Many people firmly believe in the existence of ghosts. According to Gallup, as of 2005, 32% of Americans believe in ghosts, or believe that "spirits of dead people can come back in certain places [or] situations."
So this is not at all a fringe belief; these are ideas that are widely subscribed to. Whether they're convinced by stories, photographs or videos of purported ghosts, or whether they've had ghostly encounters of their own, I'm going to argue here that this particular paranormal belief is unjustified because the evidence provided is unconvincing and ample alternative explanations exist. I'm also going to take a look at some ghost stories to see if they're impressive enough to warrant belief, and finally, I'll point out the flaws in arguments made in defense of this position by people who believe in the existence of ghosts.
We're going to start out with what seems like everybody's favorite reason to believe in ghosts: some sort of spooky encounter they've had with what they believe to be otherworldy spirits. According to Pew Research, as of 2009,
"almost one-in-five [Americans] say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts"
and this is not a surprising statistic when you consider how many people have a story that they're eager to tell when the topic comes up. Now I obviously can't say for certain that all of these stories are inaccurate for one reason or another, because I wasn't there, so what do I know? But what I can do is present a number of alternative explanations and reasons that we should doubt that these accounts are convincing evidence.
One such reason is that people can simply lie; there's no law of the universe that forces everybody to tell accurate stories. Maybe they're lying because they think it's funny, maybe they're a sociopath who gets off on deceiving people, or maybe they're doing it for attention or financial gain.
Another possibility is that people have unintentionally exaggerated the details of the story. There has actually been research done which shows that the longer the period of time since an unusual event occurred, the more exaggerated and inaccurate will be our recounting of this event. The particular research that I'm referencing examined accounts of the Indian rope trick. As Wiseman and Lamont write in their 1996 Nature publication,
"We hypothesized that if eyewitnesses were exaggerating their accounts [of the Indian rope trick] over time, one might expect a positive correlation between the impressiveness of the account and the length of time between performance and report."
And here we see a scatter plot which confirms their hypothesis, plainly showing that the longer the period of time since they witnessed the trick, the more extraordinary and impressive their account of it.
As Wiseman and Lamont conclude,
"this analysis strongly suggests that witnesses' testimony had become significantly more elaborate over time."
I would imagine that the same trend could take place with ghost stories, and it's no surprise considering the fallibility of human memory—although it is interesting that the fidelity of the story consistently degenerates in the direction of making it seem more impressive. We could speculate about why this would be the case, but it's important to note that nothing about this seems to indicate deliberate deception by the people telling the story; instead, it seems that this is just the way that our memories get distorted over time through no fault of our own. So if I tell a person that I doubt their ghost story is completely accurate, and they say, "Oh, you callin' me a liar?", the answer doesn't have to be yes; your memory of the event could simply have become exaggerated over time.
Not only that, but even if the events as they describe them took place exactly as they claim, the person could simply be mistaken about what explains the events. What one person interprets as a ghostly encounter might be viewed by another as perfectly explicable without invoking the supernatural.
To see this principle in action, let's take a look at a ghost story that somebody once presented me with:
When she was much younger, her and her friend had snuck out of their parents' homes at night in order to just sort of roam around in aimless, youthful rebellion. As they were crossing this bridge, they saw a man who was sitting near the edge while fishing. When they looked back after crossing the bridge, he was nowhere to be seen; therefore, he was a ghost, she concluded.
When I first heard this story, I was so dumbfounded by her gullibility that I was the one who looked like I'd seen a ghost. What kind of a conclusion is this for such a mundane event? There was a guy sitting somewhere, and when I looked back later, he wasn't there anymore?
Maybe he got up and moved? Or maybe he fell into the river and drowned—ironically only then returning to haunt us as a ghost? Or maybe he wasn't a ghost, but instead, he was just a regular man who—in a quixotic twist—was quickly abducted by aliens when your back was turned? Nothing about this account screams out to me "He was a ghost!", and leaping to this conclusion on such flimsy evidence strikes me as embarrassingly irrational.
