Tag Archives: Skepticism

Is This How Ghost Stories Begin?

monday-blogs-2Everything I am about to tell you is completely true.

Some of the older residents of my apartment building like to tell stories about the people who have died here.

One person was young and died suddenly for reasons that I’ve never been able to tease out. There is a hush that comes over the conversation when the elders mention that death.

Someone else is rumoured to have died of smoke inhalation when he made the mistake of evacuating during a fire. According to people who have lived here a long time, that man passed away in the stairwell. They say he would have survived if he’d stayed in his apartment and put a wet towel by the crack under the front door to keep the smoke from wafting in.

The lights in our building flicker a lot. Sometimes the hallway outside of your apartment is brightly lit, and sometimes it’s dim. Lightbulbs burn out quickly, too.

Sound carries in strange ways here. I’ve heard what seems to be hundreds of marbles bouncing around on the floor above me. It’s also common to hear loud thumps and crashes that seem to be coming from every direction at once.

Speaking of sounds, I occasionally hear someone laughing just as I’m about to fall asleep for the night. It is so loud and clear that I could almost swear we were in the same room, but I never see anything when I open my eyes.

Sometimes a breeze whips around the corner of the lobby and prompts the elevator door to open again two or three times just when it was about to close and start moving up to your floor. There are times when that breeze has been so cold that it made me shudder and wrap my jacket around my body more closely.

Human and canine footprints regularly appear on the floor after it’s been mopped.

When the custodians put up the Christmas tree in the lobby, candy canes and old-fashioned ornaments always show up on it within a few days. I’ve never seen anyone place them there, and no one I’ve spoken to admits to adding to the decorations that the people who work in this building had already hung on the branches.

monday-blogs-1These anecdotes could be easily remixed into a modern haunting. There could be a man trapped in the stairwell who is forever trying to reach the bottom floor. Maybe he would be the one who was blamed for the flickering lights, cold breezes, and elevator doors that open over and over again.

The half-formed story about someone dying mysteriously could easily be expanded to include a pet whose footprints appear alongside hers, explain why our local ghost is so obsessed with the annual Christmas tree, and mention why she laughs so loudly at night.

Of course, there are logical explanations for all of these things as well.

A building full of people is bound to have the things breaking down regularly, including lightbulbs and elevators. When the population density is high, there will be folks dropping all kinds of things as they tidy up, do-gooders adding to the festive decorations without wanting to be noticed, children playing with noisy toys on wooden floors, and people who don’t realize how loud they are when they come home late after bar hopping.

It all depends on how you look at it.

Regardless of how you interpreted stories like these, I hope you have a wonderfully spooky Halloween!

A Tale of Six Pies

six pies
Photo credit: Alpha.

I have two basic kinds of dreams: ordinary ones about the somewhat-boring things everyone has to do in life and and pulse-pounding, action-adventure tales where I narrowly outrun zombies, ghosts, or other malevolent forces. (Sometimes I don’t outrun them, of course, and then I get to see what life is like as a sci-fi monster. But I digress).

Then there is my bizarrely specific dream about buying pies from a few nights ago. How many pies, you ask? Six of them, and each one a different flavour.

What two adults with small-to-moderate appetites could be expected to do with so many pies before they grew stale remains to be seen, but dream-me was thrilled with what I’d picked up at the grocery store. I thought we’d start with the lemon meringue, and then move onto the chocolate one that looked a lot like this festive pie pictured above. Just before I woke up, I was imagining how content we’d feel with bellies full of pie. It was the nicest thing I could possibly think of at the time.

This was one of those dreams that  took me a moment or two to separate from reality when I woke up. Did we really have six pies sitting on the counter in the kitchen? No, thank goodness. Our kitchen was as pie-free as it ever is.

The dream has stuck with me, though, as I wonder what could have caused it. I’m not craving this type of dessert. I haven’t actually been craving many sweets at all. If I were going to eat them, Halloween candy would be closer to what I’d want at this time of year. There are only so many weeks when you can get certain types of it, after all!

I wish there were more scientific studies about what dreams mean. Almost everything I’ve found on this topic is infused with woo or spiritual beliefs that I don’t share. Those interpretations are great for people who believe in those things, but I’d love to see someone come up with explanations that don’t rely on them.

If I ever win the lottery or sell so many books that I become independently wealthy, I’m going to study this as scientifically as I possibly can. My theory is that the emotions we feel when we’re dreaming are far more important than the content of the dreams themselves.

I’ve had peaceful dreams about zombies and terrifying dreams about something as simple as trying to find a clean, dry, available toilet in a building that seems to contain everything else in the entire world but that.

What odd things have you been dreaming about lately? How do you interpret them?

And more importantly, has this post made you crave pie? 🙂

How Skeptical is Too Skeptical?

A conversation in the comment section of last Thursday’s post brought this question up in a round-about way:

At what point does skepticism go too far?

I’ve wondered about this before in passing but have been brainstorming about it more intently over the weekend. Any set of beliefs (ethical, moral, religious, political) can be taken to the extreme, of course. I’ve read many well-written critiques of various religions and philosophies but can’t think of any similar works about skepticism that have been worth reading.

Maybe skepticism is taken too far when:

You can no longer see the good in an idea. Most of the belief systems I’ve come across are a mixture of beneficial and harmful advice. A handful of ideas don’t seem have any redeeming qualities but for everything else spit out the stem and seeds and digest the good stuff.

