Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal

4 out of 5 stars
Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal
Hilary Evans (London: John Murray, 2002).

Hilary Evans, Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the ParanormalA well-organised and thoughtful book that bases its analysis on almost 200 cases, which are interspersed throughout the text and incorporated as the argument develops.

Evans builds on the ideas of previous researchers, especially the SPR, but his interpretations take a slightly different trajectory from theirs. Unable to accept that all ghost cases are misperception or coincidence, but agreeing that the mechanism must be some form of hallucination, Evans pushes into the possible causes of these hallucinations, having to account for their veridical content in many cases.

Two hypotheses are offered: (1) super-psi, an as yet unknown ability of the subject of a ghost experience to access information otherwise unknowable; and (2) the extended self, an as yet unknown vehicle by which the object of a ghost experience can influence the subject, in some instances perhaps from a point beyond death.

Evans suggests either hypothesis is adequate to explain the ghost experience, but evidently favours the parsimony of the latter, given the difficulties that arise when we consider the motivation for the percipient’s supposed use of super-psi. In other words: why see ghosts, unless ghosts are there and willing to be seen?

I was surprised by my own doubt concerning Evans’ even-handed and Fortean approach to his case material. The Chaffin case, for example, in which a dead father appears to reveal the location of his revised will is co-opted by Evans as support for his ‘extended self’ hypothesis (p. 104, 237). Yet this case has been satisfactorily resolved by Mary Roach, who has produced evidence that the ‘revised’ will was actually a fake by the dead man’s son, who therefore probably invented the story of the ghost.

Another case (p. 65) similarly bugged me (although I have no explanation). It concerns an investigator who arrives at a location and leaves the door unlocked for a delayed colleague. The householder soon after reports that she sees a ghost; the investigator sees nothing; but then the delayed colleague steps into the house and asks where the ‘other man’ has gone. Evans takes this tale at face value, partly because he is acquainted with the investigator concerned. Me, I was too suspicious not to feel this story too hokey somehow, nor to avoid wondering if the householder and the delayed colleague weren’t in collusion.

Evans seems averse to coincidence. ‘Surely this is stretching chance too far!’ (p. 225), he says, and makes similar remarks elsewhere. But improbable things can and do happen. My own hunch is that coincidence plays an important role in ghost experiences. Evans style of thinking is scientific in the respect that even though he posits currently unknown mechanisms, his are nevertheless mechanistic theories, envisaging a discrete chain of causes in the production of ghost experiences. Personally, I like the weirder option that ghosts are synchronicitous experiences, perhaps beyond causality. This is territory that Evans only begins to confront when considering the implications of his ‘extended self’ hypothesis for the relationship between ghosts and time (p. 265).

On the one hand, then, I found Evans not sceptical enough, whilst on the other, too mechanistic. What I suspect this might mean is that he is probably doing a better than average job of finding a useful middle ground between inflexible scepticism and irrational belief.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

3 out of 5 stars
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Mary Roach (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).

Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the AfterlifeThis was enjoyable and very readable, which didn’t surprise me, given the reviews I had read of her other books. What did surprise was the book’s scope and its not inconsiderable depth.

Roach explores mediumship, research into Near-Death Experience and reincarnation. She interviews (among others) Michael Persinger and Vic Tandy. And there are also a couple of thought-provoking chapters on the history and (odd as it seems) on-going attempts to identify and measure the human soul.

My favourite chapter is the one in which she revisits a case from 1925 (the Chaffin case), in which a supposed ghost revealed the location of his revised last will and testament. The new will was accepted in court as genuine, but in the process of interviewing the man’s descendants, uncovering the original documents, and hiring an expert analyst, Roach (in my opinion) provides a definitive explanation for the case.

She adopts a wry and sceptical approach to her material. Her analyses are sound, but her style is always deflationary in tone. One of her techniques (common among stand-up comedians) consists in highlighting a bizarre detail, then harking back to it unexpectedly, so that what at first seemed strange comes to seem ridiculously familiar. (Harry Hill does this a lot.)

Her writing is funny, but I found this technique annoying at times. It probably means I prefer books on the paranormal that confront us with oddness, rather than those that work to puncture the outlandish and return us to the familiar. Yet Roach does not come across at all as a blinkered debunker. Largely, I was won over by the breadth of her research and the solidity of her arguments.