How to demonstrate ghosts are real in one easy step

Imagine a conversation between two people.  We’ll call them Bill and Frank.

  • Frank claims: “God is real.”
  • Bill claims: “God is real.”
  • But Bill disagrees with Frank’s claim;
  • and Frank disagrees with Bill’s.

The solution to this simple problemette is that Bill and Frank define the word “God” in different ways. Bill, a fundamentalist Christian, worships the abrahamic god Yahweh.  Frank is a pantheist, and worships a spinozan god who might also be called “nature”.  The apparent contradiction in their conversation arises because they both use the word “god” to refer to the object of their worship, even though the concepts they are expressing are not equivalent.

It is easy, especially in western culture, to assume that any reference to “god” refers to the character as he appears in christian mythology.  A christian told me once that the commandment “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” forbade me from defining the god I do not believe in.  I briefly attempted to define god anyway, only to be told that the god I described was a “very small god” and therefore not representative of the god she believed in.

I learned from that experience and understand now that it isn’t necessary for me to define god.  When arguing with a believer, I try to remember to ask them to define their god before I respond to any claims made about him/her/it.  Often I’ll forget and assume they’re referring to Yahweh… it’s usually a safe bet, but one day I’ll get tripped up.

Last year I was involved in a conversation with a skeptic, who insisted that ghosts are real.

Over the course of the conversation it became clear that when he said “ghost” he was referring to something completely different to everybody else.  By “ghost” he meant “the reported experience of sensing the presence of a person or animal which cannot be physically accounted for”.  Not, as the majority of people would likely have it, “the spirit of a dead person”.

He argued that pointing out the dearth of credible evidence supporting the existence of spirits unjustifiably devalues the experiences of people who claim to have seen a ghost.  Rather than undermine them, we would be better to engage with them and try to help them better understand what they have experienced.  To this end, we should redefine the word “ghost” as described and then shift the public understanding of the word to be in line with the new definition.

In this sense, we would reposition the term “ghost” to be more like the term “UFO”.

“UFO”, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock for sixty years, is short for Unidentified Flying Object.  To claim you have “seen a UFO” is to do no more than suggest you have seen an object in the sky which you were unable to identify.  One possible explanation for what you saw is that aliens are covertly visiting Earth, but it is by no means the only explanation–you may simply have seen an aircraft of human manufacture, with which you were not familiar.

My problem with this approach is that language depends for its function upon a broad consensus regarding the meaning of words.  If we don’t agree on the meaning of the words we are using, it makes it difficult (or impossible) to have any sort of meaningful discourse about the topic at hand.  When an eyewitness claims to have seen a UFO, few of them (unless they’re being deliberately pedantic) actually mean they saw something in the sky they couldn’t explain.  What they are claiming is that they have seen an alien spaceship.

There is a distinction to be drawn between the description of a scientifically unexplained experience and the suggested paranormal explanation for that experience.  Although “UFO” started life as a description, it is now very much an explanation.  The term has become so loaded that it is now inextricably linked with the concept of alien spaceships – and it is in this way that the word would likely be understood when used in conversation.

When a person sees the image of a person they know could not have been present, then claims “I saw a ghost”, they are not describing their experience–they are attempting to explain it.  There are other explanations, such as a hypnagogic episode, hallucination, mistake, prank or even just a plain lie.  I don’t think it is meaningful to also refer to these as “ghosts”, even though they can explain the same phenomenon.

Like Bill and Frank discussing god, using the term “ghost” in this way will lead only to equivocation problems.  Ghosts are real only when we change the definition of the word “ghost” to refer to something real. I’m not very comfortable with the idea of redefining the word “ghost” just so I can tell somebody that they exist.  Substitute the words “pixie”, “bigfoot” or “loch ness monster” for “ghost” if you’re struggling to understand why.

The chances are good that the person I’m talking to will not have an equivalent understanding of the words I’m using.  If that person is not relating the words to the same concepts I am, then at best I’m telling them nothing.  At worst I’m contributing to the very culture of credulity and magical thinking that, as skeptics, we seek to dethrone.

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