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06 April 2011

I Don't Believe in Ghosts

Now, that may not seem like an incredibly controversial statement to you, but apparently there are people who do believe in ghosts, and they're liable to get rather touchy about it.

Warning: TL; DR. I'll be quoting fairly liberally, here. Because the conversation that I'm about to relate rambled a bit, I've reordered some of it to make it a bit more easier to read. If you're concerned that anyone's position has been misrepresented, I'll send you a (slightly redacted) screendump of the whole conversation. But trust me: you don't want that.

My favourite ghost.

On Facebook, a friend of mine recently posted that he "just saw a fucking ghost... actually!"

I was amused by the comment, of course, and didn't take it seriously. But then some of his friends started chiming in. "Dude, that's H-core!" said one. "Got the chills something fierce? hollow gut, dry mouth?" asked another—as if those were known symptoms of being badly startled by a ghost, rather than, say, being badly startled by anything at all.

My friend related the following story:

Friend: i thought that i had left the door at [work] unlocked so i grabbed my jacket and left my apartment with the intention of taking a taxi. as i turned down my block towards gilford i noticed the end of a black coat gliding into a doorway. i didn't really think much of it except that it was exceptionally black, not even the look of texture, just pure colour. that thought causing me to look sideways as i passed said doorway, only to see clearly that it was closed by a gate from threshold to arch; narrow and long; lit at the other end, and there was no movement for the length of the corridor. it may be necessary to mention that i was not wearing music, under the influence of drugs, or being passed by any automobile. i cannot begin to describe the crushing fear i felt when i saw the empty corridor, but it was epic. that moment absolutely changed every aspect of my reality. holy fucking shit

The first thing that I noted about this story was the hyperbole: the coat was "exceptionally black... just pure colour", and the experience "absolutely changed every aspect of [his] reality". That smacks of jolly good storytelling, rather than a dispassionate account of events. Which is fair enough. Also, my friend anticipated criticisms of his story, stating right from the outset that he was not distracted or inebriated in any way. Sure, I'll buy that. Unfortunately, that doesn't make this story ironclad evidence for the existence of ghosts.

Nor, I hasten to add, is it meant to be. My friend was simply relating an experience that he had. That's fine. I believe him! I simply am unconvinced by his assertion that his experience was caused by a ghost. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of mentioning that.

Gem: Although I believe that you probably experienced what you described, I see no reason to believe that it was a ghost.

Friend: sorry, i was too busy pooping in my jeans to gather ektoplasm :)

I was glad that he took my skepticism in stride; he's a laid back sort of guy.

Gem: Sure. With that in mind, however, I'm just wondering why you assume that what you saw was a ghost. Why not an alien, or a ninja assassin, or a shapeshifter, or Satan, or psychic bigfoot?

To me, this was the key point: sure, you saw something—but why assume that it was a ghost? Is every unidentified object in the sky an alien spacecraft? Every unexplained ripple in the pond a plesiosaur? Every snapped twig testament to the Sasquatch? Is that really the best explanation?

I continued:

Gem: There is zero evidence for the existence of the soul, there is no reason to believe that such a thing could persist after death even if it did exist, and no one has posited a cogent method by which a nonphysical entity could selectively interact with our physical universe.

This was where things got a little hairy. Some friends of his started to join the fray.

Nonphysical Entities

Response: Ideas are non physical entities and interact with our physical universe all the time.

Interesting. But not compelling, in my opinion.

Gem: If by "idea", you mean a specific state of consciousness (the image of a fox that appears in my "mind's eye" when I consider the phrase, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog", for example), then I would disagree. In this sense, the "idea" of the fox is identical with a given brain state, and there is no need to posit additional entities (as William of Occam might say).

If you mean something more abstract, like the "idea" of a square, or the "idea" of the number "1", then I would classify that as a hypothetical construct: it exists as a description of the universe, not as an entity. But even if we suppose that these are nonphysical entities, I don't see that they do any "interacting" with the physical universe.

This friend-of-a-friend replied by asking, "Is a word an idea? Do words interact with the physical realm? is the idea of a rose the same as a rose?"

Sometimes, yes, and no.

If by "word" you mean ink on a page, or light modulated by liquid crystal, or certain series of pressure oscillations, then sure, words are physical and they interact with the physical world. When I read a word, corresponding changes occur in my visual cortices, which in turn affect other parts of my brain. When I hear a word, similar changes occur. Even if you are only thinking about a word, imagining it, it manifests physically in the brain.