If we can explain something without resorting to the supernatural or paranormal, why invoke these things? "Huh, looks like one of my T-shirts is missing. Maybe I misplaced it?—or maybe Satan stole it when I was sleeping?"
And even if we can't explain something, why not just say that? Why say: "I can't explain what happened; therefore ghosts?" This does not strike me as a logical conclusion. And when you say: "I can't explain what happened; therefore ghosts," aren't you really saying: "I can't explain what happened; therefore, I can explain what happened?" What kind of irrational thinking is this?
Another explanation for how people could be genuinely mistaken in thinking that they vividly saw a ghost is hallucinations. This is one explanation that people sometimes laugh off, but it's worth remembering that about 1% of the population is schizophrenic, with one of the symptoms being either auditory or visual hallucinations.
And even if you're of sound mind, you can hallucinate for other reasons: As Carl Sagan points out in The Demon Haunted World, these can include sleep deprivation, alcohol withdrawal, drug usage, sleep paralysis, emotional stress or sensory deprivation. Considering all of these potential causes, it's a wonder we don't all hallucinate much more often!
I distinctly remember, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, waking up in the middle of night and vividly seeing several blue, ghostly decapitated heads hovering at the foot of my bed and circling around one another. Was this an encounter with the paranormal, did a gaggle of ghosts decide to pay me a visit on that one particular occasion for just a few seconds, or was my brain simply misfiring and continuing to briefly produce some of the visual images that it does while we sleep and dream? I know what my conclusion is, and even at that young age, I was never tempted to think that those were ghosts that I saw; I was just like "that was fuckin' weird" and I went back to bed.
I think it's a telling observation that alleged ghost encounters almost always happen at night. I can't remember who it was that made this observation, but I think it might have been a comedian or somebody giving a lecture on the subject who pointed out that you never hear a ghost story where a person's like "Well, I was at the park in the middle of the afternoon, I was eating some ice cream and there were people all around, then suddenly, bam!, a ghost appeared right in front of me and said 'Boo!'" No, it's almost always a person who's at home or in some spooky location in the dark when it's quiet.
I don't think this is a big surprise, because we're more prone to being in a fearful state at night-time. And considering all of the dangerous predators that are out there in the world, especially on the African savanna that our ancestors evolved on, it makes sense to be more on your guard and alert at night, in a state where you consider that the sound you just heard, the movement you just saw, just might have been caused by something that could do you harm.
Since we don't really have to worry about being mauled to death by lions in our second-floor bedrooms, could it be that some of us apply this same mindset to other perceived foes like ghosts rather than vicious predators? Considering their prevalence in popular culture, considering that many of us watch terrifying movies about people being tormented by these ghosts in the dark, I think this is very likely.
It's also very telling that ghost stories are usually told by exactly the kind of people who are already inclined to believe that sort of thing. Some people are just wired differently; some people are more inclined to rashly conclude that they've encountered a ghost, and nowhere does this become more clear than when reading or listening to some first-hand ghost stories.
Let's look at another example, this one featured in an article on ghost stories from Cosmopolitan.
"I was living with my sister and she went away on holiday for a week so I had the house to myself. I was heading to bed and turned out all of the lights. I was laying in bed then I heard what I thought was a guitar being played so I head downstairs to see what the noise was.
I found my guitar laying on the ground and picked it up and put it back on my stand. I go to head back to bed and again I heard the guitar being played. Head back downstairs to find again the guitar lying on the ground.
Why was this spooky? It was the 11th anniversary that my dad has been deceased, he loved playing the acoustic as much as I do. Could. Not. Sleep. We also do not own any animals so I don't know how the guitar could have ended up on the ground twice."
Perhaps the mere thought of this has you gaping in astonishment, but I'm just not that impressed by this story. I heard my guitar being played and it was moved? So maybe somebody played your guitar and moved it? Could somebody not have been playing a prank on you? He claims that he had the house to himself, but maybe his sister gave a friend a key or something so that they could screw with him while he's alone? Just one search on YouTube reveals an endless supply of ghost-related pranks—and these are just the ones that people cared enough to record and upload to YouTube.
