Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, May 27, 2011

People are strange

Belief in an afterlife is an almost universal part of religion, be it the heaven-and-hell scenario of traditional Christianity, the idea of reincarnation from Buddhism and Hinduism, or the "energy merging with the cosmos" thing you hear so often from New Age types.  A lot of atheists simply disbelieve in any sort of afterlife.  Myself, I don't bother speculating.  First, we have no hard evidence of any kind, which I think you'd probably expect if there was an afterlife, and you'd certainly expect if there wasn't.  Second, I figure I'll find out for sure sooner or later in any case.

Of course, there are the anecdotal reports of ghosts to account for.  I tend to discount most of them, largely based on the fact that the human perceptual apparatus is so easy to fool.  Plus, a lot of people gain notoriety (and money) from claiming that there are cases of spirit survival -- witness the popularity (and therefore the lucrativeness for sponsors) of shows like Ghost Hunters.  If you add in the money that is made by so-called mediums such as Sylvia Browne and James van Praagh, you can see that the afterlife is big business.

Still, you have to wonder why some people make weird claims when they seemingly have nothing to gain from it.  As an example, a woman named Rhonda Baron, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, just made the news yesterday by claiming that the ghost of Jim Morrison keeps getting in bed with her.

Baron lives in a house on 28th Street in which Morrison had lived as a child.  She had only lived there for a few months, she says, when Morrison's spirit began to visit her at night.  "I was lying in bed," she said, in a television news interview.  "The spirit lay down on the bed beside me on his back, and turned and looked at me.  It was like a haze, you could look through it."  She claims that Morrison's ghost has returned there because he led an unhappy life, and his childhood home is one place that had happy memories for him.

Which would indicate that apparently, Morrison never did break on through to the other side.

So here we have a person who apparently has little to gain from telling this story but her five minutes of fame on public television, and could lose a great deal if her friends and neighbors decide she's a raving wingnut.  From her interview, she doesn't have the air of someone who is lying, or deluded; she seems to  believe vehemently that what she is saying is the truth.

Now, please understand that I'm not implying that I'm in doubt myself; I have no reason to think that Baron is really being visited by Jim Morrison.  I am more curious as to why an apparently rational person would make such an outlandish claim unless she really had experienced something out of the ordinary.  I suppose one could make a case that she's doing it for the attention, but it does seem like a pretty peculiar way to get attention.

Morrison, of course, is not the only famous person whom people have claimed to see in spirit form; some of the more frequent ones are Harry Houdini, Elvis Presley, Anne Boleyn (often wi' her head tucked underneath 'er arm), Marilyn Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln.  In one of the most famous anecdotes of a ghost sighting, Winston Churchill was on a state visit and staying in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House, and allegedly saw Lincoln climbing out of the bathtub, stark naked, with a cigar in his mouth.

"Mr. President, you have me at a disadvantage," Churchill said, at which point the ghost smiled at him and vanished.  Churchill, so the story goes, refused to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom after that.

I wouldn't have, either. 

Be that as it may, I'm still skeptical about the whole thing.  I still think that experiences such as Churchill's, and Baron's, are too easily explained as vivid dreams in light sleep (so-called "hypnogogic experiences"), a hallucinatory state that is not uncommon and apparently frighteningly realistic.  It just seems a much easier explanation -- dare I mention Ockham's Razor again, without being thought predictable? -- than claiming that Abraham Lincoln saw fit to visit Winston Churchill in the all-together, and that Jim Morrison regularly visits Rhonda Baron in bed, perhaps in an attempt to light her fire.  I can't decisively rule out the possibility of an afterlife, but I think that from the data we have, other explanations are clearly adequate.

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