During the extended blackout caused by Hurricane Irene, I had plenty of time to noodle with my notebook. One thing I wrote was a dialogue scene between a professional ghost hunter and two prospective clients. The scene quickly turned into lengthy exposition, deadly in fiction, which shows why I would be no good at writing this kind of story - I would want to explain too much! But the ideas in themselves may be interesting, even though they are clearly pure speculation and not intended as any kind of "final answer" or even testable theory.
The scene is all dialogue, so you'll just have to do your best to keep track of who's who, not that it matters much.
But how is it even possible? I mean – ghosts? In the 21st century? It's all so medieval and uncivilized.
Well, there is a scientific way of looking at it. This is only a hypothesis, mind you. Have you ever played a video game?
I used to play Tomb Raider. Never got past the second level.
Okay, so imagine that you're playing a really immersive video game. Wearing special goggles, a headset, gloves, whatever. The virtual environment is all around you. Everywhere you turn, you're looking at three dimensional images that seem real. You can manipulate things – grab objects. You can move through the space.
What does this have to do with –
Bear with me. Let's suppose one other thing. Suppose you've lived in that virtual world all your life. You've never known any other reality. To you, it wouldn't be a game. It would be your existence.
Like The Matrix.
Yes, exactly. Now what if our reality – this world we perceive with our senses, and even our own physical bodies – what if it's all a virtual reality?
Then we're in a lab someplace, hooked up to a machine that makes us dream all this?
No. That would imply an ultimate physical reality. But I'm asking you to consider the idea that ultimate reality is non-physical. That it's more like information. That's what the virtual reality of a computer game is made of – information. Millions of bits of data. The whole virtual-reality world is the product of data processing. It's a complex system of algorithms that are recalculated many times each second. The changing calculations produce a new arrangement of pixels every time the screen is refreshed, which happens much faster than the blink of an eye. Movement on the screen is an illusion – the pixels are simply being arranged in slightly different configurations from one millisecond to the next.
Then there would be no movement in the physical world?
Correct. Only the perception of movement. All change would take place at a deeper level, the level of information processing. There would be only two aspects of reality – the information processing system, and the consciousness that perceives it.
It could be. I said it's only a hypothesis. But it would explain some scientific anomalies. For instance, if you entangle two subatomic particles so they have a permanent relationship, and then separate them and send them flying off to opposite ends of the universe, you'll find that any change to one particle effects a complementary change in the other. It happens immediately, faster than any signal could be sent. How it happens is a mystery. But consider: if the values of each particle are linked in an equation at the level of information processing, then a change in one particle's value will cause an automatic change in the other particle's value as soon as the equation is recalculated. The physical distance dividing them is irrelevant, just as the physical distance between pixels on a computer screen is irrelevant. In terms of information processing, the distance doesn't even exist, since all the calculations are performed simultaneously every time the screen refreshes.
Then our world – this world – is constantly refreshing? Blinking on and off like a string of Christmas lights?
Yes, but inconceivably faster. The refresh rate would be measured in Planck time, the smallest unit of time that can theoretically exist. Incidentally this would also address some very old logical paradoxes, like the fact that an arrow in flight is in motion even though at any given instant it is motionless. The answer is that the change in position occurs each time the screen - the universe - refreshes.
It's an amusing supposition. I imagine it would have implications for the double-slit experiments too.
Absolutely. You know how the behavior of single particles varies depending on how they are observed? Well, from an information-processing standpoint, we could say that the calculation that's performed depends on the information that's requested. If we request information on the particle's position, we'll get it. If we request information on the particle's momentum, we'll get that instead. The results of each calculation displace the previous results, so testing for position cancels out the information on momentum, and vice versa. We can never know both – that's Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. And the setup of our experiment determines which value will be calculated and which results will be actualized in our reality.
And all these calculations are being done, not by the observers themselves, but by the information processing system?
Correct. Though it's a neat point to wonder whether the consciousness of the observers – that is, us – is part of the information processing system, or distinct from it. Maybe at the deepest level, it's all consciousness, and all information processing, and everything is one. Or maybe not. I don't know.
I've talked to some physicists who say that there aren't any paradoxes in quantum physics, and that this is only a layman's misunderstanding. What do you have to say about that?
I would say that it depends on your perspective. What those physicists are really saying, if I understand them correctly, is that there are no contradictions in the equations. In other words, because the equations can all be worked out in a completely satisfactory way, there is no problem. And that's true. But it doesn't change the fact that, at the level of human perception, there are apparent contradictions – that is, paradoxes – such as are found in quantum entanglement and the double-slit experiments. So the contradictions appear to exist at the level of physical reality but disappear at the level of the equations – in other words, at the level of the information processing system itself. Which is exactly what I'm saying too.
