Tag Archives: faith

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.

When argument can’t compete with belief

As a liberal arts (specifically philosophy) major, I was taught the power of argument — of using rational statements, logic, and evidence, to substantiate, attack, or defend the beliefs of oneself or others.

But as I’ve observed in recent years, argument doesn’t seem to be a mode of communication agreed to by everyone, and in a way, arguing is like a game, in that everybody has to agree to play by the rules. These rules include acknowledging that attacking the person rather than the person’s ideas, oversimplifying or misstating the counterargument, and/or simply talking over one’s opponent, are behaviors in violation of the rules.

Examples of people in political realms violating the rules above are numerous, and I won’t point to them now. But this is a problem, because rational argument is about the only rhetorical mode by which people with different background values and beliefs may communicate.

Andrew Sullivan makes this point well in a recent post asserting that many contemporary societies around the world are split into secular and religious camps, and that these divisions seem to be solidifying. Sullivan writes:

The real question, however, is how societies can retain their coherence and unity when they are caught between the reassuring certainties of fundamentalism and the exhilarating disorientation of modernity. The worldviews are from such different places – and are now penetrating cultures which, before the globalization of information, were able to keep them at bay. And so a mutilated woman in Saudi Arabia can see unfathomable sexual pornography with a click of a mouse. And young, hip Tehran youth look on in disbelief as the crudest forms of religious frenzy guide an economy toward the rocks. If you go from the central cities of these countries and venture further and further into the rural heartlands, you will find not only that the blue parts of these countries are getting bluer, but that, in response, many of the red parts are getting redder. Soon, both parties create a different set of facts, as well as beliefs, about their world. Until they are barely able to communicate with each other at all.

and the problem of division becomes a significant issue in agreeing on what can be (and is) known:

All of this is an epic struggle for meaning – and the possibility of meaning in any communal sense. That’s why it’s so intractable. That’s why it is tearing countries and cultures apart. That’s why reasoned debate, however vital, is so disarmed right now. Because pride, honor and identity are at stake. The ressentiment in the rural heartland is echoed by the bigotry of liberal, urban Americans when they discuss their fellow citizens in the redder, fundamentalist states.

I’m not sure there can be a political resolution to this in the short term.

And in another recent article, a young woman who was raised in a strict “Christian apologetic” household described how obedience was valued by her parents:

Obedience was paramount — if we did not respond immediately to being called, we were spanked ten to fifteen times with a strip of leather cut from the stuff they used to make shoe soles. Bad attitudes, lying, or slow obedience usually warranted the same — the slogan was “All the way, right away, and with a happy spirit.” We were extremely well-behaved children, and my dad would sometimes show us off to people he met in public by issuing commands that we automatically rushed to obey. The training was not just external; God commanded that our feelings and thoughts be pure, and this resulted in high self-discipline.

I was not raised this way, and, with my background in philosophical inquiry (with the “question everything” Socratic method), I was struck by how much certainty was valued:

Atheists frequently wonder how an otherwise rational Christian can live and die without seeing the light of science, and I believe the answer to this is usually environment. If every friend, authority figure, and informational source in your life constantly repeat the same ideas, it is difficult not to believe they’re onto something. My world was built of “reasonable” Christians — the ones who thought, who questioned, who knew that what they believed was true. In the face of this strength, my own doubts seemed petty.

and

I had trouble coping with the fact that my entire childhood education now essentially meant nothing — I had been schooled in a sham. I had to start from scratch in entering and learning about this secular world. Uncertainty was not something I was accustomed to feeling.

As a thinker and creative artist, I feel the need to question all of the things I feel certain about — that’s perhaps one way to define creativity. The writer above says that same about science:

I’ve been educating myself in science, a world far more uncertain than the one I left, but also far more honest.

and that what she values the most now is freedom:

Someone once asked me if I would trade in my childhood for another, if I had the chance, and my answer was no, not for anything.
 My reason is that, without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful.

Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.

This writer also says her father trained her to think logically, to argue, and perhaps it’s that training (along with her curiosity) that led to her “deconversion,” as she calls it.

I hadn’t really heard of “Christian apologetics” before, but I guess I don’t understand the mission of those who would, as Wikipedia states, “present a rational basis for the Christian faith”. Faith would seem to be something that would be emotional and subjective — that is, personal, individual — and thus would not be able to be founded in rationality — faith and rationality seem fundamentally opposed.

