On Ghosts and the Supernatural


On Ghosts and the Supernatural
by Sean Gabb
(2003)

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.

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20 responses to “On Ghosts and the Supernatural

  1. Very strange. I have never had any supernatural experiences – oddly enough I envy you.

  2. Careful what you say about that nice Mr Blair – he will come and haunt you!

  3. I believe ghosts may very well exist. There are said to be many here in the U.S. And as I don’t suppose that in a nation as old as yours, there’s a square foot of ground anywhere on which somebody hasn’t died. You probably bump into them everywhere you go.

    For the most part, I think they’re content to leave us alone. I doubt they find us nearly as fascinating as we do them. My dad died in my house, and people sometimes ask me how I can stand to sleep here at night. I tell them he almost certainly has other things to do besides haunting me. The next life may be even busier than this one.

  4. Calos from spain

    Of course comming from spain, I went to church a lot, although I have never
    seen a ghost I would not out rightly deny the existance without conclusive
    evidence to the contrary. Of course water pipes made a library of strange
    nosies, these are often confused with hauntings, but on the other hand I
    witnessed activities that offer no explinations. I shall therefore await my
    host, albeit a ghost. Of course sean one cannot deny everything, take
    writers and reporters, do they not pratice the science of “Alchemy” to
    move mountains and bring forth change!

  5. My woman thinks there is a ghost in our house (it was built in 1882.) She claims to have occasionally seem a very old man, shambling about, and sometimes the hot tap in the kitchen seems to have been inexplicably left running all night. I have my doubts personally, but I also have found the tap running for no reason.

  6. I also respectfully draw everyone’s attention to this article I published on here a few years ago…

    http://libertarianalliance.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/ghosts-is-there-a-libertarian-or-a-scientific-explanation/

  7. Just because the odd bod, now and again, thinks there might be ghosts, or that we might olive after death, does not mean there is anything remotely like universal testimony of it, Sean.

    But even if there was universal testimony in superabundance, any one of us might well doubt it from time to time; if not most of the time. Indeed, we might do so automatically without needed to tell anyone that we have done so.

    What Hume asked was whether it was more likely that such testimony might be mistaken than that it be true. He thought it was most likely mistaken. The Catholic Church agrees, despite putting him on the banned authors list but they give such reports a prolonged examination. Where they depart from Hume is only in thus taking things further.

    Belief never relates to what we like or wish to think. Speech often does. We can say what we want but never believe as we want. Belief is the reality principle in people, though by no means foolproof. Indeed, beliefs are automatically revised.

    Fear of death does not relate to the afterlife but to not existing at all often does give rise to fear. Hume asks why this awe when we did not exist before we were born but we were not around to feel fear before we were born. We do not fear what is in the past but only what we have before us.

    We get only wishful talking, never wishful thinking.

    Human belief automatically regulates itself to the evidence.

    We commonly imagine that we see things. Illusion is not rare. Such illusions at night may well have fed the ideas we have of ghosts. Daytime ones will be dismissed more mundanely.

    Hume erred on knowledge from the senses, as it is from always mere assumptions; that the senses might refute. Assumptions always, with science, go way beyond the senses, as Karl Popper rightly noted in looking at Hume’s books.

    We never see most things in the world, be they microbes or atoms or any actual fact.

  8. Calos from Spain

    I get the tap washer replaced, or buy a reamer, should sort out the problem,
    what a heating bill!

  9. Mr Harry Price.

    I don’t tell lies about ghosts, it’s simply unfair. A couple of years ago an old local gave me some information on a haunted church in the Broadland area, I became interetsed in ghosts and the paranormal as a child my father printed all the books on these subjects, I went to investigate the location and and decided if anywhere was ever haunted, this medieval goodie would no doubt be the place. I had to wait for a full clear moon as the lighting was so bad, so noted the facts in my diary. Anyway about two months later as just as I predicted the moon shined brightly in the sky, with the most amazing view of the stars free from all light polution I duly armed myself with my EFM and vintage repaired anologue hiss, hiss direction finder, I spend over an our in the church yard taking readings with not a microscopic glimmer of any EFM activity, I got bored, it was so light I started to read the discriptions on the graves, I suddenly felt sad, at the mortaility rates in those day’s, and perhaps realised that people through all centuries of history can all be victims of one form of injustice or another. Anyway, another dissapointing expedition into the world of paranormal activity had again presented it’s self to me, I decided to make my way back to the car, taking the opposite route I had entered, as I passed the corner of the church suddenly my EMF burst into life, I pulled the wand on my anolgue to find the source of the activity, it indicated 8 oclock, as I walked towards the source it got stronger and srtonger, suddenly I found myself confronted with a metal post complete with road sign, on further investigation I located the source to be a black box at the top of the post, on looking closely this was no more than a solar charged battery to power the road sign warning signal, that gave off EMF, of course rightly ghosts due have various explinations and interpretations, and for the inexperienced untrained mind, and wrong conclusions can without doubt be drawn, I yet await, to meet my ghost, but, will surely let you know when I do, if he or she, decides to make a formal introduction I hope for.

