Spectres of Reality or the Reality of Spectres?

Shane McCorristine’s new book on ghosts titled Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920  (Cambridge 2010) receives a good review from Jonathan Barnes in The Times of London:

What interests McCorristine about these alleged outbreaks of the paranormal is the way their nature seems to change according to the culture in which they are reported – from purposeful medieval spirits who urged sinners to repent or pleaded that prayers be said for them (“the world of ghosts”, McCorristine tells us, “was remarkably well ordered, secured and explainable”) to the ambiguous visitations of the post-Reformation world when doubt as to the spirits’ existence became the dominant critical response and scientific explanations were sought. In 1727, in “An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions etc”, Daniel Defoe wrote that “conscience, indeed, is a frightful Apparition itself, and I make no Question but it oftentimes haunts an oppressing Criminal into Restitution, and is a Ghost to him sleeping or waking”, and thirty-seven years later, Voltaire asserted that “in the middle state between sleeping and waking . . . an inflamed brain sees imaginary objects and hears sounds which nobody utters”.

I like Defoe’s observation that conscience is a kind of spectre with an independent intentionality that haunts us if not obeyed. Love can also pay a visit, and gnaw and pester. What do you suppose it means to make of the emotions invisible persons with agency and access to our consciousness? I suppose it means, in part, that you can conceive of the self in a lot of different ways (with regard to what’s in and what’s out).

So how many ghosts are you? Are they legion? And what if you started a dialogue with them? Perhaps you would never consider doing such a thing. But aren’t you doing it already? Who, for example, is that self that listens to yourself when you speak to yourself?

Perhaps ghosts are inner movements of the psyche giving form to desire or aversion, then appearing as spectres in our twilight dreams and hallucinations. In other words, akin to erroneously blaming thunder on an external agency like Zeus, maybe ghosts are what we mistake for the psyche’s thunderings externalized.

But if the self always begins with mental experience first (and matter is second as a perception of mind), then where is the boundary of the self and the end of its apparitions? Who are you, really, but a ghost perceiving and interacting with other ghosts and ghostly things?

Thoreau once wrote that he wished to discover for reality “a hard bottom with rocks in place.” 

But where is that?

I suppose the traditional monotheist would say that reality is grounded in the first ghost—the necessary ghost—God. The rest of us are contingent ghosts inhabiting the bodies given to us by the first Ghost, and we sometimes encounter disembodied spirits also created by the first Ghost. The atheist would retort that there are no ghosts, and not even the one in your own body that you perceive directly is really substantial. Matter is primary and alone deserves the designation of “real.” But even the atheist must give magical qualities to matter: it either has existed in some form for all eternity, without any beginning whatsoever, or it has arrived from perfect absence—from zero, a nothingness that is even more insubstantial than ghostliness.

And did you catch this over the past month? Physicist Chris Hogan is constructing a clock to determine if we are all ghosts for real (that is, holographic projections from a two dimensional space—the so-called cosmological horizon 13.7 billion light years from where we think we are). SymmetryBreaking, a Fermilab publication, explains:

In 2008, Fermilab particle astrophysicist Craig Hogan made waves with a mind-boggling proposition: The 3D universe in which we appear to live is no more than a hologram.

Now he is building the most precise clock of all time to directly measure whether our reality is an illusion.

The idea that spacetime may not be entirely smooth – like a digital image that becomes increasingly pixelated as you zoom in – had been previously proposed by Stephen Hawking and others. Possible evidence for this model appeared last year in the unaccountable “noise” plaguing the GEO600 experiment in Germany, which searches for gravitational waves from black holes. To Hogan, the jitteriness suggested that the experiment had stumbled upon the lower limit of the spacetime pixels’ resolution.

Black hole physics, in which space and time become compressed, provides a basis for math showing that the third dimension may not exist at all. In this two-dimensional cartoon of a universe, what we perceive as a third dimension would actually be a projection of time intertwined with depth. If this is true, the illusion can only be maintained until equipment becomes sensitive enough to find its limits.

In other words, with proper magnification we might all dissolve into insubstantial projections from another more “real” dimension 13.7 billion light years away.

If that’s not being a ghost, what on earth is?

So how sure are you there are no ghosts—and that you’re not one yourself? Here’s David Chalmer’s thinking about the ghostly nature of consciousness a bit more:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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