On Ghosts and the Supernatural

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Do ghosts exist? Dr Johnson believed they did. Pressed by Boswell, he raised in support of his belief the universal testimony of mankind. In all times and places, and generally of their own motion, people have believed in life after death.

On Ghosts and the Supernatural
Richard Blake

Do ghosts exist? Dr Johnson believed they did. Pressed by Boswell, he raised in support of his belief the universal testimony of mankind. In all times and places, and generally of their own motion, people have believed in life after death. Our earliest recognisable ancestors buried each other with their household goods, thereby showing a belief that these would be of continued use. Every nation of which I know has believed that the dead could be somehow brought in contact with the living. In the twelfth book of the Odyssey, for example, Ulysses sacrifices a sheep, fills a trench with its blood, and waits for the ghosts that surround him to drink until they become visible and he can question them. In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh—which I have yet to read—I believe that the spirits of the dead are summoned and questioned. My Chinese and Japanese students have told me some of their own traditional ghost stories. Turn where you will, people believe and have believed in ghosts. Who am I to doubt such universal testimony?

The answer is that I do doubt it, and I appeal to David Hume and his use of Occam’s razor with regard to the supernatural. We should not resort to more complex hypotheses than are needed to explain events. Every rational being knows about death. No one who ever looks on the disintegrating bodies of his loved ones, or imagines his own departure from the world, likes to think that this is the end—that the atoms of the soul are dispersed as irrecoverably as those of the body. Like causes produce like effects. The fear of death is universal. So, therefore, is belief in an afterlife. There can be no other reason. The actual evidence is all born of wishful thinking, where not fraud. None of it has withstood testing to the same standard as some hypothesis in the natural sciences. Seen in this light, the existence of ghosts is to be rejected by everyone who is willing and able to regulate his belief according to what can be proved.

My only objection to this line of reasoning—and it may be a faint objection—is that I have often seen what many would regard as ghosts. I could fill a small paperback with anecdotes of the unusual, but will confine myself to just a couple. The first is from 2002, shortly after my wife and I had moved to our present house in Deal. This is an old house, dating from the 1690s. It has been many things during the past three centuries—pub, naval brothel, Mayor's private residence. In 1801, following an attack on a French invasion fleet at Boulogne, Edward Parker, a young officer in the Marines, died here of gangrene. While dying, he was continually visited by Nelson and Emma Hamilton, who are said to have slept in the main bedroom. Doubtless, many other people have died in the house. Hospital deaths are a very recent innovation.

But I digress. At about 3am on Wednesday the 9th October 2002, I woke for no particular reason in bed. I uncovered my face and looked across the room. As yet, we had no curtains in the bedroom, and there was a dim light from the windows. Over by the door, I could see a woman standing. She was tall and thin, and dressed voluminously in white, and seemed to be fussing over some clothes I had piled on a cupboard. I thought at first it was my wife coming back from a call of nature, and I prepared to mutter something peevish before pulling the covers back in place. But I suddenly felt her lying beside me. My clothes now fell with a clatter of belt buckle on floorboards.

Fully awake, I sat up in bed. I prodded my wife awake, and let her utter the peevish words. Of course, there was now no one else visible in the room. When I told her what I had seen, we discussed getting up and searching the house. But it was cold. We needed to get up early. We were unwilling to do more than huddle together and hope for the best.

It was a dream. I have no reasonable doubt of that. The sequence of events may suggest otherwise. My clothes fell down only after I had seen the woman in white. The connection of known and improbable goes in the wrong direction. Then again, dream narratives are often flexible. I can edit and rerun them while they are still in progress. What is more likely—that I made up the woman in white after the clothes fell down, and then inserted her in the narrative much as I might add a paragraph before the one I am now writing; or that the spirits of the dead rise at night to disturb the living? There is nothing inconceivable about this second possibility, and so it might be true. However, there is no reasonable doubt of the first. Since, therefore, believing in ghosts is not necessary to explain the events under discussion, I have no grounds for saying that I saw a ghost.

My wife is less happy with this mode of reasoning. She insists that there is no firm evidence that ghosts do not exist, and sides with Dr Johnson. She also probably likes the thrill—at least in daylight—of believing that our house is not just a former brothel in need of continual maintenance, but has all the glamour too of being haunted. Her Chinese osteopath agrees. His view is that every building is haunted, and the ghosts show their approval of new residents by making a single and discrete appearance. You decide.

The other odd experience I have chosen to discuss took place when I was fifteen. My grandmother had recently died. As I had been very close to her, I was more than usually affected by her death. Late one night, I was lying awake in bed. All was quiet in the house and quiet outside. Suddenly, I heard a loud bang above the ceiling. It was as if someone had struck one of the water pipes in the attic with a hammer. Then I heard another and then another. Soon, I was almost deafened by a loud and complex pattern of bangs from the pipes. It seemed to go on without end. At last, I got up and left the room. Once I was in the passage outside, the noises stopped. I went downstairs to the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea. All was now quiet again. No one else had been woken. I drank my tea and went back to bed.

It was around this time, I later discovered, that I was dispossessed of an inheritance. Though she never formalised her wishes, my grandmother had frequently said in public that I was to be her heir. Once she was dead, my uncle took possession of the estate, and declined to share a penny with anyone else. In justice, he may have relied on an old will that had slipped my grandmother’s mind. But his behaviour was undeniably low.

Now, was this a message from the infuriated spirit of my grandmother? Or do water pipes make odd noises? Or was I deluded in some way? Or is there, as a close friend suggests, a separate but still supernatural explanation? Was I somehow the cause of that knocking? I know which one I ought to believe. Plumbing is one of the great mysteries of civilised life, and no less everyday explanation is needed once this fact is apprehended. I remain, even so, not entirely convinced. Those water pipes never played up again to my knowledge; and the combination of circumstances in which they did play up that time keeps me unwilling to draw the most natural conclusion.

So, am I willing to say that there are ghosts? I cannot say for sure I have ever seen one. And no amount of weak evidence can be equal to one decent proof. On the other hand, I see no reason in itself why there should be nothing beyond the ordinary. As a sceptic and keen reader of David Hume, I have no time for claims about the power of reason to apprehend the nature of reality. All knowledge seems to originate in the fallible perceptions of our senses, and to be processed according to assumptions about cause and effect that are customary in nature. As such, deductive arguments for or against the existence of things outside the range of common perception are worthless. There might be a world of spirits parallel to that of the living, the borders between which occasionally wear thin. Or there might not.

Do ghosts exist? Once again, you decide.

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