ago. Perhaps that’s something, but its hollow to me, a non answer. Sure, I can say that I don’t believe that ghosts definitely do exist, but I have a very hard time understanding why I should have a strong belief that ghosts don’t exist.