Pondering ghosts and spirits at Halloween

Fresno Bee, Oct. 30, 2022

Halloween is a haunting time. This is the spooky moment when ghosts appear. But ghosts and spirits are always with us, especially for those who grieve and mourn.

Students occasionally ask me if I believe in ghosts. And they have shared their ghost stories with me. I recall getting a chill from a story told by an older woman who said she often saw her dead husband in the room where he used to practice music.

Philosophers have often wrestled with ghosts. As Socrates was preparing for his death, he told a ghost story. He explained that “polluted souls” are unwilling to move on to the next world. These restless shadows haunt graveyards, too in love with their bodies to leave them in the grave.

Most scholars think Socrates was making a point about enlightenment. Virtue and wisdom should teach us to accept death so we can avoid becoming unquiet ghosts. At any rate, this ancient tale reminds us that ghosts have long haunted human experience.

But do ghosts really exist? Well, the seer of ghosts has clearly experienced something. They are not lying. But what is it that they see?

One possible explanation is that ghosts are figments of the mind. For those who grieve, the dead are strangely present. Our dead remain with us. They wait on the edge of consciousness. And then something triggers their appearance — a smell, a song or a familiar place.

Most ghostly apparitions are probably products of memory and imagination. These ghosts don’t conjure themselves. We bring them to life. They are after-images of the dead, which linger with us so long as memory endures.

I heard a talk recently by a philosopher who recounted her mother’s decline into dementia. Her mother’s world was inhabited by hallucinations — spirits, she called them. The philosopher suggested that ordinary reality is only a small step away from the hallucinatory. Could it be that the “reality” we inhabit is actually a hallucination? Our experience is a projection of the mind and an interpretation of the stimuli it receives.

Photons hit our eyes and sound waves tickle our ears. These stimuli are woven together by the brain, which produces an image of the world. That image can be disturbed by other stimuli throbbing through our minds — memories, fear, hopes, and dreams.

Usually, consciousness takes charge of this process, keeping us focused on a stable set of images and appearances. But when consciousness relaxes its grip, things get weird.

This can happen in dementia. It can occur when we drink alcohol or use other drugs. Anxiety and exhaustion can disturb consciousness. And spooky shadows can appear at midnight in October graveyards, when the leaves rustle in the autumn wind.

But do ghosts exist? I suppose that depends on what we mean by existence.

Someone I love died recently. She’s been with me in my thoughts. She “exists” in a sense. Grief does strange things to our experience of reality, time and self. Grief is the presence of an absence. It is a distressing emptiness. That emptiness has a reality of its own. It afflicts us. But we also hate to let it go because it is the place our loved one used to be.

We tend to think that existence is material. Rocks and steel exist. But what about thoughts and dreams and memories? Those things are real, aren’t they?

One of the most famous lines from “Hamlet,” occurs after Hamlet has just seen a ghost. He says, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” The poet is suggesting that life, experience, and existence are more complex and mysterious than we know.

There is more to life than our bodies. There are memories, dreams and ideas. There is also literature, philosophy and religion. These things free the soul from the body. They allow our minds to wander. They introduce us to ghostly presences such as Hamlet and Socrates. These “people” are, after all, creations of art and literature.

Thinking is an uncanny game of ghosts. Memory and art are conjuring acts that put us in touch with spirits. We might even say that to be human is to be haunted.

Don’t be afraid of no ghost

The Fear of Ghosts

Fresno Bee, October 31, 2015

A recent survey from Chapman University found that more than 40 percent of Americans believe in ghosts. The study also found that those who believe in ghosts tend to be generally more fearful.

It stands to reason that seeing a ghost may make you paranoid. But paranoia also can open the door to paranormal beliefs. The cure for the fear of phantoms is to cultivate tranquil mindfulness, a life of virtue and a reasonable approach to ghosts.

free-halloween-ghostFor example, it is not clear how ghosts could harm us. Ghosts are supposedly immaterial beings. They pass through walls and rise out of graves. A ghost’s spiritual nature makes it difficult to conceive a ghost physically harming us. That 1990 movie “Ghost” makes this clear: Patrick Swayze’s ghost has trouble making contact with the material world.

This problem undermines the claims of those who say that ghosts show up in photographs or on recordings. If ghosts have no material reality, they can’t be photographed or recorded. Phantom photos and spooky sounds are best explained in natural terms as shadows, echoes or glitches in recording devices.

Naturalists explain ghosts as projections of the mind. Charles Darwin, for example, suggested that the animal imagination gives birth to ghosts. Animals are ever alert to the presence of threatening agents.

Swirling dust or flickering light can prompt us to see a phantom presence and prime the fight-or-flight response. Darwin explained that his own dog tended to react to unexpected movement as if there were an unseen spiritual entity at work – growling fiercely and barking when a parasol was moved by a breeze.

Of course, a ghost’s most terrifying power is not physical. Ghosts are spiritual beings who can invade our minds and trouble our dreams. Consider the great ghosts of literature. The specters that haunt Hamlet, Macbeth or Scrooge assault the mind, planting seeds of doubt and despair.

Such ghosts can be explained as psychic creations, frightening figments of the imagination – unconscious anxieties brought to life and projected on the world. Even so, the dread is real whether we actually are haunted by spectral beings or merely are afflicted by the eerie emanations of the subconscious.

