A philosophy of ghosts: How the scary unreal illuminates the real

I don’t like being scared.

If there’s a biological component to thrill-seeking, I don’t have it. (Some people, of course, may have it.) As a kid, I forced myself to go on roller coasters, and I did that, proving to myself I could face my fear, and having done that, I don’t have to go on roller coasters any more. It’s just not fun for me. Likewise, I don’t watch horror films, and I don’t go to “haunted houses,” and I even get a little anxious after seeing my neighbors’  Halloween decorations.

Pretty much all of Halloween is tough on those of us who are prone to anxiety. I get scared enough worrying about the various aspects of my present and my future that I don’t need any more reminders of death or the unknown. I much prefer those holidays were we celebrate life and have pastel bunnies and evergreen trees and whatnot.

I’m not the first to say that what’s scary about Halloween decorations like scarecrows and sheet-ghosts, is that they somewhat, but not precisely, resemble real people and inanimate objects. Like the “uncanny valley” of human reactions to robots who have near-but-not-yet-human bodies and movements, seeing levitating, wind-fluttered sheets in a tree and human forms in unaccustomed positions and places (like scarecrow decorations) perhaps causes an anxious need to resolve the differences between what we see and what we expect to see.

And sometimes it’s hard to resolve this difference. In my life, I have had experiences that seemed to be a little “otherworldly.” I have had moments of “déjà vu,” where I’d see a particular situation in front of me and feel like I’d dreamt that situation earlier. Another time, I remember having a strange, almost intoxicated feeling after talking with a person of a religious tradition little known to me. But rather than interpret these feelings as implying that there really was an “other world,” in which there could be prophetic dreams and people in contact with spirits, I just labeled these as odd, unexplained experiences, and I go on living my life in a world of regular physical things with a mind that sometimes has weird experiences.

And of course, how our minds operate, and how they interact with the physical world (for example, how nonphysical minds arise from physical brains) are themselves mysteries. But just because something is unexplained or mysterious does not mean that it can justify belief in the supernatural.

We educated moderns have mostly agreed to let science be the basis of our understanding of reality. What is real are things that many people can witness repeatedly. Rainbows and cows and electricity are real because we can observe these things under repeatable conditions. And in this world, certain things happen, and certain things don’t: for instance, objects don’t pop into and out of existence. If a pen I expected to find on my desk is no longer there, I assume that there is some physical explanation for where it went (maybe I bumped it off the desk, or my cat did, or a vibration from a passing truck pushed it off, etc.), rather than assuming that either the pen disappeared (as if by magic) or that some ghost took the pen.

We never see magical or supernatural things in our everyday perceptions of the world. (This is where it gets tricky: those who do see supernatural things, we would call mentally disordered — because brain malfunction is a more scientific explanation than assuming someone is beyond-human, no matter what a large number of fiction storytellers propose).  If we are to acknowledge ghosts as scientifically real, we would need to see them appear to groups (and not one individual) of people in repeatable ways — like rainbows do. Even if scientists were to verify by repeated observations that some of the phenomena that so-called “ghost hunters” look for — weird voices, cold spots, inexplicable phenomena — were real, scientists could not declare “ghosts” to be real, because “ghost” is a causal interpretation/explanation that requires nonphysical definition. A ghost, as commonly understood, is the soul or spirit of a dead person — and this connection cannot be made by rational argument. It must be made on faith alone.

Now, of course, some people choose to see the world through an understanding based on faith. They believe something is real because, well, they believe it’s real. Faith does not require evidence. Faith takes over where science cannot comment, which is in any realm in which there is no physical evidence. Science has no evidence into my personal, subjective experience; scientists can watch my brain scans and try to correlate those results with what I report experiencing, but no scientist can experience anything directly from or in anyone else’s mind.

But it is within one’s mind that one makes meaning from, one interprets, what one sees and feels. And so one is free to choose what one’s experiences mean. And so some people, including some of my students, assign to their unusual experiences the meaning of “ghost.” I choose not to accept that interpretation for my own irregular experiences because, frankly, I don’t want to believe in ghosts. I don’t want to believe the world is full of supernatural things. I find the idea of ghosts scary, and I choose to not be scared, so I accept the scientific view that ghosts, as a theory of what causes observed reality, cannot be justify as physically real.

However, my students who believe in ghosts often say that they want to believe in ghosts, because this belief allows them to think their deceased family members are still with them. (Mary Todd Lincoln reportedly believed in the ghost of Abe for the same reason.) One student this year told me she believes in ghosts because if they do exist, they would treat her better for having believed in them (an argument that seems silly but is pretty much the same argument made by the respected thinker Blaise Pascal.)

And I like having this discussion in my English classes because it makes clear some of the issues between science and religions, observations and theories, epistemology and metaphysics. I don’t understand ghosts as physically real, but I appreciate the ghosts as a real idea that can be discussed.

One response to “A philosophy of ghosts: How the scary unreal illuminates the real

  1. This is a very interesting post. I don’t like being scared either, and I’ve never been on a roller coaster. Halloween doesn’t bother me more than any other event/holiday, though. I associate death even with “pastel bunnies” (resurrection is a pretty eery subject), and I can’t bring myself to kill an evergreen for Christmas.

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