Apparitions, ghosts, and mediumistic communications
I have recently been asked by several people about my views on so-called apparitions, ghosts, and spirit communications through mediums. This is certainly a fascinating subject, so I think it is worthwhile to discuss how I map all this onto my philosophical views. I will organize the discussion below into five parts: a summary of my general philosophical views as they apply to this subject; what I think is true regarding the many theories advanced by those interested in the subject; what I think is not true; my own interpretation of the evidence; and then some final commentary.
My general philosophical viewsAs most of you know, I hold an Idealist stance: I believe the most logical and parsimonious interpretation of reality is that all of nature is in mind, including the human body; mind itself being the sole irreducible ontological primitive. I have argued elsewhere why I think there is sufficient empirical evidence to discard the notion that the brain somehow generates mind. As such, the dissolution of the body represents merely the dissolution of an image in mind, not of mind itself. Further, it is my position that space-time is a phenomenon of mind. Life in space-time, as such, is a kind of collective, consensus dream that multiple differentiated segments of the broader fabric of mind – that is, multiple individual conscious beings – partake in jointly, somewhat like in the movie Inception.
To me, the human body-brain system is the image of the process by means of which an individual conscious being partakes in the collective dream of space-time. Think of it in terms of some analogies: The image of the process of combustion is fire; the image of the process of blood coagulation is a clot; the image of the process of sudden high-energy electrical discharge is lightning. In an analogous way, I think of a live organic body as the image of the process of an individual consciousness partaking in the collective dream of space-time.
What I do believe regarding apparitions and mediumistic communicationClearly, I believe that mind itself persists upon physical death. I also believe it is possible that some form of individualized mind, as a differentiated segment of the broader fabric, persists upon physical death as well. Since mind, as argued above, is not generated by the brain, the dissolution of the brain does not imply the end of mind. The dead body is merely an image of something a particular segment of mind has stopped doing, which persists as an 'echo' in other segments of mind, as I discussed here. Given all this, it is fair to say that I am a proponent of the hypothesis commonly referred to as 'survival.'
Now, the most parsimonious notion is that there is only one, continuous fabric of mind, which differentiates itself so to create the appearance of individuality. I once tried to illustrate this with a topological metaphor, which you can find here. This avoids the inelegant, unreasonable, and inflationary notion that mind arose irreducibly countless times in nature. In this context, all differentiated segments of the fabric of mind – each one corresponding to an individual conscious being – are fundamentally one; in the same way that all the waves of an ocean are fundamentally one ocean in movement. This entails a complete interconnectedness at the most fundamental level of reality. It is thus conceivable that, through the broader fabric of mind that unites them, an individual consciousness that is no longer associated with a body (that is, a deceased person) can resonate in some way with another individual mind that is alive in space-time. Michael Larkin illustrated this cogently here. To put it in simpler and more direct terms, I believe it to be conceivable that the consciousness of a 'dead person' can, in some form, communicate with the consciousness of someone alive. This can be called mediumism and, as such, I grant potential validity to mediumism.
What I do not believe regarding apparitions and mediumistic communicationI do not think that the consciousness of a dead person can inhabit or otherwise interact physically within space-time, even if temporarily, as in the traditional conception of ghosts. The reasons for this are various. First, as I said above, I think the partaking of consciousness in space-time is a process that has an image; an image which we call a physical body. To expect consciousness to partake in space-time without a correlated physical body is like expecting combustion without fire; or coagulation without clots. The body simply is the image of the partaking. Second, the idea that there is a more subtle but fully-functional 'copy' of a physical body (that is, a ghost) that survives death and can pop into, and interact physically within, space-time seems to render the physical body entirely redundant. If we fundamentally are immortal ghosts that can watch sunsets, push tables around, and communicate in regular language, all without a biological body, then why the heck do we have a body to begin with? The notion that nature would come up with such unfathomably contrived redundancy seems illogical and beyond inelegant to me.
Based on a similar rationale, I do not think that disembodied consciousnesses (that is, 'discarnate spirits', 'dead people,' whatever term you prefer) can think or communicate in language. Language represents a very particular, linear way to organize the flow of thoughts; that is, the flow of the oscillations of mind. When mind organizes itself so as to think in language, I believe the image of such organization is what we call a human brain. Note that I am not as much saying that 'a human brain is necessary for language' (though that is a useful metaphor) as I am saying that, when mind organizes itself to flow according to the modality we call language, the result of that organization is what we call a human brain. Do you see the subtle difference?
Therefore, if an individual consciousness is not organized in the form of a human brain, I do not think that its thoughts (that is, its oscillations) can be articulated in language form. By definition, a disembodied consciousness is not organized in that way, so I do not think that it can communicate in language either. Nor does it need language to convey meaning, since locality constraints are more-than-likely not in effect in the after-death state, as I discussed here.
