The comic depicts a day where science has finally invented a machine to transport objects instantly from one location to the other. Think Star Trek. Of course, everyone hails this great technological feat, but at least one man, the protagonist of the strip, is disturbed. The comic states:
The machines did more than transport people. They also killed them. Since the machines didn't use exactly the same atoms in exactly the same position, what arrived on the other side wasn't the original but only a copy. However, because the copy had the memory of the original's past, it believed it was the same person.The man is disgusted at the wholesale death that people were accepting for the sake of convenience, which he deems immoral. He eventually meets the inventor of the machine and confronts him on such wanton disregard for human life. The inventor counters by answering, "My boy, surely you don't think that 'you' are the individual atoms of your body, do you? One carbon atom is the same as the next! And your body itself flushes out and replaces atoms all the time, yet you say nothing of copies. 'You' are not the atoms in your body but the pattern of the atoms." The man realizes now that every day he awakes his atoms are different. He dies every night as he loses consciousness and a copy wakes in the morning with the memories of the past. The man goes into an existential crisis.
The question of identity that the strip portrays is one that has a long history in philosophy, going back to ancient Greece. Known as Theseus' Paradox, it is usually represented as a ship piloted by Theseus whose weather-worn components are replaced one at a time until eventually there are no original parts. Is this still Theseus' ship? What if one were to take all those original pieces and reassemble them right next to the repaired ship? Which would properly be Theseus' ship now?
What is the Essential Element?Both the transporter machine and Theseus' paradox ask the question of what makes up the essential element of a thing. If we are only a pattern of atoms arranged in a certain way, then can two specific identical patterns of atoms both claim to be the same person? The comic assumes that our material nature is really all there is to us. Our consciousness and our memories are what inevitably come from a specific arrangement of those atoms. That means the mental reduces to the material, and you can recreate a consciousness by duplicating the specific material components.
As the comic shows, if this is true then life can be seen to be meaningless. What one does doesn't matter since a real you doesn't continue through life, but a bunch of copies. When viewed through a materialist lens, there is really no meaning to life at all. However, Christianity offers an answer to this dilemma. The Christian view of humanity teaches that we are not merely the assembly of atoms. Human beings have not only a body but a soul, an immaterial aspect of ourselves that stays the same throughout our existence. The soul is not replaced bit by bit. It is fundamentally the same thing. The soul is our essential self. While humans are made to be both body and soul, it is in our souls where our conscious selves reside. Even when we sleep, our souls continue and we don't cease to be.
Implications of a SoulThe idea that each of us possesses a soul has incredible implications. It not only provides continuity in this life (I am the same person tomorrow when I awake and I am today), but it gives us an understanding that people who are born without things like arms and legs are still fully valuable as human beings because they do not have less of a soul. It helps us understand why unborn human beings are valuable individuals. It also helps us to understand that what we do in this life matters because even if our material elements are destroyed in death, our souls will continue on.
J. P. Moreland has quoted J. Gresham Machen who said, "I think we ought to hold not only that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul." We can clearly see why it is so important. If we are to take the materialist position, we are entirely consistent to believe there is no meaning to anything at all and there's really nothing to live for. But because we are body and soul, God has given us real meaning for this life as well as for the next.