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Ghosts, Knowing, and a Lesson at Bedtime

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 11 2013

Story time is a big deal at the Loxton household. For years, my young son and I have been working through a stack of some of the great adventure novels, just as my dad used to read poetry to me and my brothers. I’m delighted by my son’s edge-of-his-seat immersion in the worlds of hobbits and pirates and talking lions.

On other nights, we lie awake talking about ideas. As Carl Sagan once said, “Kids can understand some pretty deep things.”1 My son has long since discovered the irresistible trick of asking fascinating questions about those deep things right after I turn off the lights. I’m a sucker every time. Recently, our conversation turned to “true” ghost stories related by his young colleagues on the playground.

“You know I investigate strange mystery stories for my job?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he answered, recalling what I had taught him at other times. “I know that no ghost story has ever turned out for sure to be a ghost.”

“Many such cases have been investigated over a very long time. Very, very often they turn out to be mistakes, or tricks, or just made up stories. It seems that ghosts probably do not exist.”

“Or they’re very rare.”

“Yes. But my own opinion is that they do not exist. What do you think?”

He thought about this. “I think they might be real. Not for sure, but we don’t know.”

“That’s true,” I said. “We don’t know for sure. But we have learned that most ghost stories have other explanations.”

We fell silent for a while. Thoughtful. A week or three earlier, a grown up patio party had run quite late into the summer night. As the kids fell asleep on lounge chairs and laps, the conversation among the adults had also turned to ghost stories and tales of the inexplicable. One neighbor related a hair-raising UFO encounter. Another described once tripping but not falling—of feeling that she had, for a moment, floated. She felt she’d benefited for an instant from the aid of a helpful spirit.

My son retold this story now. He felt she might have been correct. Couldn’t this have been a ghost?

“Well,” I said, “I wasn’t there, so it is very hard for me to know what happened in that story. Perhaps she remembered it differently than it happened. Or perhaps it just felt like she was floating. But think about this: Imagine that for a few moments that she did float through the air just like a balloon. Why would you think the floating was caused by a ghost?”

This had not occurred to him.

“Isn’t ‘a ghost did it’ a kind of guess?” I went on. “And if we’re guessing, why guess ‘ghost’? What if it was not a ghost, but a wizard? Perhaps she floated because of a magic spell. Or what about another kind of magical being? Some people say there are invisible helper beings called guardian angels. Or what about fairies, or a genie? Or  a god—a super-powerful being able to do “miracles” (the word for magic done by a god)? Or perhaps she was lifted by an alien tractor beam from a flying saucer. Or what about a super-powered human—perhaps someone able to make force fields or turn invisible like Susan Storm in the Fantastic Four? Or someone with the superpower to lift objects with their mind, just by thinking about them?”

He was giggling by this point. But I went on (seriously, for this far out stuff is my professional focus), “It is very important not to mistake a mystery for an explanation—not to jump to conclusions when something mysterious happens. When you have a mystery, you have to investigate to try to learn what really happened. Quite often we can solve what happened. Other times, there’s no way for us to get the evidence we need to ever learn the answer.”

People have a difficult time with that. My son took it in solemnly, but I know it’s a lesson we’ll return to many times. It’s a lesson I have to learn and relearn myself. Uncertainty is unstable; belief is our natural resting state. We find it easy to adopt an explanation—apparently almost any explanation. We find it uncomfortable to stamp things with a question mark and file them “open and unsolved.”

The ease with which we leap to conclusions makes it is extremely easy for us to fool ourselves, as skeptics have warned for a very long time. Here’s how the Reverend Amos Craft put it in his 1881 book Epidemic Delusions: Exposé of the Superstitions and Frauds Which Underlie Some Ancient and Modern Delusions:

The following formula exhibits the common sophistry of superstition: If it is not————— what is it? We do not know. Therefore, it is——————. The name of any favorite fetich [sic] or force is inserted in the blank spaces, according to the desire of the individual who consciously or unconsciously employs the formula. Professor Crookes, F. R. S., looking upon the jugglery of Mr. Home and Mrs. Fay, asks: “If it is not psychic force, what is it?” He answers, “I do not know;” and concludes: “Therefore, it is psychic force.” A spiritualist looking upon the same phenomena reasons in the same manner; but arrives at a different conclusion: “If it is not a spirit, what is it? I do not know; therefore, it is a spirit.” “I do not know,” is a hard saying, even for philosophers. They prefer the utterance: “I do not know; therefore, I know.”2

Guessing is a terrible way to solve mysteries. Again and again, Craft hammered home his warning against the seductive trap, “I do not know; therefore, I know.” Nor, thankfully, is this lost wisdom. It’s a central message of modern scientific skepticism. I’m reminded again of an off the cuff remark that my colleague Jeff Wagg once made on a panel at Dragon*Con’s Skeptrack in Atlanta: “When you hear something go bump in the night, how do you know it’s a ghost and not an alien?” It’s a line I quote often. An awful lot of scientific skepticism is packed down into that little quip. We solve mysteries by investigation, when we can solve them at all.

