“The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck” ― Paul Virilio
We take a lot of solace in the idea that things happen for a reason. You got a raise because of your hard work, positive attitude, and unparalleled record of success (or maybe it was your good looks and charm). Or perhaps you didn’t get a raise because your boss is a jerk. If we can find a little causality in our reality, it gives us a sense that for better or worse, we can influence events, and gosh darn it if we try hard enough maybe people will like us. Did I say that out loud? Anyhow, much of human intellectual development has been focused on figuring out the chain of events that preceded the mess we find ourselves in today. When it comes to our own personal success, we like to think like Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said, “Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect”. This is a big ego-boost for the successful. Of course, we’re not as smart as we think at discerning causality, and our motivations are obviously often rather self-serving, for as observed by Aldous Huxley, “Man is so intelligent that he feels impelled to invent theories to account for what happens in the world. Unfortunately, he is not quite intelligent enough, in most cases, to find correct explanations. So that when he acts on his theories, he behaves very often like a lunatic”. The essential problem is not so much the attribution to the incorrect cause as it is the supreme confidence that causality is the underlying modus operandi of reality. Whether you think lightning is caused by electrostatic discharges in the atmosphere or by the temper tantrum of a Greek god, you should probably still get yourself inside. Maybe things don’t happen for a reason. Maybe they just happen. We need backstory not just because it justifies our current circumstance, but because it makes us think we can avoid a similar undesirable fate, providing an adequate model for avoidance.
The need for causality becomes even more important to us when we are faced with the preternatural or paranormal, where we don’t have good mental models to guide us. I mean, you stick your hand in the fire and you get burned. Therefore, you don’t stick your hand in the fire again (well, most of us anyway – everyone has a fetish). Odds are you will never be haunted by disembodied spirits, yet we’ve been talking about ghosts for millennia across cultures. We’re very concerned with what the dead are up to. We’re pretty sure it’s no good. Therefore, we feel it necessary to ascribe mundanely human motivations to them. In short, nobody is happy with the idea that when you die, human logic and human personality may go out the window, and behavior becomes incomprehensible. Basically, we need a biography, and whether a moral lesson or plausible justification, the conclusion is the same – the dead don’t loiter around experimenting with their newfound non-corporeality in nonsensical and disturbing ways, their essential hauntiness relates to some sort of disturbing biography. That’s why famous ghosts with a decent biography are far more interesting than the notion of a generalized post-death partying attitude. Makes for good television or literature as well, and we’re very linear, so we have certain expectation for plotline. The notion that the universe is just an absurd place where absurd things happen for no reason whatsoever rubs us the wrong way.
This is why every ghost story we’ve ever told is a lesson that causality follows us into the grave, at least in the traditions of Western civilization, unsurprisingly dating back to one of the earliest recorded stories of a haunted house, courtesy of a letter from Roman magistrate Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (61-113 A.D.), or Pliny the Younger, to his friend Sura, a prototype for every ghost story ever heard since.
It was a dark and stormy night. Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites (74 B.C. – 7 A.D.) arrived in Athens from Tarsus (Turkey). The philosopher gig paid a little better in Classical Greece than it does these days, but it still wasn’t making anybody’s fortune. Athenodorus needed a place to crash while he wrote his next bestseller, and since the publishing industry hadn’t invented the concept of “the advance”, he still needed to pinch his pennies. Luckily, he found a choice piece of real estate renting at far less than market value. Turns out, now as then, you get what you pay for.
There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a specter appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and disheveled hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the day time, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold. It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but in order to keep calm and collected tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another. Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones being collected together were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more. This story I believe upon the credit of others (Pliny the Younger, LXXXIII – to Sura).
This story has been repeated countless times (certainly with narrative variations) across the centuries, an archetype for ghostly causality. Consider the 18th Century haunted house story related by Scottish historian Robert Wodrow (1679-1734 A.D.) concerning University of Edinburgh scholar Gilbert Rule.
Gilbert Rule, the founder and first Principal of Edinburgh University, once reached a desolate inn in a lonely spot on the Grampians. The inn was full, and they were obliged to make him up a bed in a house near-by that had been vacant for thirty years. “He walked some time in the room,” says Wodrow, “and committed himself to God’s protection, and went to bed. There were two candles left on the table, and these he put out. There was a large bright fire remaining. He had not been long in bed till the room door is opened and an apparition in shape of a country tradesman came in, and opened the curtains without speaking a word. Mr. Rule was resolved to do nothing till it should speak or attack him, but lay still with full composure, committing himself to the Divine protection and conduct. The apparition went to the table, lighted the two candles, brought them to the bedside, and made some steps toward the door, looking still to the bed, as if he would have Mr. Rule rising and following. Mr. Rule still lay still, till he should see his way further cleared. Then the apparition, who the whole time spoke none, took an effectual way to raise the doctor. He carried back the candles to the table and went to the fire, and with the tongs took down the kindled coals, and laid them on the deal chamber floor. The doctor then thought it time to rise and put on his clothes, in the time of which the spectre laid up the coals again in the chimney, and, going to the table, lifted the candles and went to the door, opened it, still looking to the Principal, as he would have him following the candles, which he now, thinking there was something extraordinary in the case, after looking to God for direction, inclined to do. The apparition went down some steps with the candles, and carried them into a long trance, at the end of which there was a stair which carried down to a low room. This the spectre went down, and stooped, and set down the lights on the lowest step of the stair, and straight disappears”. “The learned Principal,” continues Burton, “whose courage and coolness deserve the highest commendation, lighted himself back to bed with the candles, and took the remainder of his rest undisturbed. Being a man of great sagacity, on ruminating over his adventure, he informed the Sheriff of the county ‘that he was much of the mind there was murder in the case.’ The stone whereon the candles were placed was raised, and there ‘the plain remains of a human body were found, and bones, to the conviction of all.’ It was supposed to be an old affair, however, and no traces could be got of the murderer. Rule undertook the functions of the detective, and pressed into the service the influence of his own profession. He preached a great sermon on the occasion, to which all the neighbouring people were summoned; and behold in the time of his sermon, an old man near eighty years was awakened, and fell a-weeping, and before the whole company acknowledged that at the building of that house, he was the murderer (Collison-Morley, 1912, p20-22).
We just don’t like our ghosts hanging about for no reason. Murder most foul usually suffices. Even the most skeptical of skeptics will no doubt shrug their shoulders and acknowledge that if there were such a thing as ghosts, we would expect to find them in places where injustice, nastiness, and murder prevailed because while we’re willing to waffle on the issue of life after death, we’re absolutely unwilling to extend the same courtesy to the idea that causality is a comforting illusion. I mean, hey, if causality was a thing, one would think that my stunning handsomeness and wit would have resulted in staggering financial rewards and the accolades of my peers. Alas, this is not the case. Causality asserts control. That’s why we prefer it to all other ontologies. And when the strange phenomena of the universe refuse to adhere to our conventional notions of causality it deeply disturbs us. While faith in the idea that cause always precedes effect has resulted in stunning short term scientific and technological success on the microcosmic scale, might it not obscure the possibility that the larger universe doesn’t quite feel bound to oblige an operative principle merely to feed human egos? And what wonders are we missing, as a result? We’re all about utility, but perhaps we need to consider the depths of existence that are eluding us through this narrow emphasis, for as Bertrand Russel said, “The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm”.
Pliny, the Younger. The Letters of Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. London: G. Bell and sons, 1878.
Collison-Morley, Lacy, 1875-. Greek And Roman Ghost Stories. Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1912.