On Spirits: do spirits exist?


Part I: Do Spirits Exist?

If you say you believe in spirits these days, people look at you funny. Spirits are regarded as relics of old ways of looking at the world that have been superseded by the scientific outlook. A certain latitude is granted us to continue to believe in persons and free will, but any other entities that cannot be seen, weighed and measured in the laboratory are discounted. Effects from the unseen world are assigned to impersonal forces, as if humanity consisted of 7 billion ghosts wandering through an otherwise uninhabited machine.

Where are spirits? Well, if there are any, they are right here. Then why can’t we see them? Because, under normal conditions, they inhabit wavelengths or energy frequencies that fall outside our range of perception. We can only see 7/100,000ths of an ångstrom of the total energy spectrum. Infrared and ultraviolet vibrations lie just beyond our ability to perceive, yet we know they are there by their effects. The same is true of radio waves and gamma radiation. If some of these energy flows are organized into persons, that is more than scientists know, and, ordinarily, it is more than we can know about it. People who claim to talk to spirits are considered either mentally ill or at least weak-minded.

This attitude can be traced historically. Science had to struggle against the power of the Church for the independence to conduct research and report discoveries. The Church taught that psychological urges that were hard to control came from spiritual entities called devils, and states of unusual happiness and inner peace from other beings called angels, or directly from a transcendent creator called God (a name derived originally from one of the titles of Thor, meaning ‘the handy one’). The Church governed access to these angelic or divine beings, and forbade traffic with the others. The Church, in effect, was like a huge tourniquet on humanity’s experience of spirits.


The scientific revolution against the Church re-asserted humanity’s freedom to investigate all phenomena, by denying the existence of spirits and insisting that it was only investigating impersonal forces that could be understood in solely mechanical terms. This meant that approaching anything other than other humans on a personal basis was out; manipulation, not dialogue, was the approved method. Some leeway was allowed to animal researchers to approach their subjects on a simplified personal level, but the reports they drew up had to be totally impersonal and concerned only with details of time and circumstance, presented in terms of measurements. Behavioral psychology even extended this impersonal approach to the study of fellow human beings. The researcher had to alienate him or herself from his or her own personal feelings and only report what could be detected by a third observer. The criterion of repeatability demanded that all observations be confined to the realm of publicly verifiable statements.

The rubric of science that excludes spirits is called ‘Occam’s Razor,’ named after the medieval philosopher William of Ockham. It states that ‘entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.’ Respectable tracts written by scientists or research scholars, when encountering accounts of spirits, always refer to such as employing superfluous explanations. Yet there are areas of experience that require the use of personal knowledge, of communication of subjective experience, which is excluded from the canons of laboratory research. Science makes allowance for this in its place, which is always limited to interpersonal transactions. Anything private, however, is merely subjective, and nothing noetic or effective is to be expected from talking to oneself.

Now, the interesting thing is that certain schools of therapeutic psychology depart from this model. They advocate dialoguing with one’s inner impulses, as if they were persons inhabiting one’s inner mentality. Is the as if thrown in to ensure that the patient does not fall into the error of schizophrenics, who regularly hear voices and respond to them as though they were other entities inhabiting their minds? If so, it would seem curious that cognitive therapists (as they are called) think that the addition of two little words would be sufficient to guard against this happening. Schizophrenia, as we are coming to understand increasingly, is a biochemical condition, and perfectly healthy, ‘normal’ people can talk to themselves without any danger of falling into that condition. Small children and isolated old people, for instance, talk to themselves frequently, as do people of intermediate age when they want to ‘see what they think’ about a given subject.

If, then, the as if is unnecessary from a therapeutic point of view, what purpose does it serve? It is, I hold, a sop thrown to our culture’s mandate that ‘entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,’ and taking the notion of spirits seriously is regarded as exceeding the bounds of necessity. Yet here we see that the interests of resolving inner conflicts call for such dialogue, though only as if we were talking to someone else. I pointed out to my last therapist (the insurance rules changed shortly thereafter, ending some twenty years of therapy and workshops for me) that, since we are not privy to each other’s mental processes, we are already speaking to each other as if we existed as separate persons. He chuckled in response (the philosopher R.G. Collingwood once remarked that people tend to be ticklish in their absolute presuppositions). So dialoguing with inner ‘drives’ (mechanical metaphor) and ‘urges’ as if they were persons simply amounted to dialoguing with them. It was a distinction without a difference. This suggests a refinement to Occam’s Razor: “Entities should not be multiplied beyond, nor subtracted within, necessity.” We need as many entities as are necessary to deal with the world, including ourselves, but no more than that number, and no less as well.

