Amnesia is making my head hurt

March 2, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 11:34 pm   Category: Theology

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?


  1. Interesting thoughts. I’m certainly no expert here, but that doesn’t stop me from having opinions.

    I think we underestimate our spirits as part of who we are in the long run. I also think our genes and upbringing are all part of the test our Heavenly Father has chosen to put us through. I don’t really think of our bodies as who we are in an eternal sence. Just a shell. Certainly this shell has an influence on behavior, but just a temporary influence.

    There may be those who have knowledge of identical twins. I know a family who had identical twins who had very different behaviors. Different people really. Raised in the same home. The mother frequently said it gave her a testimony of the pre-existance and the identity of spirit.

    Comment by Eric — March 3, 2006 @ 6:40 am

  2. This is explored in a new documentary movie about a guy who had this precise thing happen to him:

    Rotten Tomatoes review

    Comment by Kurt — March 3, 2006 @ 7:16 am

  3. I would imagine we’d retain a lot of who we are. I mean, I never liked broccoli from the very beginning and I can’t imagine it had anything to do with other influences… broccoli tasted like crap from the beginning and always will. Perhaps I’d be able to grow to like it but that first taste post-amnesia… that first taste will be the same as my first taste as a child… crappy!

    I personally believe we all have been given talents/abilities and that we would retain those talents/abilities regardless. It might take a while to discover them, but unimpeded we would discover them (incidentally I’m trying to figure out what other talents I have that I don’t know about).

    Comment by Rusty — March 3, 2006 @ 8:14 am

  4. I believe memories are a spiritual attribute and that the physical brain stores them along with the associations of the physical feelings of the body. Like if we remember from our past going to grandmas for turkey day we will most likely remember the physical senses associated with that. The ability to recall those memories first starts with the governing body- the spirit and then the brain searches the files until it brings up memories associated with that impulse. The spirit then fills the pleasure or distaste that the brain reproduced.

    Amnesia I have always felt is the disconnected line from the spirit to the brain impulse. Kind of like driving around with no map and no objective to get anywhere the spirit once knew. I believe it is a mortal deficiency. I believe the spirit is far superior to knowledge and its storage capacity then the brain. Whereas the spirit has perfect recall, the brain has issues that sometimes can’t be worked out because of damage or imperfection- thus the use of prescription drugs.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — March 3, 2006 @ 8:43 am

  5. I think that the question of personal identity is a fundamentally important one for religion that is often overlooked. And particularly so with the idea of a pre-mortal existence…or even multiple mortal probations.

    How can I(present) be be blamed or praised for anything that I(past) did if I(present) and You(present) have no recollection of it? Or why ought I(present) be blamed or praised? Or, simply, how do I(present) and I(past) interact? There’s a significant break (the veil?) between I(present) and I(past), so it’s not obvious they should be considered the same person: I.

    Yeah, I got no answers either.

    Comment by Pris — March 3, 2006 @ 8:53 am

  6. “we then must wonder who we are without the influence of our physical bodies…”

    Well, we were who we were, independent of our physical bodies and life experience on this planet, before we got here, right? Granted, in this life we operate behind the veil that separates out distinct and clear memory of who we were or what we did, or whether and why we were predisposed to like or dislike broccoli. I believe that each of us is who we were before, just flavored by and in our conscious sense of self constrained to our experiences in this brief proving ground.

    We are assured that, in the next life, every body will be restored to its perfect frame. I believe that includes the brain. To use your American->German analogy, I interpret that promise of the Lord to mean that all those memories, of both the German and American chapters of that person’s life, will be restored, and that their take on life on earth will be the sum total of both–perhaps enriched in their eternal destiny for the added perspective of having gotten to live two human identities, and therefore able to have an added measure of empathy by way of having seen this world from two unique perspectives.

    Comment by Naiah Earhart — March 3, 2006 @ 8:57 am

  7. I think this is a fascinating discussion. I was thinking a long the lines of Rusty’s reasoning. I think if someone was very talented at math and then ended up in Germany with amnesia they would eventually be drawn to math, thus retaining some of the person they were when they were in America.

    Comment by Kristen J — March 3, 2006 @ 11:04 am

  8. Interesting comments all. Here are a few responses…

    Eric – The question is where the “shell” ends and where the real you begins. Are your memories part of the real you or not? I think most of us silently assume memories are part of the real us but the veil of forgetfulness concept seems to say otherwise.

    Kurt – Thanks for the links. What a strange coincidence that I wrote this post right now…

    Rusty – The question is what part of you hates broccoli — your body? Your spirit? In my thought experiment you would have the same body so if your body has a negative reaction to broccoli you probably would still hate it. But is a physical negative reactive or a psychological reaction? Perhaps your taste buds as a child were averse to broccoli and thus you have a psychological trigger that makes you averse to it still. But in the thought experiment I gave there would be no such psychological aversion so maybe you would love it after all… If so, hating broccoli is not essentially part of you — it is a result of past experiences… (I’m sort of defending the position of determinists here actually)

    Rob O – I plan respond to your thoughts later.

    Pris – We’re very much on the same page here it seems.

    Naiah – Interesting point. The issue is though that the German+American combo person is neither the German nor the American person but an entirely new combo. That means the former individual identities are obliterated. That is an interesting fact I think. Something endures, but it is probably not what we now consider to be “us”…

    Kristen – Are talents for math due to our body or to our spirit? I would think the physical brain we get has more to do with it than our spirit… If math talent is a physical talent then it is not essentially part of us then right?

