Ghosts

Most people believe in a lot of ghosts. I don’t mean ghosts in the usual sense of the term. By ghosts, I mean notions that they believe not because they have absolute concrete proof, but because some sort of dogma and a personal servitude to dogma leads them to believe these things.

In the stone age, the ghosts were the innumerable gods in charge of each one of nature’s mysterious phenomena. Thus, there was a god to explain lightning, another to explain earthquakes. Then they would believe in the flat earth, or the geocentric cosmos. In the middle ages, these ghosts used to be things like witches. So they burned suspected witches at the stake. They believed things without sufficient proof, without checking for themselves whether the witch theory is true. Likewise, later they used to believe that heat is a fluid called caloric, and that atoms have the structure of a plum pudding, or that DNA codes for RNA that codes for protein, and no other type of coding takes place. They used to be more gullible and stupid then.

This, on the other hand, is the scientific age. We have put behind us most of the dogmas, whether in the field of religion or science or whatever. Today the common educated people know about science, and about the necessity to verify claims before accepting them as true.

Today we don’t believe in unproved ghosts. This, I believe, is one of the greatest steps forward that the human race has taken, and one of the greatest gifts of science to the common man. Today, the common man is not so gullible. You cannot easily make him believe in some ghost just because a lot of people are saying so or some authority says so. He knows about proof and he checks for himself whether a particular claim is true. Today, we are not so ready to believe in whatever ghost you care to invent. We believe in a select few things that are not ghosts:

We believe that Herbal Care shampoos have plant milk and essential thermal minerals that rejuvenate hair and keep it healthy. We believe that it has no chemicals, only the goodness of organic products, and that it is 30% better at beautifying dull hair.

We, in India, believe in Kosthi or star-charts. We check one against another before deciding on marriage. We, of the digital age, install Kundali-Pro on our computers to chart our horoscope. We seriously believe in castes. We believe it is bad to mingle freely with the opposite sex if you are not siblings or spouses.

We believe that the first time humans achieve the power to land men on the moon, they should plant a national flag there. We believe that whoever plants their country’s flag first on the earth’s rocky satellite does something important and significant and not something that is laughable in a deep way. We do not believe in a flag, symbol and anthem standing for humanity, or for earth and the living things.

We believe that there is no limit on the number of endangered animals that you can kill in order to get a death sentence. We believe that killing one human sometimes suffices.

We believe that we are higher than animals.

We believe that sex is somehow different from sleep or hunger or the need for security.

We believe that a certain country holds biological weapons, and so strong is this belief that on this pretext we attack the country and wreak havoc on it. We don’t find any such weapons. Nevertheless, we set their oil reserves on fire. We gang rape their women, videos of which reach college students as pornography. We believe that there is some type of glory and patriotism in this kind of war. We believe that it is the key to peace.

We believe that there are such things as private parts in our body, and that we must cover them to protect our dignity. We believe in such a dignity.

We believe that lustrous locks are beautiful, but armpit hair is not. We believe in an idea of good-looking men and women. We believe that being good-looking matters a lot. We believe that we must keep that fact in mind when we fall in love or choose a partner for life.

Yes, we believe there is such a thing as plant milk or thermal minerals, and that hair, which is dead tissue, has ‘health’. We believe that organic things are not chemicals (remember organic chemistry?) We believe beautification can be measured, and stated in percentage. We don’t know the answer to ‘30% better than what,’ but we believe it anyway. We believe that using a computerized horoscope is not ironic. We believe that the unconscious piece of rock that is earth’s natural satellite, or for that matter, any part of the physical universe, cares which country’s flag is planted on that rock. We believe that crimes have to be anthropocentric to be significant. We believe in super-overrating sex, and yet we hold that we are elevated from animals. We don’t believe in unquestioned authority, unless that authority is called the United States of America. We have invented shame, and we believe in an objective beauty as opposed to subjective beauty.

Oh, you meant these ghosts, you say. I don’t believe in them.

Great. Good job. Now let me tell you about a few other ghosts we believe in. Ghosts which you too, are sure to believe in. Ghosts which we are not wrong at all to believe in.

