Ghostspotting: Belated Halloween musings on epistemology

Thursday November 3, 2011

René Descartes, who famously created a whole year of high school math just trying to get his servant to kill a fly on the ceiling, thought that the human soul was hanging out in the pineal gland, up in the middle of your brain.

The pineal gland is smaller than a chickpea, which is what Paul Giamatti’s soul looked like in the movie Cold Souls. Descartes would approve.

But if you can’t make hummus out of souls, then ghosts are the next best thing. The words are even used interchangeably, sometimes. And I believe in lots of things that I’ve seen as many times as I’ve seen ghosts. Blue whales. Atoms. India.

Really, we’d better hope we’ve got souls somewhere, because otherwise what is there that makes humans so special compared to Watson and his digital kin? After you’ve lost Jeopardy, how long is it before you lose your job, your girlfriend, and your seat at church?

And ghosts are nothing! I believe in neutrinos, which are so nearly invisible that the great state university of Wisconsin uses a whole cubic kilometer of Antarctic ice just trying to figure out if there are any coming our way. It’s called the IceCube Neutrino Telescope.

I also believe in Einstein’s theories of relativity, which suggest, among other things, that if you stay home while I go for a jog, I’ll be younger relative to you afterward - and that nothing can go faster than light, ever.

This is so deeply believed, that when some European scientists said that they detected neutrinos going faster than light, a New York scientist said, on the record, that he would bet his house that they were wrong.*

And some people say they’ve really seen ghosts! I know the senses are fallible, but I’m pretty much married to mine, for better or worse. Would you bet your house that all those people who saw ghosts are wrong?

It comes down to how we decide what to believe. Are you less likely to kick your grandma if you believe she might haunt you? Are you more likely to support human rights for Ethiopians if you believe they have immortal souls? Maybe it’s worth believing.

But nobody thinks souls are physically hiding out in the base of your brain these days. What do modern people think of the pineal gland? People say it keeps you from getting horny as a kid, and it helps you get to sleep when the sun goes down, but the details are still as fuzzy as a graveyard Polaroid.


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