Notice that he doesn't even claim that he saw a ghost; he just heard the guitar being played and it was moved. It would be one thing if walked downstairs and right there in front of him, plain as day, was this ghostly figure levitating in the air while strumming his guitar; but the fact that he didn't see who or what was responsible means that alternative explanations clearly exist.
Maybe it's something much simpler like he has a shitty guitar stand or he did a half-ass job of putting it back up there? Have you ever set something down or had it leaned up against something and it looked like it was stable but then it ended up falling over a few minutes later? Maybe something like that happened here?
He says "I don't know how the guitar could have ended up on the ground twice." So why are we concluding that a ghost is responsible, then? We're told that the event coincided with the anniversary of his father's death, and this is supposed to be the icing on the cake that seals the deal and makes clear that a ghost was responsible. Could that possibly be a coincidence? Could the people playing a prank on you not have taken note of the upcoming anniversary? And why the 11th anniversary? If anything, you think his ghost father would've done it at the one-year or ten-year anniversary, but nope, he's like "11 years, perfect, let's go play the guitar for a few seconds and then set it down and run away when my son comes to investigate."
What kind of a weird communicative approach is this? Why not keep it simple andd just hang around to have a conversation? "What's up, son? I'm a fuckin' ghost now." If your ghostly speech is somehow restricted, why not try sign language, or just grab a pen and paper? Or if, for some strange reason, you're not visible, you can't speak, and all you can do is play a guitar, why not at least try to communicate using Morse code through the guitar? "I'm just gonna strum a few notes and then get the fuck out of here?" What kind of a deadbeat dad is this?
And what an interesting role reversal this is: This appears to be the first recorded instance of a ghost being terrified of a person. "Oh shit! Here he comes! Run away!"
Let's take a look at another story from that same article:
"About 20 years ago, my sister, her husband and I had were driving back to her house, going just past a truck stop when an old man stepped out in front of us. Her husband, who was driving, slammed on the brakes and we all started freaking out because the old man had disappeared.
My sister and her husband jump out, thinking they'd just killed the man, but there's nothing there. Cop comes along and a few truckers wander over and tell us that it's an almost weekly occurrence. Apparently there'd been an old man who'd lived and later died in the house across the road who used to go over to check his chickens every night before bed."
There's one element to this story that makes me think it's bullshit: Some truckers wander over to tell you that it's an almost weekly occurrence? If these are truckers who travel all across the country, and if they're stationed at a truck stop, presumably because they're just resting before they continue driving, how would they know that it's a weekly occurrence? It's not like they live at the truck stop: It's a truck stop—not a truck live-here-for-a-fucking-year.
But setting that aside, here's the problem with ghost stories: When they cross the line from banality and enter the land of the unbelievable, we find that they literally are unbelievable. If true, yes, this would be an impressive account, but all we have to go off of is her word that this is an accurate recounting of the events. Given that this allegedly took place 20 years ago, and given what we know about the fallibility and mutability of human memory, I'm extremely skeptical that things took place as described—and that's assuming that she's being honest in the first place. This is just some random person on Reddit telling their story; maybe they just fabricated the entire thing out of whole cloth for upvotes? As Carl Sagan once put it, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
So if more is required for others to believe than first-hand testimony, what kind of evidence would satisfy me? Presumably I'd just nit-pick photographic and video evidence as well? You're damn right I would. But if you think about it, it wouldn't be that hard to prove the existence of ghosts. All that would be required is their cooperation.
Based upon the stories that we hear, presumably ghosts are aware of their surroundings, they know which people are nearby, and they can communicate with these people, at least in certain ways. So why not hover on down to the nearest scientific laboratory, reveal yourself, and willingly subject yourself to all kinds of scientific testing and scrutiny? Why not have just a small handful of ghosts permanently stationed at a location like this so that anybody who is skeptical can travel on down there and have their doubts eliminated?
