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.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Ghost wardrobe

Debating endlessly over silly conjectures is nothing new.  The claim has been endlessly circulated that the medieval scholastics, for example, conducted learned arguments over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.   Whether they actually argued over the issue is itself the subject of debate; it seems like the earliest iteration of the idea for which we have written evidence is in The Reasons of the Christian Religion by seventeenth century Puritan theologian Richard Baxter, wherein he writes:
And Schibler with others, maketh the difference of extension to be this, that Angels can contract their whole substance into one part of space, and therefore have not Extra Partes.  Whereupon it is that the Schoolmen have questioned how many Angels may fit upon the point of a Needle?
Which I think we can agree is equally silly.  Given that no one has actually conducted a scientific examination of an angel, determining whether they have Extra Partes is kind of a waste of time.

Although you may recall that Alan Rickman as the Angel Metatron in Dogma made a significant point about angels not having genitalia.  Whether that's admissible as evidence, however, is dubious at best.

So there's a good bit of precedent for people wasting inordinate amounts of time arguing over questions that there's no way to settle.  Which is why I have to admit to rolling my eyes more than once over the article by Stephen Wagner, "Paranormal Phenomena Expert," called, "Why Are Ghosts Seen Wearing Clothes?"

I have to admit, however, that it was a question I'd never considered. If the soul survives, and some souls decide not to go on to their Eternal Reward but to hang around here on Earth to bother the living, you have to wonder why their clothes came along with them.   Clothes, I would imagine, have no souls themselves, so the idea that you're seeing the Undying Spirit of grandpa's seersucker jacket is kind of ridiculous.

Be that as it may, most ghosts are seen fully clothed.  There are exceptions; in 2011 a woman in Cleveland claims to have captured video of two naked ghosts having sex.  But I think we have to admit that such afterlife in flagrante delicto is pretty uncommon.

Wagner spoke with some ghost hunters, and turns out that there's a variety of explanations that have been offered for this.  Troy Taylor, of the American Ghost Society (did you know there was an American Ghost Society?  I didn't) said that ghosts are seen clothed because a haunting is the replaying of a deceased spirit's visualization of itself, and we usually don't picture ourselves in the nude.

On the other hand, Stacey Jones, who calls herself the "Ghost Cop," says that ghosts can project themselves any way they want to.  So what they're doing is creating an image of themselves that has the effect they're after, whether it is eliciting fear, pity, sympathy, or a desire for revenge.  Does that mean that Anne Boleyn, for example, could wander around the Tower of London wearing a bunny suit if she wanted to?  You'd think that she'd be mighty bored after nearly five centuries of stalking around with her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm, and would be ready for a change.

Ghost hunters Richard and Debbie Senate were even more terse about the whole thing.  It's a "gotcha question," they say.  But if pressed, they'd have to say that "Ghosts appear as wearing clothes because that's how they appear to us."  Which I think we can all agree is unimpeachable logic.

I find it pretty amusing that this is even a topic for debate.  Shouldn't we be more concerned about finding scientifically-sound evidence that ghosts exist, rather than fretting over whether we get to take our wardrobe with us into the next world?  As I've said more than once, I am completely agnostic about the afterlife; I simply don't know.  I find some stories of near-death experiences and hauntings intriguing, but I've never found anything that has made me come down on one or the other side of the debate with any kind of certainty.  I'll find out one way or the other at some point no matter what, and if I haven't figured it out before then, I'm content to wait.

So I suppose this falls into the "No Harm If It Amuses You" department.  But it does raise the question of what kind of clothes I want to bring with me if it turns out you do get to choose.  If I end up haunting somewhere nice and tropical -- certainly my preference -- all I'll need is a pair of swim trunks.  On the other hand, if I'm stuck here in upstate New York, which seems more likely, I want my winter jacket, wool scarf, hat, and gloves.

Unless my spirit getting stuck here in perpetuity, with no cold-weather gear, is because I've been sent to hell by the powers-that-be.  Which unfortunately also seems fairly likely.


I'm always amazed by the resilience we humans can sometimes show.  Knocked down again and again, in circumstances that "adverse" doesn't even begin to describe, we rise above and move beyond, sometimes accomplishing great things despite catastrophic setbacks.

In Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life, journalist Lulu Miller looks at the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist whose fascination with aquatic life led him to the discovery of a fifth of the species of fish known in his day.  But to say the man had bad luck is a ridiculous understatement.  He lost his collections, drawings, and notes repeatedly, first to lightning, then to fire, and finally and catastrophically to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which shattered just about every specimen bottle he had.

But Jordan refused to give up.  After the earthquake he set about rebuilding one more time, becoming the founding president of Stanford University and living and working until his death in 1931 at the age of eighty.  Miller's biography of Jordan looks at his scientific achievements and incredible tenacity -- but doesn't shy away from his darker side as an early proponent of eugenics, and the allegations that he might have been complicit in the coverup of a murder.

She paints a picture of a complex, fascinating man, and her vivid writing style brings him and the world he lived in to life.  If you are looking for a wonderful biography, give Why Fish Don't Exist a read.  You won't be able to put it down.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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