Ghosts: My Ground Rules

Paradox is one of the most beautiful things that life yields to us. Contradiction, I would have to say, is not at all its cohort when thinking over the concept of beauty. Therefore, I find myself being guilty here of the ugliness pertaining to the latter. For the many times in my past when I dismissed the idea of ghosts outright, I certainly never thought I would live to see the day when the topic not only became a part of my life, but it also became a significant part of it. The story is a long one, so I will try and summarize it as best I can. I have already penned a tribute attesting to my having unexpectedly gained a sentimental appreciation for the subject. ( Regardless of my conclusions about ghosts when considering them in light of scientific appraisal, I still have come to unexpectedly develop a more idealistic appreciation for those blurry visions of the enigmatic that we call ghosts.

For first considerations in understanding my personal story, if an individual grows up in a faith tradition, like me, then in that individual’s personal cosmology there is already the exposure to the concept of the otherworldly. In my opinion, if one defines the term of a ghost traditionally, then there is no way to keep from having a discussion about ghosts that crosses over into theological territory at some juncture. I do not feel or intend for this opinion to sound as mere dogma, but rather I make the statement as one that I feel is simply rooted in fact. When a dialogue dares to include efforts at opining on whether the human soul survives a physical death, there is already the assumption that humans have souls, and the concept of soul puts one on a path, to at least some degree, of a pondering that cannot help but fall under the bounds of a theological geography. I grew up in a tradition that does address the question of soul and cosmological significance within the context of a worldview where God’s existence is treated as authentic and theistic in constitution.

Consequently, theological questions were a definite part of my childhood. Although as a child I enjoyed learning about the world as taught by science, the dominant view of life I was exposed to was through the lens of a theological scope. It was much later in my life before I learned how to properly balance an appreciation for science and questions concerning faith. I had to learn how to navigate the discussions of literalism and differentiating between God’s book of works (enter here the rabble about the famous work of David Hume and any counterpoints made in its stead) and God’s book of nature. It can be amusing sometimes about how generalizations are so often made.

If one looks at my Facebook page, the assumption may be made that my emphasis on science might translate into my being a secular humanist in my life’s practice. This conclusion would be errant and is not the case. I think of reading about some of the accusational mail that Martin Gardner used to receive from the public, accusing him of atheism, when in fact he never resigned his belief in God. Because he chose to write about the hard topics from a logical and reasoned point of view, it was easily assumed that he sounded like he must be devoid of belief when he actually never totally became so and instead he spoke of his fideistic biases. Of course, I have had every opportunity to take the route of a humanist, but I have never had the conviction or proclivity for even remotely considering myself to be a humanist. In my own personal world, due to recognition of such topics like the fine structure constant, quantum mechanics, the overall mathematical identity of the cosmos, etc., there’s still that part of me tries to rethink ancient and classical questions. I have never been a great mathematician, but because of my appreciation for math, I cannot help but consider the universe as a majestic mathematical symphony that constantly serenades any who might be willing to listen. Science is not inspiration of the heart, but, what we learn from it certainly can and does inspire my own heart in addition to my mind (and, yes, Dr. Shermer, you caught me using the term, “mind” ;-)).

A theological discussion has to start with definition, for when it comes to a discussion about God, there can be talk about Spinoza’s God, reference may be made to a specifically identified God, there can be talk of a popularly defined theistic God, there can be discussion about whether a literal God exists who gave authorship to Paul Erdos’, “The Book,” of mathematical proofs and their incorporation into the world as we know it, etc.
Early on in my life, I did have questions that could only be considered that of a transcendent nature, but they were really bolstered when my grandparents passed away within three years of each other. I saw two of the greatest people that have ever held influence on my life suffer terribly from cancer as they agonized their ways into death. When you are fourteen years of age and are just coming into your own by beginning to think about your place in the cosmos at large, when you have seen, and are seeing, two people that are beloved to you suffering while there’s nothing you can do to prevent that suffering, the experiences have a way of making you think a little more deeply about things.

I grew up with a traditional view of God, a healthy one that was supplemented by the encouragement to understand God’s universe mechanically, to engage philosophy, and to savor ancient writ in the forms of Semitic and Classical languages. There was an intellectual tradition and heritage I had an appreciation for that carries all the way back to the Patristics. However, in this view that accommodated for the supernatural in some form (again, when I speak of super nature, I have to define how we use the term), when it came to topics of the occult, all of a sudden I hypocritically became highly rational and belittled the occult as trite and tacky theatre. Of course, the subject matter was also discouraged through Deuteronomical prohibitions by the sacred writings in the Pentateuch, but for me, there always existed that intellectual twinge that simply would not allow me to give the material any merit or consideration of any sort. This fact of dismissive inconsideration, however, did not mean I did not wind up engaging some of those anecdotes grouped underneath an umbrella of paranormal designation here and there throughout my earlier years.

