Are Spirits Dark?

We see stars and galaxies moving in ways they should not; … we deduce the existence of hitherto unobserved substances, provisionally called dark matter and dark energy. … [Dark matter] outweighs ordinary matter by a factor of 6 to 1. Galaxies and galaxy clusters are embedded in giant balls, or “halos,” of dark matter. … It has to consist of particles that scarcely interact with ordinary matter. …

Could there be a whole sector of hidden particles? Could there be a hidden world that is an exact copy of ours, containing hidden versions of electrons and protons, which combine to form hidden atoms and molecules, which combine to form hidden planets, hidden stars and even hidden people? …

Hidden worlds cannot be an exact copy of our visible world. … Halos would have flattened out to form disks like that of the Milky Way. … [They] would have affected cosmic expansion, altering the synthesis of hydrogen and helium in the early universe. … That said, the dark world might indeed be a complicated web of particles and forces. … Dark matter may be accompanied by … a hidden version of electromagnetism, implying that dark matter may emit and reflect hidden light. … The observation that small galaxies are systematically rounder than their larger cousins would be a telltale sign of dark matter interacting through new forces. …

The theoretical case for a complex dark world is now so compelling that many researchers would find it more surprising if dark matter turned out to be nothing more than an undifferentiated swarm of [weakly interacting massive particles]. After all, visible matter comprises a rich spectrum of particles with multiple interactions determined by beautiful underlying symmetry principles, and nothing suggests that dark matter and dark energy should be any different. (more)

Many people have a strong intuition that around us there are “spirits”, i.e., unseen intelligences who are usually hidden, but who sometimes touch our lives and world. The hypothesis that these spirits are made of ordinary matter and big enough to see is extremely hard to square with common observations. And the hypotheses that they are made of ordinary matter but too small to see, or usually hiding in space or deep underground but popping into our areas on occasion, are also pretty hard to square with expert observations. We keep getting better at seeing things, and see little evidence of anything remotely similar. Intelligences must eat something, defecate something, have evolved from something, etc., all of which leaves traces.

But physics today does offer one plausible place for a spirit hypothesis, in “dark matter.” We know that our kind of matter (electrons, protons, etc.) makes up less than 5% of the mass of the universe around us. The rest is a mysterious matter that interacts only very weakly with our kind of matter, but could interact more strongly with itself, and in complex ways. And while we know most of this dark matter cannot be made of heavy things that clump tightly like our matter does, a substantial fraction of it (say ~1%) could.

So there could well be complex intelligences made out of dark matter, and there might also be ways for them to rarely interact with our world, though such interaction would probably require them to exert great and careful efforts. And furthermore, since dark matter is a high priority research topic, if there is complex clumping dark matter we’ll probably know about it within a half century. Perhaps even a decade.

We thus face a unique chance for folks with strong intuitions for or against spirits to make testable predictions, and even put their money where their mouth is. Those who think spirits likely should think substantial clumping dark matter is likely, and there should also be many who think neither is likely. I’ll go on record saying I doubt any substantial fraction of dark matter can support complex structures conducive to the evolution of life. What say you?

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  • J

    Maybe we’ve got it backwards, and we’re the ghosts, angels, aliens and bigfoots of the universe.

    Words like “doubt” and “substantial” leave a lot of wiggle room. Are you really going on the record saying anything?

  • Chris

    It would be more appropriate to say that our kind of matter makes up 5% of the mass-energy around us I believe. Our mass-energy makes up 17% of the total, and mass in particular 5% of the total (which includes energy). This is what I’ve gleaned from various skim readings however – I am not at all an expert.

  • Anonymous Cow

    Hello Robin. I am writing this as someone who has read this blog for years, finds many of your posts interesting, and some useful. But this is the worst thing I have ever read on this blog, in terms of style as well as content.

    “The rest is a mysterious matter that interacts only very weakly with our kind of matter”

    No, DM is one good theory that might explain a few phenomena that have been observed. Your “is” is not justified here; and in the context of the rest of your post, this sentence reads like an attempt to present yourself as an authority on the topic for the purposes of this article.

    Whereas, here’s what NASA has to say in the article you linked, emphasis mine:

    NASA:”… that suggests there is something in the universe that we can not see, perhaps some new form of matter.”

    “What say you?”