Sometimes no leads ever emerge, or there is nothing to test, or the circumstances of the case are lost, unknowable, beyond the event horizon of the past. Sometimes a mystery remains a mystery. It’s uncomfortable, but there it is.

So what did really cause my neighbour’s experience of floating through the air? Hell, I don’t know.

References

  1. Carl Sagan. Quoted by Boyce Rensberger. “Carl Sagan: Obliged to Explain.” New York Times. p. 182
  2. Amos Craft. Epidemic Delusions: Exposé of the Superstitions and Frauds Which Underlie Some Ancient and Modern Delusions. (Cincinnati. Walden and Stowe, 1881.) p. 19

I’ll take a moment here to say that I invite and encourage civil discussion, scholarly debate, and open exchanges of ideas on this thread. At the same time, I expect all commenters to keep these useful principles firmly in mind. As on my other posts, I will delete posts that seem to me to be abusive. It’s not that kind of blog.

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21 Responses to “Ghosts, Knowing, and a Lesson at Bedtime”

  1. DV82XL says:

    You’re a good parent, and your child is lucky to have you. In my distant youth, questions of this nature were most likely to yield religious explanations with God being invokes to cover any gaps in the adult’s knowledge.

  2. dan says:

    The quote from Epidemic Delusions that mentions a Mrs. Fay is obviously referring to Anna Eva Fay. She was a stage mentalist who managed to dupe a heck lot of people (including Crookes) into believing she had genuine psychic powers.

    Fay has been completely ignored by spiritualist, almost an embarrassment it seems. They filter out anything to do with Fay because she duped Crookes and confessed to Houdini her fraud.

  3. Max says:

    The luckiest people compilation, or guardian angels at work.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tbsw5qLjyhw

    I had an experience like that, where I barely escaped injury and was just standing there thinking, “Am I still in one piece?”

    • Michael Brady says:

      Max

      “I had an experience like that, where I barely escaped injury and was just standing there thinking, ‘Am I still in one piece?’”

      We’ve all probably had moments of “Whew, that was close!” But some of us have also had moments of “Crap, I’ve just been hit by a car!” Fans of angelic intervention are quick to credit them for the inexplicable good but rarely use them to explain the randomly bad.

      • Max says:

        Freak accidents are obviously the work of demons.
        I had one of those too. Doctors said they saw an unusually high number of injuries that day, but didn’t attribute it to anything. That’s when I switched from thinking “Why me?” to “Why not me?”

      • Jim says:

        Why do you feel compelled to attribute supernatural explanations to completely natural events? Regarding your anecdotal example of the doctors’ report of extremely high accident rates one day, there are many natural reasons this could occur. I would think it would be much more anomalous if every day had the same incident rate of accidents… normal variation will produce what appear to be abnormally low and high outliers.

      • Max says:

        I’m kidding about angels and demons. But I was little when I was injured, and I did wonder “Why me?” Hearing that it wasn’t just me made me feel better but less special. I thought it might be an unlucky day, like Friday 13, but didn’t see the pattern repeat so I dropped it.

  4. Zack Robbin says:

    Ghosts are a government conspiracy spread by MIB using captured alien tech. When you start to get too close to the truth, they do a mind wipe. While you’re recovering they do some “ghostly” tricks while invisible so that, as you put your memory fragments back together, you think it was ghosts all along. If necessary, sometimes years later, they occasionally stop back to do more tricks. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

  5. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    “Teach thy tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ and thou shalt progress.” – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides)

  6. highnumber says:

    First, I love this exchange between you and your son. Second, this Amos Craft is a tough character to track down. (Unfortunately the Internet is far more familiar with a company with that name.) Can you point me toward a resource with more information about him?

