Why do some people believe in ghosts?
A number of reasons. One in particular, in my view, has stood out over my lifetime. It comes from a letter to my family by the late Charles Dickens about a character in his novel, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Dickens describes a “poor and sad creature”:
“He was an ordinary-looking boy about ten, with a round face, black, unkempt hair, and a face like a blacksmith’s if he didn’t turn it all out of shape for the time.” As I’ve said, the phrase “poor and sad creature” sounds familiar. It’s a phrase we use to describe ghosts. In fact, a number of people, both well known and obscure, use this term to describe their own experiences with ghosts. This, of course, is the basic definition of ghosts. The question of how that phrase came into prominence, and which ideas it represents, isn’t important—there are many who claim to have experienced it, and no one person can know the precise nature of the phenomenon. What is important is what is at stake, and what it would take for a person to choose to be open to and comfortable with ghosts as an experience. And there’s no more fundamental thing in science than the idea that knowledge is power. Even the possibility of one being compelled to think “what other questions could be tested?” should stir our imaginations. And when it comes to something so fundamental as the ability to perceive your dead loved ones, we do know things are different when you’re dead. (Indeed, the experience of being dead is a central theme of The Day The Earth Stood Still; a more formal attempt to describe this experience was made in an article published here six years ago.) But as to the other questions, we still don’t know enough. The idea that we might know is simply a fantasy, and the fact that we do know more—that we sometimes can tell stories about our dead relatives, which is a significant step towards being able to explain them—only makes something far more likely to be true.
What do you think is the best explanation of why people are scared about ghosts?
People often see ghosts as being different—more powerful—than ordinary people, more like the kind of people from which they might expect they’d emerge (and also perhaps better at explaining why things happen the way they do). The main problem with this view is that it’s incomplete. Ghosts are also
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