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Monday 24 October 2011

Tracey's Ghost

     Samuel Johnson is famously said to have given as the reason for a belief in ghosts, "the universal testimony of mankind." On the face of it, this carries weight. After all, if you wanted to make a case for the existence of vampires, you would ultimately have to explain why these animated, blood-sucking corpses are apparently restricted to the Balkans. But reports of ghosts can be found everywhere. Nor are they even uncommon. Back in 1894, a survey of 17,000 people by the British Society for Psychical Research revealed that one in ten in the general population claimed to have seen, heard, or been touched by, something not due to physical causes, and every survey since then has revealed a similar order of magnitude. In modern America it is more like 18 per cent. Of course, it would be unwise to take every single one of these reports at face value, but if ghosts don't exist, then every single one must be ruled out.
     Under such circumstances, where did the orthodoxy, "there are no such things as ghosts" come from? Did somebody, perhaps during the Age of Reason, examine a major sample of the best and most cogent ghost sightings, and demonstrate that all of them had mundane explanations? If so, time has not been kind to him; his name and work have been lost to posterity. You will not find them referred to in any skeptical article. No! What really happened is it was decided, about the same time, that ghosts did not fit into the developing scientific materialist framework, and therefore they could not exist - and so, any alleged sighting must have a mundane explanation.
     As for me, I belong to the nine out of ten who have never encountered a ghost. However, I have noticed that if you raise the issue in a group of any size - say a dozen or two - you are likely to find someone who has had the experience. And in one case, the story she told was so vivid and impressive, that I wrote down the details before my memory had a chance to fade.