    The astrophysics experts at NASA know almost nothing about dark matter/energy – not even whether it exists for certain or what form it has if it does exist.

    Since you know vastly less than them; I say you are attempting an intellectual land-grab (“I’ll go on record”) despite near-absolute ignorance of the phenomenon at hand. I could get as much useful insight into the universe from tossing a coin.

    ” I doubt any substantial fraction of dark matter can support complex structures conducive to the evolution of life”

    Oh really? Well, I can play this game too. Here goes – “A substantial fraction of dark matter is certainly capable of supporting complex structures conducive to the evolution of life”.

    Now, if it turns out in 100 years that the matter can be settled, can one of us posthumously/cryonically claim merit for being the earliest scientist to formally make this observation? I think not.

    That being the case, why bother at all except to show how carelessly you treat your academic reputation?

    What you’ve done in this post – ‘going on the record’ – is within the realm of academic dark arts and I am calling bullshit on the claim and the activity of making the claim.

    This type of ignorant ego-driven land-grab behaviour should be actively discouraged and criticised wherever it is found in the sciences.


    • Anonymous Cow: In the Bayesian tradition it’s considered virtuous to make predictions.

      • Anonymous Cow


        When it comes to ‘putting your name on the record’ with a prediction, a good Bayesian surely does not assign that level of strength to beliefs that they have only the faintest inkling about? Generating predictions from limited knowledge is one thing; staking your reputation on near-absolute ignorance of a matter is quite another.

        NASA scientists don’t feel entirely comfortable saying whether the stuff exists or not, and roughly what form it takes. Therefore broad, forceful claims about the fine detail of what the stuff might or might not allow are not in any normal sense rational or bayesian.

        And as for mixing it in with folk myth and spiritualism… I’m in a state of disbelief at what I’m reading, in more sense than one.


    • Douglas Knight

      You are selectively quoting as well. That NASA source says that we know that ordinary matter is 4.6%. Two significant figures!

    • Anonymous Cow, great to see a fellow traveler.
      I’m sympathetic to your criticisms of Prof. Hanson, although a regular reader will note that he meanders here and there into sin but also regularly outputs high quality analysis. We should judge him on his net contributions, which I think are high.

      As for spirits, I think they’re more reflections of our human/great ape psychology than our abilities to detect dark matter complex life -which if its as rare as visible matter life, is unlikely to overlap in our interactive area -to name one of several problems I see with the notion that folk spirits are dark matter complex life.

      • Anonymous Cow

        “We should judge him on his net contributions, which I think are high.”

        Just a note: I was judging the article/behaviour, not Robin generally. The strength of my disappointment here is a reflection of the value I place on his regular writing.


    • mjgeddes

      The votes show that the crazier and more extreme the ideas in the posts, the more attention it gets (e.g., bringing back flogging, we are simulations, Singularity hard-take off etc.). Robin’s got to keep increasing the bizarreness level to hold people’s attention (super-stimuli, need to keep increasing the input to maintain same effect).

      • Why is “we are simulations” a more crazy or extreme idea? It stands out to me from your other examples as being neither crazy nor extreme.

  • Tony

    How can you possibly have enough information to make a prediction?

  • Eric Hanneken

    The idea that dark matter = spirits was suggested in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of novels, beginning with the second volume (The Subtle Knife). However, you’ve given more thought to it in this blog post than Pullman did in two books.

    • Adrian Ratnapala

      For a better case of something like this in Sci Fi, see Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds.

      Still, that’s a good point about Pullman – I hadn’t seen the connection between “dust” and dark matter before. And I had always been puzzled by the title of the series. And good point that in two books Pullman had nothing worthwhile to say.

  • hemp

    May 22 2002 Richard Stenger CNN Scientists have discovered evidence that hordes of dark miniature galaxies surround ordinary galaxies lending credence to the theory that the universe is comprised mostly of cold dark matter.The astronomers who describe their work in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal based their finding on an in-depth study of light from distant galaxies.The team took advantage of a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing whereby galaxies closer to our cosmic neighborhood distort the light of galaxies farther away much like a glass lens as it bends light. To account for light variations the researchers concluded that hundreds of invisible dwarf galaxies must ring the background galaxies.An increasingly popular cosmological model holds that the universe contains large amounts of hidden dark matter because normal matter could not account for the mass needed to hold galaxies together.The theory lost momentum when a search for dark dwarf galaxies around galaxies like our own Milky Way proved fruitless but the latest find could give it a boost. The lack of observed satellite galaxies around large galaxies has been major point in the prosecution of the case against cold dark matter said one of the researchers Neal Dalal of the University of California San Diego.

