Monday, 29 October 2007

Ghosts and guesswork

Halloween is almost upon us, and the Daily Mail is getting into the spirit of things by reporting that around 37% of 2100 adults surveyed for the National Lottery believe in ghosts.

Unfortunately, the Mail doesn't explain whether this belief stems from personal encounters with something that may, or may not, be of paranormal origin, or whether it is just a general belief in something spooky.

Being of the logical, scientific persuasion, I find it very difficult to say whether or not I accept the existence, or possible existence, of something until the something in question has been adequately defined.

In this case, Wikipedia offers a helpful, if fairly broad, definition: "A ghost is defined as the apparition of a deceased person, frequently similar in appearance to that person, and usually encountered in places she or he frequented, or in association with the person's former belongings. The word "ghost" may also refer to the spirit or soul of a deceased person, or to any spirit or demon. Ghosts are often associated with hauntings, which is, according to the Parapsychological Association, "the more or less regular occurrence of paranormal phenomena associated with a particular locality (especially a building) and usually attributed to the activities of a discarnate entity; the phenomena may include apparitions, poltergeist disturbances, cold drafts, sounds of footsteps and voices, and various odours.""

I can safely say that I have never encountered an apparition of a deceased person, or anything similar to it that could not be explained by other, perfectly normal phenomena. So that's it, then? Case closed? Ghosts do not exist?

Well, maybe. Unfortunately, I can also say that over the years I have had one or two experiences that I cannot rationally explain without edging towards the paranormal, and, in particular, the discarnate entity end of the above definition.

For example, several years ago I was engaged in idle conversation with Mrs Seggars. For no particular reason that I could discern, I experienced a sudden drop in temperature and an uneasy feeling as though "someone had walked over my grave" as the expression goes. Unbidden, my thoughts turned to my favourite aunt - to whom I was very close - so strongly and suddenly that, much to Mrs Seggars' surprise, I spoke my aunt's name aloud.

The sensation passed after a few seconds, leaving me a little concerned. As I was attempting to describe the experience to a sceptical Mrs Seggars, the phone rang; it was my uncle, telling me that my aunt had just died. Needless to say, Mrs S was rendered somewhat speechless, for she had witnessed this event first hand and knew something unusual had happened.

But how to explain the observed phenomena? As a practical chap, who spends his time dealing with cause and effect, carefully putting two and two together to reach a logical, reasoned conclusion, "supernatural" explanations do not sit well with me. And yet, I can conceive of nothing in conventional science that can explain why, or how, this event occurred.

On another occasion, I was working late in the living quarters above an old Post Office, where the owner's computer required urgent attention before the shop opened its doors the next day. The room was large by modern standards, well lit and warm. My jacket hung behind the door, and I was working at the keyboard in my shirtsleeves. The only other occupant was the shop owner, sitting in full view several meters away as he watched TV.

Suddenly, I distinctly felt a hand come down on my right shoulder. Startled, I looked up and spun my chair around, expecting to see someone standing behind me. There was nobody there. The shop owner glanced away from the TV, eyebrows raised.

"I could have sworn..." I started to say, but he cut me off. "Felt something, did you, lad?" I admitted that I had, and he just nodded. "Happens a lot in here. Don't worry about it, nobody's ever come to any harm." And, indeed, I did not, but I cannot explain how this event occurred. I know the shop owner couldn't have caused it, because I could see him clearly. There was nobody else in the room, and nothing on the floor that could have fallen on me, or been thrown at me, to cause the touch on my shoulder. Again, I can conceive of nothing in conventional science that can explain why, or how, this event occurred.

Then again, isn't it the purpose of science to FIND explanations for things that are unexplained? Accepted scientific method is to observe first and reach conclusions later; it is the mistaken province of unimaginative "scientists" to assume something cannot exist because science cannot explain its existence. Rather, they should start with the assumption that an observed phenomenon must exist in some shape or form, and then progress to determining what it is and how it works. NOTHING is inexplicable, it is merely, as yet, unexplained.

So, do I believe in ghosts? As per the standard definition of chain-clanking, head-carrying, vengeful spectres, NO. But, based on my own experiences, I believe science has some work to do. Some form of communication apparently existed between me and my aunt at the instant of her death. What was it? How does it work? Might not something similar be responsible for other phenomena that might otherwise appear to be of "supernatural" origin?

Of course, there have been reports - usually difficult to verify reports - of ghostly goings-on for centuries, and still science has yet to come up with anything more than reasons why such things do not exist. Maybe, in many cases, science is right. And, in fairness, it is difficult indeed to tell the difference between hoaxes, errors and events genuinely in need of investigation.

Also, it may be that other branches of science have yet to evolve far enough to provide the necessary clues that will allow these events to be understood. Just as someone from the 15th Century would have struggled to understand, say, a CD player, we may be lacking vital information that would easily explain such phenomena if only we knew what it was.

In order for that understanding to come about, we need to stop thinking in terms of spooks and spectres, and start thinking analytically. The good old fashioned ghost story might be an entertaining diversion on a long winter's night, but it doesn't advance our knowledge beyond that of our ancestors. With open eyes, an open mind and rigorous scientific methodology we have the potential to figure out just about anything. Shouldn't we be using that talent to lay to rest the biggest ghost of all - that of our own superstitious ignorance?

Billy Seggars.

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