On Ghosts and the Supernatural
by Sean Gabb
One of my readers has asked me to give up for the moment on political controversy—where I have been, during this present year, writing with equal passion and lack of influence—and turn instead to the existence of ghosts. Here, I will oblige him to the best of my ability.
When asked about ghosts, Dr Johnson once affirmed their existence, giving in support the universal testimony of mankind. He had a point. In all times and places, and often without external influence, people have believed in life after death. Our earliest recognisable ancestors buried each other with their household goods, thereby showing a belief that these would be of continued use. Every nation of which I know has believed that the dead could be somehow brought in contact with the living. In the 12th book of the Odyssey, for example, Ulysses sacrifices a sheep, fills a trench with its blood, and waits for the ghosts that surround him to drink until they become visible and he can question them. In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh—which I have yet to read—I believe that the spirits of the dead are summoned and questioned. My Chinese and Japanese students have told me some of their own traditional ghost stories. Turn where you will, people believe and have believed in ghosts. Who am I to doubt such universal testimony?
I suppose I can appeal to David Hume and his use of Occam’s razor with regard to the supernatural—that we should not resort to more complex hypotheses than are needed to explain events. Every rational being knows about death. No one who ever looks on the disintegrating bodies of his loved ones, or imagines his own departure from this world, likes to think that this is the end—that the atoms of the soul are dispersed as irrecoverably as those of the body. Like causes produce like effects. The fear of death is universal. So, therefore, is belief in an afterlife. All evidence of such is charged with wishful thinking. No claims to personal acquaintance with the afterlife are too obviously born of fraud or delusion not be greedily accepted by someone. Moreover, whenever put to the same rigorous test as is brought to scientific hypotheses, no claim has ever been verified. Seen in this light, the existence of ghosts—though not, perhaps, of an afterlife—is to be rejected by everyone who is willing or able to regulate his belief according to evidence.
My only objection to this line of reasoning—and it may be a faint objection, I grant—is that I have often seen what many would regard as ghosts—and as recently as last autumn.
At about three o’clock in the morning of Wednesday the 9th October 2002, I was woken by a loud crash in the bedroom. I uncovered my head and looked across the room. Over by the door, I could see a woman standing. In the light from the window, I saw that the clothes I had piled on a cupboard by the door had fallen down, and this was the reason for the noise. The woman was tall and thin and dressed in what looked like elaborate night clothes. I thought at first it was Mrs Gabb coming back from a call of nature, and I prepared to mutter something peevish before pulling the covers back over my head. But I suddenly felt her lying beside me.
With a loud grunt and a convulsive sitting up in bed, I was now fully awake. Mrs Gabb now woke and uttered the peevish words. Of course, there was no one else visible in the room. When I told her what I had seen, we discussed getting up and searching the house. But it was cold. We needed to get up early. We were also just a little reluctant to do anything but huddle together and hope for the best.
It was a dream, I hear you saying; and I quite agree with you. What is more likely—that clothes eventually fall down when carelessly piled, and that dreams frequently continue after a sudden waking? or that the spirits of the dead rise at night to disturb the living? There is nothing inconceivable about this second possibility, and so it might be true. However, there is no doubt of the first. Such things are common experience. Since, therefore, believing in ghosts is not necessary to explain the events of last October, I have no grounds for saying that I saw a ghost.
Mrs Gabb is less happy with this mode of reasoning. She insists that there is no firm evidence that ghosts do not exist, and sides with Dr Johnson. She also probably likes the thrill—at least in daylight—of believing that our house is not just a former naval brothel in need of extensive renovation, but has all the romance too of being haunted.
