Ghosts, faith and the presence of mind

One of many glorious lines in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” occurs in the early visit to our hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, by the ghost of his ex-business partner. Old Jacob Marley, “dead these seven years this very night” struggles to convince his old chum that he has actually managed to return from beyond the grave to begin the process of Scrooge’s redemption.

“Why do you doubt your senses,” Marley asks the understandably sceptical Scrooge.

He scoffs in reply that “…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Scrooge is onto something here. As the novel unfolds, he will discover that his following the evidence of his senses can be an unsteady guide to living a good life when there is a far wider spectrum of phenomena and stimuli from which to determine what is actually sensible. But he is right to begin with a sceptical line.

However much he might be naturally disposed to considering the desirability of being redeemed by this spirit who has just pitched up unannounced, looking passably like someone he hasn’t seen for all these years for the very plain reason that the guy had died way back then, his brain has to process in a very short time a literally frightening array of discomfiting data: what we know about death and dying, about wishful thinking and coincidence, about the efficacy of locked doors and indeed, even the power of adulterated food to cause hallucinations.

To digest all of that data as the ghost clanks into your sitting room and then have the wit to pun on grave and gravy shows a quite considerable presence of mind. And while we all might hope – should hope – that we do not lose our sense of what defines love and human goodness as Scrooge so famously did (until the world of Christmas ghosts appeared to facilitate his redemption), we should celebrate this distinction of mind from brain, and bear in mind that so much of what makes us human, and gives us hope, is the power to take what the brain processes and then reflect, and balance, and judge, and reflect: and apply this simple distinguishing test to any question that puzzles us about the way the world appears to be.

Can we imagine how something might have evolved into a seeming to be, and then having imagined it, should we then believe that the mere seeming makes it so? Or do the tests of evidence and reason demand that we progress – as individual minds, and as a collective culture – beyond believing in things simply because we can imagine them?

For example: for how long can the modern mind allow itself to be imprisoned by an embarrassingly pre-medieval imagining of how the world was created and then allow itself to be bullied by the neo-medievalists into professing belief in this ancient imagining as an act of . . . faith?

What sort of blossoming of neurological evolution is that?

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