Nevertheless, in dialoguing with inner forces, I found I was not employing ‘entities’ (that is, assumptions as to existence) at all. I was simply engaging in the act of dialogue. An inspection of ancient religious psychology, once we strip off modern bias on these points (see e.g. The Greeks and the Irrational, by E.R. Dodds, Ch. 1, for both the data and the bias) reveals that the act of dialoguing, or engaging in what the later Church would call ‘traffic with spirits,’ was the sole concern of the ancients. If challenged as to whether the gods actually exist or not, they would probably answer that the question, besides being unanswerable, was irrelevant, since prayer and offerings were found to be effective most of the time anyway. It was the act of interaction with these ‘forces’ (modern mechanical metaphor) that counted, not what one believed about them. Bringing the question of belief into these studies is anachronistic, since the emphasis on belief only arose with the advent of Christianity and the subsequent defensive reaction against it among the late pagans.

Tekening Agamemnon

The better studies in their better moments will admit that these questions simply ‘never arose’ for the people of those ‘primitive’ times, but always regard such non-questioning as a defect of pre-philosophical understanding; but this is nonsense. Plenty of evidence exists that people three thousand years ago and earlier questioned the existence of the gods, and we have the Memphite Theology from Egypt as an example of the philosophical sophistication of deep antiquity. So it is at least possible that the reason the question of independent existence did not arise for people of those times was that the question, if considered for a moment, was dismissed as irrelevant.

The question of whether there are spirits, then, changes into “Are there private circumstances in which it is effective to take a personal approach in order to cope with them in our lives?”

Someone might say at this point, “Oh well, if that is all you mean by spirits, I am not very impressed. Do you mean we can never see one, or that they never take the initiative to appear to us?” I can only give a personal answer to this question: “Yes, on rare occasions; and when they do, you might wish they hadn’t!”

Part II: A Personal Encounter


In February 1970 I was living in my stepgrandfather’s house in San Diego. My friend Stan Colenso and I had gotten together and were casting about for something to do. We tried the municipal tennis courts, but they were closed in the late afternoon. We bought a paper and looked at the movie ads, but the only interesting films, as usual, were showing at the Unicorn Theatre (now long gone) in La Jolla up north. Finally we decided to give La Jolla a try and headed up Highway 5, but the fog got thicker and thicker until we had to turn around and head back to my place. I lay on my bed and Stan sat in a chair in the corner, and we talked of this and that, mostly politics. It was a pretty boring evening, with no alcohol or anything else to relieve the tedium.

Around about 10:30 PM I was talking about the books of a British writer and an image of a scene from one of his books came into my mind. I noted it casually and went on talking, not about the scene I was imagining but about the writer. The scene was on the porch of a character in one of the books. It was dark and there was an alien or supernatural being standing there, a sort of living rod of cold light. I thought at first I was simply recalling the scene from my imagination, but when I turned my attention to other things the scene remained in my mind; in fact, it grew in vividness and strength. I continued to speak of other things to Stan, but grew increasingly uneasy.

Then an even stranger thing happened. From the right side of the scene I was imagining, the alien presence moved to the right side of my visual field. It was definitely in the room now, on my right just at the limits of vision. I felt its presence over there as a sort of throbbing on the right side of my head. Unable to think of anything more to say, I fell silent.

Stan was the first to speak. “I’m scared,” he said.

I jerked a thumb. “Is there something over there?”

“Oh, wow! You see it too?”

“Is it something like a flame?”


The room by now beat with the throbbing energy of the interloper like a great heart. I turned my head to look directly at it. I found I could neither look at it directly, nor entirely look away from it. If I turned my head all the way to my left I saw two mental images: the bedroom wall to my left, and the 5-foot unwavering flame standing in front of my bookcase on the right side of the room. I actually saw both sides of the room at once. The flame itself was a second image; it did not block my view of the bookcase behind it. Nevertheless, it was not transparent, and seemed to bear an amber color in its center.

Stan and I started comparing notes on what we were seeing. To him the visitation looked more like a cloud, but we agreed about its location and when it appeared. We jabbered nonstop and never noticed when it went away. When we stopped talking, I looked at the clock: it was a quarter to midnight! We had gibbered in our fear and nervous excitement like a couple of chimpanzees for over an hour!

The flame has never come back, but the event taught me several lessons. First, this being began by entering my mind, and from my mind it entered the room. Second, we could tell somehow that it was intelligent, incredibly ancient and very powerful. Third, I remember comparing its throbbing power to the feeling one gets walking in the dark when one is somehow aware that there is an unseen step down or up. Fourth, it was not in the room as we and the furniture were there, but intruded into it from some other dimension. This followed from the ‘double-vision’ quality of the experience. Fifth, since that night I have had no fear of non-existence after death. I am convinced my friend Stan and I saw a spirit, and since that spirit entered the room from my mind, my mind must in some way extend into the place from which it came; therefore I too am a spirit. If it came through my mind, my mind must have a back door, as it were, on the world of spirit, just as it has a front door on the world of matter. Finally, this being so, it doesn’t matter if scientists claim that all paranormal experiences come from some human mind present at the scene. My mind was one of those minds, and I know that it was temporarily taken over and used as an instrument of projection, and another mind witnessed that projection. Therefore the spirits come through our minds into this world when they want to manifest themselves, and perhaps one reason we have incarnated into this world of matter is to provide them with access.

We are the mystery, for we are the doors of the Other World.

September 17, 2011


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