One of our occasional guests agrees. She claims to have heard a ghost in the house last summer, when staying with Mrs Gabb, I being in London overnight. Apparently, she lay awake in her bedroom on the top floor listening to footsteps in the attic. She was fully awake, and kept telling herself that there was no one above her, but was kept awake by the noise for some hours before falling asleep. I suppose I should question her about this. She is a solid, reliable witness, and generally refuses to believe in anything out of the common order of things. She also knows the difference between footsteps and the nightly expansion and contraction of old timbers. But I am too lazy to pick up the telephone, and so am left to repeat Mrs Gabb’s account of what happened.
So did I see a ghost? My answer is still no. Even our guest must occasionally dream or suffer delusions; and this is more likely than that she heard footsteps in a place to which no person or other substantial living creature could have had access.
I am resolutely sceptical about the existence of ghosts or the truth of any paranormal claims. My problem, as said, is that I have, during the past 40 years, had enough possible experience of the paranormal to fill a paperback anthology. One of my earliest experiences—those disembodied white arms reaching at my face through a solid headboard—I have described already in an earlier issue of Free Life Commentary. But I recall many other similar experiences from when I was two or three. In one, a woman with a horse’s head ran in diminishing circles round my bedroom. In another, a rug in the living room rose about an inch from the floor and began to drift back and forward. I sat on the floor beside this, too frightened to move or even to cry out, watching it drift past my feet, until my grandmother walked into the room and the rug instantly returned to its settled place. On both occasions, I seemed to be awake. On both occasions, every attending circumstance of sight and sound suggested that I was conscious in an otherwise orderly world. However, I deny that I was awake. I am unusual so far as I developed a retentive memory very early in life. But I do not believe that young children have a reliable awareness of the difference between the waking and the sleeping state.
The supernatural experience that I can most fully attest happened when I was 15. My grandmother had recently died. As I had been very close to her, I was more than usually affected by her death. Late one night, I was lying awake in bed. All was quiet in the house and quiet outside. Suddenly, I heard a loud bang above the ceiling. It was as if someone had struck one of the water pipes in the attic with a hammer. Then I heard another and then another. Soon, I was almost deafened by a loud and complex pattern of bangs from the pipes. It seemed to go on without end. At last, I got up and left the room. Once I was in the passage outside, the noises stopped. I went downstairs to the kitchen and made myself a drink. All was now quiet again. No one else had been woken.
It was around this time, I later discovered, that I was dispossessed of an inheritance. Though she always put off making a will, my grandmother had frequently said in gatherings of our family that she wanted me to inherit her house in Chatham. Once she was dead, her son swore whatever declarations were needed to get possession of the house. He then sold it and declined to share a penny with my mother, quite ignoring any moral claim I might have had.
Now, was this a message from the infuriated spirit of my grandmother? Or do water pipes make odd noises? Or was I deluded in some way? Or is there, as my friend Mr Huet suggests, a separate but still supernatural explanation? I know which one I ought to believe. Plumbing is one of the great mysteries of civilised life, and no less everyday explanation is needed once this fact is apprehended. I remain, even so, not entirely convinced. Those water pipes never played up again to my knowledge; and the combination of circumstances in which they did play up that time keeps me unwilling to draw the most natural conclusion.
So, am I willing to say that there are ghosts? I cannot say for sure I have ever seen one. And no amount of weak evidence can be equal to one decent proof. On the other hand, I see no reason in itself why there should be nothing beyond the ordinary. As a sceptic and keen reader of David Hume, I have no time for claims about the power of reason to apprehend the nature of reality. All knowledge seems to originate in the fallible perceptions of our senses, and to be processed according to assumptions about cause and effect that are customary in nature. As such, deductive arguments for or against the existence of things outside the range of common perception are worthless. There might be a world of spirits parallel to that of the living, the borders between which occasionally wear thin. Or there might not. All I can say at the moment is that I have no reason to doubt that what we commonly see of the world is all there really is of it.
So, there are my thoughts on ghosts and the supernatural in general. They are rather less certain than my thoughts on Tony Blair—an evil man, I will repeat, who must be driven from office, thence to languish in the nearest state to oblivion that continued life allows.