In one instance, I remember that we had to do a book report when I was a student in grade school. I happened to run across a couple of books on UFOs in our school library, and for all the regard I had for the space program, I somehow forced myself to read those two books and write up my report. Maybe that was the beginning of an investigative lifestyle that I didn’t make a daily practice until many years later. Even though at the time I did not know how to read these particular UFO books critically, I still sort of waded through the pages with a mixture of disbelief and disdain.

And, there was the TV series, “In Search Of,” which as a kid I watched occasionally with reticence. Later on, in my college days, while studying as an undergraduate in anthropology, there was the weekly airings of the TV show called, “Sightings.” The Columbia Broadcasting Company also got around to airing a few episodes in my college days of a series entitled, “Haunted Lives,” one of which presented footage from a home in California that I kept tucked in my memory. Years later I finally got to read where one of my investigative mentors made some comments that I was able to indirectly link back to the footage. Also, in a folklore class that I took in The University of Memphis Anthropology Department, I wrote a paper comparing parallels in select ghost stories. It can be easily seen that my path crossed the subject of the paranormal on occasion in my younger years, all the while with me having my nose turned up in disapproval during each occasion.

The unexpected genesis that occurred with me happened in 2002. While searching the internet for NASA related material I happened to stumble upon a website that took NASA audio and video and used them to promote a conspiratorial worldview. Because of my reverence for NASA, I was immediately taken aback by the website. It was that very night when I realized I had to learn how the other side thinks. I knew that I needed to put controversial claims to the test in my own mind so I could find the fallacies where they exist, as well as to understand the psychology that assigns to the world a different type of grandiosity that I, in turn, do not feel compelled to see. If for no other reason, I felt that I had to educate myself on that esoterica which was put forth in challenge to mainstream science as a matter of ethical commitment.

Am I skeptical about the existence of ghosts as we typically think of them? Yes, but with reason that I make every effort to explain. However, because there is still so much that is unknown in human knowledge, I also make the effort to call attention to those fascinating outliers of science that might conceivably hold, at least, some answers to the very questions I address in this blog. I certainly do not claim to know more than what I do, and I also believe that certain questions should be asked point blank and not shied away from. I sincerely believe in engaging evidence, even if there may be little good evidence that may exist for  purporting that a certain type of phenomenon exists. The wannabe investigator in me wants to see the evidence and parse it. I think the bigger offense is to not test the data, only to reach a preconceived conclusion than it is to fully tackle the question, no matter what scoffers might say. Therefore, after seventeen years of searching and looking, the conclusions that I have come to, thus far, result in the culmination of this blog.
At this point, I will try to outline my objectives for setting up this piece of cyber real estate:
1. As much as I would prefer that this blog be entirely devoted to scientific evaluation of the topic of ghosts, as well as the best investigative methodology for applying to the subject, unfortunately I will have to start at a much less ambitious level. Separate from my not having the extra time I need to spend in the lab and become more knowledgeable about some of the equipment that ghost hunters claim can validate a ghost’s existence, I also don’t have time to write more general entries as in depth as I would like. The blog will have to start out slow and may be more akin to discussions about a philosophy of science than it is scientific exercise. My hope would be that if the blog were to last, then maybe down the road I can see the day where I can take it to a more technical scale.
2. In these blogs, I will also take into account the historical, anthropological, and sociological aspects of ghosts as they have been part of our worldwide cultures for the millennia. Some of the researchers who have influenced me with their works are Peter Maxwell-Stuart, Malcolm McGaskill, Owen Davies, Claude Lecouteux, and Avery Gordon.
3. I would also like to include the occasional book review in this blog. There are some titles out there pertaining to the paranormal that naturally invite commentary. In the tradition of Martin Gardner, I would like to think through the logic contained in some of these titles and break it all out. Of course, my analytical skills are far inferior to that of Martin Gardner’s, but all the same, I have learned much by emulating his example.
4. At least one upcoming blog entry is specifically devoted to a case where I went out into the field and observed a ghost hunting group in action. I will use this account as a case study to illustrate how if you go into a ghost hunting scenario with your assuming notions unchecked, then you may miss the misinterpretation of what is actually taking place in your immediate locality.
5. As stated above, I don’t believe that you can have a discussion about ghosts when they are defined commonly without encountering some form of theological crossovership. If I have the opportunity, I will try and include commentary in this blog that also addresses ghosts when the topic ties in with a discourse over faith and science. The dialogue is an important one, and it should be civil, as well as productive. The subject is far too rich and fertile to not yield meaningful takeaways or to fall prey to any potential vitriol.
6. I have at least two books on my bookshelf where the well-intended authors cite the TV show, “Ghost Hunters,” as academically credible sources. One book is by a PhD in Chemistry, the other by a minister. For the sake of sound academic discussion about the topic of ghosts, this practice should be totally avoided by any other potential authors planning to make any analogous citations. As a contemplater of ghosts, you may have an actual thesis from any number of perspectives that is well thought out pertaining to the phenomenon. But, if you cite, “Ghost Hunters,” or, “Ghost Adventures,” as viable sources of authority, then you immediately compromise the integrity of your written work. There is a whole history that has to be considered with these shows in understanding them as production vehicles that are geared for generating ratings for television networks. If you disregard this history, then you taint your own efforts at good scholarship. To name a few flaws affiliated with the archives and episodes of, “Ghost Hunters,” there is the Eastern State Penitentiary apparition that has quite a non-ghostly explanation. There is footage of a possible, “figure,” going back and forth in a room that was on camera. There is a supposed apparition that is easily explained as a reflection off of a locker that was picked up by thermal imaging. There is the notorious lamp cord pull from the Myrtles Plantation, and then not leastly, is the infamous jacket collar tug that has been dissected every way imaginable by viewers of the clip. Analogously, some footage in the original documentary airing that eventually turned into the series, “Ghost Adventures,” should be addressed, and I intend to do so in a blog entry that is devoted to this specific footage and a historical connection that it bears.
7. What are my thoughts? It was not that long ago that if you were to ask me if I believe in ghosts, I would have emphatically replied, “NO!” Although this position is still officially the one I have, I prefer to more fairly answer the question now by saying that I simply haven’t seen evidence that I believe corroborates their existence. I do think there are gaps in human knowledge worth considering, that once filled, might enable us to better understand how the brain, mechanically, could indeed induce an experience that would leave a percipient convinced that they had a ghostly incursion.

