Suppose that a woman believes she is haunted. She has recently found a new partner, and he’s about to move in, but various odd experiences suggest the continued presence of an ex-partner, who tragically killed himself in the same house several years ago.
The woman calls a friend, a self-professed magickian, to help uncover what’s going on. The friend takes some photographs in the house, and on one of them an ‘orb’ appears, precisely in the spot the ex-partner’s head had lain on the day the woman found his body.
This is not a scientific, rational investigation. This case finds its resolution in a magickal ritual to lay the ex-partner’s spirit to rest. But was the house ever really ‘haunted’, and did it ever actually contain a ‘ghost’?
We might be able to decide, if anyone knew what a ‘ghost’ is, or what ‘haunted’ means. As things stand, ‘spirits of the dead’ is only a theory for the nature of ghosts – one that, so far, lacks any substantial evidence. But the ‘orb’ in the photograph – there’s now some good evidence as to the nature of those: they’re particles of dust or moisture, reflecting light from close to the sensor of a digital camera .
Rather than assuming the return of a dead person’s spirit, this case is more adequately explained by a misattribution of natural phenomena, perhaps motivated by the widow’s guilt over finding happiness with a new partner.
The mind (or brain) is hard-wired to find meaning where none exists. ‘Ghost’ and ‘haunted’ are two such meanings projected onto experiences that are actually nothing of the kind.
This sounds like a rational view, but it pretends to an authority it cannot support, because its assertion of non-meaning is also itself an instance of the mind manufacturing a meaning in order to explain something to itself – in this case, the nature of misperception.
Rationalism usually has nothing to do with transcendent realities, so it seems odd to appeal to a notion of meaninglessness beyond what any human being can experience, because although we can have the experience of ‘seeing a ghost’ (albeit mistaken), we can never have the experience of ‘not seeing a ghost’.
This is not to claim there is no misperception, or that any view or meaning is as valid as any other, but simply that mind is always meaningful, and so the battle for rationality is not on the side of meaning against non-meaning, but on the side of meanings that are faithful to perception against meanings derived from other mental faculties (such as thought, imagination or intuition).
Although a rational investigation of the case would have reasonably concluded there was no evidence for a ‘ghost’ or ‘haunting’, nevertheless ghost and haunting can remain meaningful terms for describing what happened – the kind of experience that the woman had. There’s no evidence for ‘ghosts’, but there is evidence for things that could give rise to the experience of one. Likewise, there is no evidence for consciousness, mind, or the self – although there are neurological correlates, which might or might not indicate something that gives rise to them – because these are terms for entities that by their nature fall outside of our perception . Nevertheless, we would find it difficult to get along without those terms. They are three privileged ‘ghosts’, with whom we have become so familiar, it seems unlikely they shall ever be exorcised.
Turning now to the photograph of the ‘orb’ (that speck of dust), its appearance encapsulates the whole issue of using magick or ‘spiritual methods’ in approaching the allegedly paranormal.
There are some evidence-based theories for how Ouija boards, mediums, EVP recorders, etc., obtain their supposed results. None of these theories has anything to do with post-mortem communication, but everything to do with autosuggestion, misperception and possible fraud. Even so, many have found that if we persist in the use of these methods, eventually they can yield a result that seems so mind-blowingly improbable we might be left wondering if they might work after all.
Our ‘orb’, albeit a humble dust mote, had the temerity to appear in a meaningful place. No matter its mundane origin, we can’t deny its random and yet exquisite sense of position. Likewise, during a Ouija session, when the board spells out information known only to the observer seated apart at a safe distance, who cares if the operators’ fingers are unconsciously driving the planchette? Results are results!
Or are they? This is the point at which we must evoke coincidence. Rightfully so, for if a means of manifestation is provided, then stuff can and – given enough opportunity, eventually – will appear. To manifest any concept expressible in English, all we have to do is provide 26 letters and some kind of randomised selection process. (If it’s non-random, then even better.) A human voice is but sound within a certain acoustic range: make that range available, provide some form of random sounds within it, and eventually a ‘voice’ shall speak.
This is the essence of magick: decide on a goal; provide some kind of format or means through which it can be said that the goal is met. Often, eventually, it shall then in some form come to pass. Not because the chosen technique or magick itself ‘works’, or has any effect (in the sense commonly understood) upon physical reality, but because it enables us to have an experience of its having done so . Because human experience is inherently meaningful, this can have a shaping impact on our lives indistinguishable from a more conventionally direct experience.
Occasional ‘hits’ like these, in themselves, prove nothing. To achieve proof, a sub-branch of magick is used, known as ‘science’, which cleverly defines a goal and a means of manifestation that are both limited to perceptual phenomena, augmented by instrumentation where appropriate.
Because, through perception, we share the same physical reality, the ‘magick’ wrought by science is repeatable and objectively verifiable. It becomes possible to predict and to know the results of certain procedures, rather than simply to experience them as true.
The magickal or spiritual goal of creating meaningful experience is not ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’ (a common confusion, perhaps especially among those who seek it), but is instead the empowerment it can confer through meaning. Meaning is a source of motivation in life like nothing else.
For the woman in our example, the appearance of the ‘orb’ could provide confrontation with her grief, and perhaps the means of coming more fully to terms with it. But magick is always risky, especially for those with no support-structure or previous experience in occultism; it offers no guarantee that we will find it easy to cope with the powerful experiences it can throw in our direction.
For this reason, the role of the paranormal investigator is to stick with science, collecting evidence for rational causes (where this is to be found) and handing the meaningful or experiential dimension of the phenomena back to the experiencer. In most cases, this should help to safeguard from harm the person affected by the experience.
 ‘Orbs! At last some definitive evidence that they are not paranormal‘ (2010), by Steve Parsons.
 ‘Self’ is that for which we suppose experience arises, so whatever falls within experience is not self. ‘Mind’ is supposedly what thinks and experiences, not necessarily those thoughts and experiences themselves. ‘Consciousness’, we assume, is what provides all the qualities and things of which we are aware – which makes it problematic to suppose that consciousness itself has qualities or is a thing.
 My personal view is that the paranormal is real, in the sense offered here: an effect upon physical reality that has no physical cause other than the intention of a person or discarnate entity. But apart from subjective experiences, I have no evidence for this, and no notion of what form the evidence could take. Until I do, I accept that this is merely my opinion.