The universe is a confluence of infinite possibilities. Of all of the possible arrangements of atoms the universe could contain, you are here. You, reading this right now, and your eyes and your ears and your skin and your bones. But you’re nothing more and nothing less than an arbitrary collection of atoms. As Bill Bryson details in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, ‘if you were to pick yourself apart atom by atom, all that would be left is a pile of atomic dust, none of which had ever been a life, but all of which had once been you’.
Every atom in that pile had at one point come together to make you, reading this right now, and your eyes and your ears and your skin and your bones. So what I’m asking is, could it be possible that billions of years in the future those same atoms could come together, in the same way, to create the same you? The same eyes and ears and skin and bones?
This is certainly an interesting concept, and we cannot say that it is absolutely impossible – we have no way of knowing that, just as we have no way of knowing that everybody who is alive right now isn’t a reoccurrence of the same atomic combinations occupied by humanity thousands of years ago. The underwear you are wearing today may well contain an atom that was also present in the underwear of King Henry VIII, just as the fingers you are using to scroll this page may well share atoms with the fingers of Henry VIII.
But you are not Henry VIII, you are you, and you are completely and utterly unique. What I am questioning is what it is that makes you unique. If it is our atomic makeup that makes us unique, and the same atomic makeup could occur again, then we are not unique. But what if it isn’t our atoms, our formation, our science, but is instead our memories, our ideologies, our family and friends, our culture?
You could put together a pretty solid argument asserting that even if a person completely atomically identical to you were to exist by chance in the year three billion and two, they would not be you. There is something happening now that makes you different from somebody with the same atomic makeup as you three billion years in the future.
After all, the atoms that make you are not what makes you, you. The atoms are not you, the atoms just happen to be you. If those same atoms comprised a person in an entirely different situation, that person would not be you. The atoms that were once you would be somebody else. It is the conditions we live in that define us, the time and place we are born, how we are raised and what we believe. If there’s a close-to-zero chance that your atoms will reunite in billions of years to create another human, then it is even less likely that the same atoms that made your parents will make two other humans in the future who happen to meet each other and have a child together.
You are you because you were born the day you were born, raised the way you were raised, and think the way you think. Somebody born on a different day, who is raised differently and thinks differently, would not be you. So, I guess the answer to my question is that your atoms could potentially come together, in the same way, to recreate somebody with the same eyes and ears and skin and bones that you have, who, if picked apart atom by atom would become an identical pile of atomic dust. But this person would not be you.
Identity is socially constructive, reliant on your position in time and space. Nobody else has the exact same position as you in both time and space, ever. Your identity is solely yours – nobody, regardless of the atoms they are made out of, regardless of their eyes or their ears or their skin or their bones could ever have your identity. They could never be you. But this raises an entirely new question, a question for another day – could your identity implant itself into somebody with a completely different atomic makeup?