The conversation often goes like this: “As a paranormal investigator, you must believe in ghosts.”
“Hmm, not necessarily. You don’t have to believe in something to be interested in it.”
This is not usually what people want to hear. A more expected answer might be; “Yes, I know ghosts exist. I just need to gather enough hard evidence to prove it.” This would be the position of many ‘ghost hunters’ and also many (but not all) paranormal investigators.
But when giving the first answer, I always feel like I’m wheedling out of the issue, avoiding being pinned down by using a pat answer. This is because, as you will see, a proper answer requires quite a bit of thought and far too many words for casual conversation.
In the book, Spooked – Exploring the Paranormal in New Zealand (Random House NZ Ltd, Auckland, 2011) my co-author Jo Davy and I state our position at some length; we are agnostic about the existence of ghosts. That is to say, we are looking for evidence either way, both through Strange Occurrences and externally, but the jury is still out. We are optimistic that one day there may be scientific explanations for the various phenomena people experience and refer to as ghosts.
That’s the official version, but what do I personally believe when it comes to ghosts?
Well, I’m not at all convinced about the survival of the human personality after bodily death. Until it is shown otherwise, I agree with the scientists that say the human mind is nothing more than the product of brain activity, and has no distinct existence. (This position is called Materialism.) I don’t think, then, that Cartesian Dualism is correct; that there is such a thing as a human spirit or soul that is separate or distinct in some way from the physical body. So I don’t believe that any aspect of the human personality survives death.
The Society for Psychical Research, established in 1882 and comprising many great minds and prominent thinkers of the time, studied Spiritualism thoroughly for decades and could not reach a conclusion in favour of it. During their studies they exposed many mediums as frauds, and if they had the technology we have today they undoubtedly would have exposed an even higher percentage. They failed to come up with any strong evidence that communication from beyond the grave is possible, although some cases they recorded were enticing in that regard, and a few mediums were not caught out cheating despite sustained testing. The SPR's methods, by many standards, were not considered rigorous, partly because they actually wanted to find that Spiritualism was valid, and partly because of a certain arrogance in their belief that they, as scientists and generally highbrow, well-educated types, could not be ‘had’ by the great unwashed. (It is supposed that Edmund Gurney, a prominent SPR member, committed suicide when he finally realised he’d been fooled for years by a fake psychic and his mates.)
What the SPR did achieve was a massive survey of accounts of Crisis Apparitions (published in a tome called Phantasms of the Living, also in Edmund Gurney’s Hallucinations and in the ongoing records of the Society). There have since been many well-documented and verified accounts of people who have experienced fatal or serious accidents or other crises appearing elsewhere to family members, loved ones or other close friends, at or around the time of their crises. In these cases, we are asked to accept that the percipient(s) had no other way of knowing that the crisis had occurred, and also that their recollection of events (and those of the verifiers) was accurate.
In all cases recorded, it is valid to argue that either the percipient (the person who saw the apparition and thereby gained some information about the crisis) could have either (i) acquired the information through another means, or (ii) the incident was dreamed or imagined, and/or was but a coincidence. Neither of these arguments can be ruled out absolutely in any of the reported cases.
However, you only need one of these Crisis Apparition events to be proven as genuine in order to necessitate a change in thinking in the scientific and skeptical community.
Personally, I hold that Crisis Apparitions are a form of telepathic communication (rather than ghosts), and further, that human telepathy is possible in extremis. Unfortunately, there is no way that this type of condition (a genuine crisis such as a serious or fatal injury occurring to a human) can be replicated repeatedly for testing under laboratory conditions, so all we are ever going to have is a collection of anecdotes. (If we cannot even describe an experiment that could lead to a theory about Crisis Apparitions, is there any point in waiting for science to prove or disprove the phenomenon?)
I believe that a good proportion of the published anecdotal evidence for Crisis Apparitions is well-enough corroborated and the witnesses sufficiently reliable to show that the phenomenon does exist. I believe that Crisis Apparitions, and therefore ESP, do in fact exist and occur.
Having said that, I feel that the laboratory methods so far employed in testing for ESP are fundamentally flawed and invalid. If someone has genuine powers of ESP that they can use at will, surely would not their run through a pack of Zener cards most often yield 25 out of 25 correct readings, rather than some statistical figure allegedly X amount greater than random chance? ESP, then, if it exists, is not something any living person can use at will; it is by nature sporadic and unpredictable, even in the most talented individuals. It will probably never succumb to testing by scientific method (at least with our current approach) so anecdotal evidence may be all that we ever have to go on. Perhaps we need to accept this and work on developing more rigorous methods of collecting and validating personal accounts.
So what about actual ghosts?
Well, I’m not as sure about ghosts as I am about Crisis Apparitions and ESP. I pretty-much reject the Spiritualist explanation of ghosts – discarnate human (or animal) souls. I do think that ESP could explain some of the cases of (reportedly) genuine information being obtained from ‘beyond the grave’, the reason being that the information had in fact come from a living human agency, (not that you necessarily need extra-sensory powers to obtain that information; just being extra-observant and canny usually suffices).
I do believe that people experience ghosts, and this comes from reading a large number of published accounts and also having a few unexplained, possibly paranormal experiences of my own. I am more inclined to think that our perception of ghosts has to do with the way time works. The linear concept most of us have of time is fine for day-to-day plans and observations, but science has shown that nothing in nature is really quite that simple. (Relativistic and (especially) quantum physics will make your head spin.) If time is really non-linear and/or multi-dimensional, there might be room in there for some perceptive-enough people to catch glimpses (or hear sounds, etc) of events that have happened in the past, under certain conditions as yet unknown. Those events might be day-to-day things, but seem by accounts to more often be associated with situations of high emotion. So maybe ESP is also a factor here, and it need not be an instantaneous, present communication but one that can cross our perceived boundary of linear time. The widely-published UK case of Johnnie Minnie is but one example of this.
This belief of mine accounts more for the type of ghost that is non-interactive – a replaying of past events, if you like. It doesn’t allow for so-called ‘intelligent haunting’, where the ghost supposedly has direct, two-way communication with witnesses, or is able to physically affect the environment. Although I have experienced a few situations where this may have occurred, I don’t believe that natural causes can be entirely ruled out. Wishful thinking may enter the equation, too, leading to the ignoring of some evidence that doesn’t fit with the haunting scenario. In short, I am so-far unconvinced that intelligent, interactive ghosts exist, but I’m well up for being proved wrong!
Demonic Possession: I think no – it doesn’t happen. Demons are psychological, cultural constructions grown from religious beliefs and exacerbated by too much non-critical viewing of television and films. Supposed demonic possessions are either the result of hysteria (in the ‘possessed’ and perhaps also in the witnesses) or mental illness, or a combination of the two. This is something I feel surer about stating than anything else above; but also it is a useful self-test of whether I’m truly open minded about paranormal phenomena (which is why it is mentioned here; and my result is usually a fail in this test).
I am prepared to change my mind in the face of strong and significant evidence that contradicts my current thinking on any of these issues, or about other paranormal phenomena not mentioned here. In other words, none of the views expressed above is fixed. Where I say I believe something, this is meant to include a certain amount of guessing and wishful thinking and even just a little faith. I may hold these same views in a year’s time, or I may not. Whatever, finding out more promises to be at least as intriguing a journey as it has been so far.