Demystifying the paranormal - part one
Posted on Wednesday, 22 February, 2012 | 10 comments
Columnist: Chris Broka
Ghosts have been reported throughout human history, and all languages seem to contain at least one word for the concept. While different cultures explain it differently, they seem to be documenting a phenomenon whose essential features vary surprisingly little. Ghosts, when seen, are often observed to resemble persons that have died. This has led to the belief that they are the souls or non-corporeal essences of those deceased persons. Ghosts are also described as being able to interact with the living world. They can sometimes speak. They can, apparently, move objects and even touch people.
Science has tended to discount the ghost phenomenon. This is, in part, because it is difficult to demonstrate in any reproducible way. Most of the evidence is, therefore, anecdotal in nature. Also, it has been a subject rife with hoaxing and downright lunacy (much of the late 19th Century Spiritualist Movement being a case in point). More importantly, there has been a tendency to dismiss the phenomenon because it does not comport with our notions of physics and Scientific Materialism. If an ashtray flies across a room, momentum is not being conserved. This shouldn't be possible. If a ghost is seen, photons must be emanating from it. Where could these come from? Given the success of modern science and the pertinence of these objections, it is little wonder that the subject has acquired a bad reputation and is generally ignored within intellectually respectable circles. But it is for these very reasons that the subject does commend itself to our serious attention. If ghosts are real they are, almost certainly, telling us something quite important about how reality actually works; if they are real, reality cannot work the way we think it does.
It is not my purpose, in this article, to argue for or against the objective existence of ghosts. The reader is welcome to come to his own conclusions regarding this matter. Instead, I will simply ask the reader to suspend his disbelief and assume, for the moment, that ghosts are real and that they are more-or-less like the phenomenon that has been described to us by the majority of people who claim to have encountered it. I will go on to investigate what this "fact" may be trying to tell us about reality and to construct a theory, however incomplete and tentative, that explains many of the peculiar characteristics of ghosts.
What are We Trying to Explain?
When theorizing about a strange subject, and one that has been a frequent victim of fraud and innocent misinterpretation, it is imperative that we delineate the boundaries of what we are theorizing about. I begin by asking that we forget about most of the (silly) things that Hollywood and fictional stories tell us about ghosts. Real ghosts do not wear white bedsheets. They do not rattle chains. They rarely talk to us in more than fragmentary sentences. Also, they are rather seldom actually seen. And, when they are seen, they usually appear to us as indistinct figures or darkish shadows through which we cannot see clearly. On rare occasions they may be seen clear as day, appearing just like normal people. But such occasions are rare indeed. If the documented research is to be believed, ghosts are more usually evidenced by their tangible manifestations; they bang on walls, cause us to hear footsteps, push us, pull on our clothing, give rise to disembodied voices and EVPs. Sometimes they even attack us. But they are not too often seen. A good theory needs to explain this.
I think we should also put to the side some of the more dodgy claims connected with ghosts. So-called "orbs" are almost certainly just dust, bugs, and photographic anomalies. Most "demonic possessions" are probably just the result of mentally questionable people letting their imaginations work overtime. Mediums, seances, and dowsing rods are probably just bunk. So let's not try to explain everything. Instead, let's try to explain the bare bones of the phenomenon – the things that almost every culture and investigator can, sort of, agree upon. I have already mentioned a few of these things. Other things would include the fact that ghosts often seem to be attached to particular "haunted" locations. Another would be the fact that they don't seem to grow old and die. Ghosts have been reported that would have died of old age long ago if they were who we think they are. These are a few of the things I will try to explain.
Now I must say that the theory I am about to set forth will strike most readers as bizarre. But this is only to have been anticipated. Any theory that would attempt to explain a phenomenon such as ghosts, one which blatantly contravenes almost everything we think we know about reality, is going to have to be pretty strange. I begin by calling the reader's attention to another set of ideas – one almost equally strange.
The Simulation Hypothesis.
