Sunday, March 1, 2009

Electronics and the Supernatural

Many modern day conveniences are electronic in nature. These devices, such as cell phones, computers, stereos and televisions, are not only useful; they are also testaments to the triumph of science and technology. Ingenuity and reason have given us capabilities far beyond anything that we have naturally. Yet the popular imagination connects the fruits of that labor with the supernatural.

There are two prominent ways in which the supernatural is connected to electronics. First, there is a claimed connection between electromagnetism and ghosts. Ghost hunters are fond of claiming that ghosts create electromagnetic radiation or consist of electromagnetic energy. See, for example the repeated claims made on Ghost Hunters.

Second, a direct connection between electronic devices and the supernatural is often asserted. The most common form of this claim is the so-called EVP or electronic voice phenomena. These occur when individuals claim that supernatural entities, especially spirits of the departed, communicate through the static in electronic devices.

EVP, despite their obvious pareidolic nature, are taken seriously by many people. See for example the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena . EVP also is common in movies and other elements of popular culture. White Noise, for example, is about using EVP to communicate with the departed.

Many similar ideas exist in popular culture that are not precisely EVP but are similar. One Missed Call is about a vengeful ghost that travels from cell phone to cell phone, killing each owner and then moving onto another number listed on that phone. The Ring is about a cursed videotape which kills anyone who watches it.

In many other movies, the presence of the supernatural manifests itself with interference with electronics, causing static or causing lights to flicker. In many films, ghosts appear on videotapes even when they cannot be seen with the naked eye. This is related to the idea that photographs can reveal what the naked eye cannot. Serious ghost hunters take this idea seriously for both photographs and videos.

The general idea that electronics are somehow connected to the supernatural is not new. There is an old story about Thomas Edison trying to make an electric device to contact the dead; this story is roughly contemporaneous with Edison. In fact, the Edison story was used as the main premise of the truly wretched movie The Brink in which an engineer discovers Edison’s old plans and uses them to contact the dead.

Why is this connection so prevalent in the popular culture? One cause is that there is a self-reinforcing element. The more common the idea ,the more it will get used. This is especially true given how much derivative junk is written by half-baked writers with as much chance of having an original thought as I have for being the next cover model for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. There are two other reasons for the connection between electronics and the supernatural. First, poor understanding of science makes electronics seem similar to magic. Second, there is an element of particular terror when our technological marvels betray us.

The general public has little to no understanding how electronics function. If one asks individuals on the street what charge an electron has , they are as likely to say positive as to say negative. As far as they are concerned electricity is supernatural. When they turn on a light the electrons coursing through the filament may as, well be faeries. Thus, it is not at all unreasonable to the common mind that one supernatural phenomenon may be connected to another. Why shouldn't ghosts use the supernatural television set to manifest themselves? And if both spirits and electromagnetic waves are invisible things of which one has only a very vague notion, why shouldn't they be connected or be the same thing? This is made all the more plausible by the capabilities of our electronic devices. They can repeat the words of the dead to us. We can with the click of a mouse hear the speeches of saints and sinners who died before we were born. It is not a far leap for the imagination to wonder if such beings still exist in the same devices which record what they have to say.

When this phenomenon manifests itself in movies ,there is another element at play. The notion that the modern devices on which we rely for our every day luxuries could betray us, or open portals to horrors, is a potentially scary premise.

There's a distinct way that electricity and science also interact with the supernatural, more common in books than in movies. Rather than see electronics as connected to the supernatural, they see electronics as an enemy of the supernatural. When this occurs, science as a whole is set up as a system that opposes magic Thus, for example, in Harry Potter electronics do not function at Hogwarts or at other locations of heavy magic use. Similarly, in John DeChancie's Castle Perilous series, every universe has some amount of "science" that works and some amount of "magic". The more science a universe has, the less magic. . Similarly, in Randall Garret's Lord Darcy stories, people in the late middle ages discovered the laws of magic instead of science. In an old Spiderman comic, when Spiderman fights a certain villain who uses alchemy, Spiderman zaps him with electricity since the opposite of alchemy is science and electricity is scientific.

Again, this is an attitude that does not just exist in fiction. I've met at least one New Ager who said that (slight paraphrase) "science only works if you believe in it. I believe in magic and that works for me." In this view, mystical reasoning is not opposed to rationality just as a conflict of world views. It is not just that either rationalism explains the universe or mysticism explains the universe. Rather mystical thinking and rational thinking are actual opposing forces at work in the universe. Given the triumphs that we have through electricity, it is not surprising that it is considered to be the champion of science.

Both these views of science and electricity-- electricity as something supernatural; electricity as something anti-supernatural -- reflect profound misunderstanding of how science works and what rationality and science represent. The first view is one of classical bad reasoning, relying on ignorance and sympathetic magic.

The second view has problems, but it takes slightly more work to articulate them. In a nutshell, if there were special people who could use sticks of wood and point them and say "Crucio" or "Wingardium Leviosa" or "Latinus Mangledus Maximus" and get specific results on a consistent basis, this wouldn't cause the scientific method to vanish, nor would it negate anything that had been learned with the scientific method. Indeed, we could apply the scientific method just as well to these people and their powers. We could perform controlled experiments and derive laws and theories to explain their powers. We could test hypotheses about how magic worked. I'm reminded of the psychics who claim that their powers don't work around skeptics because the skeptics' skepticism creates a psychic dampening field. Such attitudes reflect the worldview that how we think about the world alters it. This is the essence of magical thinking. If someone believes in a dichotomy between the forces of reason and the forces of magic, they don't really believe in a dichotomy; they believe in a world which is just supernatural.