  10. Allow me to be narcissistic and draw your attention to this article of mine on George Orwell’s experience of the paranormal. As far as I’m aware, Orwell is the only person who has ever seen a ghost and then drawn left-libertarian conclusions about it.

    http://www.orwellsociety.com/2012/04/28/orwell-and-the-paranormal-by-philip-bounds/

  11. Mr Harry price

    I think Orwell’s experience was based on his own experience and clearly open to his own interpretaions, either genuine or for his own gain. of course many people claim to see ghosts and draw thier own conclusions, the most simple being “I have seen a ghost”, I question the motives of some claims, particularly where such things have a valid commercial interst, such as pubs, historic buildings, there are attraction elements and ticket sales to consider. I had a friend who dies she promised to return and visit me as a ghost. I have not seen her yet.

  12. Mr Harry Price.

    The article on Orwell, is very well produced, although it does indeed indicate that he was never really fully convinced in the existance of the paranormal. Of course during this period, there were many people involved and attracted to the new sciences. People came from all sides of the political spectrum, there appears to be no link with Crowley and Orwell, Crowley was in fact a one time an MI5 agent, and Royalist, I am one of the few people to have handled Crowley’s ritual paraphernalia, when I encoutered it after it was bought by a museum, he was an elaborate perfomer well versed in Eygtian History, and drama ritual. I presume Orwell and Crowley would have been complete political opposites, in the realm of paranormal studies.

  13. Mr Harry Price.

    Of course one of my more rear books is the study of Gypsy Sorcery, presented by Charles D Leland, dedicated to his colleagues at the CONGRES DES TRADITIONS POPULAIRES held at paris 1889, it is probably one of the most intensive research studies ever written on the subject, it shows the ingrained belief system of the paranormal within the Gypsy communites at the time, it is indeed a very interesting read.

  14. I agree that you should always go for the most economical hypothesis to explain the facts. This being said, odd things do seem to happen now and again. I could write another essay about telepathy and precognition, and one day will.

  15. Mr Harry Price.

    I’m sure we all could Sean, No doubt. However, I have just had a flick through my books and looked at a web article on Orwell, something very interesting surfaced, Orwell saw the ghost on the 22nd July 1931 in St Andrews church, this was a former Catholic Church that came to the attentions of Henry the VIII, it is unclear if it was subjected to damage but as you may be aware many Catholic Church’s did, even including my local village one.Wwhen I joined the choir, I remember seeing the iffigies that had been damaged during the conflict. Of course you will no doubt be aware the Catholic Churches in Norfolk prior to the reformation were a place of great artistic splender, but then subjected to wanton distruction by Henry, hence why the interiors are now painted white, a leftover over from the period and reign of Henry, anyway back to Orwell, the discription of the ghost he describes, fits the same discription of ghosts many other people have claimed to have witnessed, the church had a reputation of being haunted long before Orwell arrived, however there is someting interesting in Orwell’s letter and the discription he provides, I have seen so many discriptions of ghosts, this must not be overlooked. Firstly, he claimed the ghost passed him, and then refers to his lack of memory of the features, more important, he states it made no noise, it is interesting, that many sites I have studied claim the same phenomenon, the ghost gluided and made no sound at all, even as it walked on the shingle, Orwell may have seen a ghost, many people claim to have seen the man he refers to, and give the same discription, I think I’ll take a trip not living far from the church on the anniversary the 22nd July, and see what the night has to offer.

  16. Claos from spain

    Henry the Vlll, he big fat king who cut peoples heads off. No Democratic.

  17. Calos from Spain.

    Calos from spain, Hello Hugo, he won’t haunt you, he just get his puppet
    ghosts to do that. I back to Spain next week, thank god, bye, bye, happy
    seista.

  18. Mr Harry Price.

    Firstly, I would not classify G Orwell as being an odd bod, and secondly what he saw at St Andrews has been seen by many independent witnesses, in paranormal expination, the Ghost he claimed to have seen is described as a residual haunting, the paranormal explination is, that under certain conditions, the earth, water, or atmosphere, can store images, Known as visual imprint, this is yet unexplained proven theory, however, works on the principle that under certain condtions these images some how play back in visual context, this is why winesses who claim to see such ghosts, conclude that on every ocassion, the sightings are an identical in behaviour as the previous one, ie, if a witness states they saw a ghost walk through a wall, many other numerous sightings will be identical, It appears via way of historic records the alleged Ghost just carries on doing the same thing over and over, like a record being played again and again. If we look at the light from the stars this has traveled over 50 million light years, the light source no longer exists, but the light can still be seen by the human eye. The brain also gives off enough engergy to power a 24 watt light bulb, from an average awake person. The Rover on mars sends back photographs in the form of engergy, and yet human thought iis 80 times more powerful than the signals sent from the Rover, so the therories put forward by various paranormal societies cannot be totally discountered. Of course paranormal reseach has come leaps and bounds with the development of new high tech Guass Meters, where people once thought the world was flat, it may indeed be proved to be round, science will one day explain all therories, they may indeed be a great dissapointment to some, especially the devout Ghost believers. Of course over hundreds of years, there are thousands of witnesses who have seen, and produced photographs of mist like smoke at haunted sites, I have seen such things my self, my grandmother used to call them Willy the Wisp, but they are all not indeed the same, and offer a wide range of explination, even that of a ghost or spirit. With the advance of new equipment, much can be clarified and explained both to the sceptics and those who are convinced they saw a ghost, the mist may be no more than a causation of temperature, or again an unexplained EMF encounter, the search for understanding continues, that is the whole point of paranormal study and research, to try and give accurate explinations, people who encounter unexplained phenomena are not in anyway odd bods in my dictionary.

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