The phenomenology reports of some very observant and thoughtful people who claim to have had contact with disembodied consciousnesses (like dead relatives or friends) seem quite consistent with the view I expressed above. Consider, for instance, Anita Moorjani's very observant and precise commentary on her Near-Death Experience below:
At the 30:48-minute mark she says: "I encountered my [deceased] father..." At first sight, many people would think of this as a meeting with the 'ghost' of a dead person. But then she immediately goes on to qualify that encounter as something much more like what I am describing above: "...because it was as though I became his essence; I understood him." Clearly, she didn't meet a ghost inhabiting space-time; she became the essence of her father, in the way differentiated consciousnesses can 'tap' into each other's oscillations through the broad fabric of mind. Such encounter does not take place in space-time; it does not take place within the consensus dream we call physical reality.
At the 43:06-minute mark she goes on to say: "It's interesting because there is no language, you don't speak. It's like you just understand; there's just the knowledge." Again, this is consistent with my postulate above that a disembodied consciousness will not 'think' in language form, but communicate by a direct, largely unfiltered sharing of mental contents. Overall, Anita's description of her NDE seems to be entirely and precisely consistent with my philosophical positions on the nature of reality.
A source often cited for evidence regarding the reality of apparitions and survival is Erlendur Haraldsson, an Icelandic academic who has investigated cases of apparitions and communications with the dead for over 40 years now. Haraldsson has amassed a file with thousands of reports of such cases, and publishes extensively. Although, taken individually, each of Haraldsson's cases is nothing more than anecdotal evidence (as he acklowledges), taken together they are very indicative of a real phenomenon taking place.
My interpretation of the evidence
Haraldsson published a book this year, called The Departed Among the Living, which provides a comprehensive overview of his life's work in the field. It is, one could say, Haraldsson's most definitive pronouncement on the matter thus far. The book is bursting full of testimonies of people who appeared to have seen, heard, felt, or otherwise perceived ghosts of the departed. Most of the cases occurred when the witnesses were awake and performing daily routines, so many of the apparitions are very suggestive of ghosts interacting physically within space-time, even if temporarily. What do I make of this, given what I said above?
Well, as it turns out, Haraldsson himself has already worded my own views on the subject in a very cogent way. I will take the liberty to quote a passage below under non-commercial, fair educational use provisions. The passage is the very opening of Chapter 10, titled Who or What is the Source of the Apparitional Experience? Therefore, there is no sense in which this quote can be taken out of context. The emphasis is mine:
We have mentioned two possible explanations for apparitions. Either encounters with the dead are created by the minds of the perceivers, or the dead are making us aware of them by creating a sensory image in the mind of living observers ... If the latter theory/explanation is true, ... it is easiest to imagine that the deceased person creates a perception in the mind of the perceiver. We find a similar phenomenon in hypnotism ... the perception can be so real that the perceiver experiences it as an outer physical stimulus ... There can hence only be a cognitive or telepathic connection between the living and the dead. The deceased moulds [sic] the perception in the mind of the living person. It appears that such a perception can range from sensing an invisible presence ... to the perception of an outer physical reality just as with any other sensory perception we know of.Clearly, Haraldsson is not granting reality to quasi-material, ghost-like bodies inhabiting and interacting in space-time. He is stating that the apparition events occur in the mind of the perceivers, not in the so-called 'outer world' of consensus space-time. In other words, the apparitions are not part of the collective dream of consensus reality. Indeed, Haraldsson cannot escape this conclusion, for his files contain cases that directly contradict the ghost interpretation of apparitions: cases where the dead appear as a photograph on a wall (case no. 5033), or as a ball of fire (case no. 7003), or even as a floating jacket without a body (case no. 2210). Naturally, as a scientist, he will not selectively ignore evidence that does not conform to a particular interpretation of the data; he will, instead, seek the most economical interpretation that fits all validated data.
In all fairness, Haraldsson does go on to discuss what he calls the "third explanation": that, and I quote, "the deceased person creates or materializes in some inexplicable way a physical form." (p. 69) But he quickly concedes that his entire set of data provides no support for this alternative, and that one has to go back to the 19th or early 20th centuries to find case reports that suggest it. He acknowledges that "such material phenomenon have [sic] rarely been seen around mediums since then." (p. 69) Candidly, he also acknowledges that reports from this early era are difficult to consider valid, because "later some unscrupulous men managed to produce what appeared to be similar perceptions with tricks alone." (p. 69) My own view is that, if one needs to go back to the turn of the 20th century to find evidence supportive of a certain interpretation of a phenomenon that is supposedly happening all the time, then one simply does not have a case for such an interpretation.
Here is what I think is going on in authentic cases of apparitions and mediumistic communications, where the information conveyed is verified to be veridical: There is indeed a contact with a disembodied consciousness, but not a manifestation of that disembodied consciousness as a ghost in consensus space-time. The communication happens as a resonance of thought through the very medium of mind, the most fundamental level of reality. It takes place outside of space-time and is not in the form of language. Instead, it is in the form of a direct sharing of pure subjective ideas and feelings, as Anita Moorjani described in the video above. It is only after the communication that the perceiver's consciousness retroactively translates the subjective meaning perceived into a storyline and images that make some sense according to ordinary concepts and language. This can take place, for instance, as an overlay of the image of a dead person onto the actual physical scenery, or as a semi-automatic wording of an otherwise wordless intuition or feeling. In both cases, in my view, it is the perceiver's mind that architects the storyline, while the underlying meaning, or impression, or intuition may indeed be an authentic, veridical communication.