The Simulation Hypothesis gained philosophical currency with the publication of several articles by Hans Moravec and, separately, Nick Bostrom (1,2). Since then it has taken on a number of different forms. The one I am interested in here goes by the name 'The Virtual World Simulation Hypothesis.' The interested reader is referred to the original literature. In simple terms, this idea holds that our world can be thought of as a kind of computer simulation. We are, in effect, like those "Sims" in the computer game of the same name. Bostrom and others believe that a computer program of sufficient sophistication could instantiate and simulate us – our brains, our thoughts, our sensations – in such a way that "we" would perceive them consciously. Essentially, we are conscious Sims in someone, or something's, computer program or game.
The philosophical implications of this idea are far-reaching, and I will comment upon some of these in the last section of this article. For the moment, let us just assume that this version of the Simulation Hypothesis is on the right track. For the purpose of this discussion let us assume that our reality consists, basically, of 1s and 0s being processed by a computer, hypercomputer, or Universal Turing Machine (UTM) of some kind existing in a higher-order reality of which we can have no direct knowledge. It runs our universe somewhat like one of our computers runs the Sims' universe. Of course, our program is vastly more complex than that of the Sims and can do things much more realistically. But, still, this is the kind of picture I'm painting. It depicts and places us within a simulated "World" that obeys the laws of physics (as we somewhat understand them). It would be consistent and complete from our point of view. In this sense, we would not notice or be able to deduce the fact that we were Sims. I will return to the notion of 'completeness' presently. It should be understood that the Virtual World Simulation Hypothesis is an altogether different idea from the one underlying the popular Matrix Trilogy. (Interestingly, the possibility that ghosts are related to programming errors on the part of the Matrix was mentioned in one of these movies.)
A Theory of Ghosts.
Suppose that a person dies suddenly in his house. Suppose further that, at a point in time somewhat previous to his death, the UTM creates a secondary simulation of that person's house and places the last viable file of that person in it. We have just assembled the raw materials for a ghost. Why the UTM would do such a thing, I cannot hope to say. Presumably, this is just a thing it sometimes does based on the nature of the algorithms it runs. In any case, I refer to this newly-created, independent simulation as a sub-simulation. This is a concept that will feature centrally in everything that follows. Whereas it used to be running one simulation only, now the UTM runs two in parallel – one for us, one for the potential ghost. This potential ghost would not necessarily notice too much amiss right away. He'd experience himself continuing to live in his accustomed abode.
For all I know things like this, the branching off of sub-simulations, might be occurring all the time within the UTM and the tape it reads and prints on. Maybe it always happens when people die suddenly. Maybe it happens every time a leaf falls off a particular tree. Since our primary simulation (the one we call "reality") would go on about its business without interruption, we'd never be any the wiser. In order for what are reported as hauntings to occur something else is required. I propose the following: If a sufficient degree of similarity exists between our simulation and a particular sub-simulation the UTM may, on occasion, make "mistakes" or, perhaps to optimize computational efficiency, allow one simulation to be confused with, and thereby bleed into another. In effect, I'm proposing that two sufficiently similar simulations, simulations having a great many 1s and 0s in common, may be able to communicate, one to the other, such that events in one may be mirrored in the other and vice-versa. Whether this is a result of accidental "laziness" on the part of the UTM or a clever attempt to save CPU time, I can't speculate. Whatever the cause, it might very well present us with something like a ghost. If we live in the house where the unfortunate person died, we might expect never to notice a thing. Even if there exists a sub-simulation of the dead person, we could well hope never to encounter evidence of it. But if, once in a while, the UTM makes a mistake and mixes, however briefly, the 1s and 0s of our respective simulations, we might experience a "ghost" which would be nothing more than traces of something going on in a different simulation, a simulation not our own but one so closely related to ours by virtue of its similarity to the "real" world that the UTM's algorithms may fail, if even for a moment, to make the necessary distinctions. When this condition exists we would say that we were experiencing a haunting.
The Ghost's Sub-Simulation.
Since this is an idea likely to confuse many readers at first, I should try to lay it out as clearly as I can. If we are, indeed, living in a simulation, as some philosophers have suggested, a sub-simulation is to be regarded as something similar and semi-autonomous. It would instantiate a reality very much like our own for its inhabitant(s) but be run off to the side as a separate virtual reality. In it would live the potential ghost who corresponds to a previous file that encoded the information that was necessary to simulate him. In the circumstances I will consider, it will have derived from the mainline simulation we regard as "reality" by duplicating a part of that simulation and running it in a different way – one which includes a person that has died, and, perhaps, nobody else.
