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The meaning of life through the lens of Blade Runner and the Ship of Theseus

At one time or another, every living person has (or will) contemplate this question: What is the meaning of life? It’s arguably one of life’s most burning philosophical, scientific, metaphysical, and/or religious inquiries.

Ironically, last night, while watching a rerun of one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, Everybody Loves Raymond, for the Nth time, Raymond Barone (played by American stand-up comedian, actor, and screenwriter, Ray Romano), with the help (and I use this term loosely) of his hilariously close-knit yet dysfunctional family and their unsolicited advice, attempt to answer this question.

As it turns out, no one, not even the religiously church-going grandparents, Frank and Marie, knows how to answer their young granddaughter’s pressing question.

Frank Barone: You want to know the meaning of life? You're born, you go to school, you go to work, you die. Cannoli... Marie!

Frank’s snippy, simplistic answer is partially due to his annoyance and discomfort with holding serious, meaningful conversations, but most likely influenced by his penchant for Italian pastries filled with sweet, creamy filling.

What makes this late-90s-early-00s situational comedy so funny is that it’s based on reality, a quandary that has vexed parents, scholars, and mortals alike for centuries.

What is the Meaning of Life?

Throughout history, adherents of Western, Eastern, and East Asian philosophical perspectives explored the meaning of life in terms of ideals or abstractions defined by humans. Ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and their pupils waxed philosophical about what it all means – ‘it’ being ‘life’.

Whereas leaders and followers of myriad religions often take the opposite approach based on ideologies that explain life in terms of implicit purpose not defined by humans but rather by higher beings or powers.

Variations on this query include, “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?”, or “What is the purpose of existence?” All of which might be answered (or not) by examining one’s personal cultural, educational, ideological, or spiritual background.

The Meaning of Life via Blade Runner

Taking this existential inquiry a step further, one student raised even more introspective and theoretical questions in his University of California supplemental essay on what he believes makes him “stand out as a strong candidate for admissions.”

“What makes a man human?. . . . Is it the body composed of flesh and bones?. . . . Is it a brain that holds memories?”

All very astute questions, especially when presented within the framework of the cult classic sci-fi flick, Blade Runner, a seemingly unsuspecting popcorn movie that sneaks up on you, turning what appears to be purely enjoyable, action-filled entertainment into a dramatic, weighty message laden with intellectual depth.

While the student initially watched Blade Runner to immerse himself in its “technologically advanced dystopian society”, he later found the world where humans like a former police officer, Rick Deckard, and “advanced replicants” like the enslaved Roy Batty, collide wasn’t at all what it seemed. Beneath its futuristic, industrial landscape lurked a much darker plot, theme, and perhaps truth, leaving the student in a state of shock-and-awe as well as intense thought.

Blade Runner took this high school student into the depths of a “drastically-altered humanity beneath the technological evolution”, generating a series of questions about what makes a man human and, conversely, a heap of metal parts a machine.

If “humans use bioengineering technology to create replicants, aka synthetic humans” that are “artificially implanted with human memory,” what’s the difference between man and machine? To which the student concluded: “…there seems to be no clear distinction between humans and replicants.”

Blade Runner and The Ship of Theseus

Upon further contemplation, the now appalled student continued to reflect upon and liken Blade Runner’s shockingly thematic storyline to the Ship of Theseus, “a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.”

In his essay, the student examines one of the “most famous philosophical paradoxes, the Ship of Theseus” of which the “rotted wooden components of the boat were replaced one by one.” To which he asks, “would that boat be the original one that had set out on the adventure with Theseus?”

And, perhaps even more importantly, the student draws a unique comparison to himself in which he hypothesizes that “…the cells in my body are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones. Will I be the same person I was seconds ago?”

The Meaning of Life Makes for a Standout Essay

While the student didn’t have a concrete answer to life’s most pressing question, as it would likely require a dissertation versus a supplemental essay limited to 350 words, he reflected more deeply on how his own “identity is malleable and ever-changing. . .” and how he’ll “. . . cultivate life experiences, pursue my dreams, and remain true to my mission, continuously exploring and defining what it means to be me as I pursue my studies. . .”

While this question – one that high school students might encounter in their IB-Theory of Knowledge course – might seem unanswerable, this student’s deeper level of curiosity and reflection demonstrated in his supplemental essay made him stand out among a metaphorical sea of humans. So much so, that he’s been accepted at three University of California campuses, proving that telling admissions officers what makes you a strong candidate for their school doesn’t have to be something as concrete or tangible as one might expect.

Rather, what makes a student a solid college applicant can often take the form of a deeper intellectual, philosophical look into the meaning of human existence, but it doesn’t end there... Intermix an existential inquiry with an ancient Greek paradox and top it off with a healthy serving of pop culture, and you get a winning essay sure to impress college admissions officers!

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