It probably seems odd that I devote so much time to thinking about things I don't believe in; but it is really not so unusual. Our modern interest in the paranormal grew up in tandem with our sciences, and it did so because, arguably, it was only in a world that was supposed to be naturalistic that the supernatural came to hold a terrible fascination. H.P. Lovecraft, a fellow paper-thin skeptic, writes in his essay on "Supernatural Horror in Literature" that "[O]ccult believers are probably less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe [...] than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order." Yup, that's pretty much it. I am far more fascinated by stories of the paranormal than are casual believers in these phenomena, precisely because they desecrate all my conceptions of reality.
For people who tend, by contrast to the skeptics, to be casually supernaturalistic in their thinking -- which I find to be the vast majority of human beings in every place and clime and social context -- stories of hauntings or of people going to heaven or hovering over their loved ones while undergoing surgery are entirely uninteresting -- they only provide dull confirmation of what intuitive sense of the world they already had. Such theological insouciance has always left me dumbfounded. This notion that after we die we are condemned to wander the earth as disembodied entities, which can do little else but turn on and off TV screens and rumble around in ice boxes and cause lights to flicker and chairs to squeak, is either not true at all, it seems to me -- or else it is the most significant piece of information in the universe!
Those ghost-hunters and spirit-seekers who will see in all this only an admission that my skepticism is motivated at least in part by wishful thinking, and not by pure reason, have entirely got my number. I am guilty as charged. So long as they are willing to admit that their own belief in the afterlife stems from similarly dubious and subjective ideological motives, then we can talk.
My most recent encounter with the spirit world began on Friday night (Halloween) when instead of being out and about with the other creatures of the night, I was staring with a set grimace at a blank Word document on my computer screen, trying to finish a paper that was due at midnight. I eventually decided, however implausibly, that it would help me to accomplish this if I listened to NPR's various Halloween specials online, which is when I encountered this story of a "haunting," from the show Radiolab.
For those of you who have better things to do than compulsively follow links to ghost stories and try to poke skeptical holes in them, I'll give the important details. The narrator-- a friend of Radiolab's host -- inherited a house from his parents after losing them both to cancer. The place obviously retained a lot of painful associations for him, yet when he tried to refurbish it and sell it, he was afflicted by nightmares that insisted to him that he was somehow betraying his parents' memory. After some of his friends told him they thought the house might be "haunted," he reluctantly asked a group of psychics and ghost-hunters to pay it a visit, in the hope this would somehow help to overcome the impasse of his grief. The psychics proceeded to make an audio recording of the night's investigation, which is played in clips over the course of the Radiolab episode. The tape of the investigation culminates in what sounds very much like a "conversation" between the narrator and his deceased parents, who are communicating through the medium of three flashlights on the floor. We can hear the lights clicking on and off, and apparently in response to his questions.
Look, I know the rest of you are far too worldly-wise to feel even a prickle of goose-flesh in response to this, but I found the flashlight episode genuinely eery (as well as moving -- in light of the content of the dialogue between the man and his parents). I shifted into Lovecraftian terror-mode at the sight of something not immediately accountable by naturalistic means, and I began trying to think of possible explanations of the flashlight's behavior.
Perhaps, I thought, the psychics were listening to the conversation through the walls and had some remote means of turning on and off the lights. Obviously that sort of trick would not be beyond the reach of our technology. Yet I dismissed this possibility almost as soon as I had thought of it. We tend always to discount explanations of paranormal phenomena that impute duplicity to others, which is part of why we are so gullible with respect to them. It is not that the trickery could not physically be done -- it is that we are all hard-wired to trust people, to believe what they are saying -- so much so, that it actually seems a simpler and more likely scenario to us that our entire conventional naturalistic understanding of the universe is faulty -- than that a couple of people who call themselves "ghost hunters" would perpetrate a cruel and deliberate deception on someone.
My feelings of sublime terror at this point were not conducive to my writing a paper, so it was lucky for me that the good people of Radiolab eventually came to my rescue, at the end of the episode. Maybe over on commercial radio they would have left me dangling the rest of the night on the precipice of cosmic uncertainty, but listener-supported media always gallops in during the last five minutes to provide the "scientific explanation."
