In which John Riddell reminisces about happy childhood days and reflects on the stories we tell to grown-ups

When I was just a young skeptic our family used to go to big Christmas family get-togethers at my great aunt’s homestead. There were always lots of fun things for kids to do. There was a swimming pool with water the colour of rotting leaves and a ghost room upstairs in the house. When we thought the grown ups weren’t looking, we would sneak upstairs for a peek into the room. The door was nailed closed, but the big kids knew how to bend the nail back and open the door just a bit. Every year a new group of 8- year-olds would try to scare the bewhatsits out of the 5-year-olds with tales of the ghost. There were also stories that the last kids to enter the room had not left alive through the door. Of course, this was because the room had no floorboards and they had slipped off the rafters and fallen through the ceiling to the dining room below.

I don’t remember if we believed the story of the ghost, but I do remember not wanting to slip and put a hole in the dining room ceiling. Since then the house has become an historic place and been done up to cater for wedding receptions and garden parties. The “Ghost Room” has had new floorboards installed and the nail has been replaced with a doorknob. But the stories of the ghost still continue. One of the uncles takes groups of visitors through and keeps them entertained with rumours of the ghost.

The story started as a way of keeping children from going into a dangerous room, and has continued as a means of entertaining the tourists, but with plenty of drunken wedding guests passing through, it won’t be long before we have a sighting.

There are people who believe in ghosts. Life after death and all that.

There was a scientist in the paper the other day who thought he had found evidence for life after death. He interviewed a lot of people who had nearly died on the operating table. According to doctors trying to save their lives, these people had no detectable brain function at some point.

The scientist found that they had memories that he thought were of that time when they had no detectable brain function. A lot like the fourth form.

It would be very cool if there really was good evidence of a warm and fuzzy place after death, but unhappily, this guy hasn’t found it. There are some other explanations. It might be the doctors had more important things to worry about than making sure the patient had absolutely no brain function. So maybe the brains hadn’t really stopped. Or it could be the memories of a bright light and feelings of happiness were manufactured either before or after the no-brainer. The patients didn’t die, so we don’t really know.

The world’s leading authority on Near Death Experience (NDE ) is Susan Blackmore. For more information about NDE, see I thought it was interesting that “Children who have almost died don’t see dead friends and relatives on the other side, but live ones. They haven’t lived long enough to know too many people who have died”.

However, before we give up on life everlasting, there are also mediums. They think they talk to people who really are dead. There was a bloke on Discovery Channel who sat in the middle of a circle of people and gave them messages from their dearly departed. But the messages were not very impressive.

I mean if he said something like “Now Susan, I have a message from your mother Sarah-May. She says don’t have an affair with Billy-Bob coz he has a social disease, and if ya do, that no-good husband of yours will find out and then there’ll be trouble.”

If that was the sort of message from the other side even I might get interested. Assuming of course that Billy-Bob really did have the disease, but nobody else knew. Instead of providing information that nobody in the room could know without checking, the medium always comes up with something the client/audience already knows. He says “I’m getting something about Susan”. Anyone in the audience who is called Susan, or who knows a dead Susan automatically assumes he is talking to them. “How did he know that?” Well he didn’t. You told him. The medium proceeds by throwing out a word or phrase and seeing if someone picks up on it. The medium creates an illusion that he is telling the client things that only the client could know. In fact, the client tells the medium, not the other way around.

It just isn’t good evidence. But the client thinks it is good evidence.

They use what is usually called the “Argument from Ignorance”. It goes like this. “I don’t know how he could possibly know that. There couldn’t be a natural explanation. It has to be supernatural.”

The ignorance of how “it” happened is used as evidence. I prefer to call this the “Argument from Omniscience” which goes like this.

“I am infinitely intelligent and I know everything and if I can’t think how this could have occurred naturally, then the explanation must be supernatural.” Now this would be a good argument if the speaker really was infinitely wise and all knowing. Unfortunately I don’t know anyone who is. Even so, this argument is used to explain belief in ghosts, Creationism and lots of other subjects that interest Skeptics. In the case of the medium, the client thinks “I can’t figure out how he did it, so he must be psychic.”

The same applies to people who think they see a ghost. “I know everything, and I can’t figure out what it was if it wasn’t a ghost.” People don’t normally say the bit about knowing everything. They assume it though.

The scientist who thinks that memories of a Near Death Experience (NDE) are good evidence for the afterlife is no different.

Sometimes it is better to just say, “I don’t know”.

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