But he continued:

Response: You posit that the idea of a fox is identical with a given brain state. This would posit that the same areas of the brain light up in every person whenever they think of the word fox. Do you have any evidence for such a supposition?

Nope, sure don't! Because that's not what I'm saying.

Gem: I'm saying that the idea of the fox that I have in my mind when I think of that phrase at a given time is identical with a given brain state. Because you would have a different idea of a fox (perhaps you imagine one that is brown, while I imagine one that is red; perhaps yours is more photorealistic than mine), it would stand to reason that you would have a different brain state, even if our brains were identical in structure (which they are not).

There is no one "idea" of a fox [unless you want to get Platonic on me]; that's part of my point. There are certain agreed-upon standards that disambiguate a fox from other similar animals, but they are ill-defined.

I'm interested in what you think. Are ideas physical? If not, can they be meaningfully said to interact with the physical universe?

The Evidence for Ghosts

Response: exactly. The word ghost is like the word fox, even more ambiguous. That does not take away from its usefulness both as a word and as a concept, nor does it take away from the possibility of one experiencing a state that someone might choose to tag with the word ghost.

Sure, I'm with you so far. Please continue.

Response: Gestalt and gross pattern recognition is how language is used, and how the mind experiences the world around it. You cannot write off an experience or understanding just because it doesn't fit narrow parameters set up a priori by an external minds.

Whoa, hey, now hold on a minute! I didn't write off anyone's experience. I said to my friend, "I believe that you probably experienced what you described." But I went on to state that I found his bald assertion that his experience was caused by a ghost to be unsupported by the available evidence, and I went on to make the case that ghosts are implausible.

Response: Ghosts and spirits have been witnessed all over the world since the dawn of recorded history. They are reported year after year.If this is the case, the choice is twofold. One, everyone who says they witness a ghost is a liar. Two, people are indeed witnessing something.

If people are witnessing something, you gain nothing in dismissing what they and many others claim to witness, but discover an interesting thread of inquiry if you stop to ask what people mean by the word "ghost" and analyse what convergences of sound and light and other physical phenomena lead people to believe in such things.

Okay, first of all, your argument from antiquity/popularity/anecdote isn't impressing anyone.

Secondly, are you serious? Either they actually saw something or they're liars? False dilemma, much? Who do you think you are? C.S. Lewis? As my friend Aron would say, "Are you trolling me, Dude?"

Gem: There are plenty of other options. A person may misinterpret what he or she sees, for example. A person may also misremember what happened. We are all prone to certain cognitive biases. The reason that we employ scientific methods of inquiry is that they tend to weed out bad data.

Response: I beg to differ. If you have something like, say for example the concept of love, which may be hard to operationalize in a lab, the fact that people from differing cultures over widely varying time periods have a similar concept, and that these concepts are culturally robust, it may indicate that the concept may be worthy of study. Correctness doesn't enter the equation. What becomes interesting is what people mean by the word love. They may mean all sorts of different things.

Cognitive bias is indeed part and parcel of how we all interact and interpret the world. These are lovely subsets of people witnessing something, and yes, figuring out why people would ascribe what they see to ghosts, or love, or any other word as a tag for interpreting the experience and relating to it is half the fun.

The scientific method of inquiry is a fantastic cognitive tool, and generates lovely results that can be quite robust. But it is not the only tool and is not always the tool best suited for analysing things like poetry, or music, or a lived experience.

And this is where I begin to realise that I'm truly, deeply, utterly, and completely wasting my time. But did that stop me? Of course not.

The "Experience" of a Ghost

It was at this point that my friend chimed in again:

Friend: i thank you both for your colourful commentary; the only thing that i can state with certainty is that i experienced a phenomenon which leads me to believe that i encountered a clearly visible, and yet non-physical entity. although what kind of entity i cannot say with certainty, and i would like to believe that what i experienced (or a similar encounter) could be measured by science (scientific method and measure)

Gem: If this is true, then you are proposing that an entity can be both visible and nonphysical. The problem with that is that, given our current understanding of the world, an entity must be physical in order for it to be visible; if you want to see it, you have to bounce a photon off of it (or at least bend the path of the photon a little). So you're proposing that either photons can bounce off of nonphysical entities or that your eyes can detect something other than light. This is possible, of course, but I find alternative explanations of your experience more convincing.

Friend: i find it hard to believe that we as a skeptical community have adequately equipped ourselves to monitor or measure things that the vast majority have trained themselves to disbelieve.