And here it is, in all its embarrassing banality: the ghost-hunters use only those brands of flashlights that turn on and off by unscrewing the top. Apparently, one begins by unscrewing such a flashlight just enough so that it gently flickers out. Then, as the metal in the bulb cools from losing the electric current, its wiring contracts to the point that the electric connection is eventually reestablished, causing the light to turn back on. The heat from the reestablished connection will then once more expand the internal wiring, which will break the connection, and so on. Soon a cyclical pattern has established itself by these means, in which the light flashes on and off again every twenty or thirty seconds. Radiolab provides more detail about the flashlight trick here, as well as a link to a Youtube video in which a German guy recreates it and offers a mechanical explanation of how it works. He is convincingly and admirably precise.
My doubts about whether or not the heating and cooling explanation sufficed to explain the encounter were further quieted, moreover, by listening to the original story again. I caught an interchange this time around from the investigation tape that takes place between the narrator and one of the psychics-- he is asking her why she is not turning the flashlight all the way off, but rather is trying to wiggle the bulb around so that it just barely flickers out. "It's easier for the spirits to communicate through it this way," she says, "because it only takes a small amount of energy for them to turn it on when it's not all the way off." Uh-huh.
The technological aspect is worthy of your procrastinator's attention. If you want to spend twenty-one minutes listening to a dispassionate German voice explain the principles of conduction, instead of writing a paper, this is a place to get it. But I'm more interested, ultimately, in the psychological aspects of how this all works. Because obviously, the narrator was able to convince himself-- and us -- that he was actually conversing with the flashlights, despite what must have been their essentially random behavior. Equally plainly, the "paranormal investigators" were able to drill through the narrator's instinctive skeptical resistance sufficiently in the first place to get him to stand alone in a room, talking to three flashlights on the floor in the hope that they would be activated by the spirits of his dead parents. All of that happened, scientific explanation or otherwise.
Psychics establish credibility with (and credulity in) their listeners by seeming already to "know" things about them that the latter thought secret or private. The technique by which they do this is called "cold reading," though it might also be described as "fishing." The basic idea is that the psychic throws out various hints, the bulk of which are so general they could apply to virtually anyone. The listener picks up on these hints and applies them to himself, in light of his own unique experience-- a narrative-building process that the psychic encourages along the way with a lot of positive reinforcement (nods and "Yes, that's what I see too," and so forth). If the psychic's hints are having no effect on a particular listener, meanwhile, he or she can always backpedal or rearrange details, until the look on the person's face changes from one of disdain or confusion to one of frightened recognition. ("The spirit had brown hair, a sort of darkish blonde, you could say, blonde, really, light blonde when he was standing by the window," etc.)
Once one knows something about the technique, it rapidly becomes clear from listening to the Radiolab episode how the "investigators" are setting to their task. When they first show up at the house, they tell the narrator of the story that they saw an "old woman" staring at them out of the upper-floor window. She had "long-gray hair" they say (rather like 90% of all old women throughout history, no?) and was wearing "one of those old-timey dresses" (another safe guess, on their part -- "old-timey" being a relative and subjective term). They are plainly fishing for the memory of a deceased grandparent or great aunt or some recollected elderly female out of family or local lore -- the chances that any given person will have some "old woman" somewhere in his or her past are pretty solid, after all. Our narrator, however, does not nibble on any of this bait, at least not yet. No matter: the psychics only just got there, and there is a whole netherworld of other spirits still to choose from.
At one point in the session, later on, the psychics announce that they have to go down into the basement to talk to the spirits, and that the narrator can't come with them just yet, for unspecified reasons. They return a few minutes later, immediately announcing that they had spoken with two ghosts while they were downstairs. (Funny how the spirits only communicate through flashlights when the rest of us are present -- yet five minutes alone with the psychic and they're ready to corporeally manifest. It must be that they are shy around people like you and me, sensing our doubting hearts. Perhaps, like fairies, they require us to smack our palms together and chant that we really do believe in them before they will mess with our electricity and lighting-- which would explain how the "Clapper" works, I suppose.)
