“The ghosts have been asked long enough to give a plausible explanation of their world and have not done so. What can you expect of the dead?” – William Danmar
“What is it like to be a bat?” Philosopher Thomas Nagel posed this query in his Mortal Questions (1979). This was neither idle metaphysical musing (although some might argue that all metaphysics is idleness, but screw them and the unreflective natural science degree they rode in on), nor an odd flavor of Batman fandom. Nagel was directly attacking physicalist reductionism with respect to the mind-body problem. This is a common pastime among philosophers of the mind. You’ve got to have hobbies. His essential thesis was that perennial favorite whipping boy of earnest philosophy majors and their post-modernist fellow travelers in other disciplines — that the subjective nature of consciousness undermines attempts to explain consciousness via objective, reductionist means. And apparently he also liked bats.
Bats experience the world in a different way from humans. Oh, we can imagine what it would be like to fly, navigate by echolocation, hang upside down, eat insects, and maybe even party with Bela Lugosi, but that is merely emulating the life and behaviors of a bat, rather than experiencing the conscious mindset of a bat. We might achieve a batlikeness, but we would never truly be “batty”, and as Nagel observes, “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience”, and thus our consciousness, bounded as it is by our perceptions filtered through individual consciousness which is mucked up with all that cultural baggage, not to mention our own particular brand of physicality (you know, bilateral symmetry, opposable thumbs, upright posture, stunningly good looks) can never be reduced to anything other than subjective experience. This could be reduced to an absolute relativism or nihilism, if you weren’t paying attention or feeling lazy, but a more moderate approach with applicability to anomalous phenomena might be “if it doesn’t look like a bat, but behaves like a bat, it may not be a bat”. That is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion for most folks, who prefer to call duck-walking things “ducks”. Familiarity breeds contempt, the logically-challenged cousin that passes for skepticism these days.
What you need there, son, is a good theory that really ties the room together, particularly when it comes to elusive phenomena like ghosts. Personally, I like the more Victorian term “phantasms”. It seems less judgmental, but you’ve got to play to the crowd, dead or living. The problem with anomalous phenomena is that they tend not to produce themselves on demand, or in laboratory conditions. While rude, it is entirely possible that we do not completely understand what to demand or which conditions are necessary. This certainly doubles as an explanation for my dating history. Don’t worry. I’m all better now. At the center of our confusion is we barely understand our own consciousness, let alone the consciousness of other people and things. My dog Winston is conscious. He makes his needs known through action, but secretly I think he weeps for the sins of man. And you can’t prove me wrong, stuck as you are, just as I am, in your own head and filtered perceptions of the universe.
Consciousness is the wrench that gums up the works between the antipodes of pure physicalist theories of ghosts, and the more ubiquitous supernaturalism that is marshaled to explain them. Typical physicalist perspectives on ghosts are fairly easy to characterize. Ghosts don’t exist. Or rather, they are a product of human imagination (which is itself just a bunch of misfiring neurons and chemical reactions). Or maybe mold. Supernaturalist explanations tend to adhere to one or another quasi-theological interpretation of phantoms, largely revolving around the notion that ghosts are “spirits” of humans i.e. a disembodied expression of our consciousness that persists in one form or another after the death of our physical bodies, and loiters about the mortal world looking for trouble, revenge, redemption, or just plain recognition. That does kind of sound like us. Spite and neediness are major motivators for our species. And then there are the demonologists. If you’re at a party and someone tells you they are a professional demonologist, just walk away. If demons do exist, you really don’t want to be in the proximity of someone who seeks them out. If demons don’t exist, you’ve saved yourself an extremely awkward conversation. Or if you want to have some fun, tell them you are definitively not a Satan worshiper, as you prefer a platonic relationship with the hoary netherworld. But still walk away. Trust me. Demonology, properly practiced should be like Fight Club.
Which reminds me. Ghosts have not been very forthcoming over the years. Sure, we’ve had a lot of dialogue and a few cameo appearances, but it never amounts to much. Then somebody comes in with a bunch of burning sage and a few “power of Christ compels yous”, and presumably the phantasms go into the light. Yet we have mountains of ambiguous electronic voice phenomena, dubious photography of things that could be devils coming to eat your soul as easily as they could be dust balls (also coming to eat your soul), and anecdotal evidence that the undead don’t understand the difference between “good touch and “bad touch” (a joke for those of you who had sex-ed in the 80’s). Any old theology seems to do. And then the debunkers descend, especially in these halcyon days of social media, where everybody thinks their malformed, armchair opinion is relevant, and they just know that if they encountered an anomaly, they would not be so easily deceived. We’ve met them. They’re probably your manager. Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty of malformed, armchair opinions. Sadly, I also have manners. And civilization isn’t about agriculture, or social networking, or god-kings who need monuments erected. The glue of civilization is manners.
Take Baltimore, for instance. Baltimore is a failure as a city – crime, unemployment and poverty are the major industries, yet you will never meet nicer people than in Baltimore. When the social fabric tears apart and our grand experiment collapses, I guarantee you, the city-state of Baltimore will be a growing concern. They know how to survive the collapse of the social system, and they understand that graciousness and empathy on a micro-level are the cement that holds any kind of society together, unlike your average internet “influencer”, who will starve slowly in their parent’s basement while decrying cannibalism as “so passé”. Incidentally, if a person calls themselves a “social influencer”, correct them and say “you mean unpaid advertiser?” Or introduce them to a demonologist, and surreptitiously exit stage left.
