Saturday 23 February 2019

Do ghosts really exist? Of course

Do ghosts really exist? Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College thinks yes and writes that Catholics (and presumably other Christians) should not try to contact or communicate with them

I know very well that this is right, although it is interesting how very much more normal it is to believe in ghosts now than it was in the eighteenth century England, when Dr Johnson was mocked for thinking they might exist. He did however show that the Cock Lane Ghost was a fraud.

Someone wrote an historical detective story with Dr Johnson as the detective and he made a good one, showing Ossian to have been a fraud, for example.

He once spent several nights in an abandoned house to see if he could meet a ghost, without success. Carlyle wrote about this.

“What is a ghost? A ghost is a spirit that has taken corporal form and appears for a while among men. How could Johnson not have thought of this when faced with the spectacle of the human multitudes he loved so much in the streets of London, for if a ghost were a spirit that has taken a corporal form for a brief interval, why did it not occur to him that the London multitudes were ghosts, that he himself was a ghost? What is each man but a spirit that has taken corporal form briefly and then disappears? What are men if not ghosts?”
This reminds me of Henry James who when asked if he believed in the immortality of the soul said

"Yes, for those who have them. Most people don't, you know."

A brilliant sally, but a precious remark from a rather silly man.

I also remember the famous Society priest and 'Apostle to the Young Fogeys' Monsignor Gilbey, who had invited me to tea at the Travellers' Club, telling me there were seven people sitting round the table (he and I were alone).
"Of course I don't know exactly how many but there are angels, demons, saints."
These are three beautiful quotations from the Great Cham (so Smollett called Dr. Johnson) about ghosts:

"It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it." 

 "Sir, I make a distinction between what a man may experience by the mere strength of his imagination, and what imagination cannot possibly produce. Thus, suppose I should think I saw a form, and heard a voice cry, "Johnson, you are a very wicked fellow, and unless you repent you will certainly be punished;" my own unworthiness is so deeply impressed upon my mind, that I might imagine I thus saw and heard, and therefore I should not believe that an external communication had been made to me. But if a form should appear, and a voice tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact, with all its circumstances, should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case, be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me."

"That the dead are seen no more ... I will not undertake to maintain, against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth; those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers can very little weaken the general evidence; and some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears."

Going back to Catholicism and the supernatural, I knew a very devout Catholic who attended the Tridentine Mass and disliked theological liberalism but who followed horoscopes, even though the Church forbids her children from doing so. The Church, he pointed out, does not think horoscopes are false but forbidden knowledge.

But even though I have lived in Romania twenty years I refuse to take horoscopes seriously. An English friend of mine, Nick Brind, who has lived in Romania for much longer, once said to me:
"You know you have been in Romania too long when you can tell someone's star sign from their birthday and throw yourself into an animated discussion about it."

[Footnote: Are my blog posts starting to ramble like Aubrey's Brief Lives or Leigh Hunt's essays? I should love that, though I do not want to resemble that crashing bore Montaigne, to whom someone has compared me.]


  1. An amusing Sunday morning read.

    Interesting quotations, personal anecdotes (who were the other five people around the table?) and beliefs, references to the thoughts of various intellectuals and writers.

    I don't believe in ghosts.

    Romanians and star-signs, one of the many charming things about the country and people.

    Mine is Taurus - Taur :).

  2. You elsewhere describe yourself as a Catholic. If you refuse to take horoscopes seriously that why do you take Catholicism seriously?

    “The alignment of the stars makes this my lucky month? Nah, that’s superstitious nonsense. Can’t take it seriously.”

    “A story about a man 2000 years ago who walked on water, fed 5000 people with 2 pieces of bred, died and came back to life, cured the blind, raised dead people all alleged by authors unknown decades after the events supposedly happened? - sure sounds legit. I take it seriously enough to go to mass and declare my belief in these stories.”

  3. As I said, I do believe in the supernatural. The Catholic Church condemns superstition, fortune telling, seances and the rest. As for the Incarnation it is the most improbable thing imaginable and hard to believe in - all other religions are much easier to believe in.

    1. sounds like the Catholic Church hates competition... it's a business like all others.

  4. Seeing is mechanistically close to imagination...