The secret to finding things

You can always find what you’re looking for, provided that the definition of what you’re looking for is vague enough.

I received a call from a friend the other night, one I haven’t talked to in a while. He’s in a new situation: he lives on a farm bequeathed to him by a friend of his when she died, on the provision that he takes care of the farm and animals. Nice setup, but it came with no small amount of responsibility which he seems to be handling well.

At one point, he asked me if I believed in ghosts, and upon hearing that I didn’t, he asked me what I thought about several experiences he’d had. There were a couple of minor ones, like a gate on one field that was typically opened downhill and took some effort to open uphill, that he was pretty sure he had never opened uphill yet had found it in that position on two occasions. Another experience was distantly hearing the doorbell, distinctly enough for him to start tracking it, even though the doorbell doesn’t work.

cemetaryBut his main one was, admittedly, curious. After some bad behavior from one of the former owner’s dogs, he began disciplining the dog (not, by his accounts, in an unacceptable way) and was interrupted by music from the music-box urn containing the former owner’s ashes. To give him credit, he admitted that the urn rested among items that would have been disturbed had the table been bumped or vibrated, and that later attempts to get the music box to begin playing again failed.

Mysterious, perhaps, when presented in this manner. But when I asked him some more specific questions about what he did and didn’t do, he openly admitted that he wanted to believe there was a spirit of the former owner there, and in fact, had felt this compulsion, as if he was being watched over, ever since moving onto the farm.

I had to stop him there and point out that this was hardly mysterious – the value of the farm is not inconsequential, and the bequeathal stipulated that the animals be cared for. There wasn’t any reason to suppose this “compulsion” was anything but honest conscience. But more telling was the idea that he wanted there to be a supernatural explanation, and this is probably the hardest thing to overcome when dealing with assessing things in a critical manner. Desire leads, very rapidly, to confirmation bias, where experiences like the doorbell and the gate are indications of spiritual intervention. He was unable to tell me why such a spirit would play around with the sounds of a distant doorbell, or what the gate opening the opposite way was supposed to mean. They were simply things he noticed that were out of the ordinary that therefore supported the notion.

Now, I now this guy well, and it’s safe to say that while anyone could easily fail to notice that they’d opened the gate uphill on more than one occasion, it’s even more likely for him – keen observation is not what springs to mind when you get to know him. And the doorbell? This wasn’t a case of him telling me that the doorbell had definitely sounded, but that he thought he’d heard it, twice. So that tends to leave the skeptic asking, “What exactly did you hear, and how loudly?” and of course, if the doorbell’s been broken, does he even know what it sounds like? Broken simply means “not working when it’s pressed,” too – loose wires, bad connections? Alternately, wind chimes, TV, radio, glassware tinkling? How many types of sounds imply “doorbell” because of two tones, the second lower in pitch than the first?

Many people would say at this point that this is grasping at straws, or that I haven’t proven the wind chime theory. And this is one of the more amusing arguments that skeptics meet regularly: if the mundane, ordinary explanation has not been firmly established with clinical trials, then it’s okay to start considering the supernatural ones. Um, no. Start with, wind chimes and rocking glassware are proven to exist – ghosts are not. The odds favor wind chimes or rattling vases by a wide margin, right from the start. And, to take this further, let’s say we’ve effectively ruled out wind chimes, glassware, and all other mundane explanations that spring to mind. Are ghosts okay then? Well, that’s kind of hard to say – what kinds of sounds do ghosts make, and why? How do they make them? Do they make them in response to certain things? Let’s face it, the body of evidence (heh!) for ghosts is, um, nonexistent – we have stories, and that’s really it. If we assume spirits can affect the material world in certain ways, why a doorbell? If you were to find yourself, after your death, observing the living and trying to communicate to them, what would be your first choice? Second? Third? How far down the list do “doorbell” and “gate” come?

But wait! The music box urn containing the owner’s ashes! Yes, that’s how I’d communicate! (No, I’d probably type an e-mail while they watched, but that’s just me.) It started all by itself just as he was disciplining the dog! That’s pretty damning! (Okay, sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Well, let’s back up a second. One thing I did indeed ask was, “Did you wind the music box up again, let it play until it stopped, then try to get it to start spontaneously?” No, this had not been done. I regrettably didn’t ask if this was the first time he’d disciplined the dog, though, and I wish I had – that kind of question points out confirmation bias pretty handily sometimes. I did ask if he tried disciplining the dog again, to see if it started the music box again, but he hadn’t done that either – he was already too convinced.

And therein lies the biggest stumbling block. The music box starting at that time can certainly be coincidental – they run on spring tension which gradually releases, and can start again once resistance is overcome through vibration, changing temperatures, et cetera. But is there any chance of him accepting that if he wants to believe otherwise? Not very much at all.

And of course, this is where so-called psychics, ghost hunters, and various other opportunists come in – usually with a fee, imagine that. Seriously, how much skill do you think it takes to face someone who wants to hear they’re being visited by spirits and say, “You’re being visited by spirits”? And how often do you think they’re asked to show how they actually know that? Not often, you say? Not ever, you say? You’re probably right. Because we’ve got this saying, as humans – quit while you’re ahead. Stop asking questions before you get to the answers you don’t actually want to hear – that’s how “truth” is actually defined, after all: “What pleases me.” It seems funny that we can’t face circumstances that aren’t as we wish, even when it means knowing how the world works. Reality is such a drag.

So, my friend resides in a haunted house, wary of doorbells, gates, and scolding the dog. Makes me wonder what the ghost will disapprove of next.