Like violent videogames, pornography, or gambling, Halloween seems like it might satisfy an innate human need to experience the entirety of the emotional spectrum. Everyone wants to push it to the limit on Halloween, all while still knowing that they’re safe. Perhaps that’s why people “believe” in ghosts. They know deep down inside that they can’t be possible, but they want that feeling of awe and wonderment that’s been missing since someone first told them that Santa or the Tooth Fairy existed. Or that one day they could be president.
So with that bit of depressing cynicism, I decided to write a list of reasons why I believe that ghosts cannot, do not, and will never exist.
As Halloween (my favorite holiday) approaches, thoughts of the paranormal no doubt fill the minds of young and old alike. I’ve also signed this odd social contract: that once per year I will suspend rationality, logic, reason, and all sense of propriety, and celebrate it by scaring the crap out of myself for a good solid 31 days or so. And if I don’t get scared, I promise to be disappointed. In a world of utmost convenience where every danger around us is tagged in neon and padded so we can’t hurt ourselves, I think Halloween has become a weird sort of survival mechanism. In this world, warnings are more prominent than threats, so our brains need practice. So be warned, I’m about to practice writing top ten lists.
10. Life after death is still life.
Seriously, the entire thing is a contradiction in terms. Why bother referring to things as “life” and “death” if, because you thought you saw a dead person, they mean the same thing? Is this a cop-out for number 10 on the list? Perhaps. But I wanted to highlight the absurdity of it all right out of the gate: if we’re going to argue the definition of death, how are we supposed to settle on the definition of a ghost? Do ghosts and death even have anything to do with each other, by definition? And without a definition, how can it exist?
9. There are too few ghosts.
Many sources pin the ratio of all species in the history of the earth that are now extinct at around 99.9%. That’s all species. So it would stand to reason that the ratio of all living things that are now dead is, well, significantly higher to say the least. So where are all of the ghosts? If orders of magnitude more things died on this rock than are currently living, where are their disembodied spirits? Shouldn’t we be knee deep in ghosts of all shapes in sizes? Everything from dinosaurs to insects a yard long, to prehistoric man? We clearly aren’t.
8. Only people become ghosts.
A believer might say, “Well don’t be silly, there’s so few ghosts because only people become ghosts, because only people have spirits!” I don’t buy this argument because the arguers contradict themselves with stories of ghost men with spectral dogs and even of inanimate objects that appear as apparitions; entire doors and windows, even events that play out as “ghosts”. Does a gunshot have a spirit? Does a horrible fire have a spirit? If so, shouldn’t be haunted by all of the ‘dead’ furniture as well? We clearly aren’t.
7. Something becomes a ghost when it dies.
When people claim to have seen historic events play out in front of them, or an apparition sitting in a chair which, on second glance, disappears, I immediately wonder, “When does something become a ghost?” The reason I ask this question is this: if something isn’t alive, and a ghost is a dead something, when does an inanimate object become a ghost? When it ceases to exist? What if part of it exists somewhere? The answer is, it doesn’t become a ghost, because ghosts don’t exist. There’s no scientific process anywhere near being documented which could describe the transition from solid physical object, to mystical apparition, aside from quantum mechanics, and that deals primarily with things on the subatomic scale. And it would be one thing if you could recreate a physical object as an apparition, but it’s another thing entirely to capture the psyche of a person or the sounds of an event. These things are slightly less tangible, as they deal with the flow of energy from one system to another, often in very random ways.
6. There’s no science!
“Well science doesn’t have an explanation for everything.” I hear this statement being made over and over again, as though the absence of scientific evidence for something is somehow a strong implication that it’s probably real. People use examples like the coelacanth or the giant squid as examples of things science failed to acknowledge as real until someone had the nerve to produce real physical evidence. As though the failure to acknowledge something without evidence is somehow a flaw in the process. Sure, without hypothesis there is no science, but as far as I can tell, paranormal investigators are in the business of entertainment and show no real interest in experimentation or regimented analysis. So go ahead and say you saw or heard a ghost, even felt one! But until you make real scientific progress on showing it’s real, it doesn’t exist as anything more than a story. You’re right, science doesn’t have an explanation for everything, but that doesn’t mean you dismiss science as a tool for explaining something because the scientific method disagrees with you. It doesn’t mean that the next biggest leap of logic is the most likely thing.
