A Deductive Exorcism of Ghosts
So that the Reader may fully share in this glorious triumph against superstition, it is essential that he understand and fully acknowledge the theoretical impossibility of ghosts. To the philosophic novice, being theoretically impossible is a far graver offense than being physically impossible. The latter is a misdemeanor against the laws of nature; the former is a desecration of logic herself. Unfortunately, a straightforward descant would expose even the most learned to arguments intricate and arcane. Despite the technical perfection, my exposition would prove insufficient to infuse the Reader with the perplexities that assailed me or bring him to his knees with the unique awe of a grand philosophic revelation. His loss would be of tragic proportions: the argument I shall unveil is as original and profound as the introduction of amino acids into the primordial soup.
To clearly elucidate and explore this point, I have decided to demonstrate it by means of a dialogue. If the format was good enough for Plato and David Hume it is good enough for me. The Reader is encouraged to imagine himself seated at the table with the participants, actively following (perhaps even participating in) the discussion.
Sophia represents the voice of Reason. Scatius is a wily philosopher whose views are in diametric opposition to mine. Cretinius holds the views of the common man.
At a picnic table in Pulaski Park sat Sophia, Cretinius, and I. The morning sun or Sophia, which article of Creation deserved greater reverence, which was more conspicuous and inexplicable in its beauty and power? Though she was barely eighteen, to look into her dark green eyes was to confront Wisdom itself. We shared a bottle of peppermint schnapps while giant but gentle Cretinius worked the morning crossword.
“Sophia, a fascinating problem vexes me. In the realm of the supernatural, how in theory would we individuate things? How would we recognize one entity as being distinct from another?”
“What’s a two-letter word for alternative?” said Cretinius, rubbing his salient brow.
After some thought, Sophia leaned forward, revealing cleavage from the plentidudinous bosom concealed beneath her toga. “It couldn’t be the same way we individuate natural things. Consider five coins. What distinguishes each of them is their occupation of different spaces.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Now I am not asserting that spatial continuity is the only consideration, but it is essential.”
“Cretinius, that’s a terrible habit,” said Sophia, her radiant features grimacing as his finger excavated his nose.
A loud belching interrupted her as Scatius staggered into the park. His spindly legs seemed incapable of supporting the humpbacked torso upon them.
“I fear he is in his cups again,” I whispered.
“Those are sandals,” said Cretinius, his lazy eye looking up and away from the crossword.
“I wonder what views Scatius holds on your position,” said Sophia.
“And what position is that?” he said, taking a seat. The black caves of Scatius’ eyes provided the only contrast on his forbidding face to his pasty skin. Though his hair was thin to the point of endangered, his skeletal arms were covered with dense patches of beastly fur. He helped himself to our schnapps, guzzling it from the bottle.
“I was maintaining the theoretical impossibility of ghosts,” I said. “My critique is more severe than the assertion that they do not exist. I maintain that it makes no sense to even speak of them.”
“Ah, the cheap solvent of logical positivism,” he said with a hiccup. “That’s about as original as breathing.”
“Scatius! Don’t touch me there,” cried Cretinius.
“My argument owes nothing to the lazy and arrogant positivists,” I said. “They assert that statements are only meaningful if they are verifiable. My position is that we cannot coherently speak of ghosts because they cannot be individuated by the criterion of spatial continuity. The difference between one and three of them is not a feature of the distinct chunks of space they occupy. By what criterion can they be separated?”
“Your argument is fascinating,” said Sophia, cradling her chin in her hand and batting her long lashes.
“It is interesting,” agreed Scatius.
“What about Casper the Friendly Ghost?” asked Cretinius. “He takes up space. So do the ones on Ghostbusters.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Sophia.
“Be patient,” I said, stroking the celestial crop of sun-bleached down on her arm. “Something good will arise, non-Phoenix-like*, from his point. Cretinius has voiced the common perception of ghosts. Although we say they do not have spatial dimensions, we conceive of them as gaseous or luminous beings who occupy space in a mysterious fashion that allows them to float through walls. Unable to conceive of non-physical, non-spatial, invisible beings, we are reduced to the conceptual level of tabloid sightings and cartoons. Oh, what can comfort a man who finds himself in a town of ghosts, a town where the stern sheriff of logic is not obeyed?”
Scatius belched. “The answer is both obvious and devastating to your cute little argument. Ghosts can be individuated on the grounds that they have unique minds or personalities.”
Sophia turned to me and put her hand atop mine. So soft the skin. So unequivocal the yearning in her eyes. The sun beamed on its masterful handiwork: sporadic freckles on her nose, shoulders, and in the heavenly valley of her mountainous bosom.
“What’s a three-letter word for opposite of later?” asked Cretinius.
