An ancient battle ship, sailed by the great hero Theseus, resides proudly in a prestigious museum, as an enduring testament of his historic victories. Crowds flock in everyday to marvel at the grand behemoth of a boat, until one day, a piece of wood begins to rot within the boat. The piece is deep inside the hull of the ship, and so knowing that it will be impossible for the masses to see, the museum curator swaps out the rotted piece for a new plank of wood, to maintain the structural integrity of the ship. However, the rot continues to spread, and gradually more and more new pieces of wood are added to the ship, until the ship in the museum is now completely comprised of new wood. So, is that boat in the museum, still the ship of Theseus?
This question of identity has plagued philosophers for millennia, with the likes of Plato, Plutarch, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes, all contributing potential solutions to this conundrum. But what if the object were no longer a ship? What if the object was you?
If you were in an accident and lost your arm, and were given a prosthetic limb, would you still be you? What if future technology one day allows us to upload our consciousness to technology? Would that desktop still be the original you, or is it a new or different you? These questions may sound farfetched, but they all strike at an integral part of human identity and purpose: what makes you, you? Furthermore, what makes humans, humans?
What is a soul?
The acclaimed anime series ‘Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood’ attempts to provide an answer to this question, and though it leaves a lot to be desired in the department of theology, it proposes an interesting perspective on the definition of a human and a soul.
The show’s narrative follows the titular character, state alchemist Edward Elric, and his brother Alphonse Elric, as they seek the Philosopher’s Stone. Their purpose is driven in an effort to restore Alphonse’s soul to his human body which was lost in an accident. But with his soul now trapped in a metal suit of armour, the question arises, does Alphonse still classify as a human, as he no longer has a human body? He appears to have the same memories, emotions and personality as Alphonse, but is trapped in a cold, metal shell.
Later in the narrative, the brothers discover that the Philosopher’s Stone they so intently desired, is actually part of a twisted science experiment, and that the stone is made of human souls. This then causes the two brothers to wrestle with the ethics of using the stone or not, and whether the stone still classifies as a human being, despite it not having a human body.
As interesting as these ethical dilemmas are, there is one main problem, and that is the definition of a soul. Author Hiromu Arakawa never properly explains the metaphysics of a soul in her original manga, despite it being an integral part of her narrative, but is clear in stating that in her fictional universe, a human has a soul.
How does this idea stack up with Scripture? Not very well. The Bible clearly states that humans do not possess a soul, but rather they are a soul.
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7
The soul which sins will die. Ezekiel 18:20
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28
The original word for soul in Hebrew is ‘nephesh’ and describes the totality of a human, fully comprised and created. So, the ethical dilemmas Arakawa present are fascinating, but cannot fully help us answer our question of Theseus’s boat.
What can I take away?
So then, if we understand that the Bible teaches that a human being is equivalent to a soul, then what can you take away from a soul, till it is no longer a soul?
This is an incredibly important question to wrestle with, as unlike the questions of Full Metal Alchemist, which prove largely inconsequential to real life, this moral question has life and death consequences.
Self-awareness, the ability to communicate, loving relationships, memories, a sense of morality, the ability to contribute to society, an able body and mind, these are all things which certain people do not have. In effect, these are planks of wood that perhaps have been forcibly or voluntarily taken out of the boat. But does the absence of these qualifiers make these people no longer human?
If so, groups such as unborn children, babies and infants, the mute, potentially the mentally disabled, and some of the elderly population, would be deemed as inhuman. But that cannot be right? We would classify all of these groups as being human. So then, what is it that makes a human, a human? That gives a soul the identity of a soul?
What makes a human?
When God created humanity, we are told that he gave the dust life and made him a soul. But there is also another integral factor in the creation story.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
This is what makes a human, a human, and gives every human life inherent value, purpose and meaning, despite what characteristics they may typically lack. Because every human being is created in the very likeness of God, no one can diminish or take away the inherent value they possess. This means there is no justification for any forms of discrimination, racism or sexism, and no moral grounds to take away the life of another individual, purely on the basis of them not meeting a certain physical, mental or emotional standard. Instead, we are to treat everyone with the same love and respect God shows to us, and to give the dignity owed to every Image bearer of God.
So, is the boat still the same boat? Well, I think the best answer would be to ask Theseus if he were still alive, whether he believed it was the same boat he once proudly rode into battle.
As for me, I will ask my Creator and my God, who says that no matter what happens to me, I am loved, cherished, and of infinite value to Him.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Psalm 139:13,14
To learn more about the image of God and the importance it has on our society and culture, check out the article: the Age of Reason. Click this link to have a one on one discussion with one of our MWM staff.