In October 2013, the results of a then-recent Pew Research poll had been making the rounds, which stated that 18% of Americans believe they have actually seen a ghost. Arriving just in time for Halloween, the study addressed the persistence of belief in the supernatural among adults in the 21st century, despite the absence of scientific theories about such phenomena to match these beliefs.
University of California at Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer noted at the time that, “most American adults in the 21st Century say that they believe in life after death and in the devil,” while more than one-third believed in similar things like haunted houses.
The numbers of those who count themselves among “believers” remains in the distinct minority, as one might expect with the passing of time, and furtherance of scientific thought, rather than attitudes that are purely faith-based in their leanings. The application of methodical, scientific approaches to understanding nature and its various phenomena have cast light into the darkness of the once-unknown; with the recessing shadows, more about our universe is revealed, and little space seems to have remained for those things once deemed “supernatural” to hide.
The idea of a “ghost” has always remained conjoined to themes that include death and the afterlife, and for what would appear to be good reason: a ghost, after all, has always been taken to represent some apparitional form that exists apart from the physical body of an individual. More specifically, the ghost represents the soul or spirit of an individual, and logic would imply here that only in bodily death might the natural separation of a spirit from one’s physical form occur. More mysterious, however, is the presumed process by which this soul, upon separation from the body, becomes capable of manifesting visibly (and/or audibly, in some instances). It is this manifestation that forms the distinction between the mere concept of the soul, and the apparitional form which we call a “ghost.”
Amidst these general preconceptions about what a ghost actually represents, scientific study of the subject has been relegated mostly to anthropological circles, in which the ghost is equivalent, again, to the broader concept of the soul, and the soul being represented as some essence of an individual which is carried through life within the body, as a sort of “spirit vessel.” Further, the religious concepts of body, soul, and the afterlife generally hold that the spirit is actually the true self, and that the body or vessel is merely a physical representation of this disembodied, everlasting “soul-self” during our time on Earth. Within this mechanism of beliefs surrounding the idea of a soul, the anthropologist aspires to understand “ghosts” as being an extension of superstitions and ritual beliefs, which stem from the broader soul concept. Additionally, the “ghost” is found here to have further ties to traditions involving ancestral worship, and other religious beliefs that incorporate themes where the soul may exist apart from the body.
When addressing the subject of ghosts, seldom is the interpretation of any purported apparition removed from this religious and anthropological context, in which a “ghost” is almost exclusively taken to be the disembodied form of a deceased individual. Thus, few instances exist where we seek to explain the purported ghostly manifestation as some natural phenomenon, resulting from physical forces and in accordance with the universal laws observed by modern science.
Arguably, if no hard scientific proof of ghosts exists, this is for one of two reasons: either no such phenomenon exists, or our approach to studying it is inherently flawed. Hence, the simplest conclusion offered by science is that the likelihood that no phenomenon exists outweighs the likelihood that some existent phenomenon has been poorly studied.
However, let us assume, for a moment, that the less likely scenario were actually correct—that some phenomenon might exist after all, but we have simply failed in our efforts toward studying it. If this were the case, then why might we have failed? Or what element, in our present attitudes pertaining to this subject, might have actually helped it to elude us?
The first, and perhaps most obvious assumption attributed to ghosts is the notion that they are remnants of the soul, which linger after the bodily death of an individual. Before trying to “prove” that ghosts exist, I would ask here, what evidence can we first present for the presence of the soul?
It is true that the soul itself, like a ghost, is primarily identified as a concept, rather than a measurable quantity. Thus, its existence is recognized, even to the open-minded, largely based on cultural traditions and religious beliefs that have helped established an approximation, and nothing more: our belief in ghosts relies purely on our best guesses as to what a ghost might be.
It could be argued, therefore, that trying to explain a concept like a “ghost” as an extension of an equally unexplainable and scientifically unprovable concept (here, we mean the soul) does us few favors, at least in terms of trying to understand whether any physical phenomena is indeed present when one claims they have seen a “ghost”. In other words, if we wish to look at ghosts as being possible evidence of some physical, as-yet unexplained phenomenon, we cannot attribute their mode of appearance to a concept that is equally relegated to the realm of the supernatural.
Our aim here is not to disprove or doubt altogether the existence of a soul; it is merely to assert that a soul can no more easily be qualified, in a physical sense, than a ghost can; and hence, one uncertainty cannot be better understood merely by pairing it with another uncertainty of equal measure.
This illustration begs a further question: how can we understand the concept of a ghostly apparition, if not based on our archaic preconceptions that ghosts are simply spirits of the dead? The fact is, ghosts very well may be souls of the departed, for all we know. However, that presumption has done little to further our knowledge of apparitions, and their pervasive presence in mythologies around the world.
One clue as to the possible nature of what a “ghost” really could be does emerge from within the archetypal elements present during the classic ghostly encounter. This has to do with the fact that a ghost, by definition, seems to represent the appearance of an individual, or at very least, their quasi-physical likeness, in a past-state of existence (note here that I refrain from using the term “deceased individual”, for reasons which I will clarify in a moment). These apparitional forms nearly always represent a being as they once appeared, rather than how they might appear in the present, or future, for that matter. Of great importance is the fact that the ghost is presumed to appear only after death of that individual has occurred, which is a hallmark of the mythos surrounding ghostly encounters.
It is true that this is most often the case in alleged observations of ghosts: that a person must be deceased for their apparitional form to appear. However, this is not always the case; and since most of the data constituting “evidence” of ghosts is based on anecdotal observation, it won’t hurt here to offer discussion of a separate, though similar phenomenon, and one similarly relegated to the realm of conjecture.
