Ghosts: Those Things That Go Bump In The Night. Apparitions, ghosts, phantoms, spectres, spirits, spooks, wraiths – call them what you will like ‘things that go bump in the night’ if you wish. Here’s a mystery that needs explaining. Who hasn’t heard and/or read about them? They are a staple of thousands of novels, short stories, plays, operas, TV episodes, feature films, video games, documentaries, theme park rides, songs, mythological and not so mythological legends, and all manner of campfire and other tall tales, and have been, in one form or another, for generations upon generations. So, ghosts are the theme to be explained here.
Now I must stress that I am NOT, repeat NOT, talking about séances, ouija boards, spiritualism, mediums, channelling, and yucky ectoplasm. Rather, just old fashion unexpected, unplanned, undesired, unwanted close encounters with those things that go bump in the night and go ‘boo’ and like to haunt things. The unfortunate thing is that said encounters go back to the ancient Greeks (and probably before if there were records) and proceed through every century up through and including the 21st. Ghostly encounters are recorded across the entire spectrum of the human condition. Young and old; male and female; every race, creed, culture, socioeconomic group, nationality, IQ level, etc. has recorded encounters. By now, that’s probably in the hundreds of thousands to millions of cases, not all by any means noted and logged in the literature. I’m sure many members of the great unwashed keep quiet for obvious reasons.
- Problem one: has each and every one of those witnesses to ghostly happenings been mistaken?
- Problem two is the counterpoint. If you can see or hear them, or photograph them or record them and their activity with other instruments, then they must be composed of matter and energy. Yet there is no way known to science to form these apparitions, comprised of the necessity of matter and energy. Since they are apparently whatever leaves the body after death (including, apparently, animals as well as humans), and since a body doesn’t lose any mass in that interval or transition between life and death, there’s no decrease of X amount of grams, the ghost has to be comprised of nothing and be 100% immaterial – but then you couldn’t see or hear them! That contradicts all those millions of witnesses.
- Another problem is that they are not all biological. There are reports of ghost trains, and phantom ships, and other things that have no connection with the biological world.
However, sticking with the biological world, for the time being, it must be noted that we humans tend to have a near-universal fear, or at least intense dislike, of certain other life forms that often have relatively little to do with any actual threats they represent. We tend to hate cockroaches (but very few other beetles) even though they aren’t likely to tear you apart limb from limb. And the cockroaches-spread-disease idea behind cockroach loathing doesn’t wash. While we might kill flies, fleas and mosquitoes that equally can spread disease, we’re not revolted by them. We don’t care too much for snakes even though relatively few can harm us and in any event, we can run faster than they can slither. We have an instinctive dislike of certain spiders even though we’re a thousand times their size and have a vast array of arsenals at our disposal to deal with them. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I hate and will kill huntsman spiders on sight although they pose no danger to me and are actually probably useful pest control agents in the house. On the other hand, other spiders, even the venomous redback spiders, it’s live and let live. It’s not all very rational, but then who said human behaviour was always rational! But further on the theme…
There are many biological things in this world that can be deadly to us, yet which we have to instinctive or innate fear of. We don’t recoil in horror at the sight of a tiger or lion or a wolf or a bear. Certain fish and amphibians can be toxic, but don’t cause us any revulsion. Some invertebrates like the blue-ringed octopus, box jellyfish, and some cone shells can give you a nasty, even fatal experience, but they don’t feature in our list of loathing. So there’s probably no absolute relationship between inner loathing and external danger. But, anything we are hardwired to be instinctively repulsive of is nevertheless real.
We tend to be afraid of ghosts, in fact usually downright terrified – that’s why they feature so prominently in horror fiction. Why this is so, if ghosts are just spirits of usually dead strangers to us, is slightly mysterious since we accidentally come across – well you come across – strangers everyday, in the street, in the office, while shopping or stopping to smell the roses in your local park without any feeling of revulsion or being scared. Somehow we’re hardwired to be nervous, probably terrified, around things that go bump in the night. So perhaps that’s an argument that they do in fact exist. However, let’s look at alternative explanations.
The immediate, and most obvious, explanation(s) revolve around routine, ordinary, physical events that witnesses misinterpret. There can be many natural sources for strange lights; many natural sources for weird noises, even apparent changes in temperatures associated with spiritual manifestations.
The next most obvious category of explanations resides within the mind. If you’re tired, under the influence, have through no fault of your own abnormal brain chemistry or disease or injury, then what you perceive might not be what you think it is. Some people might be extra sensitive in their perception of and able to be influenced by infrasound or magnetic fields. There are dreams that can be extremely vivid (lucid dreams) and hallucinations. For the ‘all in the mind’ theory to be credible, you’ve got to give equal opportunity to a whole range of other equally logical, yet equally nonsensical items like sightings of flying pink elephants. The mind can conceive of flying pink elephants equally as well as ghosts, yet where are the reports of flying pink elephants? There are millions of other plausible topics that could be imagined and reported as reality but aren’t. So when you get thousands of sightings of one data point in a landscape of plausible millions of data points (that aren’t ever noted and logged), what does that tell you about the ‘all in the mind’ theory?
However, I suggest that on balance, while there is certainly some truth in a sweeping generalization that each and every ghostly sighting has a prosaic explanation, I remain unconvinced that all those who experience apparitions are akin to having converted believers preached to. Sure, some people seek out ghostly encounters and expect to experience same just like some Bigfoot/Sasquatch hunters see a partly concealed animal a mile or more away in thick forest and immediately jump to the conclusion that it must be a Bigfoot. The will to believe is a powerful influence.
