GHOST STORY

“I believe in ghosts too.”

Now John and Sylvia look at me peculiarly. I see I’m not going to get out of this one easily and brace myself for a long explanation.

“It’s completely natural,” I say, “to think of Europeans who believed in ghosts or Indians who believed in ghosts as ignorant. The scientific point of view has wiped out every other view to a point where they all seem primitive, so that if a person today talks about ghosts or spirits he is considered ignorant or maybe nutty. It’s just all but completely impossible to imagine a world where ghosts can actually exist.”

John nods affirmatively and I continue.

“My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn’t that superior. IQs aren’t that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts.  Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.”

“What?”

“Oh, the laws of physics and of logic — the number system — the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”

“They seem real to me,” John says.

“I don’t get it,” says Chris.

So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”

“Of course.”

“So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”

John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.

“What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”

“Sure.”

“Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere…this law of gravity still existed?”

Now John seems not so sure.

“If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.”

John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”

“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.

“And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”

“Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?”

“Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as ‘education.'”

“You mean the teacher is hypnotizing the kids into believing the law of gravity?”

“Sure.”

“That’s absurd.”

“You’ve heard of the importance of eye contact in the classroom? Every educationist emphasizes it. No educationist explains it.”

John shakes his head and pours me another drink. He puts his hand over his mouth and in a mock aside says to Sylvia, “You know, most of the time he seems like such a normal guy.”

I counter, “That’s the first normal thing I’ve said in weeks. The rest of the time I’m feigning twentieth-century lunacy just like you are. So as not to draw attention to myself.”

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Read it all here.

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