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08 July 2009

Ghost Stories

I thought that some of my imaginary readers might like to read this email that I recently sent to the hosts of The Atheist Experience:

Good afternoon, folks!

I've been listening to the AE for a few years, now, and I was intrigued by the discussion that occurred on the most recent episode regarding the woman with the Ghost Story. I'm a sceptic, first and foremost, and I have had several experiences over the years that I've found myself at a loss to completely explain. Here's the executive summary, for those of you who don't fancy reading through the email below, which I'm sure will end up rambling to a greater or lesser degree: I've had several "ghost" experiences, and I don't believe in ghosts.

I used to work at a local dinner theatre. Several years ago (probably three or four by now), I was sitting with a friend of mine in the audience, carrying on a conversation, when suddenly I froze. We both turned and looked toward the stage, which was approximately ten metres away, to my left and to her right. We turned back to face each other, and made to resume our conversation, when suddenly she asked me, "Did you see something?" "Yes," I replied. "I thought that I saw a blonde woman walking along the stage out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to look, she was gone!" "Was she wearing a red dress?" my companion asked me. I thought back. "Yes," I replied, "she was. I thought it was the stage manager." It was then that our stage manager walked up from the booth, on the opposite side of the room, and asked what was wrong. It couldn't have been her, I thought. She was on the other side of the room, and she wasn't wearing red.

Just in relating that tale to you now, I realise that there is a glaring error in this version of it, which I have told faithfully (to the best of my memory) for years. The woman whom I thought I saw was in the periphery of my vision. Peripheral vision is provided predominantly by rod cells, which are unable to detect colour; this makes colour vision in the periphery nigh on impossible (as can be demonstrated experimentally with cue-cards of differing hues). But my memory is quite clear, now (perchance due to my friend's prompting?). The ghost was wearing a red dress.

When I was fifteen, I stayed a few months with a rich friend of mine in his parents' home, which could only be described as a mansion. It was a very old, very beautiful thing of red brick. It even had turrets! We would spend many an afternoon playing on the sloped roofs, to his parents' considerable alarm. It also had a separate stairway that paralleled the main set of steps, made for servants (of which he had none). One day, I recall mounting the servants' stairway on my way up from the basement, which was cavernous and somewhat frightening, even for a fifteen-year-old boy, when I thought that I heard something. I stopped, and listened, and I thought that I heard a cool voice, which I'd characterise paradoxically as entirely without character, say my name. Appropriately, I bolted.

I have one final tale, probably the most convincing for those who have a taste for anecdotes of the sort. I now live with my fiancée, but four years ago, I lived alone. I was preparing a photo album for my girlfriend (whom I'd later ask to be my wife), as she was going away for six months to visit Brazil. It was very late, and I was watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while I cut the photographs. The paper-cutter that I was using slipped, and nearly took off my finger, and as it did I heard the remote control tumbled to the floor. I cursed, and went searching for it, and came up empty-handed. I sighed and lifted the couch, and found only little balls of dust, and a stray pencil or two. I slowly and methodically cleared the photo-paper trimmings from the couch, removed the cushions and gave all of its crevices a thorough search. Nothing. I sighed again and went back to the photographs.

I spent much of my free time, over the next few days, searching for the remote. After about a week I finally despaired of ever finding it, and bought a "universal" one (for those of you who've ever programmed one of these, you know why the word is in quotation marks). A few days later, I was staring wistfully at a photograph of my girlfriend (now on the other side of the world), when the telephone rang. I went to fetch it, and as I did I placed the photograph face down on the middle shelf of a white, three-tiered little stand that I believe was originally intended as a bedside table. When I returned for it, it was gone.

Thinking of my lost remote, my consternation growing by the minute, I gave the area a good search. Then, convinced that my mind was playing some sort of cruel trick, I picked up every item on each tier of the stand, one by one, and asked myself, "Is this the photograph?" before placing it on the floor and moving on to the next. Nothing. Then, as the stand was white and I'd placed the photograph face-down, I ran my hands over every surface, and finally picked the thing up and shook it. But to no avail. I finally sat down and wept with frustration and disappointment. "I just want my stuff back," I moaned. A sat there a while before finally cleaning myself up and going about my day.

The next morning, I was groggily walking about, on my way to brush my teeth, when I happened to glance into a mirror on my wall. I let out a little (and somewhat emasculating, I must admit) shriek, for reflected in it was the little, three-tiered stand, and on the middle level, face-down was my photograph. And yes, I did later find the remote. Although I still seem to remember the clunk that it made as it fell to the floor, it was buried in the couch. I found it quite accidentally: I terrified some friends who were over to play video-games, as when I pulled it out of the couch I once again shrieked and tossed it across the room, where it bounced off the fireplace, eventually landing in someone's lap.

Other friends, whom I trust, have recounted many tales like these. A close friend of mine, who, like myself, is an atheist, thinks that I'm being quite an ideologue when I maintain that I don't believe in ghosts. I related the stories above to him, and they strengthened his belief in the paranormal. My response has, and will (likely, barring the advent of further evidence) continue to be, this: "spirits" may seem to be the simplest explanation for my experiences, but as an explanation it leaves much to be desired. While it purports to explain, however, it begets many more questions than it answers: the idea of disembodied spirits present even more complications than the idea of those still bound by their fleshy trappings. Problems such as how the spirit communicates with the brain, what functions it performs that the brain cannot account for alone, why the spirit seems to be impaired in so many ways by brain injury, and the like, are joined by questions such as:
  • Lacking sensory organs, how does an immaterial spirit perceive the material world? (If it can perceive the material world, why is physical blindness a hindrance at all?)
  • How does an immaterial spirit interact with or affect the material world? (If it can affect the material world, why does an embodied spirit control its host via the brain? Why not control its appendages directly?)
  • If spirits do exist, why have none of them, particularly the scientifically-minded ones, attempted to communicate in such a way that it could be empirically verified? Surely Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, et al could take some time off from exploring Andromeda and Triangulum to help push our scientific understanding further!
And so, on the balance, it seems much more likely that either I misremember my experiences or was in some way deceived, either by intent or by the failings of my own brain; but, as always, there may be another explanation.

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