What Makes You You?

On this week’s Robcast, Rob Bell talked about lots of cool science-y things which largely got around to the question of how we relate to our physicality. Are we just a collection of atoms that have combined in the right way, or are we something more?


Does our existence boil down to just this amazing organ in our heads?

For my fellow nerds, here’s a way to think about it one of my cognitive science professors once used. Suppose we have invented a device that is capable of completely recreating your entire body exactly as is, e.g. a teleporter that broke down “you” in one spot and rebuilt it in another spot. Would that new collection of atoms have consciousness? If it did, would it still be “you” or did “you” die with a new person created instead?

I honestly don’t know how I answer that. I definitely think consciousness is more than the right alignment of the cells of our brains. In theological language, I could say that I think there is some ruah or pneuma – translated as spirit or breath or wind – which God has placed in each of us. I definitely think we are more than just physical material, at least in the usual way of thinking of “physical,” but how does the “spiritual” or “mental” relate to the physical?

I’m not sure if I believe it myself or not, but I wouldn’t be offended if God has put that ruah in us by way of the cells aligning in the right ways. I believe in evolution, so why not extend that to the formation of consciousness/mind/spirit?

And if that is true, then being destroyed but recreated is indeed still “you.” It’s something we aren’t close to understanding, but I’m hesitant to say that it is something that science absolutely never will understand any of it because it is a different category.

Does it really matter how we answer this? Barring the creation of these kinds of machines, maybe not. But it’s an interesting thought experiment.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.