Friday, October 31, 2008

A ‘While Walking Addendum’ to "Do you believe in ghosts?" asked by Carlos in Devil's Backbone

I don't normally publish follow-ups to my own monologues, even though they happen startlingly often. They seem too indulgent. But when you're out in the middle of the woods like I am right now, with a weak flashlight beam like I have, you're likely to get attached to what you feel. The "believe in ghosts" problem is such a neat one because it taps on how many kinds of belief there are. Belief, non-belief and disbelief barely all make it into a reputable dictionary. But how many phases of matter are there?

Most would answer three: solid, liquid and gas.

(Okay, most would answer, "Huh?")

A slightly snarkier demographic would answer four, and add plasma to the list.

But there are more than four. Vapor is the phase state in-between liquid and gas. Fluid is a phase state in-between liquid and solid. There are states in-between the commonly recognized ones. These are much more amorphous states, as while it’s easy enough to call something solid, everything from molasses to the glass in your windows are fluids. And then there are plays on phases of matter, like smoke, a solid so tiny and fine it's lighter than gas. It baffles the pedestrian mind.

So when I look through this narrow flashlight beam in the woods at midnight, I think there may be fluid and vaporous belief. Maybe even smoke belief (or smoked belief – delicious). That agnostic leaning towards thinking there's nothing behind what he sees. And in most cases, I'm willing to bet there's a fluid belief that's agnostic leaning upon suspicion, with traits harder to observe and often denied. That’s how so many people are left thinking glass is a solid.

I invite anyone who reads this to go grab a weak flashlight and trot out half a mile from your car in the woods. Find a flat stretch of ground like I'm on right now, without too many bumps, so it's safe to turn off the light while you’re walking.

Then do it.

See how far you make it without turning it back on, and see what your instincts conjure up. We've hunted wolves and coyotes to the verge of extinction nearly anywhere you can drive a car, so don't pretend there's a rational threat out there. And don't blame it on movies. Yes, Hollywood has suggested some things that could go bump in your night, but making up a far smaller fraction of our storytelling consciousnesses than what the settlers had around campfires. If anything in our age of high skepticism you ought to be the most immune to worrying about werewolves or whatever.

Yet if I turn this thing off for two seconds I'm sure there's some hulking Grendel in front of me with teeth that have outgrown his lips and hair that's outgrown his hide, ready to leer in my face the instant I turn the light back on.

Me, who reads Scientific American and The Economist.

Then again, I do love the Blair Witch Project.

But it's a worthwhile experiment for the skeptical believer, or the believable skeptic. Get away from the labels, from the ideology of epistemology. Come out here at night with no one around and little light, and see what you really feel, not in hypothesis, but in events. Much as you take a man out of his environment and see how he behaves to see his real philosophy rather than what he put together in a term paper or a lecture, you can come out here any time. I know I have, because while I love my scary stories, I've spent a hundred times the hours sitting out here and hiking than I have watching Horror movies.

Right now I don't feel ghosts swirling overhead or Grendels in the bushes. Instead I’m feeling that people are going to say they felt nothing, or felt stupid, or felt like they were wasting their time. I know because I have that reflex, too. I could say that and cover for the other things I felt. Perhaps lying helps quicken you away from the transitional phases and back to the simple, safe big three of gases, liquids and solids.

And a thousand apologies to anyone actually mauled by a wolf in this experiment.


  1. My grandmother was mauled by a wolf you bastard!

    ...I kid. I tried your experiment when I was little and tripped and split my lip open however.

  2. I take no responsibility for retroactive injuries incurred in relation to my experiments.


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