Perhaps ghosts do exist. Perhaps the question we should really be asking is: what exists?
Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others exemplifies this point: [spoiler alert] contrary to what the movie’s lead character (played by Nicole Kidman) thought, the “ghosts” infesting her house are actually the living. The dead and the haunting are rather her and her children.
There are, of course, the legendary stories: The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, the harrowing Bell Witch of Tennessee, the possessed Raggedy Ann doll that The Conjuring series re-introduced to a younger audience.
Historical ghosts abound: Lady Catherine Howard, whose ghost is said to be seen and heard screaming along the halls of Hampton Court, still pleading to be spared of the execution ordered by her husband King Henry VIII. In the Philippines, a school hospital in Manila and Malacañang Palace, as well as the CCP, are said to be haunted.
Of course, there’s Balete Drive (although how the White Lady there fares in today’s horrendous traffic adds to the mystery).
Yet these long-time stories still pose the unanswered question: what exactly are ghosts?
One thing interesting to consider is that if we take a hypothetical person “Juan,” with X being his body and (assuming it exists) his soul is Y this makes X+Y= Z (Juan being Z). If at death X decomposes, leaving only presumably Y, then wouldn’t it be quite illogical to presuppose that Y=Z?
Thus, if people say they see or even talk to ghosts, presumably now existing merely as Y, then how come Y is seemingly identical (not only in appearance but personality and memory) to Z?
Furthermore, if the ghost-hunting shows are to be believed, ghostly activity can be captured on film, sounds recorded (as disembodied voices or as electronic voice phenomena), and their presences known through electromagnetic frequencies (EMF).
Which doesn’t make sense.
Because if ghosts are spiritual entities, how can earthly devices capture their characteristics? It presupposes there’s something solid or material about ghosts, generating sound, can be captured by our eyes, felt by skin, smelled (e.g., candles or perfume), and even tasted (e.g., ectoplasm). These ghostly stimuli are such that they are capturable by our senses, which are then transferred to our brain for processing.
Which leads to further questions: if they are solid or gas, they exist materially, which presupposes an origin or cause, what mode did they separate from our bodies at death, and how come such material can not be duplicated in a controlled environment (i.e., laboratory) for scientific testing?
Incidentally, there’s the famous Duncan MacDougall study, published in 1907, which concluded that the soul likely weighs 21 grams. Its research has been criticized for being highly flawed and selective in reporting.
Which leads to this: perhaps ghosts do not exist as matter capturable by our senses. Instead of stimuli being transmitted to our brain, nothing is being transmitted at all.
The point: ghosts are all in our mind.
What we think we see, touch, feel, smell, or taste do not exist at all — rather they are just cooked up by our brain. When we see a ghost, for example, we do not actually see anything with our eyes: it is just our brain telling us (lying to us) that we’re seeing something.
Which leads us to memory, usually defined as a process in our brain that possesses, stores, and retrieves information or experiences. Straightforward enough but even now science finds itself baffled by it.
In a wonderful passage in the introduction to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco tells of “magic moments, involving great physical fatigue and intense motor excitement, that produce visions of people known in the past (‘en me retraçant ces détails, j’en suis à me demander s’ils sont réels, ou bien si je les ai rêvés’). As I learned later from the delightful little book of the Abbé de Bucquoy, there are also visions of books as yet unwritten.”
And apparently, these are not the mere musings of a creative genius. Medical writer Faith Brynie, Ph.D., tells us it is indeed “possible to remember something that never really happened.”
In one experiment, “researchers showed volunteers images and asked them to imagine other images at the same time. Later, many of the volunteers recalled the imagined images as real.”
Even St. Augustine devoted a fair amount of his writing to exploring the overlapping concepts of memory, self, and the mind, even going so far as to consider memory as identical to the soul.
Another intriguing possibility: “time slips.” Here, what is seen is real. It’s just that what was seen is of a different period. Hence, glimpses of otherworldly people, buildings, places, or events are actually glitches in time. This, of course, leads to questions of who or what did the time travel (i.e., the observer or the observed) and how?
Anyway, whatever ghosts may be, as we celebrate All Soul’s Day tomorrow (November 2), may whatever haunt you be beautiful, happy, and good.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.