Before I get stuck right into the meat/ectoplasm of today’s entry, I’ll point out that in addition to this week having the bestest of semi-pagan festival days, the next day is Fountain Pen Day. It’s time to start thinking about what pen or pens you’re going to use for the big day!
Here we are, then, the very day of Hallowe’en, when according to some the barriers between this mundane world and the spectral are at their thinnest. Might a ghost come knocking at your door tonight? Chances are good that if one does, a pair of entirely reassuring sneakers will be peeping out from under the winding shroud. On the other hand, who knows what is inside that hobo costume that just stands at the foot of the driveway…? A while ago over at the Fountain Pen Network, in the area reserved for discussions about things not necessarily pen related, someone posed this question: Do you believe in ghosts? The discussion it prompted was interesting, in that it showed that there are (among fountain pen enthusiasts) four main lines of though on the topic:
- Yes, although I have had no direct contact with with anything of that sort;
- Yes, because of personal experience;
- No, because I’ve had no direct contact with anything of that sort;
- No, same as #3 plus all the forces of Science and Reason demand I say “no.”
I am, as very covertly implied by the title of this entry, in the second category. I have, back in the earlier days of this effort, told a story or two of the several I could offer. I might, and indeed did in the FPN discussion, hedge a little about what I mean by “ghost” for the purpose of this discussion. While we typically think “person, absent the material portion”, I am quite happy to stick all sorts of qualifiers into that description. Since the whole notion of ghosts orbits a rather broader realm of mysterious things and stuff, I’m not going to assume that any ghostly events are the result of a residual human intellect, soul or what have you. Could be, but I don’t know it and such evidence as there is tends to be somewhat filtered through whatever medium (which may or my not be a woman with too much jewelry on) generates it. But I accept the existence of ghostly events through having enjoyed some pretty low-key versions of them and so I’ll say as a short of shorthand that yes, I believe in ghosts, because saying “I believe in some sort of possibly sentient force which acts by unknown means upon the physical world and upon the awareness of people, and which is difficult to record consistently with modern technological devices” takes a long damn time.
I insist on my position because I don’t wish to deny my own direct experience, and also because some of the stuff other people bring forth as evidence indicates either active fakery or actual… somethingness. Hilarious as the Ghost Adventures Crew frequently are, some of their images get the little hairs to stir. As someone in group 2, I appreciate the open-minded support of group 1, with some reservations I’ll go into below, but I also understand the stance of group 3 and 4. I can, despite where I land, also support the 3s, since it is the sort of thing that is a little hard to take seriously, but I have to admit that despite my long-standing respect for Science and Reason, the folks of 4 get my back up.
This is mainly because I like to think that I’ve examined my own ghostly adventures carefully for alternative explanations, and I also like to think that I’m relatively bright. Group 4 was pretty strident in its collective approach, and that stridency might be taken as a statement something like this: “You’re just too DUMB to see the REAL cause of whatever happened, so you made up a boogerman to explain it.” I’m not above responding to insults with anger, although I’m trying not to make it the whole of my response to those in that group.
I don’t recall if the old saw about extraordinary theories calling for extraordinary proof got played upon under its own name in that discussion, but the sense of it was certainly in the air. We in group 2 were, as I mention above, missing something. One of the others offered a very long list of plausible alternative explanations for an event, many of them quite popular debunkings, and none of which quite supported the event itself– none of these, nor anything else he could think of, therefore eerie, but please suggest what I might have missed. The response was somewhat dismissive– it’s not our place to provide you with the real explanation, you have to think of everything that might be the other explanation and explain why it isn’t. I would not like to find myself in a criminal proceeding with this sort of burden of negative proof.
I think this stance bugs me because for all it swaddles itself in the cloak of scientific rigour is that it doesn’t admit the possibility of its theory being incorrect. I quote without attribution: “I… cannot conceive of any event that would cause me to believe that ghosts, spirits or demons were responsible.”
That’s problematic. It’s the sort of uncritical stance on how the world works that gives me some pause about the fine folks in group 1, although they and group 3 are really just slightly manifestations of the same thing, a Maybe that leaned slightly to one side. I may believe in ghosts, in my shorthand way, but if someone presents a workable explanation of a phenomenon I like to think I might amend my stance. For example, I am willing to dismiss vast swathes of electronic voice phenomena, creepy and interesting as they may be, because most of them are so unclear one makes words out of them in much the same way as one makes makes a face out of the grain in wood panelling. Some, though, give the honest critic something to seriously ponder.
To say, though, that one rules something out entirely regardless of what might be flung in one’s face, seems overly dogmatic. I could just as easily refuse to believe in Ascension Island; even if transported there, I could cling to that position with cries of “this is just some other island!” I would, however, be a silly and obdurate person.
The other thing that struck me about the fourth group’s responses was the edge of anger that lay down them. It wasn’t merely the smugness of not being gullible like we poor dummies on the Yes side of the equation, which I could understand even though I wouldn’t appreciate the sentiment behind it. I initially took it to be the sort of wrath felt by those who saw clearly feel towards the misled, a related sentiment to that examined in a blog I was looking at earlier today, one which I frequently feel in when I hear people banging on about the connection between autism and vaccinations or the conspiracy to fake moon landings. It is easy to get angry at people who cling to insupportable positions in the face of evidence to the contrary.
The problem, of course, is that in the case of group 2 we’re clinging in the face of evidence to the anti-contrary, some of us have seriously considered alternative, and the contrary stance offers no evidence other than shouting “That’s silly, and it can’t happen because it can’t be explained.”
I was discussing this whole affair with my wife, who has rather better ghost sightings in her background than I, and is also a Group 2 member. She posited that the anger probably lies in two regions. The first is that the idea of ghosts, in the more usual sense of some residue of humans lingering after their demise, if offensive to the beliefs of the angry folks– either that residue should have been transported tidily to the appropriate afterlife destination (religious belief), or the cannot be residue because life is a mere biochemical process and human awareness a simple side effect thereof (also religious belief, because atheism is a shared system of belief). The second is one that got me into a state of high humour– they’re angry at the prospect that these unseen entities are hanging around watching them do stuff they’d rather not have non-participants watching. Anger predicated on, amongst other things, pooping shame.
After my initial reflected anger with the 4 folk, I find I can’t sustain the emotion. I’ve got my own smugness founded on knowing I’m right, and I sort of agree with them regarding the desperate flakiness of some of the notions that attach to belief in ghosts. It’s only important if one is beset with poltergeists. I do worry about them slightly, in the direction of the dogmaticism problem, but if they want a world of restricted possibilities, that’s their lookout.
…and now, to get out from under this cloud of serious earnestness, let’s have a little bit of whimsical nonsense from Vincent Price.
*The closest a ghost has ever brought me to serious worry, to date, was when I found myself stuck in a large, comfortable, well-lit room. The doorknob, which was of a sort that didn’t have a locking mechanism, absolutely would not budge– no play at all. This state of affairs lasted about ten minutes, which was the length of time I’d declared I was willing to wait for someone outside the room to notice the problem before I’d take my Swiss army knife to the hinge pins. One last try of the knob, with knife in hand and appropriate fitting deployed, and the knob turned as smoothly as ever a doorknob might. I welcome a science-based explanation for that one which doesn’t take a lot of logical gymnastics and unlikely quantum events.