It’s fall and there’s a spirit of debate in the air

Fresno Bee

November 1, 2013

The changes of autumn prompt metaphysical speculation. The leaves turn colors, as if by magic. The mists linger in chill hollows like ghosts. Living things hibernate and die. It’s a good time to wonder about spiritual things.

The pagan Celts called this time of year Samhain. Christians focus on Halloween, All Souls’ Day, and Dia de los Muertos. Some think the living and the dead intermingle in the transition from autumnal equinox to winter solstice, the midpoint between life and death.

Scientific materialists will see this as mere silliness. The change of seasons is determined by astronomical events. The cycle of life involves dormancy and death. But the dead do not return. We miss them. But they cannot harm us. And we cannot communicate with them.

Skeptical materialists will note that ghostly metaphysics don’t work out. How can a spirit being interact with the material world? If ghosts can pass through walls, then they cannot grasp and move material objects, make sounds, or be seen. Movement, sight and sound occur in the world of matter, light and sound waves. Immaterial entities cannot be seen, heard or felt. There can be no trace of the existence of a ghost in our material world.

Despite this common-sense objection, quite a few people still believe in ghosts. Some of this may be merely for fun. Ghost stories provoke a thrill — especially at this time of year. But some people are quite sincere in saying they’ve experienced a haunting.

According to the Pew Center, nearly one-third of Americans say they have been in touch with the dead. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll reports that 45% of Americans believe in ghosts. A report from Public Policy Polling claims that half of Americans believe in demonic possession. And in an interview in October, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia affirmed that the devil is real and that demonic possession can occur.

We might think that people are entitled to believe what they want about these things. But materialists might be reluctant to trust judges and other public servants who affirm spiritual nonsense. And spiritualists may not trust authorities who deny that the world is enchanted and visited by spiritual forces.

Skeptics and spiritualists are often living in quite different worlds. For the believers, the world is a mysterious place haunted by things unseen. In a spooky and uncanny universe, magic may be required to manipulate spectral forces — in the form of talismans and good-luck charms to ward off evil. Some believe in the power of sacrifices, offerings, prayers and exorcisms. Others will invoke demonic powers to explain bad behavior, accidents and natural disasters.

Skeptics will see such magical thinking as ridiculous and dangerous. David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, argued that superstition developed out of weakness, fear, melancholy and ignorance. Hume also suggested that superstition empowered priestly authorities who say they possess the ability to manipulate the spirit world. And he thought this undermined the liberty of superstitious individuals who submit to the magical maneuvers of the priests.

Skeptics also will point out that there is no way to figure out which account of ghosts and demons is the right one. There is no agreement about pneumatology (a fancy word for the study of spiritual beings). Is the Catholic account affirmed by Scalia true? But what about shamanistic spiritualism? What about Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other beliefs? Unlike in the material sciences, pneumatology is unable to produce consensus.

It’s a good thing that we no longer burn witches. We generally agree to disagree about ghosts, demons, and magic. It is possible for spiritualists and skeptics to coexist, so long as we don’t try to impose our beliefs on one another.

Our ability to coexist may indicate that these metaphysical disputes are not really that important.

Spiritualists and skeptics must each rake the autumn leaves and mourn their dead.

But on the other hand, nothing is more important than the meaning we give to these activities. Whether we affirm magic or materialism, we want to make sense of a world of change and death.

We all share the deeply human project of making meaning in a mysterious world.

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