But back to ghosts. If we divorce ourselves from the need to provide physicalist disproof or supernatural narrative when it comes to accounting for ghosts, what then are these spooks and spirits that trouble us so? What if ghosts are a natural phenomenon? First we have to acknowledge that few things have done more to hamper inquiry into ghosts than the conflation of the terms “ghost” and “spirit”, the latter anchoring such critters to theology, a spirit by necessity and logic being a “spirit of something”, be it a dead person, a “higher being”, or some such hypothetical creature, all of which make a whole lot of metaphysical assumptions. We’re interested in natural ghosts, or rather, ghosts that are a product of what we could call a “natural process”. Attempts have been made to anchor ghosts in the material world such as the “stone tape” theories –broadly suggesting that what we regard as ghosts are just playback of something recorded under the right circumstances. I suspect these have gone out of vogue since only true aficionados actually have record players anymore.
So, what would a “natural” theory of ghosts look like? Enter William Danmar. William Danmar (1853-1937) was a Danish-born American Professor of Architecture at Cooper Union and member of the American Society for Psychical Research, who was nonetheless unhappy with the spiritualist oeuvre that was all the rage at the time. He went to a lot of séances, investigated a bunch of ghosts, and generally loitered about the fringes of the spiritualist world, all the while looking for a more concrete explanation of what this “disembodied consciousness” everyone was busy talking to actually was and what physics were involved in their emergence. For his troubles, posterity only seems to recognize him on “kook science” lists, and it’s true that he engaged in some pretty weird experiments, including his most famous inquiry into where ghosts hung their hats (see “The Danmar Experiments: Chasing Ghosts to the Tail of the Earth”). At heart, Danmar was a materialist, as one would expect from somebody who built stuff. Skyscrapers don’t stand up on good intentions. He found the whole concept of the “supernatural” as superfluous. Why posit a realm of existence governed by a different set of laws, when we have not wholly fleshed out the strictures and boundaries of our own reality? And for that matter, since we have as of yet to come to agreement on what constitutes consciousness, how can we even begin to talk about “disembodied” consciousness? For a mad scientist, he had some pretty sober points.
As a counterbalance to the remonstrations of physical scientists and wildly speculative theology of the spiritualists of his day when it came to explaining ghosts, Danmar penned an obscure little missive called Modern Nirvanaism: The Philosophy of Life and Death, concerned with “the invisible department of organic existence”, as he believed that it was ultimately supernaturalism that had estranged ghosts to science. He proposed that ghosts were natural phenomena, the result of “the world-process of equalizing the antipolar conditions of the substances in the world, and equilibrating the opposite forces of the worldstuff, and that the ghostworld, being the final product of this process, is in a state of dynamic equilibrium, rest and happiness” (Danmar, 1920, p17). Simply stated, ghosts are part of the hypothetical “worldstuff”, and we simply don’t fully understand what constitutes it yet, therefore are wearing monistic blinders without admitting it. “Only a monistic materialist is justified in calling all stuff ‘matter,’ but such materialists hardly exist. The materialists could never get along with their ‘matter’ alone and, therefore, added to it first empty space, then ether and then an uncertain energy stuff, which made them dualists. Neither are to be found monistic spiritualists or etherialists. Long ago the spiritualists added to their spiritus matter. Only the modern energeticists make an attempt at monism, but do not succeed” (Danmar, 1920, p89). Victorian Danmar didn’t have the insights of our modern physicists at his command, but he would surely have recognized “dark matter” as just such a monistic patch.
I recommend perusing Danmar’s writings for a more in depth understanding of the logic he brings to bear, but in assigning ghosts to a natural process, he imagined he could account for many of the inconsistencies in their behavior. “Some ghosts lie, deceive, advise to ruin, drive people to suicide or the insane asylum and do other things which are bad for the living. In fact, they interfered so much that nature was compelled to evolve the living blind and deaf towards them, for which it be praised” (Danmar, 1920, p110). Now, while I don’t recommend the details of Danmar’s speculations as a foundational natural theory of ghosts from which we should derive our approaches to them, he is certainly an example of an anomalist who felt that neither science or theology had an unbreakable chokehold on explaining the oddities rampant in the universe. The pendulum swings back and forth over the years, skeptics accusing anomalists of trying to create a new religion, anomalists accusing skeptics of willful blindness, arrogance, and unwarranted confidence in ontological assumptions. And still, folks keep seeing ghosts, running from monsters, and chasing all manner of phenomena that seem to lurk outside contemporary models.
We always return to our poorly-defined notion of consciousness, either as mediating or obfuscating our experience of the world. We prefer nihilation to extinction, for obvious reasons, vain and self-serving as they may be, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that our understanding of the natural is neither complete nor exhaustive, and thus invalidate a realm of inquiry that bridges science and metaphysics (neither of which appear to be independently capable of fully describing our existence). Either way, we seem psychologically disposed to simultaneously fear both that there is something more to reality and that there is nothing more than the material universe. So, we settle on consciousness as our messiah or our antichrist, which is of course a tautological trap, for as Albert Einstein once observed, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”.
Danmar, William. Modern Nirvanaism. Jamaica: W. Danmar, 1920.
Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
For a fascinating attempt at putting ghosts in the scientific realm, I highly recommend Ghosts: A Natural History by Roger Clark.
Ever since ghosts switched from being talking full figure phantoms to being mumbling orbs I’ve lost all respect for them.
“contempt, the logically-challenged cousin that passes for skepticism these days”- perfect! This is why I come here.