Wow. I sat down just to write a short blog entry and ended up going crazy. In brief, this started out as a post about ghost hunting and self-deception and then somewhere along the way got out of control. But I wrote it, and I think it’s interesting, and along being an award-winning, internationally renowned novelologist & board game afficianado, I’m a big skeptic, which is somewhat odd for a human being in general and a fantasy novelist in particular.
Bottom Line: I wasted way too much time writing this to just let it go. So maybe if you’re really bored, you can read it. Or not. It’s your call.
I should be writing. I’m behind in my latest manuscript, and I’d like to get it done soon. But it’s late. I’m tired. And so in an effort to fool my brain into thinking I’m productive, I’m going to write a blog entry instead and then go to bed.
As any regular reader of these posts knows, I’m a skeptic. In particular, I think ghosts and the paranormal are complete bunk. Nonsense. Balderdash. Foofurall. You get the idea.
Still, I find myself watching “reality” ghost hunting shows in whatever form they appear. There’s the pseudoscientific approach of shows like Ghost Hunters & Ghost Lab. There’s the supernatural evil approach of shows like Paranormal State & Extreme Paranormal. There’s the scaredy cat, run from spooky noises style of Most Haunted & Ghost Adventures. The style may differ a bit, but the message is always the same. Ghosts are real, and these folks have proof.
Sort of. It all depends on what you consider “proof”. If a weird sound caught on garbled audio recordings or a shadow you can’t readily identify qualify as “proof”, then they’ve got you covered. If you want bleeding walls, geniune apparitions, or even a single levitation or bent spoon, then you’re outta luck.
So let’s just assume for a second that there are no such things as ghosts and that the paranormal is just a figment of our collective imagination. I know. It’s a stretch, a leap of faith. So many people believe in ghosts, have had unexplained encounters, have experienced the paranormal on a personal basis. They can’t all be fooling themselves. They can’t all be mistaken, can they?
But what if they are? What if the spooky feeling we get in a darkened room is just a trick of our paranoid, reptillian brain? What if cold spots are just cold spots? What if EVP is just our fevered intellect trying to make sense of confusing sensory experience? And what if every scary “true life” ghost story you’ve ever heard, seen, or read is either a lie or a mistake?
That, to me, is scarier than any ghost or goblin.
My theory on human behavior (which I assume is hardly original and has probably been thought up ages ago by people far smarter than me) is that most of us are incapable of accepting the possibilty of self-deception. Not just in ourselves, but in everyone. Especially anyone we trust or who seems trustworthy. We believe people can lie. We know people can lie. Because we lie. All of us. All the time. Most of these are harmless, and that’s no big deal. But we do know that people can lie and do so regularly.
But the idea that someone might think they’re telling the truth and just be wrong is different. It’s not something we like to think about. On a primal level, I think it’s because we have to trust our senses because, for the most part, they keep us on track. It’s my sense of sight that lets me see the words I write right now, and my fingers feel the keys as I type. I don’t usually walk into walls. I know if my milk has gone bad after a taste. And while I have a lousy sense of smell, if something catches on fire, I’ll usually smell the smoke. Without our senses, we’re just a lump of fat squished in a stumbling, bumbling cage of meat.
But let’s talk about something deeper than just a trust of our senses. What we’re really worried about is trusting our judgment. Because without judgment, how can we really trust anything. A failing of judgment is what separates fears from phobias. If you get put off by spiders, you’re normal. If you huddle in the corner and shriek at the mere sight of one, then you’re not. If you believe that Jesus loves you and going to church is good for you, you’re normal. If you think Jesus loves you and wants you to kill French Canadians, you’re not.
We do understand crazy people because there are enough examples. Extreme, bizarre, and unconventional behavior distinguishes itself in the looney category. It’s weird, sometimes unsettling, but since it’s clearly looney, it’s no big deal. If you’re best friend came to you and said he was King of Atlantis and was preparing to wage war on the USA with his magic spatula, you’d probably back away slowly.
But what if your friend told you they saw a ghost? Not so easy, is it? Because even if your friend is mistaken, they’re not really acting crazy. Until they start blowing themselves up or drinking poison or wrestling bears for kicks. Then they cross a clear line. It says, “This person is unstable, confused, and dangerous”. And it’s easy to identify.
But when I watch the ghost hunting shows, I find myself thinking more and more that these people are just a little looney. They have convinced themselves of something that isn’t there. Perhaps it’s because they place too much faith in their senses and the senses of others.
Rarely in these shows does the possibilty of self-deception ever come up. The usual course of investigation is to ask yourself if someone or something you know caused the phenomena (I use the term loosely). Then you ask if someone is faking it. But hardly ever is the question asked, “Are we misinterpreting this data?”
Watch a ghost hunting show. Really. Do it. Just once. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts (and even if you do). And notice how rarely the participants ever suggest this possibility.
Because to believe that is against our natures. More importantly, to believe that is to question our judgment at its core. If ghosts are not real and merely a shared self-deception of most of the terran species, even otherwise perfectly sane and functional human beings, then all bets are off when you think about it.
Most everyone on these ghost hunting shows seems normal. They are normal. In most everyday situations, they function fine. The Ghost Hunters are plumbers with families and homes and ordinary lives outside of their ghost hunting activities. The demon fighters of Paranormal State seem like nice, congenial kids. The Ghost Adventures dudes are goofballs, but they aren’t dangerous goofballs. And if they weren’t lucky enough to get paid to run around empty buildings, jumping at shadows, I’m sure they could be productive members of society. Well, not willing to bet on it, but let’s just assume they could hold a job and manage not to walk into traffic. The people who believe in ghosts, tarot, astrology, psychic powers, and holistic medicine are a varied lot, and in most situations, they are indistinguishable from people such as myself (aka The Skeptics).
But what if they’re wrong? What if in this one area, they’re mistaken?
And just to play my own devil’s advocate, what if I’m wrong? What if astrology works? What if germ theory is incorrect? What if evolution is just a big wrong track?
I don’t believe this to be true, but this belief is only as sound as my judgment. And the one thing my judgment can never really judge is itself. Whoa. I think I just went zen there.
My point (and I do have one finally if you stuck with this long enough) is that a healthy questioning of our own perceptions is important, even necessary to be a functional person. We must never take our assumptions for granted, always be ready to discard old ideas, no matter how sacred.
If you think about it, this is a constant process throughout our history. The religions of today are not the religions of yesterday. The science of old has been replaced with more up to date knowledge. Theories of government, biology, human behavior, astronomy, etc., etc., etc. have all evolved. This is undeniable, even if you don’t believe in evolution. And this is a good thing, and the world is a better place (overall) for it.
Skepticism is important. Skepticism works. But it works best when we’re willing to admit that we have to even be skeptical of ourselves. Unless you take it too far, I suppose and refuse to take anything for granted. In which case, you’re a looney. Or living in the matrix, although for that to make any sense your body would have to produce enough energy to power a giant robot and that would violate the laws of thermodynamics. Personally, I find that harder to believe than ghosts.
But that’s just me.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,