On the Reality of Spirits (Part I)


This page, the first part in a longer series, gives a general justification of a belief in spirits, the performance of rituals, and the use of divination, all very broadly conceived.

1 Introduction

In the preface to his Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766),¹ an anonymous German philosopher once joked, “What philosopher has not at some point, between the solemn assertions of a rational and firmly convinced eyewitness,² and the internal resistance of insurmountable doubt, cut the most foolish figure that one can imagine?”, and asked, “Should he³ deny the reality of all spirit apparitions (Geistererscheinungen)? What reasons can he adduce to refute them?”

This anonymus—revealed to be Immanuel Kant soon after publication—went on to argue that one should neither be prejudiced to believe nor to disbelieve, but only (dis)believe after serious investigation. It would indeed be “rational”, he opined, “not even to concern oneself with such overcurious or idle questions, and keep to the useful”.⁴ But if one did condescend to treat the subject of spirits (Geister), it should be done with an open mind.

Kant himself did not put this into practice, however, but began his investigation by searching for a definition of ‘spirit’ narrow enough to lead to his preconceived conclusion: namely, that there is no empirical knowledge of spirits, because, even if they exist, they must be of such a nature that there logically cannot be empirical knowledge of them. Therefore, circularly, any human ideas about them are purely fanciful, and all possible evidence to the contrary can be excluded on principle.

But let us follow, as one often must with German philosophers, the method Kant claims to employ, not the one he actually uses,⁵ and consider the question for ourselves with an open mind. Should the philosopher deny, accept or set aside the reality of spirits?

1: Full title Träume eines Geistersehers, erläutert durch Träume der Metaphysik [Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Illucidated Through Dreams of Metaphysics]. I translate from the edition in Immanuel Kant. Werke in zwölf Bänden, vol. 2 (1977), here p. 923.
2: Namely, a witness to the reality of spirits.
3: The philosopher is imagined as male here.
4: From the same work and page, emphasis in the original.
5: Even among the disreputable ranks of German philosophers, this is especially necessary with Kant, who was (not entirely unrelatedly to the present subject) a particularly vicious racist.

2 What the Master would not discuss, and the postulates of practical reason

Kant’s position in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is nominally skeptical—he laments that academics are unwilling to confess, “I do not know”¹—but in fact purely dogmatic. Based on a definition of spirit that is purely his own, he concludes that spirit apparitions that others have experienced were, in fact, nothing of the kind, and recommends that these be summarily disregarded. Of course, no one has ever claimed to have encountered a spirit of Kantian specifications, so the realization that Kantian spirits can by definition not be encountered is meaningless. The question, surely, must be how to deal philosophically with the fact of all those human experiences that we lump together under such terms as spirit apparition, haunting, divine manifestation, and so on.

And one philosophical approach to that question is precisely that which Kant professes to recommend, namely to say, “I do not know”, or to say nothing at all. Confucius, the Consummate Sage (至聖 zhìshèng), is said to have cultivated this attitude:

“The master never discussed the unusual (怪 guài), power (力 ), rebellion (亂 luàn) or spirits (神 shén)”

Analects of Confucius 7:21.

But this is something very different from Kant’s incessant mockery, and his cocksure dismissal of any intrusion of spirits into the realm of experience. For Confucius, and for the later Confucians, human interaction with spirits is in fact absolutely central to practical ethics. The Classic of Rites, which according to tradition was compiled by Confucius’ students, to a large part concerns itself with the manner in which the spirits are worshipped or, in the case of the recently dead, mourned. The Sage himself is venerated as a spirit by his followers, and in 1907, at the very end of the Qing Dynasty, he was even promoted to the first rank of spirits, or gods (as 神 shén may also be translated), alongside Heaven and Earth—not undeservedly, if my opinion counts for anything.

Confucians agree with Kant that delving into the nature of spirits is an idle endeavor, but for them, the social reality of the spirits is so foundational as to make their metaphysical reality a secondary or tertiary concern. It was not, for instance, a theological discovery that led to Confucius’ promotion to the highest rank, but an imperial decree, that is to say, a social regulation. When alive, Confucius did not refuse to speak about spirits because he wanted nothing to do with them, but because he favored regular, decorous social relations with them over lurid tales of the uncanny and overconfident speculations, both of which had the potential to be socially disruptive (like tales of “power” and “rebellion”).

