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Jared Lafer '11: What delusive dreams may come

A recent Herald article ("A spirited tour of the East Side's major haunts," Oct. 30) reported on two local organizations: the Providence Ghost Tour and the Providence Ghost Walk. These groups give regular tours of Providence and its allegedly supernatural hotspots. They pass the time with historically informed, creepy stories about people and events in this city's past, and of course, complete nonsense about the supernatural.

I have no quarrel with this first activity in principle. History is valuable when it is accurate, and if the tour companies are spouting factual tales, then they should be commended. In fact, the Herald article says that both companies have delved into the Rhode Island archives for material, and so all the more power to them.

But the latter activity really strikes a nerve. Even if the companies' stories are inaccurate, the resulting damage would be insignificant in comparison to the damage caused by their shameless promotion of the existence of the supernatural.

I don't hate to break this to you: The supernatural does not exist. I assume most Brown students are of a like mind, and I'm not going to bother dignifying the people who believe otherwise by explaining why this is the case. I will say, however, that if you do believe in the supernatural, I challenge you to present one piece of evidence obtained under controlled scientific conditions in support of your point. Call up your God and tell him Jared's on the other line.

That people have this ridiculous belief in the first place, however, is troubling. I presume the appeal of ghosts, and perhaps the appeal of all supernatural fantasies, is the idea that there is something beyond our physical world. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil," Hamlet says. Indeed, we take solace in the delusion that there are dreams to come (in this world and the next), dreams that enchant us away from the hard truths of reality.

But, as I stated earlier, supernatural fantasies are false. And they are not innocently false — believing them to be true can be harmful for at least two reasons:

1) They offset our honest intellectual growth (i.e. gaining true knowledge about the world). Supernatural explanations are bad because they are false, and thus when we accept them, we do so for bad reasons (e.g. faith). But, accepting them counteracts our honest intellectual growth, for when we accept a bad explanation we simultaneously deprive ourselves of a true explanation, and we should not develop our minds on a substrate of false beliefs.

Moreover, the lower we set the bar that we use to determine whether to accept an explanation, the more likely we are to accept bad explanations in general. By accepting supernatural explanations, we set the bar really low and therefore are more likely to accept bad explanations, which just feeds the original point.

2) Supernatural beliefs often lead to bad decision-making. We act in large part based on what we believe. If what we believe is just plain wrong, then more often than not the outcome of our actions based on those beliefs will not be favorable.

Should we, for example, play the stock market based on psychic reasoning? Should we play it because God will protect us from financial ruin? Should we play it because there is an afterlife and no matter how badly we do, it will be insignificant in the scheme of our eternal lives? These would probably all be bad ideas.

Note that the consequences for these harms can be devastating. It certainly doesn't actively help us as individuals or as a society if we're perpetually intellectually stunted and bad decision makers. Add up all the people who have been killed in the name of the supernatural, and I think you'll catch my drift.

Now, the problem with ghost tours, and all things that profit from the exploitation of the supernatural, is that they reinforce the harmful belief that the supernatural exists. This reinforcement preys on two types of people in particular: people who already believe in the supernatural and could always use a little more belief validation, and people who don't believe in the supernatural, but might believe in it if they had a reason to do so (the ghost tour people say it exists). The majority of people, unfortunately, fall into these two categories, and so the damage supernatural-exploiting groups do is extensive.

In an ideal world, all talk of the supernatural would suddenly cease and memories of it would be wiped from our minds. This world is not ideal. Instead, the least organizations like Providence Ghost Tours and Providence Ghost Walk could do is warn their customers that what they say should be taken with a grain of salt. I would have them stop operations entirely, but I do not deny that there is fun to be had in silly notions like ghosts, and we shouldn't deny our communities their entertainment.

Jared Lafer '11 is a philosophy concentrator from Manhattan.  He can be reached at jared_lafer at


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