Gem: I think that it's worth noting that I, myself, have had "ghost experiences"... But I find them to be unconvincing. They are only anecdotes—they don't amount to data. Where the evidence leads, my beliefs follow. I don't believe in leprechauns, but if one showed up at my door with a pot of gold, I'd be happy to investigate his claims as long as he was willing to participate in such an investigation.

Friend: such data would likely be then chalked up to glitches, erroneous rememberings, or any other sort of "rationalisation" of the denial of the existance of said target.

Gem: The thing is, we know that memories are very, very mutable, that our sensory apparatus play constant tricks on us, and that we are subject to a host of cognitive biases that prevent us from being reliable witnesses to our surroundings. I WANT to believe in ghosts. I WANT to believe that I'll get to continue existing after this pale, frail flesh-sack that I call a body has gone to dust. But I also WANT to be a millionaire; that doesn't make it so. When you're claiming something as implausible and fantastical as the existence of spirits, anecdotes aren't sufficient for evidence.

Friend: also, i believe that the onus is on the denyer of the experience to validate his claim that my experience is inaccurate. if my experience does not benefit or describe yours, you may be quick to disbelieve it. as is your right as a being. but you have the choice to debate and should you choose to do so, then you, and only you, have the duty to provide evidence.

Gem: Then you don't understand the burden of proof. The burden of proof lies with the claimant... What you're saying amounts to, "You can't prove that I'm wrong!" Well... you can't prove that the universe wasn't created by the almighty Cosmic Blue Cheese.

Friend: for all i can accurately measure, neither of you exist, and i am in an asylum right now having a three way conversation with myself.

Gem: Solipsism is boring. Of course it's possible, but it's also unfalsifable and useless.

Friend: however that attitude is not useful to my experience, so i choose to act otherwise.

Gem: Exactly!

Friend: having recently had an experience which disengaged me from the "scientific" method of explanation (i.e. said "ghost"), i find it prudent to currently be wearing a star of david; an ancient symbol to invoke positive, and protect against negative, forces of energy.

Gem: Why do you find that prudent? Has it been demonstrated to be effective? Again, this is the logical fallacy known as the argument from antiquity. Blood-letting and purging are ancient systems of medicine; they are also dangerous and generally ineffective. It's also worth noting that "energy" is the capacity of a system to perform work. You seem to be using the term in a hand-wavy way common in the New Age movement that is ultimately meaningless.

Friend: call me a skeptic (wink at gem), but science falls short of describing the more lucid aspects of MY reality.

Gem: I'm not sure that "lucid" means what you think that it means.

In the meantime, my friend's friend had more to say.

Conceptual Ghosts

Gem: We have to separate the concept of a fox (which exists as a brain state) from an actual instance of a fox (which exists physically as a collection of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and various other trace elements).

Many entities "exist" in two senses: they exist physically and they exist conceptually (although we may continue to quibble with regard to whether "conceptual" existence qualifies as a subset of physical existence). You would probably agree that certain entities (such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Odin, werewolves, dragons, unicorns, etc.) exist ONLY conceptually, and are not instantiated with physical existence. I have no problem with the assertion that ghosts exist in the same sense that leprechauns exist; that is to say, they exist as concepts, which is basically no existence at all.

I'm not asserting that ghosts do not exist; I'm saying that I have no reason to believe that they do. If they did exist, I'd be curious to know what they are made of. Presumably you don't mean to imply that they are conceptual only.

Response: What is the difference between a ghost sighting and love, or any other abstraction of the world? Ghosts clearly exist on some level, as many people can tell you they see them, or have seen them, whether that be due to cultural preconditioning or not. Are they a thought, or are they an entity? Maybe both. I'd say ghosts are the epitome of a hard to pin down phenomenon. Perhaps ghosts exist on a level that is more akin to a thought than a chair. Perhaps they exist in the cultural mind.

Gem: Sure. They definitely exist on the conceptual level, along with the Minotaur and the Cyclops. Who cares? ANYTHING can exist conceptually. The important question is whether they manifest IN REALITY.

If you believe that if a large number of people report seeing a thing, that thing exists, presumably you also believe in aliens, demons, gwyllion, bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and reptilian shape-changers?

Response: ‎As for aliens, demons, gwyllion, etc. they are robust cultural forms of classifying an experience that happens to people.

Gem: So you're arguing that when someone talks about a demon, they are not attempting to describe an entity that literally exists, but only an experience that they had? This strikes me as nonstandard usage. Is the same true of a cat? If I say, "I saw a cat", am I talking about a "robust cultural form of classifying an experience"? Or do you assume that I'm indicating an entity that exists in the material universe?

