It's hard to go to Gettysburg and not run into someone who has had a "strange" experience there. From true believers to outright skeptics, everyone reacts to these experiences with a sense of uncertainty, and the one thing they all have in common is the fact that they can't confirm what happened to them. Maybe a compelling photo was taken. Perhaps an EVP recording was captured. There may have even been multiple witnesses to the same event, but in the end, everyone is left to interpret the experience in their own way. Inevitably, doubt eventually creeps into the psyche. "Did I really see what I think I saw?" "Maybe what I heard was really a wild turkey and not a ghostly manifestation of the rebel yell."
Paranormal research can be thrilling and rewarding. The rub? You can never truly verify anything. A few years ago, I remember talking to Andrew Nichols, Ph.D., a parapsychologist and director of the American Institute of Parapsychology, about the challenges associated with dedicating your life to paranormal research.
"When all is said and done," he said, "all you can do is be true to the scientific method and document your research for others to disseminate. We're not at a point in time when our science can verify the existence of ghostly phenomena."
Many dedicated researchers do in fact claim they can verify the existence of either a spirit world or residual energies that manifest in the form of ghostly phenomena based on compelling evidence they have collected over the course of years of research. Understandably, however, their claims don't stand up to the rigors of scientific scrutiny. The scientific sticking point is that their claims can't be supported or reproduced. And it's this fact that has convinced the great majority of the scientific community that the study of ghostly phenomena is not a science, but rather a pseudoscience. In other words, a paranormal claim can be presented as scientific, but it does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status. I might be able to show a scientist multiple photographs taken on the Gettysburg battlefield that have clear apparitional forms that resemble Civil War soldiers on them, but because there's no systematic process available to rationally develop a theory based on the photographs, all bets are off.
A few years ago, some of our guests on a Gettysburg weekend investigation saw something strange in the area of Seminary Ridge where Pickett's Charge occurred. They described what they saw as a bright white/purple flash of light in the middle of the field. Driving slowly with the car windows down along West Confederate Avenue, they all agreed that it looked like it could be a flash from a musket or cannon fire, but that they couldn't be sure. They parked quietly by the side of the road to see if the flash of light reappeared, but it didn't. Today, they are all left with the memory of an interesting experience, but also with a lot more questions than answers.
The bottom line is that paranormal phenomena are elusive events that don't manifest on demand and are inherently nonphysical in nature. Science, by definition, offers insight into the physical world. Thus, the scientific method simply doesn't apply when it comes to ghostly manifestations. Therefore, until science can clearly define parameters in which to conduct, and repeat, experiments within the paranormal realm, the phenomena will remain unverifiable in the eyes of science.
The Paradigm Paradox
Each of us has a slightly different perspective on life, death, and just about everything else. Some people are born skeptics, while others are more open-minded to the mysteries of the universe. We are all unique, and we all have operating principles that help us navigate through life. Without these personal paradigms, it would be difficult to interpret, define, and engage in the world around us. Without our paradigms, we would literally struggle to determine and define what we see, hear, and do. On the other hand, we can build a personal paradigm around ourselves that is so rigid that we become incapable of seeing the errors in our own behavior or thought processes.
This applies to everyone. Whether you're a highly regarded physicist or professional poker player, you're not immune to the necessity to create a paradigm, or worldview, that fits comfortably into your personal reality. Reality, therefore, is subjective. If a psychologist believes that all paranormal experiences are the result of hallucinations because she can prove in a laboratory that the human mind is capable of hallucinating, that doesn't mean all paranormal experiences can be disregarded as figments of our imagination or bi-products of mental illness. If a rocket scientist believes that extraterrestrial life could never visit our planet because it would take too long to get here using our current methods of propulsion, it doesn't mean they aren't capable of getting here by using wormholes, folding space, or accessing parallel universes.
Think of it this way: the majority of educated people on Earth once thought that our planet was flat, and guess what, they were all wrong. At one point they also thought the Earth was the center of the universe, and when Italian scientist Galileo Galilei suggested otherwise in some of his writings, he was put under house arrest for the rest of his life. Whoops.
The one constant in all of this is that we continue to learn and grow as intelligent entities. As time goes by, we evolve intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. If history has taught us anything, it's that often what we think is true one day is not what we know to be true the next. People's personal paradigms serve an important purpose, but a paradigm shift, whether personal or scientific, is the greatest catalyst for evolution and progress.
Drawing Your Own Conclusions
Indeed, the one thing you learn when researching the paranormal is that ghostly phenomena are and always have been an integral part of the human experience, and just because you can't verify an experience doesn't mean it didn't happen. Intuitively, most of us know that something exists beyond the physical realm. If you truly believe you saw the spirit of a deceased loved on, or the residual imprint of a highly emotional event, or even an alien gray or the Loch Ness Monster for that matter, then in doesn't really matter what the scientific community thinks.
I always tell people that if they want to learn more about ghosts, UFOs, and other mysterious things, conduct your own research, have your own experiences, and draw your own conclusions. It doesn't matter what Scientist A or Skeptic B thinks. It's your experience, not theirs. Other people may be coming from a place where, no matter what evidence you present to them, they're not going to believe you. So why waste your energy trying to convince them of what you know instinctively, intuitively, and with all your heart to be true?
Paranormal experiences are extremely personal in nature. I remember the first time I saw an apparitional form at Spangler's Spring in Gettysburg. I was elated. Could I verify what I saw? No way. Not even close. It happened so quickly, and even if I were able to snap a few photographs, the evidence obtained wouldn't be completely verifiable, either. In our book, Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg, Patrick Burke and I present evidence and eyewitness testimony along with various theories that might explain what happened. The goal: Give readers an opportunity to digest the broadest range of possibilities, use that information as a basis to conduct their own research, and draw their own conclusions based on that.
Another example of a very profound yet unverifiable incident occurred early one morning when I heard strange sounds while setting up a camera in the Triangular Field. I distinctly heard the sounds of men hollering and yelling, coming towards me at the top of the field. It lasted for a good twenty seconds, and slowly dissipated. It was early dawn and not another living soul was on the battlefield. Further research verified that Confederate soldiers did indeed attack Union positions in the Triangular Field on the second day of fighting. And they would definitely have employed the infamous "rebel yell," which consisted of whooping and hollering like banshees in order to intimidate the enemy. "What exactly did I hear? The residual sounds of rebel yells?...Wild turkeys?...No wild turkeys around. Birds? No way it was birds." Once again, I was left with many more questions than answers. I knew what I heard. It was an amazing experience, but one that I had to tuck away in my back pocket as part of my collective experience as a body of evidence, not proof, that these things really do exist.
Only when new discoveries in quantum mechanics, cosmology, and other scientific areas of study redefine what we know about the nature of energy, matter, and consciousness will we be able to truly understand the nature of paranormal phenomena. But make no mistake: the paranormal of today will become the normal of tomorrow. So for those of you who have had paranormal experiences, embrace them, broaden your perspective, and don't worry about what other people think. In the end, it's about how these experiences open your mind and expand your understanding of the mysterious nature of the universe.