Ever since the days of Descartes in the 17th century, the search for a reason-based vindication of the widespread belief in the existence of the human soul has occupied the efforts of those who want to find a point of consonance between faith and reason. If science, the most rigorous form of reason, ever uncovered demonstrable and indisputable evidence that the human soul existed, the scientist who found this data would not only win the Nobel Prize. He or she would become the most famous scientist in human history.
But this envious lot has not fallen to one “scientist” who claimed in late September 2013 that he photographed the human soul leaving its host body. Below is the image that has been making the rounds on the Internet:
As reported by the woo website Conscious Life News, Russian physicist Konstantin G. Korotkov believes he has photographed a person’s soul leaving a body at the moment of the body’s death – an event called “astral disembodiment” – using a bioelectrographic camera. Korotkov’s photographic method is called “gas discharge visualization” (GDV), a technique he developed.
But GDV is just an advanced version of Kirlian photography, a method discovered and developed by the Russian inventor Semyon Kirlian in 1939. Following is a good description of the latter method from Wikipedia.com:
Kirlian photography is a technique for creating contact print photographs using high voltage. The process entails placing sheet photographic film on top of a metal discharge plate. The object to be photographed is then placed directly on top of the film. High voltage is momentarily applied to the metal plate, thus creating an exposure. The corona discharge between the object and the high voltage plate is captured by the film. The developed film results in a Kirlian photograph of the object.
In other words, the process of Kirlian photography involves the interaction of a high discharge of electricity with whatever object is resting on the metal plate. The photographer achieves a picture of the resulting corona discharge (a phenomenon similar to static electricity). Using this technique, photographers can capture dramatic pictures.
However, Kirlian photographers have never photographed something as dramatic as a soul, and Dr. Korotkov is no exception. In fact, given the very definition of this type of photography, physics tells us exactly what we are taking a picture of. Kirlian photography may be a fascinating art form, and many wonderful and beautiful pictures have been produced with this method. But it is by no means imbued with mystery or mysticism. This is how we can say with confidence that Dr. Korotkov has certainly not photographed a person’s “aura” (i.e., spiritual energy that is said to form a halo around an object or person’s body). Many people who have no background in science are unaware of the straightforward and well-established physics definition of Kirlian photography and falsely believe that the technique is defined by its imagined efficacy in photographing human auras.
So here we witness the debacle of a Russian physicist – who surely must understand what Kirlian photography is and what is happening on a molecular level during the Kirlian process – reinforcing the grossly misinformed popular impression of the technique. In a sense, this move is not wholly inscrutable. Educating the public in real science is hard work and can be unrewarding. And the New Age sections of bookstores readily testify to the fact that pseudoscience and woo sell big.
On the other hand, the epistemological leap made by Korotkov is astounding. What self-respecting academic takes pictures of people on their deathbed and then claims with a straight face that he has photographed the dying person’s soul leaving the body? Korotkov even goes so far as to specify which parts of the body the soul vacates first and which body parts are the last to have a soul:
According to Korotkov, navel and head are the parties who first lose their life force (which would be the soul) and the groin and the heart are the last areas where the spirit [is] before surfing the phantasmagoria of the infinite.
This is only slightly more absurd than the claim, put forth by the early 20th century physician Duncan MacDougall, that the human soul has a definite weight of 21 grams, which he believed was determined by weighing a human body before and after death.
What Else Does Korotkov Believe?
Given Korotkov’s alleged credentials as a physicist who, according to his website, has published over 200 papers in leading scientific journals, we can safely assume he once attended a university and has received an appreciable amount of scientific training. Korotkov is a man who is supposed to understand the Scientific Method. Yet he has bought into New Age ideas so strongly that all he has to offer to the world is the augmentation of an existing pseudoscience. For someone who claims he has actually photographed the human soul, it is interesting to note that Korotkov has not even come up with an original idea with which to entertain skeptics at a cocktail party.
To wit: Korotkov recently appeared on a news segment of RT, a Russian-based television network that broadcasts internationally. In the interview, Korotkov has the audacity to say that his beliefs represent something new and cutting-edge:
With our emotions, with our intentions, we can directly influence our environment, our space. Of course, this idea is absolutely new. That’s why it has a lot of criticisms to [it].
If Korotkov thinks this idea is “absolutely new,” he has been living under a rock for a very long time. His formulation of the mind-over-matter idea is more than just a rehashing of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. The idea that we can influence our surroundings with the power of mind is hundreds of years old, if not thousands. Contrary to Korotkov’s assertions, skeptics are not resistant to the mind-over-matter philosophy because we cannot handle its alleged novelty. Skeptics are resistant to the belief in general because it is demonstrably false. And we are resistant to Korotkov’s formulation in particular because he does not even put an interesting new spin on it. At the very least, he could have “Chopra’d” his vocabulary a bit by invoking quantum mechanics to amuse us skeptics.