  • Matthew

    What exactly do you mean by doubt?

  • Ian

    I’ll say this much: I don’t know whether this dark “spirit world” exists or not, but I have no reason to believe that it does.

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    This is a good point – I suspect scientists are biased against the idea that a spirit world exists. And as a scientist I will buy straight into that bias. My guess:

    * Dark matter is simple.
    * Even if it is complex enough to support a spirit world, there ain’t intelligent ones around here (not counting the ones mode of ordinary matter).

    It’s not as if there hasn’t been research into ESP & occult forces etc which has drawn a blank. So there is some actual evidence /against/ the existence of ghosts.

  • Pingback: Where in SF are ghosties made of dark matter. « The Kiloblog()

  • Dave

    What connection could dark matter and the spirit world have other than mutual vagueness and invisibility?

    • That connection is enough.

      Before you have strong evidence and good knowledge you need hints and intuition.

      • Dave

        Quantum weirdness and that perpetual uncertainty you have in dreams could also be related,but that type of thinking is an abuse of quantum theory. You might be just abusing the latest theory, or not.

      • That’s both a good point and a cruel transparency about the near asymptotes to our epistemology one would expect given the tinyness of our brains and culture vs. the vastness and complexity of our reality.

  • Doug

    Dark matter does not interact with ordinary matter except through gravity. It also is distributed spherically in galaxies instead of elliptically and does not demonstrate any kind of concentrated gravitational affect (like stars and black holes do). Rather it’s dispersed very uniformly along the gravitational potential of its galaxy.

    This is very very strong evidence that dark matter does not interact with itself except through gravitation. Any matter that only interacts through the extremely weak force of gravity could not form complex structures on anything but a truly massive scale. To get the same complexity as ordinary matter gets from a cell using EM force, would take many times the size of the universe to get using gravity.

    • There is plenty of good reason to think that a spirit world does not exist and that dark matter is not and can not be a spirit world that human minds couple to.

      The whole point of dark matter is that it doesn’t interact much with matter. Essentially the only interaction is gravitational. Gravitational interaction alone is insufficient to support a coupling of the human brain with the postulated spiritual human mind (for which there is no datum (note singular) which requires a non-material mind explanation). When the Apollo astronauts went to the moon, they moved a few light seconds away from Earth’s gravity well. They did not experience delays in cognition that they would have to experience if their “mind” had been left behind on Earth. Gravitation alone would be insufficient to couple any “human mind” to a human body as that body moved to the moon.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Hence the phrase “Dark Arts”.

  • Lord

    I see two ways of looking at it, 1) that of DE/DM existing within our universe, or 2) another universe, DE/DM being symptoms of interaction with it. The former would tend towards your belief. The latter could tend away from it, but it would all be a matter of what interactions were possible and what that other universe was like. Differences of composition, scale, space, time between them could lead to a lot of smearing.

  • candy

    So “Dark Matter = Ghosts” is the new “Quantum mechanics = Consciousness?”

    • Anonymous Cow

      “So “Dark Matter = Ghosts” is the new “Quantum mechanics = Consciousness?””

      You are not the only person thinking that exact thought while reading this thread…the primary difference being that at least Penrose knew what he was talking about on one side of the equation.

  • nick

    Angling for one of those coveted slots on the George Noorey show? This could do the trick.

    “could interact more strongly with itself”

    This would require more forces in the universe than the currently known four forces (electromagnetism, strong, weak, and gravity) It is confidently known that dark matter interacts via gravity, and probably also via the weak force, but not via electromagnetism or the strong force. What experimental evidence or theory requires us to hypothesize new force(s)? What specific observational or experimental results are you predicting from such force(s)? Without such considerations this is just unfalsifiable, faith-based speculation.

