When TV show that introduces some spooky element wants to portray a character as "rational," the character says something like, "You know ghosts don't exist."

Why is dogmatically asserting this supposed to be "rational"? There is all sorts of testimony to the existence of ghosts, across many different cultures in radically different times and places. There is nothing wrong with being skeptical of such testimony: "Let's see the proof!" is a fine attitude. But that is a very different attitude from, "It is already known that no such proof is possible."

First of all, what about "can't prove a(n empirical) negative"?  "Empirical" because we can, I think, "prove" that, say, perpetual motion machines don't exist, since we can show they are impossible.  But no one has shown ghosts are impossible: how could they, when it is not even clear what, precisely, ghosts are supposed to be? If they are immaterial spirits, well, being immaterial, they might be beyond the reach of science. If they are some subtle energy released by a biological organism when it dies, perhaps we just don't know how to detect it yet.

It is good to be versed in the history of science as inoculation against the idea that whatever "science" currently deems "unscientific" will remain so for long. We detailed here how the idea of "rocks falling from outer space" was viewed by leading scientists as preposterous nonsense. Even more significant: to the foremost arbiters of what was scientific in the 17th century, Newton's theory of gravity was unscientific! It required "spooky" (i.e., ghostly!) action at a distance, something the followers of the "scientific" mechanical philosophy denied was possible. And in the twentieth century, we find Einstein rejecting quantum entanglement on a similar basis, again because of its "spooky" nature.

What the ghost issue comes down to is that a certain metaphysical view, reductive materialism, has, through propagandistic means, gotten itself associated with "rationality." And that despite the fact the following it consistently leads to the most manifest absurdities, meaning it is not rational at all!

PS: I don't "believe" in ghosts. I, personally, have never seen anything leading me to believe they exist. My attitude towards the idea is scientific: well, show me the evidence!


  1. I think many types of beliefs about ghosts reflect poor judgment on the part of the person who believes them: they are inordinately credulous. It’s like believing in get-rich-quick schemes about real estate in Florida. It’s not that Science has proven that you should not do that kind of investment. It’s just part of the toolkit of common sense for adults in modern society. That being the case, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to use disbelief in either as an example of particular personality type, although perhaps scientific/rational is not exactly the term for that type.

    Common sense could be wrong. I’m not an expert in investment vehicles by a longshot, so it’s possible that I’m missing out on some really great opportunities in Florida real estate. Same for ghosts that supposedly, for instance, show up floating over someone’s head in a photograph.

    Some people are inordinately credulous less because they lack the capacity for judgment but because they choose not to exercise it. My sister once told me that she believes in faeries without evidence because she wants to believe in them. I don’t exactly think that that’s how belief works, but there is something to willful ignorance and willful credulity.

    I have sometimes remarked, and I do believe, that all of the stuff of nightmares and scary folk tales are real … ghosts, demonic possessions, witches, vampires … but they are psychologically internal. That’s more than just metaphor. The person who feels like they are being possessed by a demon isn’t experiencing a metaphor. They’re experiencing something that comes from the depths of their own mind. This seems unbelievable only to people who don’t respect the power of the unconscious mind. If my hypothesis is correct, it means that there could never be any external proof that these things exist (i.e. apparitions in photographs), because they are not external.

    In the grand scheme of things, you’re quite right. Science might discover tomorrow that what we thought (with or without good reason) untrue today is in fact the case. As a Buddhist, I am apparently supposed to believe that hungry ghosts live amongst us, somehow part of the external world. Who knows, maybe scientists will discover evidence of them presently. No telling what we’ll know tomorrow.


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