Behind all of this may be the fear of death, which Freud supposed was the source of the experience of the uncanny. The thought of death and the presence of dead bodies can send shivers down the spine. Those shudders can feel like a haunting. But the tickle on the neck and the hair-raising shudder is really the body pumping adrenaline, tuning up the senses, getting ready to fight or flee.

The dread of the uncanny can lead to dizziness and a feeling of unreality. The familiar seems suddenly foreign. The senses tingle. Panic and paranoia arise as the imagination runs wild. And ghosts may appear.

Walk down a dark and desolate street late on Halloween night. Your breathing becomes shallow. Your eyes open as you search the gloom. Odd images flicker in the corner of the eye. Rustling leaves hint that something is lurking. In the frisson of fear, shadows appear as spooks and specters.

On Halloween, we are told that the door between the living and the dead opens a crack. I doubt that the dead really do come back to haunt us. But there is no doubt that the mind can be visited by phantoms and figments, including vivid memories of the dead.

The experience of being haunted is as real as the experience of fear, guilt, sorrow and shame. The living often are afflicted by grief, remorse, anguish and regret. Our minds are haunted by memory and loss. Beneath much of this is the uncanny recognition that we, too, will someday slip through the crack of death into that undiscovered country, from which no traveler returns.

We should give due respect to the dead. But good people have nothing to fear from ghosts or from death. Tranquil mindfulness cures the anxiety, guilt and shame that ghosts exploit. Mindfulness helps us live in peace with our memories of the dead. And a virtuous life provides stability in the face of the uncanny fact that each of us will someday shuffle off this mortal coil and exit through the ghostly gate.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/article41953935.html#storylink=cpy

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.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/01/3585052/its-fall-and-theres-a-spirit-of.html#storylink=cpy


With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2011

It is difficult to balance individual liberty with concerns of a global nature.  We want to be free to consume and reproduce.  But the choices of free individuals add up, creating significant impacts.  This is especially true now that there are 7 billion human beings on earth—a number that will grow to 10 billion by the end of the century.

We passed the 7 billion mark on Halloween.  This is a kid-friendly holiday, which makes parents glad they have children.  But it also marks the beginning of the typical American over-consumption calendar.  Once the Halloween candy is gone, we turn to Thanksgiving gluttony and then on to Christmas overindulgence.  Imagine the environmental impact of 2 or 3 billion more people gorging themselves as we do every year.

Ecologist Madhu Katti, from Fresno State’s Biology Department put it this way in a recent post on his blog, “A Leaf Warbler’s Gleanings”: “There are many reasons to be worried about the consequences of having so many of us crowding this pale blue dot of a planet.  Especially if so many of us are keen to continue spending billions of dollars on seemingly cheap plastic junk.”  Common sense tells us that as population grows and consumption increases, we will hit a limit.

This point has been known, at least since the time of Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century economist.  Malthus is famous for arguing that as populations grow, they will suffer a dieback caused by environmental pressures.  He is infamous for hinting that it is wrong to support poor people since aid to the poor increases population in counter-productive ways.

So far, we have found technological solutions that have helped us avoid the grim Malthusian limit and reach the 7 billion mark: increased agricultural productivity, new sources of power, better medicine, etc.  But there may be a limit to technological solutions.  And as population and consumption grow, the Malthusian limit looms.

So what can we do?  Policies that use coercion to prevent people from reproducing are immoral.  The right to reproduce is very basic.  It would be wrong for the state to license reproduction or require sterilization.  The morally acceptable response to population pressure is to increase each individual’s sense of responsibility for reproduction.  Perhaps we could do the same for consumption.

This individualistic approach is, however, vexed by the problem of diffusion of responsibility.  When there are 7 billion other people involved, my own choices appear to be infinitesimally insignificant.  It is odd to demand that I should consider global population and environmental issues when thinking about my reproductive life or shopping patterns.

So where does that leave us?  Perhaps it helps to return to Malthus.  Malthus thought that one solution to the population problem was “moral restraint.”  He defined this as celibacy until marriage and refraining from marriage until one is ready to support a family.  Not only would this help to moderate population growth but Malthus also thought it would be good for women, since it would prevent the “evils and unhappiness” that arise from “promiscuous intercourse.”

Malthus was on the right track here, despite his prudish sense of sexual morality.  The key to population pressure is to find ways to empower and educate women, including giving them more control of their own reproductive lives.  Professor Katti explained it to me this way, “the empowerment of women and reduced infant mortality are the key factors” in slowing population growth.  Women choose to have fewer children when there is “greater economic security, better health, and some measure of control over their futures.”  This has helped to lower birth rates in industrialized countries as well as in places like Bangladesh.

So far, so good.  The further problem is that despite lowered birthrates, we continue to consume loads of cheap plastic junk.  Professor Katti continued, “we have figured out how to lower birth rates, but are far from tackling the wasteful consumerist lifestyle that is at the root of so many of our environmental problems.”

Is it possible that some version of “moral restraint” could work when it comes to consumption?  Instead of focusing on promiscuous intercourse, it may be time to begin thinking about how to limit promiscuous consumption.