Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Ghostly Finger of Pain.

That’s overdramatic, but I couldn’t think of a better title. The question it relates to is – if ghosts have no solid form, can they hurt us?

There are several answers. The easy way out is ‘Ghosts don’t exist’, but that’s no better than sticking your fingers in your ears and singing some tuneless babble. I’ve said often that science can’t prove the non-existence of anything. Unfortunately, there are many things, seen and experienced by many people, that science still can’t explain or even prove the existence of. You have to have been there, at the right time, with the right recording equipment, and we don’t even know what that equipment is yet. So much for the easy answer.

What follows is, as is the case with almost all discussion of the paranormal, based on 10% experience and 90% opinion. I can’t produce proof, and nor can anyone else. Much of what I say below is my own theory of how the spirit world works. There is, at the moment, only one way to know for sure, and I’m not ready to take such a drastic step.

Whether you believe ghosts are dead people or some other form of spirit, incorporeal demon, whatever you want to call them, the key aspect of any definition is that they have no solid form. They can walk through solid objects, including the human body. So they can’t slap you across the face, kick you up the backside or beat you to death with a wet fish. They can do no direct harm.

This does not mean they are harmless. Poltergeist-induced fires are often reported, although it is rare for anyone to die, or even be seriously injured as a result. Thrown objects are very common. Knives can fly about, but I find no record of anyone being hit by such an object. So, although ghosts sometimes have the means to move things, including sharp things, and at speed, they are unable to attack anyone using those objects.

Why? Well, perhaps there are rules. Perhaps not. Perhaps these malicious phantoms really do mean to stick that knife into someone, but can’t. The reason, I suspect, is that we have a spirit within each of us. At an unconscious level (for most) we interact with the shadowy spirits, and can deflect their attacks without conscious action. Such a defence takes energy, as does the attack. Within a body, a spirit can draw on the energy of that body – and the body’s energy can be topped up with something as simple as a chocolate bar. Where the spirit draws its energy from, nobody knows for sure, but without the ready availability of a solid body, full of energy, the discorporate are always less powerful than the corporeal. By, I think, a very wide margin indeed.

So they can’t hurt us. Not directly. There’s no need to worry about phantom axemen. We all know this, and so do they.

Where the direct attack fails, the malicious ghost has to resort to subterfuge. He can’t hit you with a knife so he’ll try to get you to hurt yourself.

Now, those of us who have even an ounce of self-confidence will chorus ‘Ridiculous. I’m not going to hurt myself just because some ghost whispers in my ear’. Of course not. Nobody would. Well, almost nobody. There are some highly suggestible people out there. Besides, it rarely works like that.

If a ghost moves against or through your body, you won’t feel much more than a cold sensation. Unless the ghost has learned how to interfere with your nervous system. A twitch, a sudden contraction of muscle, and you feel as though someone’s hit you, pushed you, pinched you. If the spasm is expertly done, you might even stumble. It’s not likely to be strong enough to knock you over, but a stumble on stairs can be unpleasant.

If you feel a pinch, your mind and body can react by raising a welt or bruise on the affected area. The ghost didn’t do that. You did. It’s psychosomatic. People are perfectly capable of producing physical symptoms without any real cause. That part is certain. The trigger, in this case the muscle-spasm induced by a talented spirit, is theory.

If your skin itched, would you scratch it? Who can resist? If the itch persists, you scratch harder. What if it happened in the dark? A suggestion, a whisper too low to consciously hear, says ‘maggots’. You can‘t see anything, but that itching is increasing. So is your heart rate. You run your hand over the affected area, and feel little bumps. Of course you feel bumps. You’ve been scratching. Still you can’t see, it’s too dark. What does your imagination do with all those little bumps and the subconsciously-heard word ‘maggots’? How hard are you scratching now? Drawn blood yet?

You don’t have to be physical to terrify people. You don’t need a body to make someone feel pain. Ghosts can’t physically hurt us, but they are not harmless. Especially in the dark.

Tricks like this fail when you know how they work. If you’ve ever seen Penn and Teller’s early shows, they revealed the secrets of some amazing magic tricks. Once you know how it’s done, you shrug it off. The same idea holds in politics: learn how the manipulators pull your strings, and they become easy to cut.

