Using a fundamental misunderstanding of science to feel better about life
Last night at a Serbian restaurant, I was thumbing through my Facebook feed at the urinal – like you do – when I saw that James Gandolfini had died. That didn’t surprise me as much as the age they listed at the time of his death: 51.
Younger people dying always bums me. Granted, Gandolfini looked he was 51 at the start of The Sopranos – when he was actually 36 – but I guess gabagool shaves a lotta years off your life. That or cocaine. For the religious, there’s a bit more comfort in death, particularly if you believe there was an afterlife or an actual purpose to one dying so early. For skeptics such as myself, there’s less comfort, particularly when you find out Gandolfini had an 8-month old daughter. Where does a skeptic turn for comfort?
I remember hearing once about quantum immortality. The theory is basically this, as I remember it:
There are an infinite number of universes. As you move through life and make choices, the universe splits into the different choices you could have made. In one universe (this one), I went to Penn State. In another universe, I went to McGill. My life follows both of those paths, but in entirely different universes, though they share a common past.
Now, if, in this thought experiment, the soul (or I suppose “consciousness” is the more scientific word) dies with the body, then the soul can only continue in the bodies which are still living. So as you die in all of the other universe, you don’t actually perceive those deaths, you only perceive the universe where you survive. So if you were nearly hit by a truck, you probably thought, “phew! That was close.” In the other universe, the one you just split from, you died. Your soul only continues into this one.
The implication of this is that you are basically immortal. You will never die, because you will never perceive your death, you will only perceive the universes where you continue to live, where you become the oldest person on the earth, where your friends, family, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren die around you, where humanity withers away, but you are shot into the stars, escaping the expansion of the sun, and living on for eternity.
Your friend, though, who was standing on the curb, still saw you die. He’s still living in universes where you are dead.
So the implication is, everyone that you’ve ever loved who has died is still living long, fulfilling lives in some other universe out there, and in some of those universes, the two of you are still together.
Ignore, for a second, that’s there’s not really any science to this. I first heard about it on the podcast “Stuff You Should Know,” and they made clear that it was less a theory and more a thought experiment, and that nothing could possible prove it. You know, except possibly a really, really old guy who just refuses to die.
The point isn’t that it’s true, however, the point is that it’s a story you may be able to pull some comfort from. And what’s interesting is that there appear to be a lot of people who take comfort from a simple misunderstanding of science or health – take, for example, infomercials for aging cream, or the obsession with near-death experiences. We all want comfort, and we take it where we can get it, and that includes the scientifically minded who often hide their beliefs behind the cover of rationality. I pulled this quote out a few weeks ago, and I’m gonna use it again:
There might be slightly more sympathy coming from the quarter of the skeptics, atheists, and rationalists, if we started to recognize that we do what is fundamentally the same thing as the religious that we tend to condescend to: we adopt philosophies which serve our needs and desires suspiciously well. The comfort a lot of the new-new-atheists get from this:
Is fundamentally the same thing that Christians get from this:
There’s truth in both philosophies, but there are comforting lies, too. (Or, if you prefer, incomplete truths: as for the Tyson thing, then by that logic, the stars also live within our poop.) The trick is to be able to recognize the lies and be comforted by them anyway.
I guess what I’m saying is I really miss The Sopranos.