A ghost

This post describes a type of thought experiment I sometimes perform in thinking about what to do. I find it a helpful tool for stepping back from what’s immediately salient to me. It’s mostly just a somewhat hokey variant on a classic type of thought, and I’m not sure how helpful it will be to others, but I thought I’d share anyway.

I.

I imagine a ghost that slips from my body and floats out into the world. The ghost is invisible, and it can move freely in space and time. Often I imagine it able to fast-forward, slow-down and rewind time at whatever speed it chooses; and sometime, as capable of some more comprehensive vision of the fabric of space-time itself — able to see time and space arrayed before it like a kind of pool, to fly from one part to another, to zoom in and out, to dip in and out at will.

(Adam Magyar’s Stainless videos series is some glimpse of what a “slow-down” might be like — h/t Jaan Tallinn, here).

The ghost sometimes has some kind of power to see counterfactual worlds as well. It can alter variables in the world, and then examine what changes as a result. These powers can vary. In some cases, I might imagine the ghost capable of altering Joe’s actions, but nothing else. In others, it might be capable of its own small actions, like causing someone to trip on a pebble. And in others, it might be capable of controlling basically any variable.

In each case, it’s generally able to observe in detail the consequences of different changes, and it can rewind and reset over and over, trying out and comparing different possibilities, sitting with them, reflecting, learning, understanding. The ghost-time available for this is limitless, and the ghost never gets tired or bored.

(There is also some assumption that none of these “tries” has any moral significance in itself — e.g., the ghost is able to create and consider worlds where there is lots of suffering, and to witness it in its full significance, but without that suffering “actually happening” in a way that subjects the ghost’s exploration to its own moral significance. I sometimes imagine some separate action of “making a possibility real,” but the ghost only takes such actions after deep exploration of the alternatives.)

Regardless of the scope of its powers, though, the ghost is not involved in the world. It does not, for example, try to send messages to the people in the world, or to interact with them in other ways. It does not fear punishment or seek recognition; it sees communities and families and friendships flourishing and changing and falling apart, but it is not a part of any of them. Rather, it is centrally a witness: it sees, wanders, attends.

(Something like this perspective is accessible to non-ghosts as well. Here I think in particular of a certain way of walking through cities, or of sitting in cafes; and of a way of treating one’s awareness as somehow insubstantial — a kind of space or light in which the world appears — and one’s life as centrally something witnessed, even as choices steer it in different directions.)

II.

The ghost has lived my life up until leaving my body. It steps into the world with the same broad set of concerns and beliefs as I have. Perhaps I am the first thing it sees — Joe, frozen in time, some particular expression on my face, in the midst of some gesticulation or thought or emotion. As I start to move, speak, go about my life, the ghost sees me in a way it never has from the inside. It starts to understand better the impact of my actions and habits, my follies and blind-spots and virtues, on others; and it follows these impacts as they warp and twist through time.

Perhaps, at the beginning, the ghost is particularly interested in Joe-related aspects of the world. Fairly soon, though, I imagine it paying more and more attention to everything else. For while the ghost retains a deep understanding of Joe, and a certain kind of care towards him, it is viscerally obvious, from the ghost’s perspective, unmoored from Joe’s body, that Joe is just one creature among so many others; Joe’s life, Joe’s concerns, once so central and engrossing, are just one tiny, tiny part of what’s going on.

(See Benjamin Grant’s Overview for photos that can make this sort of viewpoint vivid.)

Exactly where I imagine the ghost’s attention going varies. Often, I’ll imagine the ghost following other people as they go about their lives, watching their joys, pains, and cares played out across time. I don’t tend to imagine the ghost actually living people’s lives, from the inside — though that’s a worthwhile thought experiment too. But I imagine its attention infused with empathy and receptivity, and the inner lives of others as very directly present to it — written into gestures and postures and the lines of faces. With this sort of attention, the ghost watches humans and animals and ecosystems; it explores the past and the future; it wanders the scales of time and space on which the events of the universe unfold.

