What is Identity?

"Bob isn't the man he used to be."
"You aren't the same person I fell in
love with."
"What happened to that little girl I used to hold on my knee?"

Every day, we become a different person than we were the previous day. We acknowledge this all the time in common discussion. We say things like the above quotes all the time. In doing so, we are simply acknowledging that people change, and sometimes, the things that "make them who they are" change too. We don't keep the same friends forever, we don't stay in the same relationships. And the reason is because we (and our friends) are no longer the same people we used to be.

As I pointed out in the last post, my perspective on The Problem of Evil requires the acceptance of two premises:

1) Existence is better than non-Existence
2) An individual is a collection of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and memories.

I've already addressed #1. But that seems to be self-evident to most people. What may not be as apparent is #2.

What I've stated in my article about The Problem of Evil is that my teenage self and my adult self are different people. And more important: the me which had a painful experience, and the me which did NOT have that painful experience are DIFFERENT PEOPLE.

The reason this matters is because we often ask God, "why do you make me suffer?" But if I'm right, this question is almost meaningless. I can ask God why he let me wreck my bike and bust out my teeth. But the me who's asking this question couldn't be anything other than what I am. The me who asks why this event happened only exists because this event happened.

This makes perfect sense if we accept the already commonly understood notion that a person is a collection of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and memories. Without the experiences that we've had, we wouldn't be the same people we are now.

But even though most people understand this, I've noticed that if you say that this is really true, people have a problem with it. Some common responses I've heard are:

"If you aren't the same person you were a few years ago, then how could the law hold you responsible for things you did in the past?"

"Which you gets to go to heaven?"

"If there are multiple versions of me in different universes, which one is the real me?"

I think all of these questions come from our discomfort with looking at how things really are. People have long been bothered by realizing that we are infinitesimal in comparison to the size of the universe. But there is really nothing bothersome in this; it's just different for some people. People have a similar reaction to realizing that we live in a practically infinite number of universes, wherein all possible histories are played out. It makes some people feel small and insignificant. But in reality, the impact of it is the opposite!

When you realize that God created every possible version of you, you realize not only how much he loves you, but how important it was to him that this particular you would exist. This particular moment of your life, right now, was so significant to him that he created a whole universe just to house it.

The issue of punishing people and so forth takes us to the issue of why do we judge or punish people in the first place? The answer is the same as the reason why we have friends - something we might call "Personality Inertia".

See, even though people change every single moment, the changes happen a little at a time. So even though the me you see tomorrow will be a different me than the one you see now, it's likely that most of my personality traits are the same.

By the same reasoning, if you tell me that you hate me, I will assume that you probably feel the same way 2 seconds later, even though I am dealing with a different "you". Across all the different versions of you, some things will tend to hold relatively consistent.

This is the reason we punish or lock up killers - we assume that even if the murder was committed 2 years ago, the murderer probably still has enough of the same personality traits to be likely to murder again. Even though the person who committed the murder, and the person who gets locked up, are different people, the person who gets locked up probably still has the dangerous personality traits that caused the murder in the first place.

Choosing to lock up murderers is not a moral decision so much as it a practical decision - society wants to free from the reasonable fear of being killed. The best way to do this is to lock up people who are likely to murder - and the best way to find those people is to look at the ones whose past versions committed murder.

Now, society is not always right about this. It can't be, because it can't read minds. There are probably many murderers who would never murder again. And so it would make sense to think that an all-knowing judge would let these people go free. After all, if they're not going to murder again, it wouldn't do any good to lock them up.

But society's courts have to base their rulings on what they DO know, not what they do not know.

And yet, it is obvious that sometimes this is wrong. Someone who murdered 50 years ago, and is just now found out and convicted, may have become a pacifist in the meantime, and be horrified at the thought of killing. Various "statutes of limitations" try to deal with this issue. But society has a hard time telling the difference between a genuine change, and a change done just to get out of a sentence.

But God would have no such limitation. God knows if a person who murdered 50 years ago is still inclined to murder or not. And God only judges based on what a person is really like inside, not what was in their past.

That is why God tells us to "repent", or literally, to change. If we change, we are no longer the people who gave themselves to murder, theft, or hate. And God no longer holds us as guilty.