This is all very interesting, but what about our ghost?
So-called paranormal phenomena seem inexplicable only in the context of materialism. If this physical world is the be-all and end-all, then things like ghosts seem impossible. But if what we know as the physical world is actually a virtual-reality projection grounded in a non-physical information processing system, then not only quantum paradoxes become intelligible. The apparent contradictions of psychic phenomena are resolved, as well. Direct communication between minds – telepathy – is possible, because consciousness is not a byproduct of physical processes and so is not necessarily restricted by physical constraints. Direct awareness of objects outside our field of sensory perception – clairvoyance or remote viewing – is possible because all the information about those objects is stored in the information processing system, to which our minds can gain access under the right conditions. Life after death becomes quite plausible and even inevitable, since the physical body is only a construct of the information processing system, and its demise has no effect on either that system or consciousness itself. A postmortem existence would simply entail adjusting our consciousness to a different level of the virtual reality environment – like moving to level two of the Tomb Raider game you mentioned. And probably there are many levels, offering a continuous opportunity for learning and growth.
And our ghost is, what, stuck on this level?
There are two kinds of ghosts. Well, there may be more than two kinds, but the ones I've encountered fall into two groups, broadly speaking. First, there are apparitions that don't interact with the living and merely repeat the same stereotyped behavior over and over. I think these have no consciousness at all. They are just subroutines in the program – automatically generated sets of calculations that keep on playing because of a glitch in the system. The second kind are more troublesome. They are souls – I mean, they exhibit consciousness. They're aware of their surroundings, though they may feel confused and helpless. They will interact with the living, often in mischievous or even violent ways. They are, as you say, "stuck." They should have progressed to the next level of the game, but for some reason, usually relating to an emotional block or an obsession or unresolved guilt, they have not made the transition. Their physical body is gone, but they still visualize themselves as they were when they were physically embodied, and they can manifest that visualization to some extent – typically in an incomplete form, such as a half-materialized or semitransparent figure. Remember, the so-called materialization is just more information processing, and consciousness can interact with the information processing system in subtle and unpredictable ways.
Then how do we get this particular consciousness to stop manifesting?
Its continued earthly existence is literally all in the mind. To make it move on, we only have to make it change its mind. We have to make the errant soul see the light – quite literally, since the transition to the next level is accomplished by means of passage through an all encompassing light.
What is the light?
I suspect it's a visual representation of the totality of information contained in the information processing system.
All knowledge …
Yes. People who've had near-death experiences and encountered the light sometimes say they'd been exposed to all knowledge, and were one with everything. But the feeling doesn't last – or it lasts only in an attenuated form – once the experience is over.
It's an ingenious little theory. But there's a fatal flaw. Brain damage.
If things worked the way you suggest, the condition of our brain wouldn't affect our power of thought. But it does. Damage to the brain – whether by accident or illness or ingestion of chemicals – definitely impairs our consciousness. So consciousness must arise from the brain, and physical reality must take precedence over consciousness. QED.
Yes, that's a good objection, and if there were no evidence contrary to materialism then it would be the simplest and safest position to take. But there is such evidence, a lot of it. Your ghost, for example.
So if the brain doesn't produce consciousness ...
I would say the brain functions mainly as a receiver of consciousness, much in the way that an electronic receiver like a TV set receives an electromagnetic signal. And if the receiver is damaged, its ability to pick up and decode the signal will be impaired, leading to all kinds of problems. But this analogy is probably much too simple, because actually the nervous system does produce some of the elements of consciousness. Hormonal changes can give rise to certain emotions, for instance, and instinctive drives or conditioned reflexes can affect the way we think. In other words, the brain and consciousness have a complicated interrelationship. While we are physically embodied, we are – for the most part – constrained by the limitations of our bodies, including our nervous system. I say "for the most part" because some people do have ways of transcending their physical limitations by practicing ESP or engaging in out-of-body explorations. Actually I think all of us have this ability, but in most of us it's latent or dormant most of the time. Anyway, it's true that our consciousness is usually restricted by the limitations of the brain while we inhabit – or believe we inhabit – a physical body. That appears to be one of the rules of the game, at least at this level. Other levels presumably have different rules. We'll find out when we get there.
So you're saying a person with, say, Alzheimer's would be completely lucid as a spirit?
Yes, after perhaps a period of orientation to dispel any confusion or any lingering effects that the disease may have been imprinted on his or her consciousness. In fact the person would be more lucid than he or she ever was on earth because the limiting and distorting effects of the nervous system would no longer apply.