Unlike frivolous talk about the spirits, Confucians consider the rites that are performed for them as indispensable in the moral life of the individual and the community, because it is in adherence to ritual propriety and its attendant duties that human instinct is developed into virtue. Xunzi (3rd cent. BCE) even goes so far as to say that this alone is the purpose of the rites: “One performs the rain sacrifice and it rains. Why? I say: there is no special reason why. It is the same as when one does not perform the rain sacrifice and it rains anyway. When the sun and moon suffer eclipse, one tries to save them. When Heaven sends drought, one performs the rain sacrifice. One performs divination and only then decides on important affairs. But this is not to be regarded as bringing one what one seeks, but rather is done to give things proper form. Thus, the gentleman regards this as proper form, but the common people regard it as connecting with spirits. If one regards it as proper form, one will have good fortune. If one regards it as connecting with spirits, one will have misfortune.”²

My point is not that the reality of spirits is immaterial to Confucians, but only that the moral function of ritual duties is the primary consideration. Since they are viewed as the bond that holds society together, even a rejection of the belief in spirits cannot lessen their importance. Kant, on the other hand, artfully extricates himself from any ethical relations and duties to the non-human, by claiming firstly that only rational beings are ends-in-themselves worthy of moral consideration, secondly that non-human “natural beings” do not possess rationality,³ and thirdly that spirits (supernatural rational beings, as it were) are outside the bounds of our experience, and thus of our social life. On this dubious foundation, he builds his ethical system of universal duties, and then turns around to demand that religions impose no further duties, but only those already posited by “reason”:⁴ “anything which a person believes they may do to become pleasing to God, except for a good conduct in life, is mere fanaticism and counterfeit worship of God”.⁵ But it was only Kant himself who defined good conduct to exclude prayer and sacrifice!

We must also note that even with this contrived basis, Kant needs certain “postulates of practical reason” (derived from Christianity) to be able to construct a coherent system. Namely, he has to assume the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the freedom of the human will,⁶ although he cannot demonstrate that these are real. There is nothing in these postulates that makes them more rational than the proposition that there are spirits to whom we have moral duties—especially if we do not hang everything on some one definition of what spirits are;—and doubly if, like the Confucians, we formulate and understand those duties in such a manner that their usefulness is effectively independent of the reality of the spirits. (Incidentally, Confucianism also does not teach the immortality of the soul, and is nevertheless able to persuade people to act morally.)

But I do not intend to argue the case of the Confucians, exactly, since their orthodox understanding of the rites is, in my eyes, too narrow. If human moral life inextricably includes obligations to spirits, then it is implausible that only one group has found a correct way to serve those obligations, unless Confucians could show that they alone have been able to escape the moral failings of the rest of humanity in other respects as well. If, on the other hand, people across the world and across religions (a) largely acknowledge the reality of some spirits or act as if there were spirits, but (b) differ in their conceptions of their nature and rituals, and yet (c) are of comparable ethical accomplishment, then it stands to reason that there is an abundance of morally sound ways in which we can understand and relate to the spirits or gods.

In light of all this, I will not even count the reality of spirits and the moral value of rites (taken in the broadest possible sense, and foreclosing no possible explanation) as postulates, but simply as a given of human life. I will postulate, however, that in order for ordinary human moral life to make sense, communication with the spirits, be that through holy books, technical divination, possession, automatic writing, inspired dreams, etc., must be not only possible but commonplace. Not, I should clarify, in the sense that all diviners must be believed in all points, in the way that literalists accept the Bible, but only to the extent that in practical terms, divination must generally be reliable enough to allow us to depend on it in determining ritual propriety. Indeed, to escape absurdity, we must set a firm limit on their reliability, and assume that, if there are two contrary universal commandments that are otherwise valid, both may apply, but each only to the community that accepts it. Many traditions have internally plausible explanations for why such apparent conflicts arise.

To give a concrete example, A New Oracle of Aphrodite–Abundance that I have just received/composed came together in such a way as to suggest, subjectively speaking, a guiding intelligence teaching me an authoritative way to consecrate a statue of the goddess. Nevertheless, I do not consider it morally binding even on me, but see it as equally valid to any other authoritative method. However, if I should decide to put any part of it into practice, I would consider myself obligated to follow it exactly, and to make the regular offerings it prescribes—not “as bringing one what one seeks, but rather […] to give things proper form”. If, after entering into this obligation, it could be proved to me that the divinatory process was entirely random,⁷ it would not lead me to give up the practice, unless it were also harmful in some way. The divinatory method exists for the sake of ritual practice—to give specific shape to our generic duty to the spirits—, not the reverse.

1: [Work in Progress]
2: From Xunzi 17, Eric L. Hutton’s translation.
3: [Work in Progress]
4: [Work in Progress]
5: [Work in Progress]
6: [Work in Progress]
7: And assuming that randomness is not precisely the medium of divination.

To be continued on a separate page.

Status: first draft completed (16 June 2022)