I am still in the beginnings of trying to understand quantum mechanics at a mathematical level. I have always cringed when quantum mechanics has been seized upon to explain every paranormal event out there that is claimed, a reaction that I still have to this day. However, grappling with what quantum mechanics means at a fundamental level in a physical universe is still of great significance. I appreciate Sean Carroll taking on the topic and giving us a book that doesn’t just talk about the fact that quantum mechanics work equationally and practically, but that also gives us insight into what quantum mechanics relevantly means. And, I do believe that an understanding of the subject in an entirety could conceivably hold some answers that we do not have now. I am as equally baffled by human consciousness, and I am eager to know if the Orchestrated Objective Reality model ever becomes a victor in neuroscientific thought, or at least a variant thereof, in order to explain consciousness and perception at the minutest levels. To understand consciousness against quantum mechanics is an absolutely fascinating proposal, and it does leave me wondering if consequences of the Orch OR model could ever mean that consciousness could in some way outlive a physical death of the body for any suspected amount of time. The implications are enormous, and again, I leave open the possibility that the universe, as well as what is outside the universe, could resultantly lead to actual bizarre effects that the human temptation leads us to calling magic, when in fact they are a product that we might someday be able to understand by gaining knowledge of the most fundamental behaviors of the universe.

I’m not intending to sound as if I am espousing pseudoscience in these previous words. To the contrary, I don’t want to give that impression in the least. But, I do feel it is important to state is that there is a deeper science on the way in terms of biology, cosmology, and neuroscience. Quantum mechanics and neuroscience may some day allow us to better understand why behaviors in the brain could potentially lead a person to believe they had what they could only describe as a genuine experience that seemed ghostly in its nature.

Of course, I am certainly not forgetting the research of gentlemen such as, Richard Wiseman. And, we already know the basics of how electromagnetic frequencies, infrasound, and stress as in high-G conditions can disrupt normal brain function and incite physical sensations or cause a blackout. I am certainly not intending to forego this kind of good research that already exists which can already explain claimants reporting odd experiences in certain scenarios (not necessarily all). I am simply saying that once physics gains a more expanded grasp on cosmic operation (from the most fundamental constituents of the fabric of space and building blocks of matter, understanding particle behavior in a more advanced understanding of quantum mechanics and whether it is a part of a bigger theoretical whole, comprehensive unification theory or theories, etc.), while being coupled with the advanced strides that neuroscience is going to make in the future, we may someday accumulate enough practical understanding to be able to understand operation of the human brain in ways that we now find unimaginable. In other words, I don’t expect to see the level of understanding I am talking about until long after I have passed away. In the meantime, we are forced to understand the human brain in a piecemeal fashion. This synopsis is what I mean by reaching a point where we can understand the brain against the quantum and have a more complete framework of how the brain operates. What I am NOT saying is that because Einstein attributed the quote to the world of the quantum in the form of, “spooky action at a distance,” means we have an answer for ghosts. I need to make this point highly clear as such an association would obviously be ridiculous.

I thank anyone who may choose to join me on this written journey. At this time, I plan to start by writing ten to twelve entries. I originally envisioned the blog as going well beyond that many entries. Depending on what type of reception the blog receives may partly determine the direction of future blog entries, but regardless of public opinion, I would still look forward to keeping a succession of writings on the way with quirkful insights on things that are fun to think about. Also, from time to time, in order to keep things light, I may post some off topic entries. Whatever one’s opinions on ghosts, I close with a quote from professor of history, Dr. Ronald Finucane, who I think serves incredibly well both sides of the coin when speaking of belief or disbelief in ghosts.:

“In a sense ghosts are in people’s heads. But, in another sense, culturally and socially, they do exist for them. And, indeed, for many other people in that society. They’re human constructs; so is music; so is poetry. We have to accept these things. These ghosts ought to be respected as creations of the human mind.”




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close