In his later years, William Thomas Stead, the nineteenth century newspaper editor and renowned investigative journalist, took an interest in spiritualism. Stead was known to have held court with the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle (with whom he had, on occasion, also been duped by fraudulent mediums), and had even predicted that his own demise would occur either by hanging, or by drowning; Stead was, in fact, one among the many passengers who went down with the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Following his death, Stead’s daughter Estelle published a few written works dealing with her father, throughout which she included a number of Stead’s observations about the spirit world. Among them, she quoted an account Stead had written years earlier, in which he discussed a friend of his who possessed the unique ability of “projecting her phantasmal double, sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes without any conscious exercise of volition.”
“It is by the aid of the double,” Stead had written, “and by automatic handwriting with living persons, that there seems to me the best chance of solving the abysmal mystery of personality.”
More of interest to our present discussion of ghosts, what Stead discussed of his friend in this instance appears to bear similarity to what, today, might be called bilocation, or the apparent ability of an object or individual to appear simultaneously in two separate locations.
Stead went on to discuss the importance of bilocation in relation to the study of ghosts as follows:
“Ghosts of the dead are important, no doubt, but they are from the Other Side, and often seem to experience great difficulty in translating their thoughts into the language of earth, and not less difficulty in adjusting their fitful apparitions to the necessities of the psychical researcher.
“But with the double it is different, for there is no chasm to be bridged in its case between the living and the dead, and with automatic communications from the living, when all allowance has been made for disturbing influences, cross currents, and the intruding influence of the medium’s consciousness, it affords by far the best clue to the mysterious, subconscious region in which most of the phenomena of the Borderland either arise or come into our knowledge.”
The conjecture here proves little more than mere claims of ghostly manifestations would offer “proof” of the afterlife; proof, at least, that would satisfy a physicist, chemist, or biologist. What it does achieve, however, is that it offers us a new conjecture about a phenomenon similar to ghostly manifestations, though without the apparition being recognized as a deceased individual.
One could make the argument that these two phenomena—ghosts and bilocation—are entirely unrelated, as Stead himself assumed in the passage above. However, with Stead’s assessment, the reason for this distinction is clear: it was based upon the presumption that a ghost is the apparition of a dead person, and only a dead person, whereas a “double” is, in essence, the apparition of a living individual… but is this distinction truly a necessity?
Probably not, if we observe again that the origins of the cultural notion of a “ghost” stem from religious beliefs, which are appended to deeper concepts of soul and spirit. We must admit to ourselves that such suppositions have been with us for so long, that they may indeed present fallacies that have been nearly impossible to overlook. Here, if we are to truly understand what a ghost may be (in the event that they exist at all), we must challenge ourselves to look at the phenomenon differently, as well.
If we were to consider that each phenomenon discussed here are constituent parts of a broader observation to be made about nature, then perhaps we could also consider the following: the notion that ghosts must represent the presence of a deceased person may be a logical fallacy, since anecdotal data also exists that describes similar phenomenon like bilocation, where the individuals or “apparitions” observed are people that were alive and well at the time of the observation.
Having suspended our disbelief for long enough to take such things as ghosts—whatever one may interpret them to be—as well as their similarity to alleged phenomena like bilocation, we must face the glaring problem with each of these: there is no physical proof of either phenomenon, nor is there any apparent way to account for them by means of physical experiments. Our very best data to support the existence of either of these things is the anecdotal information we have about them, expressed through the testimony of experiencers. That, while certainly worth something, still fails to satisfy the experimental sorts of requirements in order to qualify for being good science.
So where does all of that leave us when it comes to “ghosts”, what they may be, what we can learn about them, and whether the subject is indeed worthy of scientific attention? At present, the field would seem to be extremely divided on the subject, although the vast majority of serious scientists wouldn’t stop to consider serious research into ghosts, since our general attitudes and beliefs about what a “ghost” is supposed to be, as outlined in this essay, contradict observable laws of our universe. In other words, for a “ghost” to represent some energetic expression of any kind, let alone a deceased individual, they would have to disobey the laws of thermodynamics in doing so, something that has not occurred in our observations of the physical universe since the beginning of scientific inquiry. It seems a pretty fair estimate, then, that a “ghost” certainly isn’t anything akin to what they have long been supposed to be; the modern physicist would take this one step further, and say that since they appear to be impossible, they don’t exist at all.
I do wonder, in conclusion, if outright dismissal is the best line of thought to be applied here. We have cultural traditions from all over the world that involve the concept of “ghosts” having existed for centuries, as well as modern reports from witnesses that describe remarkably similar phenomena that may occur today. Perhaps we shouldn’t close the book on ghosts entirely; but there seems to be little merit in attempting to address the subject through the lens of our old attitudes and beliefs.
In this case, as with every institution of a “good” scientific theory, we need one that predicts a number of observations accurately—based on data, rather than faith or belief—using a basic model consisting of arbitrary elements to help guide these observations. Our theory must also correctly, and definitely, predict future observations of the phenomenon in question.
So the question at the end of the day, rather than being “do ghosts exist”, should instead be this: “If ghosts represent any valid, tangible phenomenon, what might account for their existence, and can this—whatever it may be—occur in keeping with a good scientific theory?”
At present, it seems we are still searching for our “good ghost theory”.
Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests include history, science, current events, cultural studies, technology, business, philosophy, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. With his writing, he has covered topics that include controversial themes such as artificial intelligence, government surveillance, unconventional aviation technologies, and the broadening of human knowledge through the reach of the Internet. Micah lives in the heart of Appalachia near Asheville, North Carolina, where he makes a living as a writer and musician. You can find his podcasts at GralienReport.com and his books at Amazon.com