Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Logical Paradoxes, the Soul, & Christianity

Recently, I have started watching Vsauce3, a great YouTube channel that discusses a lot of interesting philosophical and scientific theories. It’s really cool, and if you have never watched it, definitely check it out. I became particularly intrigued by one video that discussed four logical paradoxes about what really makes you, you.

The Theseus Paradox considers Theseus’s ship as an example. Say you have this ship, and after a while you replace the sails, then the mast, and all the rope, and eventually you even replace all the wood so that none of the elements of the original ship are there anymore, even if it looks exactly the same. So then the question is: Is it the same ship anymore? Furthermore, it also states that if you took all the parts you removed from the first ship and used them to build a second one, is that actually the original ship? Or are they both entirely new ships?

Another paradox discussed in this video is the Sorites Paradox, which asks: If you have a heap of sand, and you keep taking away one grain of sand until there is only one grain of sand left, at which point during this process does it stop being a heap of sand?

Then, if you combine the Theseus and Sorites Paradox and apply it to a person, we ask the question: when do we stop being ourselves? If your leg is cut off, yes, you are still you, but think about how most of your cells have replaced themselves since birth. You look different, act different, maybe even have different opinions and a different personality since you were a baby or even a little kid. Is the you who was a baby the same person as the you you are now?

Finally there is the Teletransportation Paradox, which discusses being in a transporter where you are broken down into little pieces and then rebuilt somewhere else. It would essentially kill you and then put together different atoms in order to remake you. The last you would remember is stepping into a transporter and then coming out the other side. You would have all the same memories and same personality, but we wouldn’t know what happened in between moving from one location to another. And really, how can you even be sure you do have the same memories and personality? So then the question becomes, is the person who walked into the transporter the same as the person who came out?

I started to wonder about these paradoxes in relation to the soul and religion. Most religions believe that there is more to a person than just their body; their soul is also a key part of who they are. In some religions the body takes second place, and the body is viewed as an illusion or a prison for the soul, while other religions see the soul and body as very much linked and equal in value. For example, in Christian sects, gnostic Christianity views the body as less important than the soul, but most mainstream Christians view the body and soul as equally important. Because I am Christian, I will talk about the mainstream Christian view of the soul and body, but I would love to know what other religious belief systems have to say about this issue, so please let me know in the comments! Are any of the Star Trek characters still the same person after having been broken down and rebuilt in the transporter? Is Voldemort still Voldemort even after he split up his soul and then basically built himself a new body? Let’s dive in!

In Star Trek we get a very real example of the Teletransportation Paradox. And knowing about this paradox, we can certainly see why people like Dr. McCoy are so afraid of the transporter. There has been more than one accident with the transporter that has greatly affected the person going into it. In The Original Series, there is an episode called “The Enemy Within” in which Kirk gets split between his good and evil sides after a malfunction, showing that the transporter is capable of putting him back together in a wrong or at least completely different way. Another time in the episode “Mirror, Mirror”, Kirk and some of his crew are transported into another reality. They look just like their alternate reality counterparts—they even wear the same clothes as their alternate reality selves—but they only have memories of their own reality. In one episode of Voyager called “Tuvix”, Lt. Tuvok and Neelix are accidentally merged into one person, complete with a combination of their appearance and personalities. And while these issues are always fixed in one or two episodes, it certainly shows how you can become a whole different person through the transporter. Which makes you wonder if it happens more often, but just in less extreme ways.  Do you die any time you go through the transporter? Or is it the soul that is really important here? Does the soul change with the body or mind?

mirror-mirrorIn most mainstream Christian sects, the soul is a real, though immaterial, thing that is distinct from but very closely connected to the physical form. The view that the soul and body are separate is regarded as dualism and is typically considered to be heresy. Despite the fact that the soul is separated from the body at death, the body is still viewed as important. Specifically, the body is important to the end of days. Most Christians believe that at the end of time when the Kingdom of God is on Earth, the bodies of all those who have passed on will be resurrected, though the body is different after resurrection. For example, martyrs, those who died for the faith, are said to be resurrected with the wounds of their martyrdom looking like glorious adornments. What that means, we obviously aren’t certain of yet. So what would Christians think about the Teletransportation Paradox? There is no way for us to measure the soul, to see if it can be put under stress, or harmed, or really anything. The soul is a largely metaphysical concept, so we have no way of knowing what happens to the soul in a transporter when the body is broken down and moved somewhere else. Ultimately, I think Christians would tend toward the belief that you are still the same person going in and coming out. Christians, I believe, would say that since God has created the soul as this immortal thing, no man-made machine could change or break it, and so it is ultimately the same person who goes in or comes out.

