Operational Definitions and Ghosts

What is a ghost? Sounds like a simple enough question right? Ask ten strangers in a room to describe what they think a ghost is for you and see how many different descriptions you get. Without an operational definition, you are likely to get a wide spectrum of ghostly descriptions. These could include everything as harmless and presumably peaceful as the souls of deceased loved ones now “watching over you” in your daily life and intervening in your favor from time to time, to the good old-fashioned vicious and violent Paranormal Activity variety found in good horror fiction. I don’t have any data to support this, but I imagine there are far more people who believe in the former “guardian angel” version of ghosts than who believe in the latter spooky kind, but already you might see how this conversation could get a bit convoluted without first agreeing on what we mean by the word, “ghost.”

So what is a ghost exactly?

I know it sounds a bit circular, but the answer to this question will most likely inform whether or not a person actually believes in ghosts. Therefore, before we even start talking about whether or not ghosts are real, we first have to agree on precisely what it is we’re talking about by defining our terms. This agreed to definition has now been “operationally defined.” For the most part, agreeing on the definitions of words as they appear in a dictionary will suffice but sometimes the nuances of a definition muddy the water. And whether they intend it or not, people love to shelter their beliefs in that mud. Clarity is important if we’re looking for the truth.

In addition, a word of warning. Clever, and some might rightfully say duplicitous, conversationalists and debaters will sometimes bend the meanings of words, or even hijack them, in a way that fits their agenda. Rather than recognize the meaning of words as the rest of us commonly use them, they change them to suit their position. The result? You end up playing a game of tennis on adjacent courts. If your interlocutor (this is the other party in a dialogue) is unwilling to agree on the definition, then you may have stumbled upon someone who is more interested in “winning” than they are having a conversation.

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