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Seeing Ghosts


Discussing the unreliability of memory and knowledge, yesterday, led on to the subject of the metaphors we use to explain incomplete sense data.

This sparked a conversation about resurrection myths and ghosts.

Personally, I would never own-up to believing in ghosts. Would you?

My sister, on the other hand, chatters on about the ghosts she sees at the drop of a hat. They are in her vocabulary: part of how she construes the world. Not me.

Except once. Perhaps.

Some years ago in Denmark, in the early hours of the morning, I was riding the big Kawasaki back into town after a party when, approaching a slip road on my right, I became aware of the single headlight of a motorbike waiting there. Afraid that it might have been a police bike, I slowed to a sensible speed and glanced to have a better look. As I drew level, I could both hear and see that I was at no risk of being stopped for speeding.

The sound was wrong – the booming throb of the engine was too old and deep. And this was no police motorcyclist. The face was hidden beneath an old skullcap helmet with ear flaps and goggles. And, on this hot summer night, an old mud-splashed greatcoat and leather gauntlets completed the outfit.

Riding beside me for the briefest of instants, the apparition belonged to a different time.

Then, in an instant, it was gone. Too quickly to be accounted-for by daredevil acceleration… He had simply and absolutely disappeared.

Now, I don’t believe in ghosts. But I slowed to walking pace to look around and then I drove so very, very carefully home!

I had insufficient information – or rational models – to explain this ancient night-time biker. I was tired and I had been drinking, I admit, but I still can’t quite understand it.

I suppose that the most likely explanations are that I either saw a biker in fancy dress or it was some trick of the light. Neither is a sufficient explanation of my experience.

Perhaps, given the difficult data I have – albeit memories of some standing (and we know how unreliable they are) – I ought to entertain alternative explanations, no matter how unscientific.

What is it Sherlock Holmes says: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”?

But, I don’t do ‘ghosts’!

Maybe my refusal to countenance the supernatural goes against my attempts to be rational but open-minded. So be it.

Time is tight and we don’t live at 221b Baker Street, so we need metaphoric shortcuts to package and label this life. But we need to question the truthfulness of these labels, before we believe in them blindly.

Only then, perhaps, it is OK to accept that there are more versions of the truth than our own culturally bound wisdom allows.

From → Research

  1. My medicine-trained refuses to believe in any abnormal experience, too. But when my patients are guided through life by angels, I wouldn’t want to take them away from them. Who am I to destroy hope?

    Or if my friends pray to the Parking Fairy and unfailingly find an open spot? I just take it…

    Any negative nightmares, or trolls, or undead, however, I would exorcise immediately.

    The beauty of your blog is that you actually admit that unexplained visions like this happen. We just don’t want to build a worldview on them…

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

    • I quite agree, Alexa.
      What I was trying to get at, I think, was that we use convenient labels and models as shortcuts for convenience. I know I do…because thinking things through from first principles every time takes too long. The problem is that sometimes we forget to revisit these shortcuts regularly to check that they are still valid…

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