With Halloween fast approaching I thought it would be fun to do a post on ghosts and how it relates to atheism. Occasionally someone might bring up ghosts/spirits/poltergeists however you want to arbitrarily define it) in an attempt to prove the existence of an afterlife and by extension negate atheism. I must admit, after I deconverted, ghosts were something I struggled with for a while. My main line of thinking was “Well so many people claim to see them and have proof, and it spans all cultures, so there must be something to it!” I didn’t take me long to realize this was just another form of the ad populum fallacy. After all, lots of people believe in invisible men in the sky, and that spans all cultures, doesn’t mean they’re right.
At the heart of the concept of ghosts/spirits/etc is the idea that your consciousness somehow can survive your bodily death. It could be in the form of an imprint on an area or place, or even an autonomous, thinking, disembodied force able to interact with the physical world. This is also related to the religious concept of a soul, the idea that you as a consciousness will survive your physical death and be able to experience either the joy of heaven or the torture of hell. It goes without saying that god(s) created the spiritual world and thus the souls of people just like they created the physical world. Ghost stories have always been popular, but have really taken off with the advent of photography, the internet, and television shows like “Ghost Hunters.” There are scores of people who are adamant that they’ve had personal experiences with ghosts or “the other side.”
So here’s where it all breaks down. To the best of our scientific understanding, consciousness is a by product of your brain. It is the result of the physical workings of your mind, the chemicals, the neurons, etc. Everything that makes up you as an entity exists because of the grey matter between your ears. When you die, and that grey matter turns to mush, everything that makes you “you”, turns to mush as well. Your personality, your thoughts, your emotions, everything is gone forever. There is nothing spiritual or supernatural about your body. Your thoughts and emotions, the result of chemicals in your head, cannot “imprint” themselves on anything outside of your body, no matter how intense they may be. I know that doesn’t sound as fun or exciting as a world filled with spirits, but to the best of our knowledge, that’s reality.
Another way to look at it is this: To the best of our current scientific knowledge, there is no evidence to support the existence of supernatural entities. “Oh, GP, but they’re supernatural, that’s why you can’t detect them!” Well if they interacted with the physical world, they would fall within the purview of science, but since they don’t, their possible existence is a mute point. Without any evidence to support the existence of god(s), we can assume they don’t exist. Without gods there is no “spirit realm”, no spirit realm, no spirits. This combinded with the above mentioned facts of consciousness lead me to conclude that ghosts/spirits/etc do not exist.
Fun side story: I actually put this to a test of sorts a few summers back. I took a friend and we went out to the local cemetery at midnight. The cemetery was a few hundred years old and supposedly was haunted. I was really nervous at first, my body was instinctivly looking for anything that could be interpreted as an other worldly spirit; however, I kept reminding myself of the above mentioned facts. After a while I regained complete control over my nerves and I wasn’t bothered one bit walking amongst rows and rows of dead. I could have been anywhere for what it was worth; I only wish I could see a little better. My friend on the other hand was scared out of her mind. She kept thinking there was something around the corner, or behind the tombstone. She was really surprised by my calm and marked indifference. She said something to me that really stuck with me: “You’re a proper atheist aren’t you?” A proper atheist? I guess. I don’t really know how to take that. Does she mean a rational atheist, confident in my reasoning ability, as opposed to an irrational atheist? (And yes, there are irrational atheists)
“So GP, what about all the eye witness accounts people have, claiming they’ve interacted with ghosts? How do you explain away that?” While it might appear at first that there is a mountain of evidence supporting people’s interactions with ghosts, if you look closer it’s all superficial. Do I doubt that a person had an experience they couldn’t explain? Of course not. I do, however, doubt that it was a disembodied consciousness of some kind. I think social conditioning has a lot to do with people reporting experiences they can’t explain as encounters with ghosts. When you don’t know what something is, your brain starts searching for possible explanations. If your culture has the concept of ghosts, it’s easy for your brain to latch onto that as the easiest possible explanation. I think this is further supported by the fact that the concept of ghosts varies from culture to culture. A person in Japan might report different characteristics of a ghost when compared to a person in the US. The whole thing is really a non sequitur. “I can’t explain X, therefore I can explain it! It was a ghost!”
What’s really fascinating is that as we are learning more and more about how the human brain works, scientists are able to manipulate it with magnets! This video is a little dated, but the research is on going. Watch how scientists can recreate out of body experiences, feelings of other presences, or even being transported to hell, simply by bombarding parts of the brain with magnetic waves!
There is no doubt that people all around the world have genuine experiences that are extremely real to them, but they aren’t experiences with disembodied spirits. So what are some real world implications I take away from this? Well besides the fact that the human brain is an amazing and complex organism; claims that some place is haunted doesn’t phase me. Just like back in that cemetery, I know nothing is there. When you’re aware of this in a situation like walking down a dark street, you’re less likely to jump to rash conclusions about the noise you just heard. This is not to say that one need not be careful walking around shady places at night. Ghosts may not exist, but other people do. At least you can take comfort in the fact that, unlike ghosts, other people bleed just like you.