gumball theory theology

June 6, 2022
I've been thinking about the following folksy literary passage a bit, especially with ideas about "a total human life begins at egg fertilization" seeming poised to inform laws of this nation in a way that will violate women's physical autonomy and ability to determine what happens with her body:
Jim believed that God sort of generally watched over the world but didn't try to oversee every single detail. He said that, for example, when you're born, you could be American or Chinese or Russian or African, depending. In heaven are millions of souls lined up waiting to be born, and when it's your turn, you go down the chute like a gumball to whoever put the penny in the slot. You were born to your parents because, right at that moment when they Did It, you were next in line. Two seconds later and you could have been [someone completely different].
Garrison Keillor, "Lake Wobegon Days"
The secular version of this - the version that has personhood emerging, rather than being popped in like a gumball - is haunted by a profound question of identity: how different could the circumstances of your conception, birth and upbringing have been and still let you be YOU, in a fundamental way? If a different sperm cell won that fallopian sprint - would you still be you in a meaningful way? Is there a strong cosmic connection between who you are now and you would have been in that case, can you imagine sharing your point of view with that alternate self?

The Buddhists poise the same issue as a koan, the challenge to "Show me your original face before you were born." (At least I think that's the same issue.)

A particularly precocious Star Trek fan might ponder how they could tell if the teleporter was actually a form of transportation, or more of a murder plus deep cloning. Is "beam me up" just another way of saying "kill me, then make a new me that thinks it's me back on the ship"? Could it possibly matter if the same atoms were used, the same hydrogen molecule in your elbow here? Since all atoms are really, truly fundamentally identical, isn't it just the pattern that matters?

So using the Trek example is a decent, if geekier, way of getting to some of those same places many Buddhists do. You understand more what "the self is an illusion means". Also that for the self there is no present or future, just this moment. Sure, in practice there's an important continuity... in at least some pragmatic sense it's the same you suffering the hangover from the drinks you had the night before...but you also have to live with the idea that you could have just been created this very moment, your whole memory and personal history faked up inserted. (Some literalist creationists seem to use a similar to story to account for an earth that geologists and biologists and physicists is so, so old...bad old devil running around planting all these confusing fossils...)

The gumball theory of soul has some seeming advantages of clarity, but it's simplistic and raises a whole host of other questions without answering them. But I think it's important to get a feel for how a person emerges from biological circumstance. They aren't magically there in a flash of DNA combination and trying to second guess God or fate or whatever, and advocate for protection for some person in the future who will MAYBE be around in the unknowable future is fraught when you are making that determination for other people - generally women - and their bodies. (even if you believe in separable souls, there's no reason to think the gumball is planted at the moment of fertilization, or implantation, and not later at, say, quickening...)