This is not to say that Korotkov does not use the vocabulary of his education to make his mysticism sound sophisticated and reputable, because this he certainly does quite liberally. And he does share with New Age devotees a major hard-on for the word “energy.” Korotkov’s ability to mix portions of sound science with complex-sounding psychobabble is on full display in an hour-long interview he gave in August 2007 for the New Age talk show Conscious Media Network. Following is an excerpt from that interview:
I’m a physicist with a background in quantum physics. I’ve spent many years in Soviet Union in this type of research. So for me it is actually acceptable to take [the] normal physical definition of the word “energy” . . . In biology, in our research, we use energy that we define as “energy of electrons.” So we can measure in principle and exactly define the energy of electrons, and typically it’s measured in electron-volts. And then we can tell that we have electrons in the ground state in organic molecules and we have excited electrons that have extra energy. And this energy may be accepted by light, because when we accept light . . . we increase in the energy of our body. It means that we increase the energy of particular specific electrons. [In the] same way, we can increase this energy by electromagnetic impulses, by different fields, and these electrons may be transformed from one part of the body to another part of the body. So, when we tell about energy – energy circulation, energy movement, energy mediums – we mean that we define this energy as electron transfer along protein complexes in organic tissues and in particular in connective tissues . . . And of course we have a lot of electron transfer due to electrolysis because in our connective tissues we have always some water molecules, and these water molecules allows to organize electron transfer. And this is from our point of view the basis of all this energy transfer, energy work . . . And our brain, our mental concentration, would allow us to redistribute those electrons from one part of the body to another part of the body. And in Oriental parts it is known as energy movement along chakras, along meridians, along Kundalini.
Korotkov cleverly denies the existence of meridians, which are mythical paths through which many practitioners of alternative medicine, especially acupuncture, believe that “qi,” or life-force, flows through the human body. He even expresses his distaste for the term “energy-healing,” perhaps in the interest of appearing scientifically respectable. In Korotkov’s words, “The problem is that no one was able to define meridians, because they don’t exist. We don’t need some mythological process.” But this is just a convenient way for him to use the language and trappings of science to put clothes on his naked emperor of pseudoscience. He does not deny these phenomena itself, only the mechanism by which it occurs. The effectof meridians and chakras and energy healing are in his view very real, but caused by physical and not otherworldly processes. This makes his claims non-falsifiable and therefore non-scientific by definition.
It should also be noted that if Korotkov is really well-versed in physics and the scientific understanding of energy, he blatantly betrays his disingenuousness and willingness to mislead when he fails to correct a huge error made by host Regina Meredith. Near the end of the interview she states, “This is a universe made of energy. We can’t ignore this fact anymore. Matter is almost irrelevant compared to the subject of energy.” Meredith should read up on the Special Theory of Relativity and educate herself about what e = mc2 means. Matter is energy, albeit frozen.
Dimming the Lights
The reason skeptics and critical thinkers should critique the assertions of pseudoscientists is not to mock the pseudoscientist himself or win an argument. We should expose the flaws in their claims for the benefit of people who would otherwise buy into their declarations and base their life on the worldview they promote. One of the gullible individuals swallowing Korotkov’s claims about soul photography presents us with a case study in how pseudoscientists can take advantage of credulous people who have suffered personal tragedy in their lives.
A man who calls himself Alexander Light created a video singing the praises of Korotkov and his magical camera. With the epic strains of Lisa Gerrard’s composition “Now We Are Free” playing over the video’s text and pictures, Mr. Light tells us that his mother died when he was 17 years old. He believes that the spirit of his mother is still with him, and that this is evidenced by a photograph “of my son and I.” According to Light, “[T]he spirit of my mother and two males are hugging us.” Below is the photograph from his video.
There is nothing strange or new about this photo. It is a boringly typical faux ghost picture, the kind easily produced when somebody snaps a photo inside a smoky room and photons from the camera’s flash bounces off the smoke particles. The effect is eerie, but well documented and accounted for by simple physics. But Mr. Light sees in this picture “a great confirmation for myself that all those years my mother was all around me.” He concludes the video by personally thanking Dr. Korotkov for his work in spirit photography and bitterly adds that “humanity do not [sic] believe you unless you have a ‘DR’ in front of your name .. hope this video helps others.”
My riposte to this sentiment is that, on the contrary, it is surprising that a large proportion of the general public harbors a strong fear and distrust of real scientists. Light is here complaining about skeptics and critical thinkers who are interested in looking for facts in the right place. And like so many other New Age devotees, Light is latching onto the words of a scientist when the latter reinforces his own belief system, but is willing to dismiss the work of the vast majority of scientists as “close-minded,” bound to the strictures of a reality that True Believers would rather not be a part of. For gullible and credulous believers like Light, Wonderland is far more interesting.
Losing close family members to death is a bad experience for skeptics and believers alike. The desire to believe that deceased loved ones are still here with us in some form is understandable. But consider how far Mr. Light and many others like him are going to make themselves feel better about personal loss. Dealing with a death in the family by clinging to supernaturalism actually demeans and belittles the meaning of the lives that are gone. Reality may not be as satisfying as fantasy, but it is orders of magnitude more fulfilling.
Shame on you, Korotkov, for disingenuously feeding off people’s anxieties and fueling desires to believe in the false hope that their dead family members are still alive.