So it is with the tricks of the malicious spirit. They can’t do any physical harm, but they will try to trick you into hurting yourself. Recognise the tricks, and the illusion is broken.

Cynicism is good for you.

9 comments:

ThatGreenyFlower said...

Vitamin C[ynicism]?

Romulus Crowe said...

Since you mention it...

Vitamins are something that have confused me for a long time.

There's A, a whole group of B, then C, D, E... and then K.

What happened to Vitamin F and all the others? Did they get sacked? Did they ever exist? Did nutritionists just skip a load of letters so people like me would lose sleep over whether we're getting enough Vitamin H?

And why do so many drinks, like Red Bull, contain vastly more of these vitamins than anyone could possibly need? Are they the antidote to the chemicals that make up the drink?

Does anyone know?

ThatGreenyFlower said...

Here's my theory:

The letter-skipping-vitamin-name thing happened because vitamins were named by the same people who developed letter grading in the US. We have A for outstanding, B for good, C for average, D for below average, and F for failing. Where's E? Could I ever make a G?

OR:

There were Vitamins H and J, but then it turned out that they were actually corn syrup and carmel coloring. So they just quietly...slipped away.

Red Bull (and the like) has tons of vitamins in it so you (one) will convince yourself (oneself) that you should plunk down extra $$ for something that's essentially a soda and will not only make you fat but cause you to have very expensive, needless-vitamin laden pee.

The Man is sticking it up ...ah, somewhere with his creative advertising, in other words.

Romulus Crowe said...

Another thing Red Bull and its like do to you, if you drink large amounts, is to give you chest pains and keep you awake until 3 am doing nothing but twitch and gibber, with frantic and pointless web-browsing thrown in.

I tried it once. It kept me awake, as advertised, but destroyed any chance of productivity.

I'll stick to espresso in future.

Dikkii said...

I haven't been reading your blog long enough to know if you're taking the piss or not, but it occurred to me that your suggestion that

The easy way out is ‘Ghosts don’t exist’, but that’s no better than sticking your fingers in your ears and singing some tuneless babble. I’ve said often that science can’t prove the non-existence of anything.

...is an easy way out all of its own. Isn't it better to assume that ghosts don't exist until we have some evidence that they do? And then we can change our minds?

Poltergeist-induced fires are often reported...

Where? And when? And who verified that they were "poltergeist-induced"? This would be a curious branch of general insurance claim investigations, if, of course, such a branch existed.

Cynicism is good for you.

I'd probably add that a healthy dose of skepticism wouldn't go astray, either.

Romulus Crowe said...

Isn't it better to assume that ghosts don't exist until we have some evidence that they do? And then we can change our minds?

Where would the evidence come from, if everyone assumes they don't exist? Who'd be trying to get that evidence?

We could also assume the Higgs boson doesn't exist and stop building huge cyclotrons to look for it. We could assume dark matter doesn't exist. Alien life. All of it. It's so much easier to just say 'no it isn't'. I ask you - what kind of scientific mind could just dismiss something with no attempt at investigation at all?

I can't produce a ghost for you. I can't conjure one up so you can see him. Should I stop trying? Who, then, will ever find any evidence at all? Should the physicists stop trying to find gravitons, tachyons, other dimensions of space and time because we find it so much easier to say 'No, it isn't'.

You mentioned James Randi - well, I wouldn't send him any evidence at all. If I ever get absolute proof, a million dollars is mere pocket change to what that proof would be worth. Besides, Randi is not a scientist. He's a stage magician. To get my work independently verified, I'd take it to scientists, not some bearded self-publicist who can hardly be considered impartial. Science should not be done through the medium of the tabloid press.

Skepticism is vital. I've seen people get excited over a scratching in the wall that I would put down to mice. Orbs, as I've said many times, are complete bunk. Fakes and frauds abound - and the reason they do so well is that there's nothing (yet) for science to latch on to. We can't (yet) stand next to a TV medium with a ghostmeter and say 'Who are you talking to? There's nobody here'. One day...but only if someone is trying. That ghostmeter won't invent itself.

I've seen enough to convince myself. I don't have any absolute proof I can show to anyone else. That's the problem. Nobody has the slightest idea what a spirit is made of, much less how to detect one. Rather like dark matter. (and no, I don't for a moment think the two are related).

