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The Life of Death

Reductio ad Absurdum

Kyle Hill

June 12, 2013

More humans have died than you will ever meet, see, or learn about. Since our split from the apes, Earth has been littered with the detritus of human demise—nearly 110 billion bodies. If spirits did live on after death, most of the people you meet will have already met their end.

Every single house on Earth would be haunted by default.

If becoming a ghost were the next stage of life after death, our planet would be absolutely packed with ectoplasm. Earth currently harbors over seven billion human beings, all very much alive. We pack them in skyscrapers and in endless suburbs. But adding another 110 billion souls to the population would make everyone a neighbor. If ghosts could interact with matter, they would need space to haunt, and in the United States, we value our space. If the seven billion humans alive today wanted to live like Americans, they would need over four times the landmass currently available on Earth. By extrapolation, all the haunting space required by ghosts would push that number to 185 times all the landmass on Earth. If ghosts existed, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one (or it passing through one). Ghost hunter’s thermal cameras would see a blur of reds and blues wherever they looked.

Famous for being able to pass through matter, ghosts might simply pack together instead of being neighbors to everyone on the planet. Just how much space these phantasmal people would require is impossible to determine. How many ghosts could fit on the head of a pin? How many Ghostbusters’ ecto-containment chambers would you need to hold them all?

A new view of death accompanies real-life ghosts. When the body is just a vessel—a way station for the eternal spirit—life is a race to your best self. If ghosts manifest themselves as a picture of the person at the instant they died, old, grotesque ghosts would evaporate. Like how most animals strive to raise their children to reproductive maturity, all humans would occupy this material plane only until they looked however they wanted to look for eternity. Droves of twenty-somethings would commit suicide, seeking to remain young for all time. Billions of Dorian Grays make their pacts with death. Why live until you are old if you are bound to exist in that form forever? “Live fast, die young” is sound advice in a world where ghosts exist.

Carrying on as a ghost taking the last form of the deceased still would be spooky. Unfortunate fetuses and grotesque accident victims would float around with the twenty-something ghosts who had control over their demise. The universe extinguishes the lives of millions of children under the age of five each year. A world where ghosts exist suffers the hauntings of billions of supremely creepy (and presumably naked) baby ghosts.

If you thought the NSA’s spying was bad, a world filled with spooks has no privacy at all. Able to float through walls and haunt at will, each of the 110 billion ghosts is a real-life Santa Claus. They see you when you’re sleeping; they know when you’re awake. They know when you’ve been bad or good; so don’t do anything you wouldn’t want every single ancestor you have to see and judge you on.

The cottage séance industry quickly tanks, because whom your great aunt wants you to marry is a simple haunt away. The sale of ghost hunter tools like EMF detectors and thermal imaging cameras would skyrocket. Knowing when you are truly alone would be big business. And if ghosts do interact through electromagnetic radiation, as hunters claim, we might have to re-think our radio and Wi-Fi systems. Dearly departed grandmothers would mess with our Internet.

Death is no longer a release in a world where ghosts exist. The paranoia that comes from knowing every member of the human race can judge each and every action you take would surely create a new form of PTSD. But being in contact with a dead relative that can phase through walls has its benefits. Every locked door would be effectively transparent. Earth would be filled with 110 billions lenses of truth. The term secret would lose its value.

Depending on ghost “rules,” there might be far fewer than you’d expect. If the only ghosts that remain after death have “unfinished business,” at least it wouldn’t be so crowded. But if even a small percentage of humans were wronged before death, you would have to deal with billions of ornery phantoms—surely enough to make their presence known.

Instead of asking “who you gonna call” every second of every day, there remains no evidence of the life of death. Where there should be billions of ghosts, there are bumbling investigators, specks of dust in camera lenses, and psychologically dubious recollections. We should be swimming in ghastly illusions, so what do you see?

Kyle Hill

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Kyle Hill is a science writer who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. He writes for the Scientific American Blog Network at his blog, But Not Simpler. Hill also contributes to Slate, Wired, Nature Education, Popular Science, and io9. He manages Nature Education's Student Voices blog, is a contributor to Al Jazeera America’s science show TechKnow, and you can follow him on Twitter under @Sci_Phile.