Response: How would you set up a protocol for the investigation of what people mean when they say "I saw a ghost"? How do you interpret that statement?

Gem: You wouldn't. However, you CAN set very realistic protocols to test those who claim to be able to communicate with ghosts. Unfortunately, such mediums invariably fail.

You can also investigate claims of hauntings. Several legitimate paranormal investigators (such as Joe Nickell) do this on a regular basis; usually, the paranormal event can be adequately explained without appeal to the supernatural. Sometimes they are not sufficiently explained—but when a murder is not sufficiently explained we don't just assume that it was perpetrated by aliens; similarly, when a sighting or sound is unexplained we shouldn't leap to the conclusion that it was the result of the spirits of the deceased.

It went back and forth like that for a while. He accused me of knocking down straw-men, and I accused him of hand-waving and being unwilling to concede that there was a difference between ghosts existing conceptually and ghosts actually existing. When I mentioned that spirits are not required to explain any physiological function of the mind, he said, "Straw man again. Who has proposed this purpose?"

Gem: Have you never heard of mind-body dualism? This is Philosophy of Mind 101. Philosophers and theologians have proposed the soul as the seat of consciousness for thousands of years, and many seized upon Descartes' formulation of substance dualism. I can provide citations, if you'd like.

I rapidly tired of this conversation after that. My fatigue did not abate when my friend chimed in with this paragraph that would make Charlie Sheen proud:

also i read your blog, i found it very convincing as to the questionability of our broad theories about the universe. i think that were i in your shoes, i would seriously look deeper into those events, and research things similar in anecdote, as that's often a good place to start. i did not mean to posit that "ghosts" exist, merely to say that i saw something so convincing i almost threw up. i will be deeply researching metaphysical claims BECAUSE of my experience to support them, not IN SPITE of my experiences that deny them. why narrow, when we see the chance to justify, and prove that broadening was necessary. maybe the real definition of psychic bigfoot is what i saw, we just didn't know that he could psychic himself etherial, and then invisible. why, he could even make himself look like bigfoot!

The Bottom Line

If when you say "ghost", you mean a set of human experiences, rather than an entity that manifests literally outside of a person's brain, then my only quibble is that the definition that you use is going to be confusing to other people.

But if that's not what you mean, I'll let Picard show you the door.

But before signing off, my friend did have something very wise to say: "perhaps believing is seeing, or at least the first step towards it."

True dat.

If this post is too long for you, I'll let Randi sum it up:.


  1. In a single phrase:

    *x != x

    He is intentionally conflating use with mention, and I would like to tear into him for that, except that most people seem legitimately not to understand the difference.

  2. Hi,
    interesting but no conclusion, I would say, anything you see if it is not identified, that doesn't means that it is a paranormal thing, in believer's language.. GHOST!

    oops! we know about the galaxy, we know about the Carbon Dy Oxide, we know a little bit about everything, they are discovered they are identified. But what about which is not discovered?

    If there is something rest which is not discovered? for a moment just suppose if smoke is not discovered yet, you don't know what is SMOKE, and you see the smoke for the first time? So! it is not exactly IDENTITY of GHOSTS or any PARANORMAL believes.

    In short probably there are still rest of things and activities which are not identified or discovered yet.

    (Sorry if i'm wrong in English or anywhere else.)

  3. I certainly agree with you that there remains much to be discovered. I'm not convinced that we're seeing any new phenomena here, however, or that these experiences themselves are likely to point the way to new discoveries.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Ghosts are nothing more than this for me:

    If I say a human's brain can build up a spaceship or a computer by controlling it, though we use lesser percentages of our own mind, what if human brain generates or do anything different by itself. The power, energy and ability of human brains are more than we can ever think. However if it takes charge of itself and control it without any help of our body, and we don't come to know if it is self working, and at the end or the result we see that may be the human experiences. hehehe!

  6. Hi, again, :)

    We hear a lot of about twins sometimes. Even if they have been separated by their bodies, but they are connected via something, somehow, that I exactly don't know.
    If one of them get hurts the second can also feel the pain. Because there is something which is the medium, and something unique in each something like "X".
    So, if twins are similar and they might be connect with each other somehow, why not dissimilar people could be also connected. Oops sorry not connected exactly but they can be communicate with each other (In computer networking field similar and dissimilar devices, both can be connected and accessed), sorry again, but if any kind of unknown signal(the "Y") sent by someone, so it probably be delivered and will be received as well. And they can't understand what is going on exactly. They don't even get any distant sound of this process.
    I can not explain what I am trying to. But I hope you can understand.


