Matiere Opaque : Ghost Stories Greeley's Rancho Arcana

My Confession

October 15, 2004

Sacramento, California

It's midnight and I'm putting the finishing touches on the last of the stories in this series. I've had a lot of fun writing these tales for my friends and it's given me the opportunity to try out different writing techniques. I've learned a bit about writing ghost stories.

But I have a confession to make.

I have never seen a ghost. At least I don't think I have.

I can't say I believe in ghosts, either. Mostly because I don't know exactly what a ghost is supposed to be and because no one, to my knowledge, has produced measurable, testable, and repeatable evidence to support that such things even exist.

Browse the Internet on the subject of ghosts. You'll find every explanation under the sun. Some might sound reasonable, some might sound wildly fanciful. Which is which depends on whom you ask and what you believe about the fundamental basis of human life and the world around you. There doesn't seem to be anything objective about the topic and it's well-near impossible to come to any hard conclusions that can bear scrutiny.

So I don't believe in ghosts.

But, you may ask, don't I at least believe in 'ghostly' phenomena?--look at these stories of yours! (OK maybe you didn't ask, but let's pretend you did.)

Well let's put the question in a less loaded way: Do I believe that odd, apparently inexplicable events actually occur? Certainly I do. I've experienced a few. More than a few, actually. So have most of the people I know. But that's not the same as believing in ghosts.

I also don't believe in the supernatural; mainly because I don't think there's really a need to. Indications are that the world we live in right now is pretty interesting in itself (check out Bell's Theorem or Dark Matter for an example), and we still have plenty of ground to explore. So why invent another world with fantastic physical laws? We haven't learned everything there is to know about this one.

I've found that relying on supernatural explanations is often used as a shortcut around an incomplete grasp of the natural world, and rather than truly illuminating a subject, this approach simply reflects the dim light of our limited understanding.

The big problem with the supernatural is that uncritical acceptance of such things often precludes meaningful or productive inquiry. In other words, some of us never get to ask the right questions when confronted with the unknown because we think we, or someone in authority, already have the answers to mysterious questions. "What's that sound? It's a ghost!" "What's that in the sky? It's a flying saucer!" "Who's going to lead our country on the right track? My guy (not yours)!"

I guess you could call me a skeptic. I am a big fan of the scientific method and the underlying philosophies and attitudes that support our quest for reason and the understanding of the world around us. I think that without adopting a hardheaded approach to inquiry, we would find it very difficult to know anything about the natural world we live in and, paradoxically, we would also know far less about our own being. You see, when we encounter the world around us, we bring a lot of ourselves into play, and knowing where the boundaries are between the physical and the metaphysical can help us define ourselves and perhaps foster a greater appreciation for life and respect for each other. Knowing where the boundaries are between 'us' and 'the world' hopefully leads to better decisions, too.

I do have to admit that there is a little bit of a wildcard in my worldview that tends to complicate the entire subject for me. If you've already read some of my stories you'll notice that I was raised in a household where the talk of ghosts was not considered out of bounds or an expression of ignorance; in fact, it was a perfectly normal thing to bring up and speculate upon. This is largely due to my family's Welsh heritage, I think, and it's something I wouldn't consider trading away in the name of reason, as I would be trading away a valued part of myself and my heritage in the process (Some say the Welsh have a foot in both worlds, but I think that's just bragging.)

I think that there are many others out there who feel the same way about things that are an important part of who they are, and they are just as entitled as I to defend what they value on its own merits, even if the subject flies in the face of reason.

So you might say that in practice I'm a skeptic with an appreciation for ambiguity. While I don't personally believe in ghosts or the supernatural, I bear no prejudice against those who genuinely do (Charlatans are another thing--watch out!) What people believe and why they believe what they believe is a source of endless fascination and instruction for me--and I too am in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to encountering mystery. Mystery is everywhere. It's just that my response is a bit more attenuated to the rational than some, but not so rational as to deny that which makes us human or that disregards another's dignity and purpose.

How's that for a convoluted explanation on where I stand?

Few people ask the question ...and now we know why.

+ - + - +

OK, so let's pick up the pace again. You know where I stand on ghosts. So what's the story behind these stories? Exactly what do I do when confronted with the apparently inexplicable (besides write up a story)?

First, I find it far easier and more productive to simply acknowledge ignorance than to rely on fantastic claims and constructions when presented with a mystery. Embracing ignorance seems to be a good starting point; knowing that you don't know is often prerequisite to actually learning something. It also relieves one of having to deliver "extraordinary evidence" to back up "extraordinary claims." (Rule #1: Make no extraordinary claims. The Amazing Randi will smile upon you. So will Davy Hume and Billy Occam and the Young Carl Sagan.)

Second, when something strange does occur, it's time to start gathering facts, because the facts are going to be needed when it comes time to ask questions and maybe learn something.

Finally, when the facts are gathered, it's time to formulate some objective questions.

Some of the questions I like to ask are:

--How complete is my information? What exactly did I see, hear, touch, smell, record, or otherwise acquire in some way, and how much do I have?

--Is there anything quantifiable about what has happened? Can it be measured? Can it be tested? Can it be repeated?

--Which part of the experience is subjective? Everything we experience has a subjective component; the question is, how much and what?

--Is there a simple or reasonable explanation? Can the explanation be falsified or disproved?

--Or is there no simple or reasonable explanation? (reasonable means that the explanation does not violate known properties of the physical world.)

It's perfectly OK to stop with that last question if it seems that the answer is 'yes'--but most everyone else who's interested in things like ghosts shoot right past that last one and that's when the trouble starts.

+ - + - +

The question of 'no simple or reasonable explanation,' if reached, is the most important one to consider honestly and carefully because it marks a fork in the road; one way leads off down a darker path to a hazy and insubstantial world, the other loops back to the brighter substantial world of reason, where we're invited to go over the questions again.

At this point, should you decide to continue down the darker path, you'll find that the further you go, the more reason you will have to leave behind. Not a good choice if you're looking for substantial answers (but a great choice if you like fantasy or adventure or art).

When I reach that fork in the road I often prefer to take the loop back. Maybe I missed something important. Do I really have enough information? Did I confuse quantity with quality? Perhaps I misjudged the subjective part. Was I thorough in exploring simple explanations? Is there really no simple explanation?

If I find myself returning to the same fork in the road, then I usually stop and set up camp there. Break out the chair and the dunce cap. So I'm ignorant. So what? It's not a crime. Maybe I'll just wait right here and perhaps I'll learn something later.

The view from here is interesting anyway. Seems to be a lot of people passing by this way, looking for clues and kicking around answers. Lots of stories to listen to, if you're willing to listen.

So here's a few of mine. Think of them as reports from the fork in the road. Enjoy. And Happy Halloween!


+ - + - +


Actually, there is one very important thing I've learned by waiting at that fork in the proverbial road I mentioned above. It's something you may want to consider.

I think that one reason a lot of people feel compelled to bolt down the darker path in pursuit of ghosts is because they believe that's where the ghosts live. I mean, at first glance, it looks like the kind of place ghosts would live, right? Dark? Spooky? Mysterious? Insubstantial?

And of course, those who have traveled that far and don't go that way often point and laugh at the foolishness of those who do. And that's all they see. End of subject.


Wouldn't it be really funny if ghosts didn't live down that road in the first place?

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