By Vexen Crabtree 2013
The fact that ghosts appear clothed is highly mysterious, but gives away their true origins. The pagans and Greeks of the classical world told stories about visits to the underworld, and it was always easy to recognize their fellows, because amongst the dead, "not only had the corporeal aspect been retained, but even the customary raiment"2. How is this possible?
Many theorize that ghosts intentionally emanate their appearance by some magical means; they emit a precise pattern of photons (i.e., light) with the correct frequencies (colours) to make it look as if they are wearing clothes. This endeavour must be quite difficult to accomplish - and I doubt that many ghost-believers have truly considered what a feat it is. However, the vast majority of ghosts always appear to the same people dressed in the same clothes. Sometimes they even keep this up for years or decades. So it seems that actually they can't be "choosing" their clothes, but, rather that their mentality (and therefore appearance) is controlled entirely by the circumstances surrounding their life or death, and they have no free will to change their appearance - nor do they have the free will to roam about freely. They must appear in spooky, poorly-lit places, wearing the same-old clothes, and are apparently completely unable at learning new things like sign language. This all begins to sound like the mental existence of a ghost is a very poor one, with no actual control, no free will, and seemingly, no cognitive processes going on.
Lionel Weatherley's question (quoted in the box on the right) received an answer from his spiritualist: the spirit-world sees (and photographs) all, and that the spirit world depicts clothes and all to those who are "influenced by the manifestations". But if these clothes are "added" by the spirit world, or even, if they are invented by the mind of the person witnessing the scene in accordance with their memory of the person in question (although most viewers do not of course know the ghosts that they claim to see), we are admitting that the mind has been tricked: the appearance of clothes is a false element added to the appearance of an immortal soul. Why do we believe that such important visual aspects are faked, whereby we hardly ever hear reported that the ghost as a whole has a fake appearance? It seems that once you believe clothes can be added to a scene, you must also believe that faces, mannerisms, voices and feelings can also be added. The whole subject lacks critical evaluation: how can we trust anything, once we admit that some apparent cues are faked? Questions like these seem to occur to skeptics, but not to believers. It seems that by the time you develop the mental faculties required to impartially analyse personal experiences, you also lose the ability to fool yourself into thinking you're seeing ghosts in the first place.
It is clear that there are contradictions between ghosts' appearances and their status as conscious things. It seems more sensible to admit that the way ghosts look, clothes and all, is mostly a function of the person doing the observing: a mixture of cultural assumptions and personal emotion. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for the idea that ghosts are a real, external or objective phenomenon.
No ghosts do real good in the world. Murdered ghosts do not appear to police investigators or judges in court, they appear to unrelated and unknown persons3. They don't provide evidence, facts or directions to the living... they provide mystical, unclear, indirect and almost useless clues, that have to be interpreted and worked-out in a most imaginative way. In fact, their 'clues' require such deliberation that with the same effort, any clue can be made to fit almost any crime, or any set of personal circumstances.
The varied ways in which ghosts are said to communicate to individual people, mostly to charlatans and frauds it seems, and their methods which are whispers, clues, symbols, and every kind of indirect and unclear hint, all necessitates an important level of work: all ghostly communications have to be worked-out by the receiver in a highly subjective way.
This level of observer subjectivism combined with the highly psychological nature of the reception is exactly what you would expect if it was internal psychological processes generating the so-called communications. In other words, the communications come from the dark corners of our minds, but, not from actual ghosts who are trying quite ineffectually to tell us something.
4If ghosts were real, you can expect that their physical properties and behaviour would be the same all over. I.e., if ghosts in the USA walk through walls, then surely ghosts in India can too. But strangely, we find that the features of ghosts vary from culture to culture5. A ghost in Victorian times had a different appearance and different behaviour to a ghost of the Reformation or ancient Greece. Their motives and causes are proven to fit a certain folkloric pattern in the twentieth century, but a completely different pattern during early Christian times5. This slowly changing perception of ghosts is very problematic and it is very hard indeed to concoct a sensible theory of ghosts that can explain why their characteristics differ from continent to continent and time to time. It indicates that the idea of ghosts effects people's perceptions of them far more than their actual reality. The best and most fitting theory that explains why it is that different cultures see ghosts differently is that the ghosts themselves are the results of psychology and mild delusion.
“In many cultures people think that the dead come back to haunt the living but this is not universal. In some places people believe that certain special individuals can communicate with gods or dead people, but this idea is not found everywhere. In some places people assume that humans have a soul which survives after death, but this idea is not universal.”