I know many of those calling themselves mediums are deliberate frauds. I know their tricks. There are a few deluded souls who think they are mediums, but they're not.

There are a few genuine ones out there. You won't see them on TV. Ever. They're not even likely to be interested in visiting a lab. That attitude gets them dismissed as frauds, but they don't care. At all. It's hard to explain their feelings - they're not afraid of being called fakes because they really, really have no interest at all in what science thinks of them. Scoff away, it's water off a duck's back.

I can assure you, I'm not taking the piss. I have, as I said, seen and experienced enough myself. That, in science, is not good enough. I need hard data. I don't have it.

Should I then just give up, stick my fingers in my ears and sing 'Lalala'? This line of investigation is full of diappointments - fakes, misunderstandings, and ghosts that steadfastly refuse to be recorded by any means currently available.

It would indeed be so much easier to say 'No it isn't'.

But, to borrow a line from Monty Python, 'That's not an argument. It's just contradiction'.

Dikkii said...

Where would the evidence come from, if everyone assumes they don't exist? Who'd be trying to get that evidence?

Doesn't necessarily follow. Science currently assumes that strings don't exist, but there is still a lot of work going on in string theory. And when enough evidence is compiled, science will change it's mind.

Science does this all the time. And it probably would do this with ghosts as well, except that we can't even get to square 1 yet. String theory is well past this point.

I can't produce a ghost for you. I can't conjure one up so you can see him. Should I stop trying? Who, then, will ever find any evidence at all? Should the physicists stop trying to find gravitons, tachyons, other dimensions of space and time because we find it so much easier to say 'No, it isn't'.

On ghosts: yes, you should stop trying. They fail the usefulness test - what possible applications would ghosts have once you found them? "Gravitons, tachyons, other dimensions of space and time" - these have lots of potential benefits to mankind. A one off ghost in a house somewhere scaring people, well the science behind gravitons and tachyons is just a heck of a lot better thought out.

"You mentioned James Randi - well, I wouldn't send him any evidence at all. If I ever get absolute proof, a million dollars is mere pocket change to what that proof would be worth. Besides, Randi is not a scientist. He's a stage magician."

That's like saying you can't be a movie critic unless you've directed a movie or that you can't write a blog post on Santa impersonators unless you've been one. In other words, an extremely poor argument and an appeal to authority to boot.

In any event, coming across a scientist who believes that Randi is anything other than an expert on the scientific method is rare. There are some, but in the instances I can find, they're usually kooks like Gary Schwartz or Jacques Benveniste, both scientists with handle on the scientific method ranging from poor to shithouse.

Randi's knowledge of the scientific method has been praised on the record by scientists as diverse as Phil Plait, PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.

Lastly, I simply don't believe that you (or anyone) would pass up USD 1 million if all that was a required was to complete the cc field in an email. I hope that you don't mind me calling you on this one.

I note towards the end of your post you agree that skepticism is vital and that you support it. This is good. But I will remind you that the opposite of skepticism is credulous gullibility. Don't fall into the trap of believing everything you read or hear.

I don't think that you should put your fingers in your ears and go "lalalala", but could there be better things to be looking for out there? Why not look for bosons and gravitons? At least we can see worthwhile applications.

Ghosts - well no one has even managed to define one for research purposes, yet. Let alone find usefulness for them.

Southern Writer said...

Man, I hate these dipshits with minds closed so tightly they wouldn't leak water. Sometimes I think they have nothing better to do than go around arguing with people who disagree with them. I'm looking forward to reading your reply. Should I send you that newspaper clipping about the unexplained fire shooting through the wiring in that house in Chicago?

Romulus Crowe said...

Hi SW.

There was a whole town in southern Italy where fires popped up at random. Nobody ever worked out what caused them. The place was eventually abandoned, although I think people started drifting back after a while.

I no longer cite specific cases when talking with skeptics. There are many cases, but it doesn't matter what you show to someone who has their eyes closed. They won't see it.

That's okay though. Cuts down the competition for me.

Dikkii kept it civil, at least, and that's a good thing. Too many skeptics think they've won the argument by shouting 'crank'. Dikkii didn't do that.

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