The most important thing is being right. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with vigorous debating or correcting untrue statements. It just isn’t necessary for every conversation to end with footnotes. 🙂

It leaks into areas where it doesn’t belong. Unless someone else’s beliefs are negatively affecting the rest of us I don’t have any interest in critiquing their claims from my agnostic and fairly skeptical point of view. Belief is an intensely personal experience and I’m not interested in proselytizing. Whether you believe in faeries, healing crystals, mediums, ghosts, demonic possessions, or miracles I may think there’s some merit to it, I may diagree vehemently, but I will not belittle whatever it is that keeps you going.


What has been your experience with skepticism? What are its greatest weaknesses?

This Post Will Change Your Life

Or at least that is what e-book, seminar and other product or idea  marketing strategies want us to believe as we skim past whatever it is they have to offer. While this sort of technique is probably very effective it is disingenuous to imply that any service or product has a one-size-fits-all solution for what ails you.

It’s also annoying as hell.

Imaginary Agents of Change

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” —  Abraham Lincoln

There are no:

that can whisk away whatever it is one dislikes about their life. Anything new and good that comes about will be the result of inspiration, perseverance, knowing the right people, being at the right place at the right time and stumbling across a heaping tablespoon of good luck. It makes me angry to hear anyone convince people that their lives would improve tenfold if they only followed what this author, that spiritual leader, this personal development coach, that expert decrees the best possible way for everyone to live.

If the spiel stopped there, if no one was ever asked to give a love offering, buy a book, sign up for individual coaching or snatch up the last remaining seat at a weekend seminar I wouldn’t care so much. It never does, though. There’s nothing wrong with earning a living through book sales, consulting or seminars but there is something amiss with how it is being done.

What I Believe….

The answers we seek are already inside of us.

Sometimes we need a little help to uncover or recognize them, but there is nothing I can offer you that you don’t already have tucked somewhere inside of yourself. There’s nothing you can give to me that I don’t already have either.

It may not be easily accessible or something we can recognize or understand right away, but it’s still there. Everyone is born with an enduring capacity to do and be good in the world.

If someone is beyond the pale it is not because that is where they began. They may have drifted away from their inner capacity to do good or they may have been nudged or pushed by circumstances or experiences outside of their control. In some cases they may have even decided that this was the sort of life they wanted to lead and chosen it to a certain degree but no one is born with the urge to do harm.

What is Good Marketing?

To be fair, not everyone sees the world in this way. Some honestly believe that they do have The Cure ™, that the rest of us would be much better off if only we did, bought, ate, or believed whatever it is they think is good for us.

In an ideal world there would be no need for marketing or salesmanship because it would be obvious to everyone that idea, product or service X was the best choice. Until we come to an agreement about these things ( 😉 ), what five words best describe how things things should be marketed to people?

My five words:

  1. Rarely.
  2. Humbly.
  3. Quickly.
  4. Respectfully.
  5. Humorously.

What is your five-word answer?

Religious Aspects of Positive Thinking

I recently finished Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. Her premise: the US (and Canada, too, I’d argue) pushes everyone to maintain unbridled optimism about anything and everything that may come their way. Even cancer. The problem is that thinking positive thoughts doesn’t change the outcome of cancer treatment or of anything else investigated in this book.

Religion and positive thinking are both guilty at times of giving our thoughts far too much power. As I said earlier, the problem with positive thinking is not optimism, it’s expectations. There’s nothing wrong with looking on the bright side or expecting that everything will eventually work itself out for the greater good. There is a big problem, though, with the magical thinking that often accompanies persistent optimism. Thoughts cannot be weighed or measured. They cannot bring down the wrath of the gods if  the wrong idea flits through your head. Certain thoughts can be harmful if they lead you to do or say something hurtful (or if they’re a symptom of mental illness and you’re not able to shake off  the burdensome ones.)

It is true that positive thinking is not a religion in the sense that it worships a god or gods. But it does have a mystical quality to it all: follow these steps, say and do these things, believe in this idea (and never that one), and all of your problems will melt away. If your problems don’t go away, if you doubt, if this system doesn’t work for you for any reason,  it’s because you were never a true believer.

There is no middle ground here. No fine print. It’s one size fits all in a world with an infinite number of sizes and shapes. Imagine a board with a series of holes lined up in neat rows from top to bottom. Each hole is just large enough for a small rubber ball to fit through it. It isn’t big enough to pass wooden building block through it, even though some of the other people in the room thinks that everything in the room – the building blocks, the potted plant in the corner, the windows, the desks, the chairs – should be able to fit through that hole if one tries hard enough and cultivates the correct attitude and thoughts.

This isn’t the way life works in the world that I live in. I understand that these types of black-and-white absolutist statements are a source of comfort and stability for many of the people who subscribe to various religious beliefs and I’m happy for those for whom these ideas genuinely work. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to start chopping up the chairs, shattering the glass in the windows or digging the plants out of the soil so that they can fit through the holes in the board in my imaginary room, though.

Objections to The Law of Attraction

The Law of Attraction is the idea that thoughts influence the chance of something happening. From what I understand of this principle, it teaches that what one thinks about most often is probably what is going to end up happening. If you worry about filing for bankruptcy or being diagnosed with terminal cancer your chances of… Read More