Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Be cheerful, Sir

It was my pleasure once to act in a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Surely, few lines have ever been written in the English language more beautiful than these of Prospero:
      Be cheerful, Sir,
Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Science can neither prove or disprove the immortality of the human self. Those who choose to believe that we live forever cannot and will not be refuted by experiment. The only thing at issue is how seriously we take Ockham's Razor, which has been and remains one of the most fruitful metascientific principles upon which is based the scientific way of knowing. If every observable aspect of the human self -- physical characteristics, behaviors, immune system, memories, and so on -- can be shown to be material processes, then the idea of an immaterial spirit self becomes simply redundant. A swipe of the Razor and not a rack of the immortal soul is left behind.

It can be argued, of course, that one believes in the efficacy of the Razor with no more evidence than one believes in immortal souls, and that is true. These are, however, different sorts of beliefs: the latter makes a claim about what actually exists in the world, the former is a principle of knowing. I choose the Razor. You choose the immortal soul. Let's leave it at that.

And in doing so, I'll be cheerful. I will revel while I can, and then, like my soma, like the Sun and the great globe itself, one day dissolve and fade. We are such stuff as dreams are made of. Let us dream then the great dreams of the universe described by science -- the dreams of Aristarchus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and all the other players in that glorious pageant -- and be content that our little lives are rounded with a sleep.