Amanda, the main character of our novel, In the Shadows of Freedom, is a painter. When she creates her art, she seems to tap into another reality, a supernatural inspiration that drives the strokes of her paintbrush. It is something beyond art technique and form. What is this “other reality?” Is there indeed something that exists beyond the visible world? Is there another kind of presence besides the physical that can touch our spirits? As we celebrate Halloween, let’s explore the reality (or not) of ghosts.
Are Ghosts Really Present?
The key concept behind these questions is the idea of presence. It is something we all experience throughout our daily lives, yet the concept seems elusive, somehow a bit mysterious. We understand even less about more extraordinary experiences of presence, such as that fleeting feeling that Grandma is with you, though she’s died many years before. The idea of ghosts fascinates us; certainly in part because we question whether they really exist. What can we know about ghosts? Can a person who has died indeed still become present to a person still living?
This may seem at first a relatively unimportant question, perhaps belonging to the realm of science fiction, that is, of entertainment. It is, admittedly, a very narrow issue; yet, in wrestling with it, one comes to a greater understanding of death and of presence. In fact, if we conclude that ghosts are indeed a possibility, several important corollaries follow. First, and most importantly, a reality of presence with us on earth after death points to a reality of life after death. If we can conclude that life does not simply end in death, but, rather, is changed in some way, we will begin to wonder what that change entails and what, if anything, we can do to prepare for it in this life.
Yet, how can we know if ghosts are a reality? The question greatly hinges on our understanding of presence. What sort of presence is meant here? Do we refer to a warm and fuzzy feeling one gets when thinking of a beloved deceased? Do we mean a tangibly physical, ghastly apparition of the dead? In fact, is presence possible at all without a body, or some physical conduit?
Riding the Subway
Presence is an elusive phenomenon which seems difficult to classify as entirely of the body or entirely of the soul. It must be more than mere bodily presence, for physical proximity does not guarantee presence. One may ride on any crowded subway car to discover this. Though numerous people are standing within inches of you, you are very likely lost in a daydream, a riveting novel (perhaps, In the Shadows of Freedom), or your Instagram feed. Thus your body is “present” to your numerous neighbors, yet you are not. You, therefore, must signify something more than your body and your presence must signify something more than your body’s presence.
Although presence demands more than the physical, does it at least require some physical component? Ordinarily, presence entails a combination of both physical and spiritual presence. To continue the previous example, one standing in a crowded subway car, not present to anyone in the car, recognizes his friend standing near him and begins to talk with him. Before, he was not present to his friend, though they were very close in physical proximity. Then, upon recognition, he is present to his friend. His merely physical “presence” was not enough: he needed to become present to his friend. We can define this by saying his spirit needed to be attentive to the other, something which bodily presence cannot guarantee.
Body and/or Soul
Though ordinarily presence involves both the body and spirit, at times it can occur with a reduced physical component. For example, though several thousand miles away, two people may become present to each other over the telephone lines or Zoom, reduced to the only physical component of the human voice (or sometimes video feed). This is because what presence most fundamentally requires is attentiveness, which does not depend upon physical presence to exist. It is possible for one to direct her attention toward a person not physically present with her. And if what presence most fundamentally requires is attentiveness—which can be defined as the spirit’s choosing to direct itself toward another—then it seems possible that the physical component is merely frequently accompanying, but not necessary.
Yet, does this occur? Are there instances of presence without a bodily component? Picture a mother, who is busily preparing a meal. The noisy din of appliances fills the air, as her young son walks in, invisible and otherwise physically imperceptible to her as she goes about her culinary tasks. Despite his physical imperceptibility, somehow, the mother senses her son’s presence and looks behind her to find him there. Instances like this one do occur, yet are they mere luck? Is it mere chance that leads people to feel someone’s presence when he or she is indeed there?
Do You “Own” Your Body?
It seems to be something more than luck. Presence, as discussed, is essentially something of the spirit, which gives and perceives attentiveness. It is to and from the other. And if an earthly body is not essential for presence to occur, it follows that those who have died could indeed become present to those on earth. But what if the spirit does not survive the body’s death? If the soul dies with the body, our argument that presence does not require a body is irrelevant, for a now non-existent soul could not become present in any circumstances. So what reason do we have to believe the soul is immortal?
We have already seen that the soul is something different from the body. One consequence of this distinction is the soul’s ability to reflect upon itself as something other than the body. That is to say, it can look upon the body as an object, as it might a tree, a chair, or any other non-subject. It follows then that the soul may have a body, in the sense of possession or ownership. A man may have a car, a dog, a farm, or a very ugly shirt. Yet he is not the car, the dog, the farm, or the shirt. Consequently, he may lose the car, the dog, the farm, or the shirt (perhaps, if his wife sees it), and still continue to be. In the same way, a soul may lose the body that it has. Yet, as a subject, like the man who still exists despite losing his possessions, it continues to be. Since subjects continue to exist after losing their objects, and the soul is a subject, souls must continue to exist after losing their objects—their bodies—at death.
Real, But No Case Is Provable
So, if our souls are immortal, and presence is essentially something of the soul and not the body, then ghost sightings must be possible. Yet, does this mean that every claim of seeing a ghost is real? Could one not be imagining the presence of the person, skillfully reconstructing it from grief-stricken memory? Is there any way to prove that a particular instance of supposed ghost sighting is genuine and not imagined?
Yes, ghosts are real and spotting them at times does happen; this much has been shown thus far. Yet, showing that something is possible and occurs at times is not the same as showing it is occurring in a particular instance or other.
The primary difficulty in proving the authenticity of a particular ghost sighting is that the full nature of the experience can only be known by the one who has experienced it. There can be no objective, third-person record of such an event, or even a complete first-person account of it. Rather than determining if an individual case is authentic, one could instead point to what an authentic case might be and what its characteristics are. To do this, one may learn about well-documented cases to understand the common elements of strongly likely cases. Still, no individual case can be proven (except, perhaps, by and to the individual involved). They should be believed to be valid to the extent the evidence points to authenticity. Cold, hard science cannot observe or prove ghosts. Yet human logic can prove they exist as has been shown.
Visitations of the dead to the living (ghost sightings) do occur and there are strong reasons to believe this. Yet the validity of each individual case must be weighed in the heart of the individual who has experienced it. Presence continues to be a mysterious faculty, yet we can be certain that life does persist after death and that the dead can come back to visit us, as ghosts.