This is not to say that faith and rationality aren’t both valid ways of knowing, but are valid when used within their own proper applications — just as we wouldn’t value an artwork just because of its weight (all marble sculptures would be more beautiful by the pound than almost all paintings!), we shouldn’t measure the reality of the physical world by subjective means. I wouldn’t want my guilt or innocence judged by whether someone found my face handsome or ugly — I would want my guilt to be proven, and likewise, if we’re gonna talk to each other, it’s gotta be in objective (publicly visible) ways. The rhetoric of faith cannot be the public rhetoric of a world of diverse faiths and personal experiences.

And so, to have a successful society, we need to be able to listen to each other, rationally, and make arguments (and not just unsupported assertions) to each other. In the previous post, I said that I did not confront someone who made assertions I didn’t agree with — and perhaps we don’t need to take every chance to argue with someone. (Frankly, I was a little afraid of getting punched — but this is why, to refer to my earlier point, argument is a game. We can’t be talking if one party uses physicality rather than words.) But I’d assert that we must be open to debate our views and beliefs if we are to reach beyond our mere subjectivity, our limited personal experiences.

P.S.: I also wanted to link in this idea, from a discussion about Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann:

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world. [bold-emphasis is mine.]

Bizzy! Bizzy! Bizzy!: Metaphysical Implications of “Frosty the Snowman”

“Frosty the Snowman” cartoon was broadcast on CBS last night. Though I’ve watched this cartoon many times before, I watched it last night partly to experience that holiday tradition, and partly because I wanted to see Prof. Hinkle say the line — “Busy! Busy! Busy!” (though it sounds more like “Bizzy! Bizzy! Bizzy!”) — that is one of the many cultural references in the two-person culture that my wife and I have semi-consciously created for ourselves. I didn’t remember that the full line was “I’ve got to get busy writing — busy, busy, busy!” (or however one punctuates a three-word repetition — which, digression: I saw a t-shirt message — “Let’s eat grandma. Let’s eat, grandma. Punctuation saves lives.” — in a catalog yesterday whose message resonated for ol’ English teacher me). So, while Hinkle is doing punishment writing for Santa, and I will not be, I may introduce the longer quotation into my home-culture.

But here’s the other thing about that show: it’s narratively absurd, and this never bothered me as a kid, but I think that’s because I was more a believer in the whole of Christmas magic than I tend to be now. Now, I’ve long had some trouble with the part where little beskirted Karen (her cold knees!), the titular suscitated snowman, and a problem-solving, communicative magician’s rabbit get on a refrigerated rail car headed north (I noticed last night that the reefer car is the only car between the engine and the caboose, which inefficiency could explain why the ticket agent tried to charge the trio $3000.04 for a ticket to the north pole, which, also inefficiently, routed through Saskatchewan, Hudson Bay, Nome, and the Yukon, which map-path drawing started to give me a headache). I’ve also wondered how far north they got before they decided to jump off the train because Karen was, if memory serves (I somehow skipped this moment last night), getting cold in the reefer car, a pragmatic gesture that throws the other absurdities into relief.

So, they’re in a forest where numerous animals are somehow decorating for Christmas and awaiting Santa’s arrival. It didn’t used to bother me that the animals were apparently practicing Christians — what denomination? — or maybe they’re secularly celebrating, but the rabbit, under Frosty’s direction, seeks out the woodland creatures, explains that the little girl needs them to build a fire so she can warm up, and so the woodland creatures pile sticks and rub two together until they get a fire going. So far so good, although last night I wondered why, if the animals had mastered communication and fire-production, why they hadn’t moved into bungalows in the city. Are they perhaps hippie animals who have renounced industrial society, and this works for them (as opposed to human hippies) because these critters haven’t evolved out of their all-weather hides and ability to survive on bark?