Wouldn't there be some ghosts who are frustrated at the idea that people like me deny their existence? Wouldn't it take just one of them to prove me and all other skeptics wrong? If they can pop in front of cars on the highway, why not pop in front of the car of a scientist and say "What's up, bitch? I'm a ghost?"
Why do ghosts apparently never hang around? Why is it such a recurring theme that the ghost pops up out of nowhere and them vanishes almost immediately? Why do we never hear a story where a person's like: "Yeah, so there I was when this ghost appeared, and he just stayed there and hung around for like seven hours while I videotaped him, interviewed him, invited some friends over to take a look, and even called down the local news crew to confirm his apperance."
No, it's almost always some fleeting image that disappears in an instant, which I think lends credence to the idea that these could be hallucinations or that something else occurred and because it was such an ephemeral blur, these people are misinterpreting the event as a ghost sighting.
Now I'm not closed off to photographic or video evidence; the problem for me is the endless fakery combined with all of the naturalistic ways that we can record or photograph what appears to be, but isn't actually, a ghost.
When it comes to outright fakery, we know that people have admitted to doing this or been exposed as doing this for reasons that can include fun or financial gain. There are all kinds of different ways that people can fake a picture or video of a ghost, and these include programs like Photoshop or imaging techniques like double exposures.
And even when there's no fakery involved, oftentimes there's some sort of mistake or aberration with the photography or video recording that makes it look like a ghost has been recorded when really there's a much more prosaic explanation. Sometimes there's a complicated error with the recording software, sometimes there's a lens flare or reflection, or sometimes there's simply an insect or piece of dust or pollen on or near the lens of the camera.
Now this doesn't mean that every photo or video of a ghost is inauthentic; just because some are doesn't mean that all are. It could very well be the case that genuine photos and videos of ghosts exist. But to my knowledge, no genuine footage has been presented which is so utterly clear and convincing that the only possible explanation is a ghost.
I also see no sound theoretical basis to believe that ghosts exist, and that's because I see no reason to believe in an afterlife. We have a pretty solid understanding of what regions of the brain are responsible for which aspects of cognition, and damage to these brain regions produces the expected cognitive defects. So it seems to follow from this that if the entire brain dies, then our cognition will die with it, and thus, there's no reason to believe that our consciousness or personalities will survive the deaths of our brain and travel the earth as some sort of amorphous being.
With all of that said, I am not fundamentally closed off to the idea that ghosts could exist. If ghosts could be subjected to scientific scrutiny, if we could discover where certain ghosts hang their hats, and we could reliably send independent teams of researchers to study them and confirm their existence (almost as if we're studying a newly discovered organism), I would be open to changing my mind.
And when I say teams of researchers, I don't mean conmen filming a TV show and engaging in endless fraudulence in order to capture something exciting; I don't mean groups of people who are already devout believers in ghosts who interpret every trivial sound or event as caused by ghosts; I don't mean charlatan mediums who come in and just make bald, unsupported assertions like "I can feel his presence"; I mean actual, objective scientists conducting actual scientific inquiries.
Something else worth noting about ghost stories is the extremely varied nature of their appearance. In some cases, it's just a spooky mist. Other times it's a vaguely human-like silhouette. Then in other cases, you see the apparition vividly—with a face, a torso, limbs, etc. Why would there be such variation and inconsistency in the appearance of these ghosts? Sometimes the ghost doesn't even appear; you just hear a spooky sound, or perhaps an object of yours gets moved.
I think the starkly divergent nature of these ghost sightings supports the idea that many different things could explain these sightings, and that the word "ghost" is used as an umbrella term, as a catch-all label that we apply to our ignorance.
"Whoah, what was that diffuse, amorphous thing I saw? It must've been a ghost. What was that sound? It must've been a ghost. What did I just see appear before my eyes and then vanish? It must've been a ghost."
Considering that, in almost all cases, it could have been something else, concluding that it must have been a ghost seems unjustified.