Both of these views are symptoms of irrational and ignorant populations. To the general public, there are two options. Either electricity has little or nothing to do with science, but is connected to things that go bump in the night or electricity is connected to science where science means some natural force that humans exploit, a force that is opposed to forces of magic.

Edit:See also this followup piece discussing why one can be reasonably certain that there is no genuine connection between ghosts and electronics.


sniffnoy said...

And if both spirits and electromagnetic waves are invisible things of which one has only a very vague notion, why shouldn't they be connected or be the same thing?

This is speculation, but I think we can actually expand on this. It seems to me that they're both connected via the idea of the "ghost in the machine". Many devices store information invisibly in their electronic or magnetic state. To someone who doesn't know anything about how such things are stored, or who is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the idea of "information" and "complexity" as abstracts - i.e. the same sort of person who would insist that only a nonmaterial "soul" could explain human behavior - it seems easy to suppose that the same sort of thing is at work in these devices, that some "essence" of the things recorded is captured and stored there. (Which it is, in a sense, but YKWIM.) And thus, not appreciating that the format of how information is stored is important and not all interconvertible, might suppose that it's all just a matter of passing these "essences" back and forth between the different devices. And spirits, being that same sort of thing, can certainly get in there. (Also compatible with the old "cameras steal our souls!" thing.)

Does that sound reasonable/likely?

Joshua said...

Yes, I actually had thoughts about the issue of cameras stealing souls and related issues that didn't seem to fit well with this blog entry but your comment puts that in a much more coherent whole.

I'm also not sure but there may be a connection superstitions about mirrors also, which might have historically been in a similar category and still have some superstitions associated with them. The idea of an essence being somehow trapped in the mirror or the mirror somehow being a passage elsewhere might fit in with your general idea to some extent.

Tony Sidaway said...

You dunnarf go on.

You could be more forthright in your condemnation of the loonies who propagate this nonsense. Just an idea. The internet is too full of mealie-mouthed accommodations with idiocy.

Joshua said...

Also another thought related to what you said especially in regard to essences. There's an old idea in psychology that humans have overdeveloped/overactive theories of mind. Ee are quick to anthropomorphize both animate and inanimate objects. Hence we are quick to say that a computer isn't happy or that a car just doesn't like one person. Even highly rational people are quick to use this sort of language (although they generally use it in a clear non-serious fashion). The desire to see essences may be connected to that. Hearing someone talk or seeing a human actually talk even if we know it is a recording could plausibly activate the parts of our brain responsible for intelligent entity recognition. Presumably this would require very detailed psych studies to test if it had any validity (fMRI might help).

Joshua said...

Tony, I think it is pretty clear that such beliefs don't make much sense.

To use just one example, EVP apparently applies to both analogy and digital signals regardless of the strength of the signals. All that seems to be required is a high degree of noise. If someone doesn't understand why that's inherently ridiculous there's much I can do for them.

This post is mainly about why they believe what they do given that their reasoning and evidence is so lacking. There are a lot of people who can generally do a much better job than I explaining in great detail why such beliefs don't make any sense. And I'm not terribly creative with profanity so I can't even do so in a very entertaining manner.

Moreover, at the risk of sounding Nisbetish, people who have these sorts of beliefs aren't thinking rationally. If we are going to convince people to think more rationally and to convince them in specific instances that they are wrong, we need to understand where they are coming from. Given the primary readership of this blog, adding additional criticism of the beliefs in question would be preaching to the choir. It would make us all feel better but it wouldn't accomplish much.

Hepius said...

As Arthur C. Clark wrote:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

For many people, "sufficiently advanced" is a pretty low bar.

Lautreamont said...

Man, I always thought Jesus powered the internet...oh by the way a little off topic but:

Joshua said...

Thanks for the link. (Lautremont's link seems to have been cut off by a formatting problem. He had the correct link in the comment but blogger was unhappy. The end of it as displayed should have "-darwin-creationism-intelligent-design" tacked on.

sniffnoy said...

To take another tangent, have you read The Anubis Gates? There's a book where they do the magic-interferes-with-electronics but do so in a way that makes sense, IIRC.

Joshua said...

No I haven't read The Anubis Gates although I'm vaguely familiar with the premise. How do they explain magic interfering with electronics?

sniffnoy said...

They don't. :) I just say that they do it in a way that makes sense in that it's clear it's not "magic vs. science"; - I may be misremembering this, but in our time, the gates are first discovered by scientists who notice that, well, physical laws are consistently different there, including, uh, something not working - now that I think about it, it probably wasn't electronics it interfered with, as I think the time-travel devices (which required the unusual properties of the gates) would not have worked then... it was probably some other basis-of-lots-of-technology that interfered with, then, but I don't remember what. In any case it was consistent and found by scientists, so clearly not "anti-science".

Hairy Buddah said...

The abuse of electronics isn't limited to the realm of the supernatural. It has also been used to great effect in faux medicine. I am an occasional exhibitor for a social services provider at women's fairs. The amount of fraudulent medical and spiritual electronics gizmos is both staggering and appalling. For a great movie about the history of electronics in medical fraud I would recommend The Road to Wellville.

Much better than its 5.3 rating. I suspect the alternative medicine crowd has pushed the ratings down.