Anyway, this works for a while, and Karen ostensibly warms up, until Hinkle shows up and Frosty has to “bellywhollop” (if I correctly recall the term Jimmy Durante used) with Karen on his shoulders to escape, which leads them to an apparently poorly managed (since it is still stocked, on X-mas eve, with Mr. Poinsett’s flowers, about to be deeply discounted)  greenhouse, wherein Frosty melts. Hinkle has shut the door on them, but he had not barred or even locked the door, so either the greenhouse is so poorly managed that its doors are inescapable, or Frosty and Karen forget to leave. Now, earlier, Karen has explained to the traffic cop that Frosty, being newly animated, is ignorant of worldly ways, and so perhaps she should have been cognizant that she should have opened the door to let Frosty out?  Just now it’s occurring to me that perhaps Karen, in her selfish desire to be warm, could be convicted of snowmanslaughter through willful indifference?

But then, there’s the Santa ex machina who, upon the instructions of the rabbit (because Santa “speaks rabbit,” we are informed), turns up to rescue Frosty, punish Hinkle (by threatening to never bring the professor another gift — a surprisingly unforgiving action, I thought, from a Christian figure), and return little Karen to the roof of some house (even if its her own house, how’s she supposed to get down, I wondered as I watched). This business about Santa being real always feels like a cop-out, since one of the central tenets of Christianity (correct me if I’m wrong) is faith, is believing in things that cannot be directly experienced, that cannot be seen, and so Santa showing up sorta renders faith moot.

Even in the beginning of “Frosty,” the kids make a point about adults not believing in the magic that kids can see (the adults who do see the snowman leading a parade through town seem to faint (or concussively run into other shoppers, or make themselves mute by swallowing their own whistle)), leaving Prof. Hinkle as the one adult who agrees to have seen the magic of Frosty’s animation. Hinkle, however, tells the kids he will admit to seeing nothing, as he wants to keep the hat now that it seems to be the agent of Frosty’s animation. (I keep saying “animation” because, in some sense, Frosty is like Frankenstein’s monster, in that both are mere matter that becomes alive. However, Frosty seems to be composed entirely of rolled snow, unlike the differentiated tissues that were used for Frankenstein’s monster — how about Frosty-stein? (This thought too occurred to me last night as I watched. Maybe this all says more about me than about the show.)) Of course, Hinkle has a problem: if his hat really is magic, and he uses it in his future performances, how will he expect his audience to accept his illusions as mere illusions? The way the townsfolk respond to Frosty, I’d also expect them to react irrationally to any true magic they saw.

There’s the moral issue of ownership of the hat, which ownership is conferred (by Justice Santa) on those who would promote the continued existence of the personality of Frosty (which, combined with the human-like consciousnesses of the animals, seems to imply a vegetarian or vegan morality?), rather than on the fact that Hinkle has not fully abandoned his ownership rights.

But maybe the larger issue is the one of magic vs. faith. The children believe in magic, which the adults (besides Hinkle — who is perhaps a kind of prophet, doomed to repeat his tale of witnessing magic to a hostile, unbelieving public for the rest of his days?) deny, and yet the children indicate no religious understanding of the holiday, and Santa shows up to prove himself real. How are we to understand the implications of these narrative antics?

And where is reality here?  Does the story of “Frosty the Snowman” take place in a world where magic is real, and Santa is real, but only kids can accept magic, no adult believes in magic, so that we could speculate that perhaps adults undergo some sort of “forgetting” procedure? Or are we to understand that the adult world is the real one, and that once our POV character Karen leaves the normalcy of the classroom, with its bossy teacher, dismissal times and inept magician, she imagines or hallucinates the whole thing; Frosty’s animation, the rabbit’s intelligence, and even Santa’s existence are all some kind of break with reality that Karen experiences, perhaps as a result of a head injury sustained in the snow play the kids engage in after leaving the classroom. That Frosty and all were some kind of dream world actually would explain one of the first strangely unreal sightings: the visible rising and even throbbing of the thermometer, which Frosty explains confusedly as causing the rising of the temperature that motivates him toward the north pole. What we can deduce is that one group of the humans in this story, either the adults or the children, is not acknowledging the same reality as the other group of humans. (It could be argued that adults trying to get children to acknowledge and accept the reality that the adults perceive is the purpose of schooling.)

Sure, this is just a goofy cartoon, produced by some poor bastard of a writer who had to turn a three-minute song into a 20-minute cartoon. I’ll also concede that I appreciate fiction that’s not entirely realistic, which fiction I tend to write myself. But any artwork, any human creation (I’d argue), is based upon certain philosophical assumptions and it’s kinda fun to explore these, no?