The 3rd law of motion and the paranormal

5th January 2023. Reading Time: 9 minutes General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 634 page views. 0 comments.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Let's discuss this within the world of the paranormal.

Before we begin, I am no physics expert.  I have a simple basic understanding of physics you could probably compare to high school level so I am not even going to pretend to try and get all technical here.  There is however a lot of content and discussion out there about the connections between physics and the paranormal, so that is what we are discussing today and perhaps something that is not discussed or thought of enough.  These are merely musings, thoughts and questions with no certain answers, just something to make you think.  So let's ponder the possible connections between Newton's 3rd Law and the paranormal.

What is Newton's 3rd Law?

Sir Issac Newton was a famous English physicist and mathematician leading the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.  He discovered the composition of white light laying the foundations for modern physical optics.  He is also known for his 3 laws of motion: Law of Inertia, Law of Mass and Acceleration, and the Third Law of Motion.  It is this Third Law of Motion we are exploring today.  

Image Source: How it works

"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

Science defines it as

A force is a push or a pull that acts upon an object as a results of its interaction with another object. Forces result from interactions! As discussed in Lesson 2, some forces result from contact interactions (normal, frictional, tensional, and applied forces are examples of contact forces) and other forces are the result of action-at-a-distance interactions (gravitational, electrical, and magnetic forces). According to Newton, whenever objects A and B interact with each other, they exert forces upon each other. When you sit in your chair, your body exerts a downward force on the chair and the chair exerts an upward force on your body. There are two forces resulting from this interaction - a force on the chair and a force on your body. These two forces are called action and reaction forces and are the subject of Newton's third law of motion. Formally stated, Newton's third law is:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The statement means that in every interaction, there is a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects. The size of the forces on the first object equals the size of the force on the second object. The direction of the force on the first object is opposite to the direction of the force on the second object. Forces always come in pairs - equal and opposite action-reaction force pairs. 

https://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-4/Newton-s-Third-Law

Does the 3rd Law of motion apply to ghosts?

So what has this got to do with the paranormal?  There are a few different ways to look at it.  Again for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  This phrase is important.  Does the law of motion apply to ghosts?  Now your automatic answer is probably no it doesn't because ghosts are often thought to be energy.  There are some things however even with that statement that we should consider and discuss.

In the paper: Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality: Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies by Efthimiou, C. & Gandhi, Sohang. (2006), Efthimiou examines the popular movie Ghost (one of my favourite movies I literally just watched again the other day) and picks apart certain aspects as even though a movie, it still is a basis for how many believe ghosts behave.  In a specific example, they explore the concept of ghosts walking through walls or even walking up stairs.  From Newton's 3rd Law of motion, this would not be possible.

Let us examine the process of walking in detail. Now walking requires an interaction with the floor and such interactions are explained by Newton’s Laws of Motion. Newton’s first law is the law of inertia. It states that a body at rest will remain at rest until acted upon by an external force. Therefore, a person cannot start walking unless a force, applied by some body other than herself, is acting upon her. But where is the force coming from? The only object in contact with the person while walking is the floor. So, the force moving a person during walking is coming from the floor. But how does the floor know to exert a force when the person wants to start walking and stop exerting it when the person wants to stand? Actually, there is no magic here. The person actually tells the floor. She tells the floor by using Newton’s third law

Newton’s third law says that if one object exerts a force on another object, then the second object
exerts a force, that is equal but oppositely directed, on the first object — hence “for each action there
is an equal but opposite reaction.” Thus when the skate-boarder in figure 4 pushes on the wall, the
wall pushes right back on her, causing her to accelerate off to the left.

Efthimiou, C. & Gandhi, Sohang. (2006). Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality: Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies. 

The above is food for thought.  While the above paper is likely written from a hard skeptical stance with perhaps some sarcastic undertones in there as it was written to debunk Hollywood movies using science, it does make me ponder the question simply because we are talking about force and movement, if a ghost does not apply force on the floor to walk, how is that we will hear footsteps?  How would we communicate with spirits or ghosts if the law of motion does not apply to them?  We ask a spirit to touch a device to set it off.  There are specific devices that require force or vibration to be able to trigger.  If this force or vibration (which would have to be caused by movement) trigger is not applied, then in theory the device should not be going off.  We ask a spirit to knock on a table or even to move an object. If a ghost can walk right through a wall, how can they also tap on it or a solid surface to make a noise?  How can they do this if the basic laws don't apply to them?  I know that it is not black and white and we can't really answer this with any certainty.  There is so much that science cannot explain, but it does in some ways make me think about the way we approach paranormal investigation against the theory that we use.  If we do think that spirits are just energy, maybe we are asking the wrong things from them in how we communicate. 