We believe in evolution, and dinosaurs. We believe in global warming, and that smoking causes cancer. We believe that the Holocaust was the single most abominable act in the history of mankind. We believe that women are equal to men, and that homosexuals are not freaks of nature. We believe in relativity and quantum mechanics, at least the fact that there are such things governing our reality. We believe incest is deplorable, so is cannibalism.

But these are not ghosts, you say. These are true. Why shouldn’t I believe in them? Well, there’s absolutely no harm believing in them, provided you know exactly what you are opting to believe in. If you learn about the thing, and check it with your wisdom, and judge it to be correct, you may damn well believe it. But if you believe a thing just because many people hold that view and it is the current convention of society, and because the times are such, then no matter how true or how right or how justified the claim, it is a ghost that you believe in. And that sort of belief, I maintain, does no good to anyone. In fact, I believe it does a lot of harm. It builds dogma. But you see, humans have a natural tendency to create and support dogma. We, the same persons, placed in Darwin’s era and nurtured in the ideas of that time would refuse to admit the possibility of evolution. Likewise, we would never understand, let alone believe, relativity. Just like most physicists at the time, even the Nobel committee, who refused to believe Einstein’s work. Similarly, we would listen to none of the fantasy that goes by the name of quantum mechanics, just as Einstein himself refused to believe it. And don’t, please don’t, fool yourself into thinking that you are such a visionary genius that you would have appreciated all these ideas in their own time. You only believe in them now, in this age, when they have been proved to be right, but not because you understand the proof, only because many people, including the authorities (scientists) hold the view. I am here of course talking about the common educated people, not the scientists themselves. And since your beliefs about the nature of the physical world stem from what the neighbours think rather than what you have researched, it doesn’t take much to just shake them and grind them to dust, and create new ones. You wouldn’t even mind much. Just a newspaper headline about a new experimental observation that completely changes the view of nature. Then you add some authoritative people talking importantly about it in the trusted media, and you have got yourself a brand new reality. Your very own universe, where you’ve been living all these years, has suddenly changed completely. It’s a frightening thought.

During the Holocaust, innumerable people carried on tortures and killings on a regular basis. Not that they were all somehow born cruel at exactly the right time. They were ordinary gullible men born at a time that gave them power in return for their ability to be cruel. They didn’t have to be born as cruel men. Heck, they didn’t even have to be born as men. Just today I read in the newspaper that the role of women in the torments carried out in WWIII was not small at all. I do not fool myself thinking that if all of us were born Aryans in Germany at that time, including you and me, we would have tried to stop this inhumanity. No, we would have risen to the occasion. Face it. At a time when women were referred to as the weaker sex or homosexuals as freaks, that is exactly how we would have looked at them. At a time when people killed other people to eat them, it would have been perfectly fine with us to dine with relish on a murdered person’s eyeball fluid. If incest with protection were legal, – and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, – I bet you would be humping your cousins in no time. Yes, no matter how incorrect it sounds now. We humans always like to be safe, doing what everyone is doing. We don’t have enough courage to do something we believe in if it’s too different from what’s accepted. Leave alone doing what we believe, we are just too afraid, or too not used to even believe such a thing in our hearts. So don’t dare think that you would have been the sole individual to step aside and show the rest a new way. Why would you? You would have been brought up with those ideas. Why would you suddenly turn against them? Do you, today, suddenly turn against some well-established social rule just because you think in the far future it is going to be replaced by something fairer or more rational? No, we the ordinary people just don’t have that sort of vision. We think and decide and act on it like clockwork. We move like a flock of sheep. For this reason, no matter how far into the future, no matter how scientific the age, we shall always be chasing ghosts, only newer and newer ones, camouflaged subtly with ever greater care, while laughing at the ghosts of the past.

The cure of this, I believe, lies in two parts: the first part is when you are able to classify your own beliefs as ghost or non-ghost according to the definition of ghost, and take corrective steps accordingly. No, you don’t have to go out there and scientifically prove every fact that you know about the world. What you must do is included in the second part. This second part is a very simple thing Richard Feynman said in The Meaning of It All: learn to doubt. Leave room for uncertainty. Never be so sure of something that you become instinctively prejudiced against any alternative to it.

But there really is no cure. You cannot spread the message enough. We shall keep believing in ghosts. A select few ghosts.

Like the belief that we don’t believe in any.

1Life.

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