Fake ghost stories and tales of imaginary make-belief have a tendency to become true. The suggestibility of many people means that they actively seek out confirming experiences for even the most improbable stories. Many fictional ghosts have grown up a community of believers7, even if the original intentions were to tell an obviously fictional story and no-one ever set out to create a sensation. Colin Wilson's television series in the 1970s, 'Leap in the Dark', traced the history of a haunting - recounted by Stan Gooch:
“A writer, Frank Smythe, deliberately put round an entirely fictitious story that a particular place was haunted by a particular ghost. No one, apart from Smythe and his team, knew that the story was fictitious. A while later the researchers were flooded with reports from people claiming to have sighted the ghost in question. In this case, then, we have sightings of a ghost which arose simply on the basis of the public suggestion that there was a ghost to be seen.”
"The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind" by Stan Gooch (2007) [Book Review]8
For more examples, see: Fake and Imaginary Ghosts: Some Stories are Simply Made Up.
It is easy to see that most ghost sightings are evidently mistaken. The most popular ghosts end up appearing in multiple places at once - in this town here, in another town over there. They appear with heads in one place, and without heads at another, depending on the stories being told in the area at the moment. One result of the cultural myths being propagated about ghosts at the moment is that they often appear wearing medieval and classical clothing, but often in houses that were much more modern. It is rare indeed to find a ghost story that makes much sense.7
There have been times where simple mistaken identities have led people to indulge in some pretty strange beliefs. In a case from history, a suicide victim's mistaken identity led to the police and coroner (and relatives) confirming the identity of the dead man (he had a crooked finger, for example). But the man was alive and well, and was surprised when he returned home to discover a bill for his own funeral in the post9. If those in full possession of their senses can mistake one person for another, who more possible during the half-asleep and half-lit times in which ghosts like to appear? It seems that ghosts have everything in common with mistake and illusion which is why they disappear during any rigorous investigation.
A series of wonderful investigations documented in "The Supernatural?" by Lionel A. Weatherley (1891) provide some timeless notes on hallucinations and ghosts:
“Mrs. A., so graphically described by Sir David Brewster in his letters to Sir Walter Scott on Natural Magic. Mrs A. was suffering repeated hallucinations, and was advised to carry out a simple test to determine if she was really seeing an exterior ghost: to squash one of her eyes with her hand, so as to cause the ghost to appear double. A mental apparition would not be effected by this test. (However she was too stressed during the episodes to carry out this test.)”
"The Supernatural?" by Lionel A. Weatherley (1891)
Another case dated 26th Dec 1830 was about a wife who repeatedly hears her husband calling for her (later on, impatiently so) but she can't find him in the house. When they meet later, she is surprised to know that he was quite well, but nowhere near the house, and not calling for her. Weatherly describes this as a simple aural hallucination. She had many hallucinations during a period of general ill health, but, being seen by doctors and a sound person, didn't suspect any supernatural cause. No doubt such things are the sources of many so-called supernatural experiences. Surely, she could have been easily pushed by friends or relatives into thinking her illusions were true, or, that they were meaningful. Imagine just for a moment if after telling someone about one of these hallucinations, she soon discovered that her husband had died in an accident. Such an amazing story would spread like wildfire, and 'believers' would be aghast how anyone, after hearing the story, could continue to not believe in souls and ghosts. But luckily in this case, as supernatural beliefs were not promoted to her, the illness passed into history much more rapidly whereas a superstitious or gullible person could have ended up spending decades telling stories about ghosts.
In many folk tales, Westerners tell of seeing the ghosts of the recently departed. Scientific investigation has always found that such cases are either explainable in terms of the subject actually knowing more than they knew they knew (or let on), or are mistaken. Experiments where people write down such predictions before finding out confirming evidence (such as receiving a phone call informing them a relative is dead), results in a very poor record of accuracy, with the only slight success rate attributable to the fact that people tend to predict the deaths of the elderly or unwell. The investigative psychologist Stan Gooch, who does believe that the human brain is capable of supernatural intelligence, argues that all such encounters with the dead are actually subjective methods of interpreting information, but which do not actually have a basis in physical reality:
“In all these cases we do not require the discarnate spirit hypothesis at all. It is totally irrelevant. [...] (As emphasized, the person is not always dead when the vision occurs). Is it not enough to say that in all cases of death that having received kind of telepathic impulse if events, the unconscious mind then generates some kind of symbolic fantasy - a vision, a dream, a premonition - by which means it presents the received information to consciousness? That view gains enormously also from the fact that Australian aborigines are very good at sensing the death of a distant companion. But they do not see a ghostly vision of that person, as westerners often do. Instead they see a vision of that person's totem animal running about the camp. Once again, 'we see what we expect to see' in terms of our cultural (and in this case religious) upbringing. The totem animal is the best choice, and the obvious choice, for the Aborigine unconscious mind to make in presenting its information to consciousness.”
