Posted: May 17, 2010 1:22 pm
by jerome
Defender's #1 post: 999 words. -LIFE

"Boo!" How else can one begin a debate on spooks but with that simple word, redolent of the silly ghost stories we told as kids to scare each other? We would talk in hushed voices, build the atmosphere, till our listeners became just a little nervous, just open to the possibility the unquiet dead were waiting, lurking,, just outside the comforting glow of the camp fire – then suddenly shriek "BOO!" at the top of our lungs, and watch them start in terror. That's what ghost stories are aren't they – childish imaginings, simple hoaxes and tales told to impress gullible minds?

Except… the clubs closed, and we are walking through unfamiliar streets, the dim light of the street lamps casting an orange glow over the empty pavements. Suddenly we realise, as the full moon appears from behind scudding clouds, that we are walking alongside the ornate railings of an old Victorian cemetery – we should be afraid of muggers, but instead… We feel a slight chill, as a shadow moves between the graves. We KNOW (of course) it's just a cat out for a little late night romance – yet still an icy thrill creeps through our body, and we hasten our step, just a little…

Evolution has served us well – we are programmed to fear the night where predators may lurk; but something else, some memory of those childhood games persists – and we are, though we would never admit it, frightened of GHOSTS. Little terrors from childhood creep up on us, and our fear of the unknown, our tendency to ascribe meaning to every dimly spied shadow – just in case it's a sabretooth tiger lurking in the bushes – they kick in. We rationalise, we feel better, and once we close the door against the night , safe in our homes, we soon forget it all.

Ghosts are a universal phenomena. Every culture seems to produce them, and I think they speak to something very deep inside of us: perhaps the fear of death, personified in a vaguely seen apparition, but screaming at us the (currently) undeniable fact of our own mortality. All childish imaginings, and the neurological residue of millennia of conflict with predators. Or are they? Do ghost really clank their chains, rattle their bones and walk the streets of our modern cities?

Boswell famously wrote
"It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it."
He was writing as the Scottish Enlightenment took hold – across Europe, intellectuals cast of the shackles of superstition and adopted empiricism. Writers of the 18th century were sure ghosts were just fantasies, perhaps brought on by bad digestion – waking dreams, of no import. (He had a way to go on the age of the Earth though!)

And you know what? I sympathise with those Enlightenment types. I think they were spot on – many, perhaps most, ghosts are nothing more than imagination, hallucination, or folklore stories repeated to frighten an audience like those spooky childhood tales.

I would imagine every reader of this debate has hallucinated – if not through drugs, fever or exhaustion, then in that most wonderful yet familiar of things, our nightly dreams. That our brains can conjure up convincing people, exotic landscapes, or whole dramas as if we are really there I think anyone who has ever had a dream will admit. Occasionally something of a dream will persist in to our waking hours; we may be a little confused when first waking up, as I was one night when I hurled a bedside lamp at an intruder in my room, smashing the lamp, and only as I woke fully discovering the truth. My cat Summer was vomiting on the duvet, and my then girlfriend had shaken me roughly awake. The intruder was just – a fantasy? Yet I saw him as plainly as I see the coffee cup in front of me now.

I can, and will, give many more examples of such hallucinations, waking dreams, and similar phenomena in this debate. I will invoke the "Old Hag", discuss sleep paralysis, liminal states, and I expect Campermom will want to give many, many more examples of how easily our senses can be fooled. Yet despite all this, and a fairly good knowledge of hallucinations and associated states, I am forced to believe something MUCH weirder is going on, something we have not yet managed to address scientifically. There are many theories – and I shall discuss them – but there are many cases where such simple explanations simply seem to break down. In my second post (the longest one in the debate I note) I shall give a number of those cases, and hopefully then my opponent and I can both cite them to support and build on our positions.

So why do I believe there is more to ghosts than dreams, hallucinations and folklore? Well partly because of my familiarity with the academic literature. In 1894 Eleanor Sidgwick edited the Report on the Census of Hallucinations, still the greatest study of experiences of this kind. 17,000 persons were interviewed and asked to recollect experiences of hallucination while awake and in good health, and 9.8% answered positively that they had had such an experience. Hardly surprising, given our known ability to hallucinate – but a very small number of these "spooks" were seen by multiple witnesses, or conveyed information that could not have been known by the percipient at that time. It is these "veridical hallucinations" that appear to defy our hallucination explanation, and hint that there may be something stranger going on. I will build my case upon cases like these, and upon the "physical phenomena" of purported poltergeist cases.

Let me end with a line from JBS Haldane
"The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."