I begin by distinguishing between what we will call 'complete' simulations and 'incomplete' simulations. A 'complete' simulation is one like that we live in and call reality. It does not appear to be bounded in any spatiotemporal way. We can land on the moon and the moon's surface is simulated for us to walk on. We can look at the Sombrero Galaxy and we'll see it and even be able to measure its light's spectrum. The "past" seems always to have existed. (We can find dinosaur fossils.) Its future, for all we know, will go on indefinitely. In short, it is fully complete and logically self-consistent. It shows us the workings of its laws of physics in a way that would never make us mistake it for anything other than the "real" universe we think we live in.
Now, an 'incomplete' sub-simulation is more like a small information-theoretic parasite. I propose it to be just a set of alternate 1s and 0s, run using the same laws of physics as our 'complete' simulation, but instantiating only a little bit of information. It's derived from – budded-off, as it were, from – our complete simulation and may instantiate only a haunted house. Perhaps it gets generous and instantiates the front lawn of the house. But, maybe, not a whole lot more. No moon, no Sombrero Galaxy, just a little, incomplete, part. That's where the ghost "lives." To do its necessary calculations, this sub-simulation builds itself out of a part of our complete simulation and runs forward from there. It is not usually going to be logically self-consistent. Maybe the ghost can turn on his electric light. But there's no power station in his reality to make it glow. Certainly, he feels gravity. But there isn't really an Earth there to generate it for him. Maybe the ghost can go into his yard. But there's no street in front of it anymore. Insofar as it works, this sub-simulation is just a derived thing – something borrowed originally as 1s and 0s from our "real" simulation but now running as an independent, 'incomplete,' thing. (The "Sims" computer game I alluded to earlier would also be an example of an 'incomplete' simulation.)
We always see ourselves as having a past and a future. In the ghost's reality things seem to be a little different. His reality may run for only a few days or minutes. Maybe this is the best the UTM can do for him. In short, an 'incomplete sub-simulation' is envisioned to be a spatiotemporally restricted thing – a semi-independent thing derived from, but separate from, the "Real World." It encompasses just a little space. It simulates just a little time. Moreover, I must propose another strange idea regarding the ghost's incomplete sub-simulation. I have to propose that, relative to what we perceive as the flow of our time, the ghost's sub-simulation turns on and off at intervals. Its time doesn't always have to run in lock-step with our own. (Of course, since the ghost always starts up with whatever memories he starts up with, he will never notice anything abnormal going on with his time.)
Why would I propose such implausible things? Only because they agree very well with the anecdotal reports of what ghosts are. And the anecdotal evidence is all I really have to build off of here. Anne Boleyn's ghost is sometimes seen in the Tower of London. It is never seen in Yankee Stadium; it seems to be spatially restricted to its own "haunted" location. It can't seem to move away from that place. Also, it never appears to grow old. If Anne Boleyn's sub-simulation always ran concurrently with ours she'd have died of old age hundreds of years ago. Yet people still report seeing her. It seems to be the case that the ghost's sub-simulation is a just a very restricted little representation of a possible reality that runs for a time, then shuts off, runs some more, shuts off again, and so on. In most cases of hauntings it seems to rewind itself at intervals and start again from its beginning. There are, however, some cases, such as those of so-called 'crisis apparitions' and 'postmortem apparitions,' where the sub-simulation usually runs only once. After this the ghost is not seen again. If a sub-simulation can run for only a very short time, and runs (relative to our "time") over and over again, we experience what is called a 'residual haunting.' This is a very common type of haunting. In rare cases, the subsimulation may be more long-lived. The ghost then has time to interact with us at length, figure out that he is a ghost, and, on occasion, even do things to us. These situations are referred to as 'intelligent hauntings.'