One of the basement ghosts was "a girl," the psychics say, and the other was "a bald man." The chances that the narrator had either a deceased female friend or sister or niece or a deceased male relative with hair loss, once again, are pretty great -- and if the narrator hadn't responded to the "bald" detail, the psychics could always rearrange it -- not entirely bald, though, just a kind of thinning gray hair..., etc.-- or else they could reveal that there had been another spirit standing close by, who had a full shaggy mane at death. In this case, however, the narrator finally bit on one of their hints. When told about the "bald man," he immediately prompts the psychic with a further question: "Did he have my build?" The psychic cautiously posits: "Yeah, sort of like yours, but not exactly the same." But she has already primed the pump quite sufficiently. All she said was "bald," and he fills in the other details on his own -- from this point on, all she has to do is agree with him. "If I showed you a picture of my father, would you be able to tell me if he was the man you saw?" asks the narrator. Take a wild guess what she says in response to this, once she sees the photograph.
At the end of the Radiolab episode, one of the hosts asks the other whether the explanation of the flashlight trick means that the psychics were all "con artists." "No, no," says the other, firmly. But I don't see that this response can be anything more than diplomacy. I can imagine, perhaps, that the "paranormal investigators" might themselves actually believe in the reality of the flashlight communications. But there is no similarly sincere way in which you can disappear to a different floor of a house for several minutes and then come back fishing for details about a person's dead loved ones so you can pretend you just met and spoke to them. "Con" might even be too kind a word for this act of rooting around in a person's darkest thoughts and memories, and then manipulating what one finds there to convince him of your supernatural powers. Our skepticism is an emotional armor-- something we put on to protect ourselves from people who want to deceive us. The psychics in this story are seeking out weaknesses in this armor-- in the narrator's case, they find them in his feelings of acute guilt and grief about the loss of his parents, and they exploit them. "Violation" might be a more apt term than "con" for what they are doing.
I will say that even the second time through, however, the flashlight conversation retained for me an eery and unsettling power. Even with our German friend's explanations in hand, I find it uncanny how the flashlights do seem to be responding to the narrator's questions and commands. For instance, it seems extraordinary that the "Yes" flashlight should light up every time the narrator needs to hear "Yes," and the "No" flashlight responds so rarely -- a point remarked by one of the Radiolab hosts. Yet it is the narrator himself who designates as the "Yes" flashlight the first one that flashes on. It becomes the "Yes" one because it answers first and goes on to answer most frequently, and not the other way around. In the many instances when the flashlights do not respond to a question directly on cue, meanwhile, the narrator simply repeats his question over again until they do so.
What the dialogue between the narrator and the flashlights really testifies to is the extraordinary human capacity for drawing connections between what are in fact discreet, even random phenomena. As Joan Didion writes in The White Album, "We live entirely, [...] by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience." The narrator of the Radiolab story managed to create an entire drama -- poignant for us as well as revelatory for him -- out of nothing more than the periodic flickering of an inanimate light.
This tendency of ours as a species to create meaning out of randomness was made plain to me two days ago, while I was plotting this post in my head. It occurred to me that if I was going to write about the way we as a species are apt to stitch together random sounds and images into stories that end up becoming valuable for us in themselves, then I ought to experiment myself with trying to engage the sounds of inanimate nature in conversation. I listened carefully for a sound I could talk to, and identified a thumping noise I had never noticed before, coming from somewhere in my building. Deciding that it would do as well as anything, I imagined myself talking to it. (Thump) "Okay," I said, "I hear you. If you can hear me, make a sound." (Thump) "Okay, so one thump will mean yes. Agreed?" (Thump) "Good. Now, have we met before?" (Silence) "Have we met before, I asked?" (Thump). You get the idea.
This exercise proved much less interesting than it would if I had genuinely set out from the start to talk to a spirit, rather than with something I believed to be a random and naturalistically explicable noise in my building. I got bored with it and didn't hear any thumping for the rest of the day.