That the unconscious mind can seamlessly and autonomously convert pure meaning into recognizable and concrete images and words is well-established in depth-psychology since the time of Freud and Jung. Such process is entirely transparent to egoic awareness, which thinks that the images, words, and storylines created are literally true, in the sense of being actual physical stimuli. To say that the psychologists who came up with such notions are unaware of how concretely the phenomenon is experienced is naive: Jung himself used to 'see' and 'hear' an autonomous psychic complex of his unconscious mind, which manifested to his ego as a winged being ('Philemon') who used to 'walk' with him in his garden while they 'talked.' (See Jung's biography Memories, Dreams, Reflections). Yet, despite his own dramatic experiences with apparitions and communications with the dead (one of which Haraldsson makes a point of recounting in his book), Jung did not think those apparitions where actual ghostly manifestations in consensus space-time.
I think that any valid communication with a disembodied consciousness must necessarily entail a subtle (perhaps practically imperceptible) shift in the state of consciousness of the witness, which renders her more open to psychic influences. In other words, it is the embodied consciousness that must temporarily and partially free itself from the locality constraints of space-time so to gain access to a frame of reality that allows for the communication. It is us, metaphorically speaking, that 'need to go to the dead;' not the dead to us. They cannot 'come to us' without our (unconscious) cooperation because being in space-time entails taking upon ourselves a number of constraints and 'filters' that insulate us from the broader reality of mind. It's like putting on blinders. We isolated ourselves in the process of partaking in the consensus dream, so we cannot expect those who left the dream to come to us on their own (unless, of course, they rejoin the dream, a process that has the image we call 'birth'). Expecting otherwise is, in my view, as unreasonable as someone who puts on earplugs and proceeds to complain to his wife that he cannot hear what she says. "Dear, would you please speak up? I can't hear you!"
When discussing the potential validity of a reality that transcends the physical, scientists and philosophers are often restricted to evidence in the form of phenomenological reports. In other words, they have to rely on what people say. In such cases, it is a sound practice not to patronize the witness. After all, it is the witness who is in the best position to describe what she witnessed, not the researcher who is interviewing her. Fundamentalist materialist scientists often commit the fallacy of thinking they know better than the witness what was actually witnessed; which is, of course, preposterous.
Some further commentary
But it is also a naive fallacy to believe the witness to be in the best position to interpret what was witnessed. Interpretation requires a capability to model, something that depends on a deep understanding of science and philosophy. It is unreasonable to expect ordinary witnesses to do that. The problem is that witnesses often pass interpretation for observation. For instance, when a witness says "I've seen a ghost!" that is already an interpretation. It is up to judicious researchers to look past the haze of interpretations and extract from the witness what was actually observed (for instance: "What I've actually seen was a very realistic image that corresponds precisely to the looks of a dead relative of mine"). It is also up to qualified people to then interpret those observations according to a broader and logical framework.
When communications with apparitions are validated as far as the veracity of the information received, some argue that the simplest explanation is simply to take everything at face value: that is, that ghosts are real. For instance, imagine that someone reports to have heard the ghost of her dead mom tell her where some lost keys were. Imagine also that, thereafter, the lost keys are found exactly where described by the supposed ghost. Then, some people claim that the simplest explanation is simply to acknowledge the reality of mom's ghost (It knew where the keys were!).
The notion that the simplest explanation of a phenomenon is what it appears to be at face value is preposterous; it entails an embrace of intellectual laziness and lousiness. If such notion were valid, we would still believe that the sun orbits the Earth; after all, every human being on the planet will see that as the face-value explanation for the day-and-night cycles we all witness every day. Take that for consensus!
You see, it is true that the simplest explanation is preferred in science. But what constitutes the simplest explanation has nothing to do with what the phenomenon appears to be at face value, or even with what relates best to familiar concepts and notions. The idea of a ghost interacting in space-time sounds very familiar, for it is a verbatim copy of another very familiar notion: people and their behavior. Yet that has nothing to do with simplicity in the way it is meant in science and philosophy.
The simplest explanation is that which requires the lowest possible number of new ontological assumptions, while still explaining the observations. Postulating autonomous ghosts in space-time requires a mind-boggling number of new ontological assumptions: some kind of matter that can't be detected by normal means; some kind of energy that can't be detected by normal means; some kind of biology that is unknown; contrived laws of organization that are yet unknown; means of interaction with regular matter that can't be detected by normal means; etc. It is ludicrous to claim this as the 'simplest' explanation for apparitions.
Yet, none of the power and meaning of apparitions or mediumistic communications is lost if the explanatory framework proposed above is correct. Consciousness and individuality still survive death; communications with the deceased are still possible; information can still be validly received and verified. These are the key elements of meaning for those inspired by cases of apparitions and mediumistic communications in their spiritual journeys. And they are all not only preserved, but validated through a logical and internally-consistent explanatory framework that does not need to invoke ghosts interacting physically in space-time.