The Soul of Science
According to Greek legend, Poseidon's son Theseus sailed to Crete to
slay the monster Minotaur. After his triumphant return to Athens,
his ship was preserved as a memorial. As the vessel aged, decaying
planks were replaced with new ones; eventually, all the original
timber was replaced. Philosophers know the story of Theseus's ship
as a classic example of the problem of identity. What was the true
identity of the ship, the shape or the wood?
A more contemporary example may be found in the form of my first
car, a 1966 Ford Mustang with a 289-cubic-inch engine and a
speedometer that pegged at 140 m.p.h. As a young man high in
testosterone but low in self-control, by the time I sold the car 15
years later there was hardly an original part on it. Nevertheless,
my "1966" Mustang was now considered a classic, and I
netted a tidy profit. Like Theseus's ship, its essence—its
The analogy holds for human identity. The atoms in my brain and body
today are not the same ones I had when I was born. Nevertheless, the
patterns of information coded in my DNA and in my neural memories
are still those of Michael Shermer. The human essence, the soul, is
more than a pile of parts—it is a pattern of information.
As far as we know, there is no way for that pattern to last longer
than several decades, a century or so at most. So until a technology
can copy a human pattern into a more durable medium (silicon chips
perhaps?), it appears that when we die our pattern is lost.
Scientific skepticism suggests that there is no afterlife, and
religion requires a leap of faith greater than many of us wish to make.
Whether there is an afterlife or not, we must live as if this is all
there is. Our lives, our families, our friends, our communities (and
how we treat others) are more meaningful when every day, every
moment, every relationship and every person counts. Rather than
meaningless forms before an eternal tomorrow, these entities have
value in the here-and-now because of the purpose we create.