5. Occam’s Razor
This terrific piece of philosophy is often misunderstood as meaning that the simplest of all possible explanations for something is the most likely one. In reality, it hinges on the idea that a question answered without creating more questions, is a question better answered. This notion can, in some ways, be characterized by the question: If science already has an explanation for something, why invent something else to explain it? It deals less with the plausibility of each explanation and more with putting the burden of proof on one who would suggest an explanation which is untested or new. The implication is that even if it’s extremely unlikely that the apparition you saw was the light of Venus bouncing off of swamp gas, it’s still more likely than you discovering a new branch of science.
4. Ghosts don’t wear watches.
Am I supposed to believe that someone who has managed to manifest themselves from beyond the veil gives a rat’s ass what time it is? Or that powerful demonic forces can, for some reason, only make themselves known between the hours of 3am and 4am? What if we all set our clocks to skip that hour? Did I just invent a way to destroy ghosts by eliminating them from the schedule like a show we didn’t want to DVR? Honestly the whole idea makes some very smart people look really stupid. The hour of the day is a purely subjective construct. Do ghosts haunt an hour earlier when we change the clocks? Shit no. So why do ghosts purportedly haunt more at night than during the day? Especially given that real live people do nothing at night other than willingly become unconscious. Do ghosts have trouble sleeping? It couldn’t be that people see ghosts more at night because we’re instinctively afraid when we can’t see, right?
3. They’re holy…or unholy?
In popular culture ghosts represent a smorgasbord of religious traditions. From devil worship to Christianity, paganism to shamanism, and from witchcraft to voodoo, ghost stories seem to come in many flavors. And while religions should all coexist peacefully, it would stand to reason that they can’t all be right about the nature of spirits, given that many religions have contradictory doctrines. And why would one of them have to be right? While each religion might stake it’s claim to the decreasing number of things that science has left unexplained, what’s to say that ghosts simply aren’t another in a list of things religion is wrong about? All of them. If history is any lesson, when religions disagree on something, the only truth comes from science. And what does science say about ghosts? That they simply don’t exist.
2. Hauntings happen in places THAT are haunted.
The power of suggestion is incredible. Like the mighty placebo, a ghost story will trigger things in people’s imagination which will manifest themselves in people’s perception of ordinary things: shadows move, noise takes on the character of a voice, and a breath of air becomes the feeling of being touched. Tell someone a happy story, and they sleep well. That isn’t complex psychology, it’s pareidolia. So why us it that people seem so willing to ignore the fact that strange things seem to happen in place that we’re told are strange? And if there’s any possibility at all that our judgement is so easily compromised, that calls into question every eyewitness report that isn’t documented with a scientific instrument. And the ones that are? Oh wait, there haven’t been any.
1. Ghosts aren’t naked
It may seem obvious that most of the ghosts people see are wearing clothing. In fact, most of the reports of ghosts describe them as being in “period dress”, whatever that means. But it doesn’t make any sense either way. When a person dies, do their clothes die too? Do they only haunt places in the clothes they died in? What if they weren’t wearing anything at all? I’ve not heard of many naked ghosts, though I’m sure the sightings are documented somewhere. My overriding point here is this: the boundary between person and garments is clear. So if a ghost is a dead person, why then do they always seem to be dressed? This is what I would call, “Hulk Syndrome”, wherein the subject of a story is made more appropriate than fact to preserve the listeners innocence. My reference is, of course, to the Hulk’s pants. Bruce Banner would turn into a giant green monster with pants intact. Obviously the Hulk would have an equally monstrous unit which would liberate itself from such frail confines, but the pants are left there instead as if to say, “We know the Hulk has a 28 lb. green goblin, but we don’t need to subject you to seeing it. Pretend the pants aren’t there if you like. They’re a metaphor for censor boxes.”
So there you have it. My ten best reasons that ghosts do not exist. Any evidence that anyone has which they claim is to the contrary is severely limited at best, and regardless of its contents it does not not imply the existence of life after death. Until someone has an irrefutable piece of evidence that suggests clearly and concisely that the opposite is true, I remain a skeptic. I keep the stance that everything has an explanation, and that those explanations are simpler and more likely than the claim that ghosts are real.
MAY 12, 2015 – UPDATE:
I’ve added fuel to the phantom fire in my recent article on this topic. Please be sure to read 5 More Reasons Ghosts Don’t Exist.
November 15, 2012 – Update:
Be sure to check out the antithesis (opposite…evil twin…whatever you want to call it) of this article. Top 10 Pieces of Video Evidence of Ghosts