I winked at Sophia and clasped her tiny hand and prepared for triumph. “On the contrary, we cannot speak of distinct personalities unless individuation has already occurred. ‘I have seven minds but my bother has only four,’ is a ridiculous statement, but if physical embodiment is not a criterion how can we criticize it? From this it follows that we have no means of individuating disembodied minds.”
“Sophistry,” groaned Scatius, reaching for the schnapps. He finished the bottle and smashed it on the bike path. “Let me think,” he said, massaging his temples.
“Oh Petronius, your arguments shine with the light of Truth,” said Sophia.
“Here is the fundamental difficulty,” I said. “Terms such as two, many, some, and few are coherent insofar as they refer to distinguishable items. If we have no means of theoretically distinguishing one ghost from another, what sense would it make to say that there are many of them as opposed to a few, or one as opposed to three? When we attempt to determine the autonomy of entities in a domain where spatial and physical considerations can not be applied we are, to put it politely, speaking gibberish.”
“Gibberish indeed,” said Scatius, pounding his fist on the table. “You would deny what all of mankind has believed since the dawn of time?”
“He’s angry,” said Cretinius.
“Mankind does not know that what they think they believe is conceptually impossible,” I said. “It is the philosopher’s task to demonstrate this, not to encourage their folly with trickery.”
“Writer’s throughout history have documented the tragic plight of ghosts,” said Scatius, putting his head on the table. “Trapped between planes, ignorant of their condition …” He began to snore.
“You mean cynical hacks know a good gimmick when they see it,” I said. “The lost-ghost cliché is absurd on the face of it. After a full day without hunger pangs or trips to the restroom even Cretinius would figure out that something special had occurred. And what should we make of the supernatural dimension that stands as the basis for these tales? What could possibly transpire in a bodiless, non-physical realm? The traditional answer is the experience of bliss or a reunion with deceased family members. Has no one noticed these are mutually exclusive?”
“But wouldn’t you want to see your father again?” said Sophia, running her fingers through my hair.
“Exceptions only prove the general rule. Regarding the plausibility of the former answer: compile a list of all the types of bliss you have experienced without the use of your body.”
Sophia giggled. “There aren’t many, and the best one isn’t included.”
“Something smells bad,” said Cretinius.
“Oh my,” cried Sophia, pinching her nose. “Poor Scatius has had an accident.”
“He pooped,” agreed Cretinius, and we all abandoned the table with its slumbering defecator. “Petronius, look at the bugs,” said Cretinius with glee. Attracted to the sweet liquid from the broken bottle, a squadron of yellow jackets darted about the shards.
“No Cretinius, those are –”
I put my finger to her lips. “Sophia, when I establish my Academy, Experience shall be granted an honorary professorship. Hopefully all my pupils will be as receptive to my teachings as you. And as lovely.”
Cretinius screamed and lumbered away flailing his arms.
“Now, even if we can conceive of a disembodied state of bliss, what do we mean by bliss in this context? A state of schnapps intoxication? For all eternity? As much joy as that syrupy nectar can bring, would you want to feel like that forever?”
“Oh Petronius, let’s go for a walk in the park.”
*On principle I avoid all references to Egyptian mythology. As clever as they were in covering a desert with giant triangles and gruesome half-cat half-man monstrosities, their obsession with the afterworld was preposterous. How did they expect a mummy to untangle himself once he arrived in the next kingdom? Did not the removal of his vital organs and brain bode ill for his health and vigor? What were those silly people thinking?
As the legend has it, after the Phoenix set its nest afire and burnt itself to a crisp, it was reborn. Why can no modern hack go within a mile of a keyboard without making a reference to it? Verily, it is the true curse of the Pharaohs. That such a story persisted longer than one generation bespeaks the appalling poverty of imagination rampant in Egypt at the time. Worse, it is frighteningly evocative of the Buddhist monks who practiced self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War.
A conscientious writer will only use a mythic allusion to bring clarity. If there exists even a remote chance of it evoking irritating questions regarding mummies or horrific images of suicides, then he must look to other means to make his point.
Even ignoring the preceding (and utterly damning) objections, it is not clear a Phoenix reference would have been appropriate. I want something good to arise from inferior questions. There is nothing whatsoever in the Phoenix legend about a superior bird arising. It is the same tedious, self-immolating one each and every time.
A question we shall not pursue here is how a bird can set anything on fire. Did it strike a match? Did it rub two rocks together? The Egyptians were aware that birds lack opposable thumbs, were they not? Perhaps they should have spent less time carving gibberish on their gaudy tombs and more time observing the natural world. What manner of brain-disabling deadline did the author of this puerile legend work under? Had the Pharaoh commissioned him to write a new one by the morrow? Or did he compose it after hours in the broiling sun?
In summary: a reference to a Phoenix arising would have been inappropriate, subjected the Reader to needless trauma, quite possibly ruined my otherwise splendid dialogue, and covered my hands in filth from the crime of perpetuating this cheap, contrived, and all-around deplorable myth.