Shakespeare’s God and Ghost

Whenever I write something that challenges (or perhaps outright denies the validity of) religious beliefs, I am often reminded by one of my favorite teachers from years ago (apologies Mr. Walsh) of this quote from Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Act 1, Scene 5)


    O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
    And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

This quote is often used to counter such arguments by implying there are things we don’t, and perhaps cannot, know for certain.

The existence of an omnipotent god being the big one.

I would argue the opposite. The quote comes when Horatio sees the ghost of Hamlet. He denies what is right in front of him. Hamlet’s line is as much a criticism of the limitations of our beliefs as an argument that we can’t know everything.

I would suggest that Hamlet is pointing out that, in the presence of new information, long-standing beliefs change.

In Shakespeare’s time, the Copernican theory of a heliocentric solar system was still being met with death by fire at the hands of the Catholic Church. Today, we have found over 3000 extra-solar planets orbiting other stars.

Galileo, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was under house arrest for confirming the Copernican theory. Today, only the lunatic fringe cling to such ideas of an earth-centered universe.

Isaac Newton, born shortly after Shakespeare’s death, began developing Newtonian physics that held sway until the introduction of Quantum physics. Even those who study such things have barely scratched the surface of the strange world of quantum entanglements. Einstein’s characterization of “spooky actions at a distance’ now is accepted a fact.

My point being that much of the most dominant religious dogmas, Judaic, Christian, and Islamic, have their roots in times of limited scientific knowledge with widespread misunderstanding of natural phenomenon.

A first grader today has a more in-depth understanding of the reality of the physical world than the most educated Roman or Greek or Islamic intellectual at the time of the founding of these religions.

Professor Tom Nichols of the Naval War College writes in his book, “The Death of Expertise” about the demise of our ability to question things and seek knowledge. We have lost our ability to think critically. We’ve been “Googled” into relinquishing analysis and discourse.

He writes, “The United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance,” He laments that many Americans are “proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue.”

The idea that most Americans believe in Angels is astounding. They may argue that something inexplicable must have been an Angelic intervention but it doesn’t establish that as fact. All it does is illustrate that there are some things we do not yet understand.

Yet being the important word in that sentence.

I do not claim to have the answers, no one can. But I think history teaches us with each passing moment long-held beliefs based on faith alone have fallen to the inevitable progress of human inquiry.

By falling back on Shakespeare’s quote as a means of saying we must accept things because we can’t explain them or disprove them flies in the face of the progress of knowledge.

In Shakespeare’s time, there was disagreement at the point of a lighted torch on whether the earth circled the sun. Some four hundred years later, a man stood on the moon. Over the next decade, man will stand on Mars.

Not that science alone can offer all the answers, but the scientific method does offer a roadmap of how to get there. By questioning hypothesis, by repeating experiments, by continually adding to the sum of human knowledge we will grow our rationality.

All one need do is look around at the world today to see the risk of faith-based politics. Those who subscribe to mystical messages from unseen gods as a guide to managing human affairs are as much a threat as a terrorist bomb. Not one of the “inspired word of god” texts leaves out some cataclysmic end to the world with the saving of the faithful and the utter destruction of the unbelievers. Ever wonder why such blind faith is so important to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being?

If you believe in hell and the promise of everlasting torment for those who are not “bathed in the blood,” or any other such dogma that is a true threat to the peaceful existence of humanity.

By thinking, we grow. “Cogito ergo sum” I think, therefore I am. The more we think and learn and investigate, the better we will live.

And that is why, despite Hamlet’s words, I question and doubt.