And the following story by Lionel Weatherley leads us to realize that the way we think and construct ideas from coincidences is so natural that it is hard to imagine ghostly stories ever being eradicated by healthy skeptical thinking:
“I well remember, some few years ago, when on the Thames (some hundreds of miles from my home) with a party of friends, that [...] I saw seated [...] a fellow whom I at once thought I distinguished beyond a shadow of a doubt as one of my brothers [...]. His face was so identical, his cap, his light-grey coat, his peculiar collar [...etc]. I called him by name. No response. Again I hailed him. [...] Yet what was my surprise, on reaching home, to find that he had never been absent for a single hour! Here, then, was a striking example of mistaken identity.”
I am sure most of us recognize that this type of event is not unusual. In this case, the man was with friends but it is easy to imagine that many times such awkward moments occur when we are on our own. The next insight of Weatherley, I think, explains a lot about how some of us come to believe that we have seen a ghost:
“Now, supposing something had happened to my brother at that time, and on that day, what more likely than that I should have rushed off into print to record the most wonderful instance of [a ghost]? The Psychical Research Society would have welcomed it, and with solemn faces would have at once said: 'Yes, here is another instance...' ”
All it takes is their collecting of several of these coincidences, mistakes and illusions and they will confidently make the case that this constitutes evidence of ghosts. The problem is, their error, is that they are not recording failed occurrences where mundane explanations were found. To count as evidence, the occurrence rate of ghostly appearances must be correlated against the rate of soon-forgotten mistakes that turned out not to be ghostly at all. Such an impossible endeavour would find, I am sure, that the rate of ghost-appearances is a result of chance and that the appearance of meaning comes from selection bias and other cognitive errors, whereby we ignore all the mundane explanations and concentrate solely on the much more exciting supernatural ones.
The problem is, once stories and beliefs like this take hold, they are all but impossible to dislodge. Imagine that Lionel's brother had died at home during his day-long excursion to the Thames. He may well have been utterly convinced that his dead brother appeared to him after his death, as a farewell. Skeptics are left with the almost impossible situation where they have to tell him it was coincidence or mistake, and perhaps just mistaken identity. It is easy to see how we would come to ridicule the skeptics, as he has a real life experience to back up his belief. Only through sustained teaching that our experiences are not always what they seem, can we hope to curb irrationalism.
“Once, as a child, I heard a ghost: a male voice murmuring, as if in recitation or prayer. I could almost, but not quite, make out the words, which seemed to have a serious, solemn timbre [and] was a little frightened. But I got out of bed and crept up on the source of the sound. As I got closer, it grew louder, and then suddenly it 'flipped' inside my head. I was now close enough to discern what it really was. The wind, gusting through the keyhole, was creating sounds which [...] my brain had used to construct a model of male speech, solemnly intoned. Had I been a more impressionable child, it is possible that I would have 'heard' not just unintelligible speech, but particular words and even sentences. And had I been both impressionable and religiously brought up, I wonder what the words might have spoken.”
The young Richard Dawkins' brain could have easily put together words as we are all inclined to do when hearing unclear voice-like noise. The words, if they suggested something, may have been from the subconscious. A worry about an aunt's health could have found voice, or, a self-conscious guilt about something he'd done which he shouldn't have, could have seen his conscience hint at the required rectification. But what if, shortly later, the ill aunt did actually die? It is easy to see how this could have created a life-long believer in spirits and premonition, and it would be very hard to explain to him later that this 'experience' was a subjective construction of his own mind. Such is the problem that skeptics face when arguing against 'those with experience'.
Our physical eyes operate by absorbing certain frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our retinas contain special wavelength-sensitive chemicals that absorb photons of light precisely due to their physical properties. Some problems emerge when we consider what eyesight disembodied souls or ghosts might have:
Without eyesockets, eyelids, a skull and a brain to get in the way of light arriving at the eyes, a spirit is free to view a full 360 degrees around itself, unhindered. Yet I have never heard of such a report from mediums and others who claim to talk to spirits. [ + EXPAND + ]Our brains can deal with it; military experiments with backwards-facing cameras have found their living operators over time become accustomed to seeing in a variety of angles at once. It appears that the eyesight of spirits is limited by the imagination of the storyteller, indicating that actually, there are no real communications with spirits.