Lastly, I introduce the notion of a common coordinate system for our world and that of the ghost. It seems likely that the UTM employs something like a spacetime coordinate system to define the locations of the things it is simulating in the real world and likewise for the ghost. If it places the doorknob of the haunted house at spatial coordinates (0,1,4) in our world then it seems reasonable to think it would use (0,1,4) for the doorknob of the ghost's haunted house and similarly for the toaster and the sofa – after all, the ghost's house was copied from the real house to begin with.
I envision the ghost as a simulated person, in no particular way different from ourselves save for his unusual dwelling place. Generally, he seems derived from the last viable file, the 1s and 0s, corresponding to the last moments of his former self. I say this because dead old people give rise to old ghosts and not child ghosts, and so on. The UTM may have little choice in this matter since it, perhaps, does not save earlier copies of peoples' files for very long. What use would it have for the 1s and 0s that represented you 10 years ago? It's probably just interested in simulating you right now. Also, that file must describe a person that is alive and capable of doing things. If a person shoots himself I expect the computer to simulate him as he was before the bullet killed him. A "dead" ghost wouldn't make for much of a haunting.
Indeed, this may explain the fact that ghosts so frequently seem to arise from sudden deaths – suicides, murders, and battlefield deaths are all prolific generators of ghosts. A person who gets sick, lingers in a coma for years, then dies, would be a poor candidate for becoming a ghost. If he did he would probably end up a comatose ghost incapable of doing anything more than making a impression on a bed. Such impressions are sometimes noticed and attributed to ghosts. Maybe they are due to comatose ghosts. But a ghost like that wouldn't make for much of a haunting, any more than a dead one would.
Why the ghost ends up haunting one location as opposed to another is hard to understand. Often it is the place he has died that is chosen. But, on other occasions, people die in one place yet their ghost appears somewhere else. The only requirement seems to be that the place have some relevance to the ghost's former life. The ghost does not appear to have much choice when it comes to determining his haunting location. I say this because haunted prisons and insane asylums are so common as to be almost cliché. If ghosts could pick and choose, one thinks they would opt for less unpleasant venues.
Let me also comment on the subject of multiple hauntings. Many locations seem to contain two or more ghosts. Some EVPs apparently record one ghost talking to another. Since real ghosts appear to be very rare, this is a surprising observation. If ghosts were scattered at random over the Earth's surface the likelihood of finding two or more in the same place would have to be remote. One explanation might be the following: The hard part of making a ghost is creating the sub-simulation. Once created, it may be relatively easy for the UTM to download more ghosts into it resulting in a multiple haunting situation.
I would expect to be asked "Why must a person die in order to become a ghost?" The answer is that he probably doesn't. There is the so-called Doppelgänger phenomenon, in which a still-living person is seen as a ghostly double of himself. In Old English such ghosts are called 'fetches,' 'fyes,' or 'wafts.' In Norway they are referred to as 'vardøgrs.' This phenomenon suggests that living people can occasionally give rise to sub-simulations and ghosts. Buddhists would, I think, describe this as a person's projecting a 'Tulpa' of himself. (A brain-in-a-vat or Matrix-like version of the Simulation Hypothesis would not allow for such a phenomenon.)
If this was all there was to it, there wouldn't be any hauntings. A ghost might go about his business, isolated within his sub-simulation, for years. We wouldn't notice a thing unless he could interact with us in some way. I mentioned earlier that I think this interaction happens when the UTM temporarily mixes up some of the 1s and 0s of our simulation with that of the ghost. Again, I cannot say exactly why it does this. One thing that appears to be necessary is a high degree of overlap, similarity, congruence, or call it what you like, between the ghost's simulated locale and the corresponding locale in our world. This seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for an active haunting. I say this because the similarity between the two locations isn't likely to change very quickly, most of the time. Yet hauntings, typically, turn on and off over and over again. In many cases this may result from the sub-simulation running and then stopping relative to our simulated time. But it certainly seems as if cross-communication between two simulations is only a sometime affair. I will introduce a new 'paraphysical' quantity, c(x
, t), that describes the strength of this cross-communication as a function of the common spacetime coordinate system shared by ourselves and the ghost. c(x
, t) is to be regarded as a dimensionless, complex-valued, scalar field. Article Copyright© Chris Broka - reproduced with permission.