In The X-Files, Scully routinely states not simply her objections to paranormal or extraterrestrial explanations of otherwise unexplained phenomena in terms of ‘science’, ‘rationality’, ‘logic’, but also the fact that some of the things she has encountered cause her to doubt science, or something to that effect. She believes in reason, logic, science.
I was recently reminded of Scully’s attitude whilst staying in a reputedly haunted research institution. One night over a conversation where the local ghosts were raised, one of my friends expressed disbelief not simply in those particular ghosts, but all ghosts in general. When asked why, the response was quite Scullyan: Because I believe in logic and science.
This led me to attempt some sort of annoying Socratic questioning of the premisses that lie behind such statements. What, precisely, is illogical about ghosts? As such conversations do, my (perhaps) aggressive line of enquiry went nowhere, and a plea of, ‘It’s late,’ led to mercy on my part.
I think, however, that ghosts are a good test case for questioning the Scully approach to unexpected, extraordinary phenomena and what we think we mean when we claim belief in ‘logic and science’. Why? Because few people are especially emotionally invested in the question of ghosts, unlike the questions of God or specific miracles. I, myself, find most ghost stories suspect.
First of all, what are ‘ghosts’? Ghosts are the disembodied spirits of the physically dead. In the context of The X-Files and haunted research institutions, ghosts are specifically the disembodied spirits of the physically dead who are in some way present in physical locations and who can make their presence known through certain auditory and tactile phenomena.
Why might one reject ‘ghosts’ altogether? Reasons to reject the notion of such ghosts altogether are an unthoughtful rejection of all extraordinary phenomena unexperience by oneself. Thoughtful people will similarly reject ghosts on the premiss simply that the supernatural or numinous does not exist — or a belief that the human person has no spirit. Others will reject ghosts on the premiss that we live in a two-storey universe; even if the physically dead persist in a spiritual existence, they cannot interact with us, nor we with them, like the gods of Epicureanism. A fourth group will reject ghostly encounters as representing contact with the physically dead on the grounds that divine judgement does not leave a place for such spirits to roam free amongst the physically living.
All of these belief systems, as it turns out, require a set of assumptions well before one approaches the stories of ghostly phenomena and extraordinary encounters.
What is necessary for a belief in ‘ghosts’?
First, one must recognise some sort of supernatural/numinous/spiritual element to the composition of the universe. The true atheist or the committed agnostic, the materialist, will not believe in ghosts. However, there is room within theism, even deism, and animism, for the presence of the ghostly dead amongst us.
Belief in the numinous, contrary to what the New Atheists tell us, is not itself irrational or contra-rational; contrary to the Christian apologists, it is also not the most perfectly logical way of believing. No such perfectly logic worldview exists, for humans and reason and our ability to experience phenomena, are flawed. To date, the best argument for the supernatural I have met is C. S. Lewis, Miracles, although there is a chapter in N. T. Wright’s methodology section of The New Testament and the People of God that also presents a different approach that can be helpful to some.
Second, after believing in the supernatural, one must be willing to believe that the physically dead have a spiritual, or ‘ghostly’, existence beyond the death of the body.
Third, one must believe that said spirits can, and sometimes do, co-exist with the physically alive on this plain of being.
Fourth, one must believe that a being normally invisible and intangible can, under some circumstances, be able to make itself known to those of an ordinary physical existence through visual, auditory, and occasionally tactile phenomena.
All four of these are not scientifically verifiable. This is the problem with metaphysics and ghostly logic. Science, formerly ‘natural philosophy’, has as its purview the ordinary workings of the physical universe as verifiable through controlled and precise observation, measurement, and experimentation. Science, as a field of human knowledge, can tell us nothing about the possibility of ghosts.
These premisses do, however, have logical arguments both for and against them. Since science cannot help, all such arguments will remain inconclusive. That’s part of the fun of being human.
Some people, however, have tried to prove ghosts scientifically. I’ve watched some of their ghost-hunter documentaries, and none of them is convincing. Perhaps I remain unconvinced because I do not share their premiss — the presence of spiritually active psychological entity will leave behind some sort of physically verifiable trace such as energy or hot and cold or suchlike other scientifically verifiable phenomena.
Returning to the haunted research institute, one of my other friends responded that he also had not formerly believed in ghosts. However, his encounter in the library at 4:00 AM with a non-visible person who had the auditory phenomenon of coughing directly behind him has changed his mind.
If one accepts enough paranormal/supernatural premisses to believe that spirits of the physically dead may sometimes roam the earth with the physically alive, the question remains of how to deal with the ghost stories. Logic and rational enquiry can help us here. For example, alleged photographs of ‘ghosts’ have often turned out to be distortions in the cameras field of vision that have a non-supernatural explanation within the physical world as verifiable by science. I believe they are sound-waves.
What of the many anecdotes? First, ask whether the person is reliable. Some people fib. Other people exaggerate, whether purposefully or accidentally. Second, if the storyteller is a known, reliable person who seems, by and large, rational in their approach to the world, ask whether or not there is another, and preferably better, explanation for the phenomenon described. A house creaking at night as it settles. A physical person in the shadows but unseen to the storyteller. A small earth tremor that caused something to move.
Of course, even if a story meets such criteria, the encounter may not be supernatural; it may simply be currently inexplicable by science’s measure, or it may have been a misdiagnosis of the facts by the one reporting it. Furthermore, a paranormal or supernatural encounter need not include a ‘ghost’ as narrowly restricted to the spirit of a physically dead human person. Traditional Christianity believes at least in angels and demons. Many Irish believe in a variety of paranormal beings conveniently labelled ‘fairies’ in English. Most ancients and animists also believed in a variety of non-visible, supernatural beings, including the invisible dead.
I, myself, have yet to hear a story about ghosts that leaves me entirely convinced that the spirit of a physically dead human being manifested itself to someone. But I also remain unconvinced by the premiss that the spirits of the physically dead roam the earth. This has nothing to do with ‘science’, however, but to do with a variety of other premisses and pieces of logic from elsewhere in my worldview.
Nonetheless, I am open to being convinced.