The kids were watching the Lilo & Stitch TV series the other day. (Yep, that’s the sort of place I get the ideas for my theological/philosophical posts…) It was an episode where Stitch’s cousin had the power to erase memories so all the characters were getting amnesia. The notion of amnesia made me wonder… If I lost all of my memories would I still be me? I mean, I think of myself as the sum of all my experiences. My character has been etched out of those experiences and the choices I have made along the way. Plus my family associations and memories are an integral part of what I consider me. What if all of that were erased? What would be left? Would it really be me?
This idea of personal identity has all sorts of Mormon theological implications. What is essentially you? When a person loses all memories because of suffering from dementia is she the same grandma you knew before or basically someone else? I think we like to imagine that the real us is in our spirits/intelligences, but is that really the case? Do our spirits retain memories even if our bodies don’t? If so, then where are our pre-mortal memories now? Does our spirit have some sort of second spirit brain to match our mortal brain? If both are currently functioning independently then how is that not two separate persons?
Here is a thought experiment: Imagine you were suddenly struck with some sort of colossal version of amnesia from which you would not recover in this life. You (I’ll assume you are American) wake up somewhere far from home (say, in Germany) like a little child. You have capacity to learn but you must start from the beginning, learning language and all other skills of life. After years of training and study you become a functioning member of German society and live the rest of your life as such. If your American family ever did find you, you wouldn’t know them or their culture or their language. Would you actually be the same person who went missing or a different person in the same body? What, if anything would have endured? If you hated beets before would you still hate them? If you were kind before would you still be kind or is it possible you would be cruel in the second iteration? What is essentially you? And the other question is, in the spirit world which version of you would you be?
This question of what we essentially are is a tough one. Does character somehow endure? Would the German you have the same basic character as the American you? When we strip away all experiences and memories and associations what are we then?
I suppose the answer might be that character does endure. I assume this based on my understanding of the life of Jesus Christ. All indications are that he arrived here on earth with a slate that was as blank as yours and mine were. But something about him made him more attuned to the Spirit, more likely to avoid sin, more apt to grow from grace to grace than any other person who ever lived here. It is hard to say how his physical body affected his earthly probation. His body seems to have been unique in at least one way – that he had no earthly father. It is equally hard to say how our physical bodies influence who we are here though. That fact further mucks up this issue because we then must wonder who we are without the influence of our physical bodies…
I don’t have good answers to these questions. I’m hoping some of you will. What part of you is essential? If your memories and loving family associations and lessons learned were to magically disappear who would you be? What did we bring with us from the pre-mortal realm that is not the result of our genes or upbringing?