In Harry Potter, we see a combination of the Theseus and Sorites Paradox through Voldemort. Voldemort uses magic to create Horcruxes, which splits his soul into seven pieces. However, unbeknownst to him, Harry also becomes a Horcrux when Voldemort’s own Killing Curse fails to kill Harry and rebounds on him. Having the Horcruxes keeps Voldemort’s soul alive, but he is without a body until it is restored through magic in the fourth book. Is Voldemort still the same person he was when he started making the Horcruxes? Some of the Horcruxes even seem to be more human or their own person. We see this primarily with the diary, and this is presumably because it was the first Horcrux Voldemort made and therefore got a larger portion of his soul. The diary was sentient because it had a full half of Voldemort’s soul. The remaining Horcruxes had less, because he was working with less of his soul, basically meaning the next time he was splitting his half-soul into two quarters, and the next his quarter soul into two eighths. So then that would mean that the Voldemort in the diary would actually have more of a soul than the original Voldemort later on. So is the Voldemort of the diary more Voldemort than the original because he has more of a soul? Is Voldemort still Voldemort once he creates a new body for himself? For that matter, is Harry still Harry both before and after he is a Horcrux? This issue is more tricky than the one in Star Trek because it more directly deals with the soul and even deals with fracturing, adding, or removing the soul.

voldemortLike I said earlier, the soul can’t be measured or studied in any way because it is a metaphysical concept. As far as I know, religion has never even remotely addressed the concept of breaking a soul into pieces or placing a part of it into someone/thing else because such a thing is considered impossible. I can make some guesses, though.

As a Christian, I would view Voldemort splitting his soul as a sin, just like his resisting death and creating a new body for himself. Voldemort gravely injured his God-created soul, and split his soul and body apart, when they are meant to remain together. Christianity would likely argue that Voldemort is the same person, but has mortally wounded himself through what he has done. The fact that Voldemort’s Horcruxes have an individual consciousness, however, is what makes things tricky. The Tom Riddle in the diary shared no connection with the present Voldemort and only learned about him through talking to Ginny. Obviously most Christians don’t have any issues with the magic shown in Harry Potter, but certain magic would be considered evil because it would be violating God’s laws. Not only does Voldemort murder people to make the Horcruxes, but he is also making them to resist dying, which goes against the natural order and thus would be viewed as sinful. Christianity would probably view the Horcruxes as abominations created through evil magic and not really see them as truly human except in the way that they are connected to the original Voldemort. Harry’s body holding a portion of Voldemort’s soul could be interpreted as a mild form of possession, and the removal of that piece of soul as a kind of exorcism.

harry-potter-deathly-hallows

These paradoxes are profound and extremely difficult questions, and in my opinion, religion can help inform or explain them. But in other ways, religion can make them more confusing. However, despite a lack of answers to these questions, it is still interesting to discuss this, especially in the context of geeky stories that actively show these paradoxes happening. Again, though, this was the Christian view of things and I would love to hear from our lovely readers about what people of other belief systems would have to say about these issues. What do you think about these paradoxes and their relationship to religion and geek culture? And is the you that started reading this the same you that finished…?


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2 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Logical Paradoxes, the Soul, & Christianity

  1. Wow. This was such an interesting read. I know of some people who are completely opposed to the magic in Harry Potter due to Christianity. Someone even requested that our librarian remove the books because it influences witch craft. These types of discussions, though, are right up my alley.

  2. Interestingly, if half of Voldemort’s soul is put into a horcrux each time he made one, then that means that the Voldemort Harry Potter faced in the end of the film has less of “Voldemort” in him than Harry himself does, because there was one more horcrux made after the incident with Harry (namely Nagini), which means that Harry is technically more Voldemort than Voldemort!

    As for other religions: not all religions have a singular soul concept, and in fact many of them have multiple souls or soul-parts that have different functions and fates after death. Some consider the body itself to be a soul, and the part of the soul which decays after death and only has a temporary existence while other parts of it go onwards either to an afterlife or are reincarnated. Ancient Egyptian religion had up to 12 different souls/soul-parts; Norse had as many as 10; Ancient Greek had anywhere from 3 to 10, depending on who one asked; but 3 is pretty common to a lot of animist and polytheist belief systems. The chakras in Indian belief can be thought of as soul-parts or soul-functions as well, in certain respects.

    For these other systems, it would be easy to see Voldemort simply locating parts of his soul (and their accompanying functions!) in exterior objects, and that very sort of belief exists in many cultures, especially with evil magicians who have their hearts or other parts of their persons located in exterior objects that can then be destroyed, captured to control them, and so forth.

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