Here is a famous image that has been circulating around paranormal social media pages since I can remember.  It is an image published in The World of the Unknown: Ghosts by Christopher Maynard originally published in 1977 and republished again in 2019.

It gives a basic explanation still popular today as to why it is a ghost may walk through a wall using the analogy of both stairs and walls referenced in the paper above.  While scientifically this theory starts to gain some holes when looking at the basic laws, maybe this is looking too much into things because we also know that weird stuff happens that seems to defy what science can explain or replicate.  That is why we are all here and fascinated with the paranormal. 

If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody around to hear, does it make a sound?

Moving away from the scientific specifics of Newton's 3rd law, let's look solely at just the phrasing of every action needing a reaction to essentially work.  From a paranormal perspective, does our presence change things? Would paranormal phenomena occur if we were not there to experience it?

Philosophers have long argued that sound, colour, taste, smell and touch are all secondary qualities that exist only in our minds. This essentially means that hearing a sound for example is considered to be a human experience rather than some kind of physical phenomenon. So if we were to ask the question 'if a tree falls in the forest, and there's nobody around to hear does it make a sound?' As there are no 'ears' to hear the sound the answer to this question is often no. The idea was proposed by Irish philosopher George Berkeley in his 1710 book called A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Unperceived existence is a philosophical term that plays between existence and perception, something which I found profoundly relevant when it comes to paranormal phenomena.

Can we know that objects continue to exist even when they are not being perceived by anyone?

Well, perhaps we cannot be absolutely certain of their continued existence during the times when they are not being perceived, but common sense tells us that in all probability they do continue to exist even when not being perceived.

can we know that objects exist even when they are being perceived?

Surely no one would be so skeptical as to hold that we cannot know objects exist when they are being directly perceived. Common sense tells us that of course we can know that objects exist during the intervals that we are directly perceiving them.

John Locke - An essay concerning human understanding 1690

Are we the action and the paranormal phenomena are essentially the reaction?  

Veering away from philosophy, let's look at actual paranormal investigating. In order to observe or experience paranormal phenomena, we need to enter a location to do so. While we may not be in the room at the time, we are likely setting up equipment like recorders or video cameras to be able to observe any possible activity. Our entering a location means that just by us being there, we have changed things. We are the action.  What reaction is this causing?

I know this is a question I have actually asked myself on several occasions. Is activity occurring because there is a potential haunting, or is it happening because I am there? We all have different perceptions when it comes to the paranormal. If we apply the above when it comes to the paranormal, we ask the question - is paranormal activity happening when there is no one to observe it? This then means that paranormal phenomena purely come down to how a person observes this phenomenon and then how they perceive it.  Ultimately, all the laws tend to go out the window when it comes to the paranormal.  A lot of people consider themselves to be scientific when it comes to their approach to the paranormal and often this is applied more from an equipment perspective and again basic scientific principles.  As mentioned above, it is often however not matched with the way we ask spirits to interact with us or even with how we discuss paranormal theory. While there are certainly some things we cannot explain, we should at least talk about them and consider all options.

Maybe in the grand scheme of things, we aren't supposed to know how it all works.  We should however at least question it as paranormal researchers.


References

https://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-4/Newton-s-Third-Law

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Isaac-Newton

https://www.livescience.com/16951-einstein-physics-ghosts-proof.html

https://phys.org/news/2006-10-laws-physics-math-debunk-hollywood.html

Efthimiou, C. & Gandhi, Sohang. (2006). Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality: Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies. 

John Locke - An essay concerning human understanding 1690

The World of the Unknown: Ghosts by Christopher Maynard (1977)

Cover Image: Photo by Alan Cabello: https://www.pexels.com/photo/couple-dressed-as-ghosts-walking-in-the-forest-14369345/

 

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