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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Are ghosts real?

I know.... ghosts are NOT real. But to my surprise some atheists, or at least one, believe in ghosts.

There are many paths one can take on the journey to becoming an atheist (or going back to the atheist they were when they were born... but that's a debate for another day). So it can be refreshing to discuss the details of our atheism and share our views.

An old friend of mine and I were sitting on the dock at his cottage, late one evening with beers in hand. I brought up the subject of ghosts by saying "Remember when you said you believe in ghosts? Well, I think, if you really think about it you don't believe in ghosts. Because if you don't believe in god then you don't believe in a soul and if there is no soul then nothing leaves the body when you die and there cannot possibly be ghosts.". He responded that he had seen a ghost on two occasions and how do I explain that.

Here are his two encounters with ghosts and my explanations.

First encounter, he and a former girlfriend were in the girlfriends house they walked into the family room and pictures that were on the bookshelf and ALWAYS facing forward were all (several pictures) turned around (facing backwards). He claims no one else was home and that several minutes earlier they walked into the room and all the pictures were facing forwards.

My approach to this was first to say "Did you actually see the ghost?". His response was "No". I said the following are more probable explanations then a ghost.
1) Your girlfriend turned all the pictures around without your knowledge (this was not a convincing explanation).
2) Someone else, earlier that day, turned the pictures around before the two of you walked into the room the first time. Upon, entering the room the first time you did not notice the pictures had been turned around. You left the room and then came back several minutes later and noticed the pictures had been turned around. (Like when someone gets a haircut and you don't notice right away). For me this is the most probable explanation but I still had not convinced my friend.

I also questioned by what theory are ghosts able to move physical objects, my friend responded that poltergeists can supposedly do that. Which I rebutted by saying that's just in the movies and there is no evidence for ghosts or that they have those abilities.

At this point what I really wanted was to show him this video on youtube by Mahzarin Banaji at the Beyond Belief 2006 Conference. Without the Internet at hand I went on to explain that scientists have now discovered that consciousness and our feeling of self is really a production of our brain. And that we have one conscious thought ever 200 ms, or 5 thoughts per second. This stream of thoughts determines who we are and how we feel. I know I left my friend with some insight to ponder for another day and we moved on to the second example.

The second encounter was a more vivid experience. My friend recounted that on one evening, in the early morning hours, he was a passenger driving in his friends car and they were heading back to town. For various personal reasons the driver was in a hurry to make it home in the neighboring town. My friend because he is nice and probably because he was drunk said to his friend "don't worry about taking me all the way home you can just drop me here and I'll walk". Bad idea since there was only 20 minutes left in the drive but the walking would take him 4 hours (I'm sure the alcohol effected the decision). About 3 hours into this walk he passed the Masonic Lodge that is on the outskirts of town, which has an adjacent graveyard. Since I've driven by there before I acknowledged that it would be a spooky place to walk by in the wee hours of the morning (or night). My friend said that as he walked by the graveyard he saw a ghost appear about 1 metre beside him and he knew it was a ghost because it had no feet. He said he closed his eyes a few times and re-opened them and the ghost was still there (a figure of a man). The ghost scared him but did not harm him and after a few minutes of walking he closed his eyes again and re-opened them and the ghost was gone.

My response to this was that I believed he thought he actually saw a ghost but that the human mind has the awesome power of allowing us to hallucinate and that drugs are not required to invoke a hallucination. Since he was tired from walking so long, partly drunk, a fan of horror movies and since he just walked by a cemetery those were enough elements to allow his mind to fabricate that a ghost had appeared before him. Since he "witnessed" the ghost my line of reasoning was not easy to swallow.

I then noted that when someone takes a hallucinogenic drug it's not the drug that has the information for the hallucination but it's the mind that formulates the hallucination (that seems real) because the drug causes the mind to cascade it's thoughts in a way that it normally does not do. I also recounted a lesson I had learned by reading "How to See Yourself as You Really Are" by the Dalai Lama. One of the Buddhist philosophers, in the book, reminds us of the experience of being in a dimly light room and seeing a coiled snake on the floor (vivid in your mind) and then turning the light on to discover the coiled snake was just a coiled rope. Where did the snake come from? It was dependent on the mind. And the mind has the power to formulate images of things that do not exist outside the mind.

With all these examples and explanations I was not able to completely convince my friend but I was able to get him to agree that it was in fact MORE probable that he hallucinated then the alternative that ghosts are real.

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