I was arrogantly opinionated in my younger days. I would hear something and immediately form a series of judgmental convictions without finding out the finer details, which often meant I came a cropper and ended up looking pretty daft. In a debate, I tie myself in knots because it takes me a while to process my thoughts into a string of sentences that voice exactly what I mean. I’d be a crap politician and these days would rather just keep schtum and listen to a discussion on a subject on which my knowledge is sketchy than make a tit of myself by being bolshy and annoying. But I’m about to spout some opinions, yes yes! On a subject I’m not such an authority on, nope nope!
There are things in this world that cannot be explained even by, like, proper scientists and that. In fact, it was in the news recently that scientists believe we are coming towards the limit of what the human brain can comprehend and that further mysteries will remain as such. Sounds like laziness to me, but then I have been known to be wrong*.
It’s one of my bugbears of the religious debate that when an atheist begins talking about science, the inevitable answer from the believer is: “Yes, but scientists have been wrong in the past” or “Science hasn’t been able to explain [insert bizarre phenomenon of choice here].” I always feel like saying: “Give it chance; we’re getting there.” And, if the case for believing in something is the mere fact that it has never, to our knowledge, been disproved, I could quite happily believe that David Cameron’s balls are as bright blue as his political views, on the grounds that I have never been told otherwise.
I feel much the same about ghosts and I would go so far as to say that one cannot believe in ghosts if one does not have a religion. The v.idea of a soul in itself has religious connotations – this notion that your emotional being is separate from your physical body is presumably where the idea that something leaves your body when you die (which, thanks to that rather mediocre, over-sentimental film, shall forever be known as the “21 Grams”). Something other than bodily fluids and body heat; this “something” is, presumably, your soul, which passes into heaven or hell depending on whether you’ve been good or bad. Or, should I say, depending on whether you believe in God and have repented any sins you may have committed**.
Which leads me neatly onto the point about good and evil; neither of which exists outside of society and both of which change from culture to culture, however marginal these changes may be. As a non-believer in God, I am also a non-believer in good and evil… at least, not in the black and white sense in which religion presents them. That people do misguided things – terribly, awfully misguided things – I believe, be it through sheer desperation, physical or psychological damage, but I don’t believe in inherent evil, nor do I believe in inherent good. Which means that I can believe in neither good nor evil spirits. Coupled with my cynicism of the mythical 21 grams, I can honestly say, with only the merest wibbling of doubt, that I do not believe in ghosts as we are given to understand them – I do not believe in the rogue spirit, so to speak.
What I do believe, however, is rather vaguer than what I don’t believe. I believe in energy. At the risk of sounding like a true dippy hippy, I believe in a sixth sense. Although, maybe in a slightly less exciting way than its namesake film. I believe that one can walk into a room and sense that much unhappiness and suffering has been caused there. I believe that there is a possibility that people and animals leave some sort of imprint in space or time or some such, rather more like a whiff of a recording than an actual part of themselves. Maybe it’s a dimensional thing, of which I have no information whatsoever. How this fits in with modern science, I really don’t know. I profess myself to be an utter philistine in that department… mainly because I spent every GCSE science lesson flirting with Ste Horsfield rather than actually listening, which made it impossible for me to take science further***. I guess biology was my bag back then.
It’s a truth universally known that people are curious by nature. We hate not knowing how things work and explanation kills the mystery, as Derren Brown has proven time and again. It’s true that he does some disturbing things himself, but the explanation for these displays are incredibly dull. He is not magic or psychic and he goes to great lengths to make this v.clear. I’m using him purely as an example of that which we understand automatically becoming mundane. And as far as I can see, the thing that makes the thought of ghosts scary is misunderstanding or lack of knowledge. Many people have reported that, whilst in bed, they have been pinned down, unable to move, by an unseen force on their chest. The explanation for this is simply sleep paralysis; a hugely frightening experience, but one that has been explained away by science. It’s a powerful tool, the mind.
If you think about the stories you hear or the experiences you’ve had yourself with ghostly forms (and I’ve had my fair share) they’re never clear. They’re generally something you see out of the corner of your eye or in a mirror. We are v.visual creatures. You often hear people say: “I’ll believe that when I see it.” You don’t ever hear people saying: “I’ll believe that when all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.” But the fact that you can wake up in the night, heart pounding for no apparent reason can lead us to believe that we are not alone. We don’t see so well in the dark and the dark is infinitely scarier**** than daylight – you never hear of people seeing ghosts strolling down a sunny beach. With our peripherals being what they are, we always have our backs to something – ghosts appear in mirrors; ghosts stories where mirrors cloud over are equally as creepy because the thought of not being able to see behind ourselves is as frightening as the thought of seeing something in the mirror that shouldn’t be there. Similarly, ghosts who can walk through walls – backs to the wall means that something can still creep up and catch you unawares. It’s all so logical when you lay it down and dissect it. We jump at shadows and unexpected bangs. There is something of the natural fight or flight instinct in it.
It is also a rather human trait to need to believe in something more following the death of a loved one. It’s a stressful and upsetting time. And I often hear stories of people who have woken up and seen the effigy of a person, dead within the hour, at the end of their bed. For some reason, this strikes a chord with me in the same way that, for example, often if I’m upset or in trouble, my mother will ring and ask if something’s wrong without my saying a word. Or the same way you can pick up a mobile ‘phone seconds before it starts ringing. Something in the subconscious powers of deduction, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just the power of coincidence.
There is also a strong propensity for play. Even as adults, we like a good story. In fact, mythologies and old wives tales are the heart of our ghost stories. Like osmosis, we absorb tales over time and they linger in the back of our psyche. The delicious fear of the unknown envelops us in a tingly web and then works its magic as our imaginations go into overdrive. In times past, this would manifest itself in the form of witch hunts. Fear of the unknown causes panic, but witch hunts were equally a gruesome form of recreation. Could the exorcism of a house, i.e.: telling a ghost to leave, actually be our own way of cleansing our psyches of a story that’s created a suitably spooky experience that’s gone too far? A metaphorical witch-burning, perhaps.
I’ve got to admit, it’s all fascinating. Like Richard Dawkins, I haven’t so much proved or disproved a thing other than spew forth my opinions to the ether and I could continue to do so, but I’m not so sure my musings are particularly important in the grand scheme of things.
Anyway, basically what I’m getting at is, since I don’t believe in souls, I’m starting the bidding on mine for a fiver (free P&P).
* But rarely, you understand. V.rarely. Don’t let on, ey?
** I’m going to stop with this train of thought as I could start ranting about religion and that’s a subject I could rant on about for some time.
*** I doubt it would have been my forte, given my artistic leanings
**** I have a huge respect for the blind: they spend their entire lives on their other senses and live every day in the dark.