Now with that said, perhaps some people truly have seen ghosts. Maybe their experience can't be explained by anything that I've proposed: hallucinations, mistaking one thing for another, or having your memory distorted over time. You might be utterly convinced from your experience, but how am I expected to be equally convinced by an experience that I didn't have? I wasn't there; I didn't see what you saw; I can't confirm whether you're telling the truth or not. It might be good enough for you, but when we're talking about something as outlandish as ghosts, it's not reasonable to use first-hand accounts as third-party evidence, and it's not reasonable to expect us to adopt this belief on the basis of your say-so.
Let's finish up by taking a look at some arguments made in an article entitled: "10 Most Compelling Pieces Of Evidence That Prove Ghosts Are Real." Prepare to be amazed, ladies and gentlemen!—not by the quality of the evidence, but by how credulous and irrational these authors are. As they write,
"We may not have concrete evidence for the existence of the supernatural, but they have no evidence to the contrary, either."
What a silly point to make. It's not up to us to disprove the supernatural; since you're the one that believes these things and is telling us that these things are true, it is your responsibility to provide convincing evidence.
And I'm not saying that I'm absolutely certain that the supernatural does not exist; my claim is that there's no good reason to believe that it does, and the supernatural is certainly not necessary to explain the world around us. But if you come to me and say that ghosts exist, it's not my job to disprove this claim; you're the one presenting the claim, and thus, you should be the one presenting the evidence. A person can reasonably say that the evidence presented is not convincing enough to justify belief in a thing without having to disprove the existence of that thing.
"Oh, you don't think Bigfoot exists? Well can you disprove his existence? Can you prove to me that Santa Claus does not exist? Can you prove that I wasn't abducted by aliens?" The person asking these kinds of questions has the burden of proof completely backwards.
They go on to write the following:
"[While] these paranormal researchers have yet to reach definitive conclusions from their studies, they are getting ever closer, and they couldn't keep looking if they weren't onto something, right?"
Actually, wrong: they could keep looking if there was nothing to this belief. You could make the same argument about any ridiculous claim. Would these flat earth believers keep looking for evidence if they weren't onto something? What about these alien abduction researchers, these theologians, or these Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts?
The fact that certain people are investigating something doesn't mean that thing therefore must exist. If detectives are investigating whether I strangled the author of some foolish article out of sheer frustration, that doesn't automatically make me guilty.
And really? Paranormal researchers "are getting ever closer?" By what metric? What breakthroughs have been made in the field of paranormal research lately? (They sure as hell don't reference any in the article—but perhaps that's because there's such an overwhelming flood of evidence that they just didn't even know where to begin?) Can I learn about these groundbreaking findings from reputable scientific journals, or must all of these be presented to us in the form of heavily-edited reality TV shows with suspenseful music playing in the background?
As they continue,
"The sort of scary stories shared around a campfire belong to an oral tradition . . . that's been around for eons, and the appearances of ghosts within these stories down the years is rather telling. . . . Why would we continue to tell these stories - in books, films, TV, games, comics, even those campfire tales - if there wasn't something to them[?] . . . We'll tell you why, dear reader: because ghosts are real."
People regularly tell a story about a certain thing; therefore, that thing exists? No—it doesn't work that way. This author is simply confused: Nothing paranormal is going on here; all the boos he's been hearing have been in reference to the quality of his arguments.
Why are ghosts so prevalent in books, movies, TV shows, games, and comics? Maybe because there's an audience for this sort of thing? Maybe because there's money to be made from scaring people with stories like this? You could make the same point about zombies; does this mean that zombies exist?
Yes, there's a long tradition of people telling these stories, but maybe these people think something paranormal happened and they're simply mistaken? As I've pointed out, people can be mistaken in a number of different ways: They can mistake an ordinary phenomenon for an extraordinary one, or they can misremember and exaggerate the initial event. On top of that, people can lie and they can hallucinate, and they can present to us video or photographic evidence which can be faked or which can be explained without invoking the paranormal. Considering these things and considering the quality of evidence that has been presented thus far, I don't think we have good enough reasons to believe that ghosts exist.