Then, Saturday night, after I had finally turned in the much-resented paper and fallen asleep, I was woken up at two in the morning by someone ringing the buzzer for my apartment. You have to understand, that buzzer fills me with more than enough apocalyptic terror when I hear it in the middle of day when I'm expecting it to ring -- sounding as it does like a banshee mating with an air-raid siren. Rung at random at two in the morning by some unseen hand that had disappeared by the time I came downstairs to look for it, it was certain to keep me awake for another hour at least.
And then, as I lay in bed trying to fall back to sleep, I suddenly heard the thumping again. I hadn't noticed it all day, but now it was back. The circumstances under which I had first started thinking about that thumping, coupled with the weird coincidence of being woken up by an entirely different disembodied presence in the earliest hours of the morning, made it even harder for me to quiet my gothic imaginings.
I decided that if I could identify the source of the thumping, I could somehow neutralize its power and get back to sleep. I got dressed and started moving around the hallways of my building, following the noise. It seemed to get louder near the elevator shaft, but when I pressed my ear to the door, there was nothing. I thought it might be coming from the roof, but the noise was softest on the top floor. Sometimes it seemed to be coming from above me and to the left, but other times from below and to the right. All the while I had various spectral encounters with my few fellow tenants who were still walking the hallways in the middle of the night. I wondered if there were people in the rooms I glided past who were listening to that same thumping noise and telling themselves it was nothing -- and then heard our soft feet creeping by outside and shuddered.
I was close to giving up when I realized that the sound got louder and then quieter as I walked past the trash room. I opened the door and heard the sound unmistakably emanating now from the chute at the end of it. This chute has the sort of covering that one wrenches open by a knob, and I stared resistingly at it for a while, as it suddenly looked to me like a sort of Moloch's maw carved into the wall. When I finally yanked it open, I could hear the thumping loudly ringing up from the bottom of the chute, wherever that was.
Yes! I ran back to my room and took my jacket and tore outside to hop down two flights of stairs into the parking garage. I will find it and somehow make it stop! It was 2 AM the night after Halloween and I had spent the entire day with only my computer screen for company. There were limits at that moment to my capacity for reason.
Predictably enough, I suppose, I ended up two floors underground in front of a large, locked door marked "Trash Compactor." This was the source of the noise. I leaned against the door for a while and then went back upstairs to sleep.
My experiment in seeing if I could breathe narrative life into inanimate and basically random sounds had been more successful than I would have liked.
I disclosed at the beginning of this post some of my own subjective, self-interested reasons for not wanting to believe in spirits. It's the turn now of the believers to do the same.
It is very clear, after all, that people who defend in print the reality of ghosts or the afterlife, or the literal truth of the visions people have during Near Death Experiences, have personal motives they bring to their work (as we all do, let me be clear.) They may start out in each article with a plea for scientific objectivity; they may tell us that it is actually mainstream science that is being dogmatic and biased and arguing toward foreordained conclusions, whereas they are acting in a spirit of free inquiry by being willing to consider the possibility of supernatural phenomena; they may even insist that they personally have "no opinion one way or the other" and are merely presenting the facts "for your consideration"-- as Rod Serling says.
Yet one often needs only to scratch the surface of such people's writings to reveal the driving polemical impulses within. I've never seen any one of them that could make the case for magic or ESP or NDEs all the way through without at some point letting slip the mask of their neutrality and revealing the ardent true believer within. It doesn't even take them very long to do so, in most cases. Our friend from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Kripal, whose article about paranormal phenomena I blogged about last year, manages to make it through the first two thirds of his essay in a fairly restrained manner, and we almost believe for a moment the implicit claim that he does not have any strong metaphysical convictions at stake in this debate, and is merely suggesting a possibility to us that we might find interesting. But then, in the final portion, he rather abruptly opens the sluices. Here's how he represents what he takes to be the views of the desiccated secular intellectual culture he is opposing: by its lights, according to Kripal: "what religion is really about is nothing, since we are nothing but meaningless, statistically organized matter bouncing around in empty, dead space." Later still Kripal's gloves really come off:
"We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny."