  • A lot of people have had similar thoughts. Stephen Baxter envisions a unvierse dominated by dark matter-based beings, which he refers to as “the photino birds”. But I would be suspicious of any argument that humans could sense dark matter beings. Our senses and cognition are products (most recently) of the African savannah, not the dark matter halo around the Milky Way, and our shortcomings in being able to make sense of and behave well in a new environment – even one we built ourselves, if rapidly – doesn’t bode well for having general agency detectors, in media that don’t seem to affect our survival on this planet. Why would such an ability ever have been selected for? For crying out loud, most humans can’t understand exponential functions; why should we be able to directly apprehend something like a dark matter being? Even without arguing against the possibility of such dark matter beings, the conspicuous false positives of our agency-detectors (reproducible with drugs or magnets) would seem to be better explanations for these kinds of experiences.

    • heh, great point -although a distinction can be made between abstract math (like exponential calculations) and the ability for central tendency human brains to solve much more complex stuff in an automated way (catching and throwing a baseball, etc.).

    • The idea would be that dark spirits are advanced enough to know how to influence our world, not that we evolved special detection abilities.

      • Right, so the question is about, if they exist, whether we can apprehend them directly as beings, or just figure out patterns in the things they cause. The question I was addressing was whether we can apprehend them directly, as the people who sense unseen intelligences would seem to be doing. If so, this would be a result of their interaction with life on Earth over geologic periods of time in ways that differentially affected individual survival. Because we only seem to have become consistently aware of dark matter in the last century and only revealed it by using complex tools and rigorous analysis, it seems difficult to imagine why we would be able to sense them on our own. If the question is whether they can do something that affects the whole Earth or large parts of it or something very abstract that we’d only notice with complex tools and analysis, that’s much easier to accept. But I don’t think that would make people sense that there are unseen intelligences, because we wouldn’t have been engineered by evolution to be bright enough to notice.

  • Pavitra

    I predict that dark matter does clump complexly, but that we will discover ordinary-matter aliens sooner and closer than we will discover dark-matter aliens.

  • Dennis

    Given that there exist dark matter intelligences, to support the idea of “spirits,” a case still must be made that they have the capacities to observe our matter and invoke specific interactions at will.

  • RobotButcher

    Who’s to say dark matter has to form in any way similar to “our” matter in order to contain spirits (or whatever your personal dogma dictates it be called)? Its obviously beyond our current comprehension, so the construction of any life inside it is probably also beyond our current comprehension.

    There’s so much to this universe that we will never be able to quantify through scientific method. If “substantial clumping” is found (or not), people who believe in higher life forms will continue to believe in them, and people who don’t will continue not to. Some people would never believe in God unless they shook his hand (and would probably still take a dna sample for the record). It definitely seemed to touch a nerve with some of you, but I think the point of the article was just to be some interesting speculation on the nature of a newly discovered phenomenon. I also think that some of you have a personal bias that is offended by the idea, and you thought he was going to end the article by asking you to go to church. amirite?

    • Mr. Butcher: I wasn’t so worried Robin would ask us to go snake-handling on Sunday. In my own case (as a non-believer) I just thought he was being too generous in his estimation of human senses and cognition, in terms of explaining an experience of an unseen intelligences as possible dark matter critters. But it’s an interesting speculation and no doubt MOST of human experience has yet to be explained by science, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t be.

  • Anonymous Cow

    A couple of other points on the article topic:

    1. The idea of ‘dark matter = ghosties’ is not new, for at least half a decade it’s been a recurring theme in the loony fringe. Google “dark matter spirits” for a wide range of it.

    Also, I object to this sentence:

    “physics today does offer one plausible place for a spirit hypothesis, in “dark matter.”

    I’m pretty sure the overwhelming majority of professional physicists would take issue with that statement.

    Anyone with ghostly feelings might do well to read this post on Yahoo:

    Last of all, some alternative axioms that seem to fit the data:

    For me personally, the idea that local physical law is not the same as universal physical law is most compelling since we’ve had that kind of evidence-driven paradigm shift in physics before. Perhaps as Newtonian motion yielded to relativistic motion, we will see other physical laws and constants yield to distant astronomical observations. Example below, with popsci description below it.

  • Sigivald

    The idea that 95% of the matter in the universe is liquor is inspiring.

    Given that it’s dark, that implies dark rum or whiskey.

    Bourbon, as the brownest of the brown liquors, is presumably highly represented.

    God does exist and loves us, obviously. We just need to find those bourbon-pockets…

  • haig