Tag Archives: debate

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.

A fair debate of ideas

I wanted to share a great post about those who seek to ban books with messages they dislike. I particularly like how blogger A.M.B. said this:

If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.

This is an excellent point. Why would someone be afraid of an idea? If one disagrees with an idea, one ought to be able to explain why, with a reasonable argument, no? Rather than condemn ideas outright, as if ideas were so dangerous as to require putting them away on a high shelf, why not just rationally debate them? Do book-banners perhaps lack debate skills? Or do they seek authoritarian solutions to what could and should be democratic decisions?

Links: 23 Feb: Doubt, etc.

1. Phillip Lopate makes a point about the value of doubt to essays:

Ever since Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the modern essay, gave as a motto his befuddled “What do I know?” and put forth a vision of humanity as mentally wavering and inconstant, the essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.

According to Theodor Adorno, the iron law of the essay is heresy. What is heresy if not the expression of contrarian doubt about communal pieties or orthodox positions? This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” an ostensible goal of education in a democracy. But since such thinking often rocks the boat, we may find it less than supported in school settings. Typically, the exercise of doubt is something an individual has to cultivate on his or her own, in private, before summoning the courage to air it, say, in an essay.

… [writing teachers should] encourage a more polyphonic, playful approach. That may be why a classic essay technique is to stage an inner debate by thinking against oneself. Doubt is my boon companion, the faithful St. Bernard ever at my side. Whether writing essays or just going about daily life, I am constantly second-guessing myself. My mind is filled with “yes, buts,” “so whats?” and other skeptical rejoinders. I am forever monitoring myself for traces of folly, insensitivity, arrogance, false humility, cruelty, stupidity, immaturity and, guess what, I keep finding examples. Age has not made me wiser, except maybe in retrospect.

2. Scrapbooking through history.

3. On David Sedaris as a Platonic ideal of fabricated nonfiction and how Sloane Crosley and Davy Rothbart fall short of the ideal and how Sheila Heti strikes off on her own and a short quotation from John Jeremiah Sullivan: I liked this definition:

the essay is one of the purest ways for a writer’s mind to record its own motions, which are the basis of prose style.

I agree that there’s something off about making a career by exaggerating oneself as a comic character as Sedaris has done (though I enjoy his writings as entertainments, they’ve not been something I aspired to emulate) and as Crosley has done (though she does more explicitly what Sedaris does obliquely — say terrible things about people who could easily identify themselves in her writing).

3. Unreadable published prose.

4. One person’s story of realizing she wasn’t a novelist.

5. Andrew Sullivan describes

the forces that free market capitalism unleashes are precisely the forces that undermine traditional forms of community and family that once served as a traditional safety net, free from government control.

6. From the AVClub, Oscar nominees in TV cameos.

7. An argument for an actual political debate, and not just dueling speeches.

8. The value of skepticism as a way of approaching reality (and avoiding pure abstraction).

9. Two pieces on the value of memorizing poems: Auden, Holt.