One detects a similar progression from initial plea for critical empiricism to final declaration of metaphysical crusade over the course of a recent article about NDEs (Near Death Experiences) in Salon. Mario Beauregard, the author, begins dispassionately enough, but by the end he is warning us against "materialist scientists" who "cling to the notion that OBEs and NDEs are located in the brain," and telling us that:
"NDE studies also suggest that after physical death, mind and consciousness may continue in a transcendent level of reality that normally is not accessible to our senses and awareness. Needless to say, this view is utterly incompatible with the belief of many materialists that the material world is the only reality."
What is at stake in these debates for these authors, and for other believers in spirits and ghosts and NDEs? I would hazard a guess that it is a fear -- an entirely understandable and very human one -- that if life does not last forever, then it has no meaning. This, I suspect, is the possibility they most desperately wish not to countenance.
I hope that stated baldly in this way, however, rather than hinted at indirectly or implicitly, the fear loses some of its power. I hope we can begin to see that it relies on intuitions that may be very deeply-rooted in us, but that are not necessarily true, for all that.
The basic question-begging intuition behind the fear seems to be the notion that when something large and important is analyzed into its smaller components, it loses its reality in the process. Some schools of Buddhism teach, for instance, that there can be no such thing as the self, because our consciousness is plainly composed of an infinite number of discreet thoughts, moments, and feelings -- "thought-events," we might say -- rather than of one, continuous ribbon we could call "me." David Hume likewise famously remarked that when he tried to look inside himself for that "I" we all talk about, he came up only with individual moments of thought, that had no necessary connection to one another. The terror that scientific materialism inspires in many people takes a similar form. If my consciousness can be accounted for by chemical processes, the thought runs, rather than by means of an immaterial soul, then it is somehow less real.
A final related terror is the one I am most concerned with addressing in this post. It is the fear if our self or consciousness or soul is not temporally infinite, if it can be analyzed down into a finite and terminal lifespan that has a definite beginning and end, then it too has somehow lost its reality. Hence the need people feel for spirits and immortality.
All of these thoughts contain the same intuitive leap. Yet it is not clear to me at all that the leap is justified. Does the self really not exist, merely by virtue of the fact that it is composed of smaller units of thought and memory? Why, similarly, should consciousness be made any less real by being explained by chemical processes? The larger phenomenon does not cease to exist just because it is made up of smaller, constituent parts. Even if my consciousness is accounted for by chemical processes in my brain, it is still there, and will continue to be there regardless of how I conceptualize its origins. Jeffrey Kripal wrote above, we saw, that materialists think that "consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter." But these are actually two entirely distinct ideas, are they not?-- that consciousness does not exist, on the one hand, and that it is explained by material processes in the brain, on the other. It seems to me that it is only to the second of the two views that materialists are in any way committed. I have never heard a materialist say that consciousness "does not exist." I'm not even sure what such a sentence could possibly mean.
"[We are] told repeatedly [by materialism]," Kripal goes on, "that we are basically walking corpses with computers on top—in effect, technological zombies, moist robots, meat puppets." Described in this way, materialism is meant to seem self-evidently abhorrent. Yet apart from Kripal's vitriol, is there anything intrinsically bad about having a mind that can be accounted for in a materialist way? How often have we heard that materialists think our minds are "just" chemicals or circuits. But where, I ask, did that "just" sneak in? Is there any intrinsic reason why it should be there? On what basis is it taken for granted that a material mind is somehow less significant, less real, less valuable, than an immaterial and inspirited one?
So too, I don't see that life loses its meaning for all that it eventually comes to an end. I admit to experiencing the same terrors of mortality as other people, and I would be lying if I pretended not to share the cosmic anxieties that motivate people to believe in spirits. But I am not sure these fears follow any coherent logic, as compelling as I do find them. Still less am I convinced that the specter of meaninglessness, if it really is there, disappears any more for us if we posit immortality than if we do not. It is as hard for me, personally, to see the "point" of living forever, as it is to see the "point" of dying, and a good many people throughout history have been filled with far more horror at the thought of the former possibility than of the latter. "Sleep is good, death is better," wrote Heinrich Heine, "but best of all would be not to have been born at all." A lot of those Buddhists mentioned earlier would have been inclined to agree with him. It may at last only be one of those curious offspring of our language that we can even pose the question "What is the meaning of existence?" It is not clear at all what an answer to this question would look like, what form it could possibly take, much less what it would be. To provide as an answer to it that we will live forever as disembodied spirits does not seem to me to defuse its power.