Without light-absorbing chemicals, immaterial spirits cannot absorb light. It is ridiculous to think that they mystically 'see' the exact same frequency ranges as happens to be absorbed by certain photosensitive chemicals; it therefore stands that there is nothing limiting spirits from "seeing" all frequency ranges. This means they can see infrared, ultraviolet, radiowaves, etc. But why is it that spirits - and those who claim to speak on behalf of them - never report anything physical from the vicinity that can't be seen with normal chemical-based eyes?
Any absorption of light is detectable by scientific instruments - light is, after all, composed of lots of photons which are well-understood by science. To see, your eyes must absorb photos of light. In addition, if spirits can see, their interaction with result in detectable quantum and/or normal physical side-effects of observation. But to have these effects, spirits must have physical components. To observe, you must become detectable, but many a scientific study have found no such evidence of spiritual eyesight.
These are important questions which all highlight contradictions with the very idea of spirits being able to see in the real world, and also highlights the fact that all stories told about spirits, ghosts and souls have merely reflected the state of knowledge of the storyteller.
If the soul was able to interact physically with the body, or to view the world, it must have some physical structure in order to be an observer. Yet, despite attempts, no evidence for the 'mass' of soul has been found13. An object cannot be mass-free and physical; it cannot react with energy without having energy. In order to react with the brain it must have mass, but in order to be invisible it must be mass free. In order to see it requires photoreceptors and energy measuring devices which need to interact with the physical world. All such interactions are detectable. If souls interact with the world at all, they would be scientifically detectable in the world, but, scientific studies published properly in peer-reviewed journals have found no signs of souls or spirits.
Everything about ghosts - from their mystical and unclear communications, their appearance to individuals alone, their frequenting of dark, odd, scary, lonely or old places, their half-seen and half-heard nature, all require large amounts of personal and subjective interpretation in order to create the experience. Ghosts seem to appear in all the circumstances in which our minds are at their least logical, least clear, and least sensible. This is not the hallmark of a murky spiritual world 'just beyond reach' - it is the hallmark of a phenomenon that comes from the quirky psychological of the living rather than the strange attempts of the recently dead to somehow appear - complete with clothes - and to try most ineffectually to tell us things. Every scientific investigation has found the idea of ghosts to be impossible, and every solved case has turned out to have utterly mundane origins, mostly in Human confusion, hallucination and other thinking errors, but unfortunately many so-called ghost photos and stories have turned out to be simple exaggerations, pranks and frauds. All it takes is suggestion, and a ghost story can become real: to prove this, multiple times sceptics have invented ghost stories and spread them: it is only a matter of time before the invented ghosts get reported to them by people who think they've seen them14. The occurrence of ghosts in hallucinations can give believers the most convincing experiences, and, other coincidences (such as dreaming of someone and finding out that they're dead) are only akin with the laws of chance. Try to think of how many more times we dream of those we know and they turn out not to have recently died! The problem is, these more mundane experiences are easily forgotten, where the occasional coincidence is so dramatic we remember it, and build false theories upon them. There is no afterlife, there is no soul, there are no spirits wandering around occasionally making themselves visible: there are no ghosts.
Current edition: 2013 Jul 19
Last Modified: 2014 Nov 23
Parent page: Souls do not Exist: Evidence from Science & Philosophy Against Mind-Body Dualism
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Skeptical Inquirer. Magazine. Published by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, NY, USA. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly.
Bierce, Ambrose. (1842-1914?)
(1967) The Devil's Dictionary. Paperback book. 2001 Penguin Classics reprint. Originally published 1971. Current version published by Penguin Group, London, UK. Published in UK by Victor Gollancz.
Draper, John William. (1811-1882)
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(1996) Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation. Published by Prometheus Books, Amherst, USA. In Skeptical Inquirer (2012 Sep/Oct) article "Tracking the Chupachameleon: Chupacabra Iconography" p26. By Benjamin Radford, research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
(2007) The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind. Hardback book. Originally published 1984 as "Creatures from Inner Space". Current version published by Rider & Company, London, UK. My references are to the original publication. The edition linked to here is published by Inner Traditions 2007; information retrieved from Amazon UK on 2007 Dec 14. Book Review.
Koch, Christof Prof.
"When Does Consciousness Arise?" in Scientific American Mind (2009 Sep/Oct) p20-21. Koch is Lois and Victor Troendie Professor of Cognitive and Behavioural Biology at the California Institute of Technology.
(2001) "Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal". Published by The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky, USA. In Skeptical Inquirer (2009 Sep/Oct) p19.
(2001) "Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal". Published by The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky, USA. In Skeptical Inquirer (2009 Sep/Oct) p19.