August 22, 2013

Ghosts

An image of Zhong Kui, the vanquisher of ghost...
An image of Zhong Kui, the vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings, painted sometime before 1304 A.D. by Gong Kai. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Some atheists believe in ghosts. There is nothing in the definition of atheism that precludes belief in the existence of ghosts, spirits, demons, monsters, or any other entities besides gods. Atheism (i.e., the lack of belief in gods) does not say anything about the existence of ghosts, and so an atheist can indeed believe in them. How do I know that some atheists believe in ghosts? Several atheists have told me that they do indeed believe in ghosts. You can see a few examples in the comments on this post.

I do not believe in ghosts (or spirits, demons, angels, or any other supernatural entities). My reason for not believing in them is the same as my reason for not believing in gods: lack of evidence. My lack of belief in ghosts does not come from atheism; both come from skepticism. Having said that, I am not quite ready to conclude that belief in ghosts has nothing whatsoever to do with atheism. Besides skepticism, I think there might be a bit more of a connection.

What is a Ghost?

I suppose someone could say that they are using the "ghost" label to refer to a natural phenomenon (not supernatural in any way) like an energy field or something else we all know is real but just tough to detect without sophisticated equipment. But this is not what most people mean when they talk of ghosts, is it? For most of us, a ghost is a spirit, supernatural entity that rests on a critically important assumption: some aspect of what we call personality, mind, or soul survives death.

I do not believe in ghosts because I see no evidence that anything along these lines survives death. When the brain dies, whatever made the person unique appears to die with it. This is the direction in which neuroscience leads. There does not appear to be any mind, spirit, or soul that survives. With this in mind, there does not seem to be any mechanism through which ghosts could exist as disembodied entities retaining something of their former selves.

But I Have Experienced a Ghost!

I do not doubt that people, including some atheists, think they have experienced ghosts. I have had my share of strange experiences too. But I am not going to accept the existence of ghosts based on personal experience any more than I am going to accept the existence of gods based on personal experience. To the atheist who argues that his or her personal encounter with a ghost is sufficient to support his or her belief in ghosts, I must ask why the same courtesy is not extended to the religious believer. If we are going to dismiss their reliance on personal experience, why would ours be any different?

Is the atheist's experience of a ghost any more vivid, more real, or more meaningful than the religious believer's experience of his or her preferred god(s)? I doubt it. Through personal revelation, we may see a religious believer change his or her life. How many atheists do that in response to what they perceive as a ghostly encounter?

But Science Cannot Explain It!

Science has managed to explain quite well why people believe in ghosts, and it has managed to do so without postulating the existence of ghosts. The same is true for supernatural magic, psychic powers, alien abduction, and many other phenomena. We are pattern-seeking beings with imperfect pattern-detection systems. We make a number of predictable errors.

I would also remind the atheist who believes in ghosts that "science cannot explain x" does not mean "x is due to ghosts" anymore than it means "x is due to gods." That is, someone who wants to convince us of ghosts (or gods) needs to provide positive evidence of their existence rather than relying solely on negative evidence (i.e., science cannot explain x and therefore x must be supernatural).

But I Really Want to Believe in Ghosts!

You know what? I get that. It would be damn cool if ghosts existed. Who wouldn't want to communicate with one's deceased relatives? I love the idea of people who harmed someone and never faced punishment being haunted. And because ghosts imply some sort of afterlife, their existence would be fantastic news for all of us who wished our lives weren't so incredibly short.

Unfortunately, wanting something to be true does not make it true. Much of religious belief seems to be little more than wish fulfillment combined with fear of death. We do not let the religious get away with arguing that their preferred god(s) must exist because they really want it to. There is not much difference when it comes to ghosts.

Why Can't There Be Ghosts, You Close Minded Son of a Bitch?

In order for there to be ghosts, we would need for some unique part of one's identity (i.e., mind, spirit, soul) to survive bodily death. Based on the scientific data available to us, this seems highly unlikely. Perhaps we will discover some mechanism through which this could happen in the future, but we have little reason to view it as likely today. This strikes me as the primary reason that there cannot be ghosts, but I suspect there are others (e.g., the lack of reproducible encounters with ghosts).

And while I appreciate being attacked as close minded as much as any skeptic, especially because this is exactly what the religious do when confronted with their own irrationality, I must disagree. I am not closed to the possibility that there could someday be sufficient evidence to support belief in ghosts (or gods). I am operating as a skeptic and attempting to be rational. I see little reason to conclude that either ghosts or gods exist today.

This post originally appeared on Atheist Revolution. If you are not reading this via email or RSS feed from Atheist Revolution, it may have been stolen.

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