The fortunate thing is that the onion does not cease to exist, simply for being made up of layers that can individually be removed. Just because it can be peeled into discreet elements, does not mean there never was an onion to begin with.
In the Radiolab story described above, the hosts eventually tell the narrator what they think actually happened in the room with the flashlights. They explain about the heating and cooling of the flashlight bulb, they send him the video of the German Youtube guy, and all the rest of it. The narrator of the original story is surprisingly unperturbed by this, however. He says that there had always been some sense in which he did not literally believe he had been conversing with his parents in that room. But he says there is another sense in which he still "holds on to the experience" of doing so.
The event does not appear to have lost its reality for him, by virtue of being naturalistically explained. Perhaps this is so because the important thing that happened for him in the conversation was the confession he made of his own feelings of guilt, and his realization in the process of confronting them that he was ready to let them go. He could see he was not actually betraying anyone by trying to sell the house. His parents would have wanted him to go on and have a life after their passing that was not defined exclusively by grief. It was okay for him to shed some physical ties to the past to make that possible. It did not mean he had ceased to cherish the memory of his parents.
All of that still happened in the room with the flashlights, whether the spirits of his parents were really there or not.
All of that still happened in the room with the flashlights, whether the spirits of his parents were really there or not.
Oddly enough, meanwhile, my own interaction with the trash compactor does not seem less real to me now that I know what being I was conversing with, for all that I realize trash compactors do not have thoughts and feelings.
If there is one consistent theme that emerges from various writing about paranormal encounters, it is that the natural human dramas that unfold behind them are often more interesting -- and more finally meaningful -- than the ghosts and the demons. Robert Gottlieb published a real treasure of an article last month in the New York Review of Books on the subject of Near Death Experiences, and in nearly every case he writes about, drawn from the multitudes of volumes he forced himself to read in preparation for the review, the story behind the NDE experience proves far more colorful and engaging than its paranormal elements. More interesting than the disembodied heavenly spirits that appear in Todd Burpo's Heaven is for Real!, in Gottlieb's telling, is another spectral presence hovering over the book: namely, its ghost-writer-- who, it turns out, was the same person who was responsible for Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, surely a book more terrifying and potent than the Necronomicon. The details that have emerged about Eben Alexander, meanwhile, since he published Proof of Heaven, are far juicier than anything he revealed in his much-hyped memoir about his journey to the beyond.
More seriously, Gottlieb tells us:
"[T]hough accounts of heaven tend to pall after one has read thirty or so of them, the real-life stories of the narrators are frequently absorbing and often moving. [...] Particularly moving is the account of Jeff Olsen in I Knew Their Hearts. He was driving, nodded off, and when his car plunged off the road, his wife and baby son were killed and seven-year-old Spencer was trapped but saved. Olsen’s account of his almost four months in the hospital[...] is direct, modest, and sensible. He doesn’t go to heaven, but on the first night, in terrible pain, he floats through the hospital and wanders down the halls, coming upon his own broken body. Because of Spencer he rejects the idea of suicide: ‘Having a child is like having your heart leave your body and walk around in the world…. I just didn’t know how to be there for him with my own heart still broken in so many ways.’ In a dream God says to him, ‘Choose joy,’ and eventually he repairs himself emotionally, becomes a successful advertising director, remarries, adopts two sons, lives a life. His book inspires, not through the God part but through his strength and fortitude as a man."
It does not seem to me that such human experiences would lose either their meaning or their reality for being explained within a naturalistic frame. Nor do they lose either quality, in my eyes, for being experienced by finite beings with limited lifespans, who were born at some point in the past and who, one day, will die.