I believer in the ‘flying saucer’ explanation of all things UFO is more likely to look at the planet Venus and explain ‘There, an alien spacecraft’, than someone who poo-poos the whole UFO subject. It takes something extraordinary to turn a non-believer/sceptic into a believer/convert, especially when extraordinary event conversions cut across all cultures over thousands of years!
So, we have extraordinary encounters and reports from far too many un-expecting and unprepared witnesses, from all walks of life, since at least the times of the ancient Greeks. There are thousands of reports from witnesses not seeking out new (or any) ghostly encounters, those sober disbelievers who get bumped in the night anyway. Well, as I said, there are just a few too many to suggest that prosaic explanations can account for 100% of cases. 95% I’ll go along with; just not 100%. So, what other explanations are plausible?
One can invoke the idea of parallel worlds to explain ghosts, not as the remains of the dead but is barely perceptible images of living beings (or inanimate objects) on a parallel world; a parallel Earth in all probability. But parallel worlds or universes are theoretical at best and the macro mechanism(s) by which these macro ghostly entities could appear in our realm is also very hypothetical, and it’s compounding one speculation by heaping on it another. However, there’s a better bet in theorising that on the quantum (micro) level, there could be interactions between parallel worlds. However, that probably doesn’t help us explain ghostly manifestations.
It’s pretty obvious that the existence of a discrete chunk of matter/energy has an influence of other discrete chunks of matter/energy that influence remaining – for a while at least -even when the first chunk moves away or otherwise vanishes or changes in form. For example, the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) is the ghostly remains of the Big Bang origin event of our Universe. The Big Bang is no more, but the influence remains. If you look at a bright light then turn the light off, you’ll still see, for a brief while, an afterimage of that light. You can also detect its infrared (heat) radiation for a spell, even after lights out! You might be able to tell that someone has recently been in a room because the temperature is slightly higher in one place coupled with a higher concentration of perfume in that same place not to mention that the sofa cushions (that same location) are still slightly depressed as if someone had been recently sitting on them. Footprints are another example of influence between one chunk of matter/energy and another – influence left behind even though the original chunk is now far away. Such are the clues from which Sherlock Holmes and kin make their living from.
Why Do We Not See Ancient Ghosts?
Now to the best of my knowledge, ghostly manifestations tend to be recent – recent with respect to human history. That is, I know of no reports of ghostly dinosaurs, or sabre tooth cats or Neanderthals (there are no haunted caveman caves). While I’m sure the ancient Greeks saw ghosts from their recent past, we don’t tend to see ghosts of ancient Greeks. It almost seems that after a certain period of time, whatever influence on the environment the original matter/energy chunk (human for sake of argument) had, the remnants, those ghostly manifestations, ultimately fades away to something no longer distinguishable from the ordinary or everyday background, and does so usually within several centuries. Imagine turning off a light having it slowly fade away, but taking perhaps many centuries to do so.
The problem with this idea is that I’m sure any physicist could calculate how long it would take for any residual trace of something to fade and blend into the background as to be indistinguishable from the background. It doesn’t take all that long after turning off the oven for its temperature to cool to that equalling the background temperature. So, explaining ghostly images days, months, years, even decades or many centuries after-the-fact is problematical at best. I like the idea, but I can’t see a way to make it work in practice. Be that as it may, there’s probably some wheat among the chaff here, although I’m not quite sure however what this observation (that ghosts fade away in time) all means, if anything. But I think it’s an important observation and offers up a clue towards an ultimate resolution.
One could easily imagine a ghost (or any kind – formally animate or inanimate) as the product of a hologram. The only difficulty with that idea, of course, is that ghostly apparitions have been observed, noted and logged way, way before modern holographic technology came into being.
Simulations, on the other hand, could be a horse of a different colour. The basic premise here is that you and I and all we see and hear (and touch, taste and smell) is an illusion because we are all simulated beings ‘living’ in a virtual world, the creation of a person or persons (or even an alien or aliens) unknown. We and our Universe are as ‘real’ as the characters and their universe are in a computer game. In a simulation of that sort, it’s certainly possible, maybe even logical, to provide as a subroutine an afterlife – a plane of higher dimensional existence (whatever that means exactly) – perhaps something, a concept, we’ve come to identify as Heaven or Hell. But let’s just call that subroutine afterlife the ‘spirit world’. If we can have ghosts in our virtual computer game worlds, then by implication, our Supreme Simulator could have provided the software for ghosts or ghostly apparitions (animate or inanimate) inhabiting the subroutine spirit world!
On the other hand, why would a Supreme Simulator provide a software subroutine providing for ghosts? Well, who knows the mind and rational of our Supreme Simulator, especially if our S.S. is an alien? Actually, I think the simulation of ghostly phenomena could be a mistake; something not actually intended. I suspect our ghostly manifestations are just a previously deleted bit of software. Since nothing is ever truly deleted – deleted files can usually be recovered albeit by experts. Overwriting previous text doesn’t apparently actually destroy in total what was there before-the-fact. In a manner somewhat akin to receiving interference and ghostly images on your TV set, previous software, now deleted, might every now and again come marginally into the foreground.
So the bottom line is that science says they (meaning the things that go bump in the night, the afterlife remains of dead entities or non-biological things) can not be; witnesses testimony notwithstanding. Impasse! On the other hand, the simulation argument works for me. Impasse no longer!
Science librarian; retired.