    • Sure thing. You can read the whole of his Epidemic Delusions on Google Books, here. Click on the gear icon, and you can download it in EPUB or PDF format for offline reading. From there, you can always run the whole thing off in hardcopy on a laser printer, as I did. (I ran it two pages per sheet to save some trees and pennies.)

  7. tmac57 says:

    Guessing is a terrible way to solve mysteries

    DANIEL LOXTON!!!!! (this how I imagine Jay Novella relating this quote)

    ;)

  8. dave says:

    one of my principles as a parent was to answer every question, no matter how difficult, that my kids asked, an important part of this was the belief that “i do not know” is a legitimate answer

  9. dave says:

    hi Daniel,

    I love how you get your son to think rather than just feed him your conclusions or beliefs as so many people do. I could have escaped the web of superstition years sooner than I did if my parents had done this rather than feed me their particular brand of woo as the truth.

  10. dave says:

    hi again,

    Sorry for the double post but, after I left my first one, I tried to download Epidemic Delusions from google books but clicking the gear icon does not offer me a download – I cannot find any way to download it.

    I went through google’s supposed help pages to no avail and there doesn’t seem to be any way to contact them to ask them about it so I thought I’d ask you if you have any idea of how I can get this book. I even drew a blank at The Gutenberg Project.

    • Hm. Perhaps it’s a location thing, or perhaps you have to be logged into your Google account? The gear icon button offers me PDF and EPUB downloads, among other options.

      I see that there’s a paperback of some description listed at Amazon. I can’t vouch for it, though, and it lists no details.

      As an aside, I might mention that I order a great many Print On Demand books from Amazon. I don’t know what sort of book this Craft edition may be, but as a general rule, my advice for POD books is to avoid OCR (Optical Character Recognition)-based books like the plague, and order either proper, edited reprints or scan-based reproductions.

  11. Kathryn Wyant says:

    As for the story about the fall, doesn’t brain chemistry explain the altered perception that she floated for a second or so? I seem to remember reading somewhere that adrenaline alters time perception.
    I am inclined to agree that the “It is not therefore it is” statement to be prevalent in all sorts of fallacious conclusions from the government and ghost stories. I absolutely agree that “guessing is a terrible way to solve mysteries”.

  12. Reeality says:

    Great article and wise counsel for a child. For an older child, perhaps, I’d sub the following, more extensive explanation for the author’s final sentence of “Hell, I don’t know.”:

    Well, if the experience actually occurred, it would have to be brain-based (physical), as all experiences are. Though an unusual experience may be due to faulty brain function, it’s important to understand that it is “real” to that person even when it is unreal in external, objective reality. The illusion of a separate “you” is generated by your brain, to which “you” are a captive audience.

  13. Alfuso says:

    A friend of ours, who was a licensed private detective, would take ghost busting jobs. He told us that most of the time there was an explanation and that was often someone trying to scare someone else off of property.

    The other rest of the time? “Can’t be explained. Sometimes there just are haints.”

  14. Jennifer Horsman says:

    I loved this dialogue with your son! It reminded me of countless conversations I have with my son. (And yes he used the same trick of asking an excellent question just when the lights went out!)

    I wanted to share with you a book I just wrote on this VERY subject.
    Is God Real or Pretend, basically an engaging comparative religion book for smart kids age 7-14, with an emphasis on science.

    Here is a summary. Check it out on Amazon as the cover is gorgeous!

    Summary: This is the story of young Franklin’s engaging and enlightening journey to answer this age old question. Franklin’s grandmother, Dr. Wendy Knowles, a professor of astronomy, first provides Franklin with the basic scientific means of determining what is real and what is not and how science distinguishes questions it can answer and those it cannot. Franklin’s mission of discovery continues as he meets a kindly professor of Greek mythology who offers a historical-cultural perspective on the question. Here Franklin meets the Greek Gods and their timeless myths.
    Once armed with these new ideas, Franklin is introduced to representatives of the world’s five major religions: Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. These knowledgeable teachers from each of the great religions charm and delight as they shine positive lights on their religion. Franklin asks probing questions, while learning to appreciate and admire the diversity and beauty of our religious traditions. Ultimately, Franklin’s dynamic school report on the immensity and magnificence of the universe becomes the backdrop for his consideration of these important questions. This book is designed for anyone and everyone, young and old, religious or not, who wants to know more about these five great religions. It’s the most unforgettable journey, one every thoughtful child (and, as I mentioned, the curious adults in their life) will enjoy.

    I hope you like it.

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