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“Law of Probability Dispersal: Whatever it is that hits the fan will not be evenly distributed” – Robert Angell


This may only seem improbable.

I don’t trust my senses.  I can’t see without glasses.  I have a terrible sense of smell.  My taste buds are fickle.  I’ve been described as “ham-fisted” when it comes to touch.  My hearing isn’t what it used to be.  And if there was an officially designated “fashion” sense, people in the know say I’m so impaired that I could collect disability (understandably, given my prediliction for Hawaiian shirts in garish colors and eye-bleeding patterns – I’m a child of the 80’s and fondly remember the neon oeuvre).  Obviously, when it comes to strange phenomena, I have both a keen practical as well as philosophical interest in the viability of sense data.  This makes me suspicious of empiricist demands for sense-evidence regarding anomalies.  As it turns out, I’m not the only one, as big-brained philosophical folks have been arguing about the potential for visibility without tangibility, or more concisely, the viability of Samuel Coleridge’s definition of a “vulgar” (common) ghost.

Define a vulgar ghost with reference to all that is called ghost-like: It is visibility without tangibility; which is also the definition of a shadow. Therefore, a vulgar ghost and a shadow would be the same; because two different things cannot properly have the same definition. A visible substance, without susceptibility of impact I maintain to be an absurdity. Unless there be an external substance, the bodily eye cannot see it; therefore, in all such cases, that which is supposed to be seen is, in fact, not seen, but is an image of the brain. External objects naturally produce sensation; but here, in truth, sensation produces, as it were, the external object (Coleridge, 1899, p88-89).

Coleridge clearly comes down on the side of tangibility as a the true measure of reality, suggesting that all ghosts are the illusory byproduct of the mind, a reversal of sensory experience where the sensation produces the perception of the external object, rather than the external object producing the sensation.  Philosopher George Berkeley wasn’t so sure, and was determined not to make the distinction between illusory and real turn on the question of tangibility, arguing that all sensation is inevitably a product of the mind.

The ideas imprinted on the Senses by the Author of nature are called real things; and those excited in the imagination being less regular, vivid, and constant, are more properly termed ideas, or images of things, which they copy and represent. But then our sensations, be they never so vivid and distinct, are nevertheless ideas, that is, they exist in the mind, or are perceived by it, as truly as the ideas of its own framing. The ideas of Sense are allowed to have more reality in them, that is, to be more strong, orderly, and coherent than the creatures of the mind; but this is no argument that they exist without the mind. They are also less dependent on the spirit, or thinking substance which perceives them, in that they are excited by the will of another and more powerful spirit; yet still they are ideas, and certainly no idea, whether faint or strong, can exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it (Berkeley, 1910, p47).   

This is undoubtedly why Berkeley is considered the founder of the metaphysical school of thought called “subjective idealism”, that in its strong version suggests that material things do not exist (an irritant to inveterate physicalists), and in its weaker version asserts only that the perception of objective reality is a fool’s game, as this version of reality is entirely dependent on the minds that perceive it.

It is, however, by no means essential to the vulgar idea of a ghost that it should be intangible; there have been very numerous relations of spiritual appearances that could be not only seen but felt. The most usual opinion of “spirits” of every kind agrees, no doubt, with Don Quixote’s, when he affirmed to his faithful squire that they were “all air, mere semblances, bodies in appearance only”; yet it may be remembered that, on another occasion, the worthy Don himself could touch his own soul with his fingers, feeling it “stick cross-wise in his throat, like the stopper of a cross-bow” (Cromwell, 1859, p267).

We of course fancy ourselves as slightly more enlightened, and are willing to concede the role of consciousness in perception of a world that is purely phenomenal, but the purest criticism levelled at anomalists of every ilk from cryptozoologists to phantasmologists to alien abductees is the lack of something tactile we can hold in our hands and declare as real.  Where is the bullet-riddled corpse of a Bigfoot or the depth-charged remains of the Loch Ness Monster?  Where is the trapped ghost we can shake hands with and exhibit at the county fair?  Why has no UFO landed on the White House lawn?  Are they afraid of parking tickets?  Empiricism drives our ordinary lives, but our demands for evidence and experience are nearly impossible to disentangle from our rationalist proclivities, that is, despite our desire for tangible proof, our assessment of the quality of said proof is highly dependent on our appeal to reason as the chief test and source of knowledge about our world.

Thus, somewhat counterintuitively, skepticism finds itself in the unenviable position of being driven by the immaterialism of subjective idealism (maintaining both the fallibility of our sensory experience that can create perceived realities and that all our interactions with the phenomenal world are mediated by our malleable minds) while simultaneously requiring that all objects, events, and phenomena be held to a standard of materialism or that matter is the fundamental substance of nature, and therefore only that which is tangible and reproducible can exist.  These are incommensurable positions.

A more fruitful approach to anomalistics is to regard the strange occurrence as both noumenal and phenomenal, that is properly apprehended by both sense-perception and reference to the ideal forms we hold in our head, without the requirements of a strict materialism, or rather a materialist test which will invariably fail, as our only means of perceiving the relationship between stuff out there and the carnival in our craniums is our senses.  Human consciousness is built to contemplate possibility.  It’s part of what has made us so successful as a species.  We can look at a rock and imagine a spear point.  We can encounter the inexplicable and imagine a motivating god.  And thus we play the odds, but the orthodox skeptic would have us believe that those anomalous phenomena we encounter and cannot explain adequately by materialist standards or more often in contradiction of the current rationalist paradigm cannot possibly be the Kantian “thing-in-itself”, with an existence independent of its tangibility.  Because we have not yet figured out how we can “know” these things (the experience of the inexplicable and improbable), raw skepticism of the variety that exists to gainsay rather than elucidate, can claim as Kant did that “we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears”.  Thus the skeptic uses noumenality to deny phenomenality, which on the surface seems to violate both empirical and rationalist standards for the definition of reality.

Immanuel Kant, ever wary of pure reason, proposed the “Condition of Possibility”, a way to conceive of reality that did not require a strict, material causality.  He suggested that given the illusory nature of our senses, that in order to grasp the “thing-in-itself” we must understand the precursor conditions for its possibility.  Therefore, when we see a ghost, it is not the materiality of the ghost that is in question, it is the necessary conditions for the apparition that should be the subject of our examination.  For example, take a three dimensional object.  In order to be three dimensional, an object must be extended in space.  The noumenal concept of space did not cause the object, rather it is a requirement for the existence of the object, separate and distinct from it.  Space is a condition of possibility for the existence of the object, but the concept is nonetheless intangible except in its expression to our senses.

Anomalistics as a discipline may find it prudent to devote itself to questions regarding the conditions of possibility for any given phenomena.  Playing by self-contradictory rules of skepticism simply warps any given strange event into a logical fallacy.  Apparition is not a bad word.  It is the fundamental way in which we perceive the universe if we divorce ourselves from the noumenal-phenomenal dichotomy that powers skeptical critiques.  We never know, we simply apprehend.  We are capable of imagining possibilities, only to see those possibilities written upon the world stage, yet when the improbable happens again, we are confused an fall back into our defensive materialist mindset, or as Hannah Arendt observed, “The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle”.

Berkeley, George, 1685-1753. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Reprint ed. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1910.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 1772-1834. Coleridge’s Table Talk. London: Gay and Bird, 1899.
Cromwell, Thomas, 1792-1870. The Soul And the Future Life. London: E. T. Whitfield, 1859.