  7. "Even if they have been separated by their bodies, but they are connected via something, somehow, that I exactly don't know. If one of them get hurts the second can also feel the pain."

    Do you have any evidence for this assertion? That claim seems fairly extraordinary.

  8. No, you are right. but I'm not saying that exactly.

    "Even if they have been separated by their bodies, but they are connected via something, somehow, that I exactly don't know. If one of them get hurts the second can also feel the pain." these lines are extraordinary now i realized .. but what do you think about the rest of part? what If human being has capabilities of sending and receiving signals like mobile phones? They might be some kind of rays or waves or ructions. Do you believe?

    In my village there is a boy with week brain(Retarded), when he was a child if you stand back of him and he don't know about this, and you try to touch his head or hair, he can look through the reality of, (guess)before you exactly touch him. This is only proof that i can tell you.

    I mean How he can guess? Is there any type of electromagnetic flow around his head? Can you tell me in any scientific way.

  9. "what If human being has capabilities of sending and receiving signals like mobile phones? They might be some kind of rays or waves or ructions. Do you believe?"

    I see no reason to believe that, I'm afraid.

    With regard to the boy in your village, there are all sorts of more mundane explanations that could be posited. He might have been aware of the movement of shadows on the ground. Movements in the air behind him may have disturbed the hair on the back of his neck. The gravel might have crunched beneath the feet of those attempting to sneak up on him. Or his ability might not be as staggeringly accurate as you remember it to be; confirmation bias can be quite confounding.

    Anecdotes don't make for convincing evidence at the best of times. But regardless, my inability to provide an explanation for what you say occurred does not provide positive evidence that this child's brain was "sending and receiving signals like mobile phones".

  10. May be I'm wrong I've no evidence about what I'm trying to say. But I do believe in only science. And as I and you also agree with "that there remains much to be discovered".

    Everything we do is controlled and enabled by electrical signals running through our bodies. As we learned in intro physics, everything is made up of atoms, and atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons have a positive charge, neutrons have a neutral charge, and electrons have a negative charge. When these charges are out of balance, an atom becomes either positively or negatively charged. The switch between one type of charge and the other allows electrons to flow from one atom to another. This flow of electrons, or a negative charge, is what we call electricity. Since our bodies are huge masses of atoms, we can generate electricity]

    Okay! now, we all know that the earth is a huge magnet, and we live on the way of magnetic fields of it. Sun the power house generates a lot of energy everytime.
    I think the human beings are living between the most powerfull elements like earth sun and other planetoids.

    Think about the human brain's illusions generated by these magnetic and electromagnetic fields present around us.

    [Can Humans Sense Earth's Magnetism? Human Retina Protein Can Function as Light-Sensitive Magnetic Sensor

    ScienceDaily (June 21, 2011) — For migratory birds and sea turtles, the ability to sense Earth's magnetic field is crucial to navigating the long-distance voyages these animals undertake during migration. Humans, however, are widely assumed not to have an innate magnetic sense. Research published in Nature Communications this week by faculty at the University of Massachusetts Medical School shows that a protein expressed in the human retina can sense magnetic fields when implanted into Drosophila, reopening an area of sensory biology in humans for further exploration.(]

  11. Hehehe I think you are bored with my comments, I'm sorry if I hurt you somehow.
    Anyway thanks for such amazing theories. Your topics are really have good properties. I'm here and will read them too.

    By the way may I know what is you religious views in short?

  12. No worries at all; you've done nothing to hurt my feelings.

    I have no religious views. I'm an agnostic atheist, which I discuss in some small detail here.

  13. Okay, thanks! and same here.
    by the way nice explanation on Atheist or Agnostic.

  14. Thanks. If my responses have seemed terse, it probably has something to do with the flood of inane creationist comments the Winnipeg Skeptics blog has been receiving over the past week or so. They have worn on my patience. :)

  15. Hmm :)

    Hey! what if i want to ask any question? Is there any separate thread?

  16. Not really. You can find a relevant thread and post it there. You could also email it to me, but there's no guarantee that I'll have time to respond to it.

    If you want a response, but you don't need it to be from me, your best bet might be to post questions to the Winnipeg Skeptics blog. They're pretty good at responding.

  17. Yeah actually I would like to question not to you only, I want answers from other people too, I think the Winnipeg Skeptics blog, you are talking about, is a good medium, thanks! I'll be there soon.