In my head, this wandering is often flavored with a certain type of sadness and poignancy, but I think this might be an idiosyncratic feature of my own emotional landscape, and other flavors seem very possible. That said, while the ghost’s emotional relationship to what it sees matters a lot to the thought experiment, questions about what it thinks and feels about its own condition — e.g., how long it expects to be doing this, whether it gets lonely or depressed, etc — aren’t center stage. What matters is the type of comprehension of the world that this condition makes possible.

I don’t, though, tend to imagine the ghost as theoretically omniscient. It can access the whole fabric of space and time, but it need not have considered all arguments, proved all theorems, discovered all final theories. Limitations of memory or energy or boredom do not hinder it, but it’s not a trans-humanist super-being along every dimension that could be ethically relevant; and in this sense, I think, it is likely not an “ideal observer” in the sense most relevant to various ideal observer theories of meta-ethics (though we can modify it to fit the bill better). Rather, it’s something in between such an observer, and my everyday self. This makes it more fallible, but also easier to imagine.

III.

Really, this is just a particular way of accessing a familiar perspective, and involved thought experiments are far from necessary. The world the ghost sees, after all, is just the real world — just the place we all live, just what’s actually happening. Imagining what the ghost sees and feels is mostly a way of starting to imagine what’s there to be seen, and how you would feel if you saw it.

Nor is it the only perspective, or one of overriding authority. We aren’t ghosts, and would each be different ghosts in any case. And we’re not outside the world: we’re in it, embodied, ignorant, vulnerable, with no rewinds or retries. The ghost has no family or friends or communities of its own; but we do.

Still, I find that imagining what different types of ghost would feel or think or see makes a difference to my own deliberation. For example:

  • In considering my relationship to a given person, I might imagine how the ghost would feel about this person, if they had followed them throughout their life, and could see their current situation clearly. 
  • In considering taking a risk, I might consider how the ghost would want me to choose, if it was first deeply acquainted with the different possible outcomes, but then thrust back into my current epistemic position with respect to which actions will bring them about.
  • In considering the possibility that I am making a mistake of some sort, I might imagine what type of mistake this would look like to a ghost who was watching me make it.
  • In considering different sorts of moral dilemmas, I might imagine how a ghost who had replays/retries, clear knowledge of and acquaintance with the different outcomes, and who was not part of the social world in which a given action would be embedded, might act, or might hope that I act.
  • In considering the importance of what happens in the future relative to some present-day concern, I might think about how a ghost who had really been to the future would feel about the stakes involved.
  • In considering some kind of justification that I’m offering for an action, I might consider how a ghost would think about my situation and the argument I’m offering.

I don’t necessarily treat the ghost’s input as definitive. Often, though, it moves me — helping me to step out of a certain type of myopia; to distinguish between map and territory; to clarify which considerations are relevant to which perspectives; and to remember the vividness and detail of everything I cannot see.

3 thoughts on “A ghost”

  1. I posted this on Facebook just now. I was very moved by the way the ghost is a witness, all the while, gaging and choosing how to be with what is occurring. In the pandemic and in the current political climate, I find myself demonizing people who I perceive as evil. I have never done that before in my life. I worry more than I ever did before. I feel a lot of dispair and I am not alone in any of these thoughts and feelings. Since last March, I have been doing what I call mind traveling in order to escape. I escape back in time and to places that I loved. There is never any pain in these travels because I choose the time and place. It is interesting to think about staying in the present and doing the same thing with the circumstances and events unfolding around me. I do not know if I can pull that off but who knows, I might try.

  2. I wonder about the ethics of experiments by our embodied imagination. Also, given all the time in the world to observe the future and study the past, our ghostly imagination might not comprehend more of actionable import than is available to us in any present moment. Not that experimenting with people’s live in the name of science is entirely unavoidable. Is not our every considered choice an experiment, based in part on results of prior direct experiments but also non-objectively and importantly in our provenance, with an uncertain outcome? We should careful not to celebrate any outcome “positive” or “negative” too much, as we engage with 2021!

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