    Comment by Geoff J — March 3, 2006 @ 11:50 am

  9. It will be interesting to find out how this whole veil of forgetfulness is really accomplished. I have to assume we had memories in the pre-existence. Where did they go? I certainly can’t hope to explain it all. I have just always had this idea that the spirit is the real you, and the body is just a hunk of matter.

    Comment by Eric — March 3, 2006 @ 2:59 pm

  10. “silently assume memories are part of the real us”

    I would say that, limiting ourselves to an earthly perspective, they make up almost our entire sense of self. This whole life, everything we can see, think of, live through & know –all of it– within the limits of our veil is but one brief experience in the course of our eternal existence.

    If we confine the wondering to that earthly perspective, then yeah the question goes in circles–which is the true identity? Is there any fundamentally ingrained common denominator to them? Which is the real identity? Why would one subjugate the other? Ok, ok, now my head is beginning to hurt, too.

    I feel a little like I’m copping out, but really, the question becomes simpler, not to mention truer I believe, if we take on a further-reaching perspective. This life is but a brief time, a quick lesson–like an “outward bound” weekend adventure camp would be within this life. It’s a place to be tested, to have our ability to choose refined, to set the direction for our next phase of growth. Ultimately, though, it is brief, and we have no way to conceive how much of us was already us (though, as a mother of two, I could regale you all night with stories backing up the fact that children are born with their own peronalities!), or how much of it will have far reaching consequences for our personal eternal identities…

    Comment by Naiah — March 3, 2006 @ 4:42 pm

  11. I have been away most of today. This is an important subject though and I have been giving it some thought. One thing I realized is that just like the American+German persons would be obliterated forever in the spirit world as memories meshed and created a new person based on the combined memories; so then we must assume that the selves we are now must be destined for oblivion if/when memories of our pre-mortal selves are restored. The “me” that I know here will be destroyed and replaced by a new hybrid me that combines whoever I was then (quirks and all) with who I am now (quirks and all).

    This seems hugely significant to me because here on earth we place so much emphasis on autonomy and individuality — but this means that the personal identity we cherish so much here is basically guaranteed to be obliterated after this life. We will have a completely new identity…

    How does that play into the notion of eternal marriages and families?

    And of course the role our physical bodies play in our personal identity is a completely separate but important question…

    Comment by Geoff J — March 3, 2006 @ 11:21 pm

  12. Rob: I believe memories are a spiritual attribute

    You seem to have clear opinions on this so let me ask some more questions… Do you think spirits have a brain like our physical brain? If not, how do you think they store memories? You seem to be implying that a separate spirit brain activates the physical brain. If so, which brain is “us”? Doesn’t that lead to two separate persons functioning in tandem? When I think, is it my spirit or my physical brain doing the thinking in your view?

    Amnesia I have always felt is the disconnected line from the spirit to the brain impulse.

    How could that be? You seem to be treating the spirit like it is a physical component of the brain that can be disconnected… I don’t think that makes much sense.

    Kind of like driving around with no map and no objective to get anywhere the spirit once knew.

    Ok, but if you got amnesia, where would “you” be? Would you be the mapless person wondering who you are or would you be a spirit with full memories watching this mapless person? If you are the spirit watching then who is that in you body?

    I think the problem you face with your theory is that you seem to envision a dualism that does not really fit with personal identity. There cannot be an awake and aware spirit you that is separate from the awake and aware physical you. That would be two persons, not one.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 3, 2006 @ 11:40 pm

  13. Geoff,

    I believe that the spirit retains memories, And yes I believe there is a part of the spirit that can think. The human body is composed of billions of individual machines all programmed to run according to the dna blue print. The spirit is like the great and grand thinker- the president so to speak. The spirit then tells the brain to do certain things according to ones will in the spirit. The part that makes up us is both, however, the body is just the tool of the spirit. When the spirit leaves the body, the brain is not thinking but the spirit’s intelligence is.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — March 4, 2006 @ 12:41 am

  14. Are you guys nuts? The spirit is the best part of us. Bodies, schmodies.

    Comment by annegb — March 4, 2006 @ 7:49 am

  15. Geoff:

    I found something you might find interesting in Gospel Doctrine on page 12. It is a letter from Joseph F. Smith to O. F. Whitney. I might take the liberty of typing the first two paragraphs:

    I heartily endorse your sentiments respecting the congeniality of spirits. Our knowledge of persons and things before we came here, combined with the divinity awakened within our souls through obedience to the gospel, powerfully affects, in my opinion, all our likes and dislikes, and guides our preferences in the course of this life, provided we give careful heed to the admonitions of the Spirit.

    All those salient truths which come home so forcible to the head and heart seem but the awakening of the memories of the spirit. Can we know anything here that we did not know before we came? Are not the means of knowledge in the first estate equal to those of this? I think that the spirit, before and after this probation, possesses greater facilities, aye, manifold greater, for the acquisition of knowledge, than while manacled and shut up in the prison-house of mortality.

    If I am interpreting this right, JFS seems to basically agree with the spirit being the real deal, and the body being just a thang. :)

    I feel that if a person is following the spirit in their life, the spirit/body combo will become more and more similar to the spirit part, and we discover who we really are by and by.

    Comment by Eric — March 4, 2006 @ 8:43 am

  16. Rob and Eric,

    The notion that personal identity is ultimately centered in the spirit/soul has been a predominant view of the subject personal identity or self. On the other hand, John Locke reportedly argued that personal identity is actually centerered in consciousness and not just the spirit or body. Quoting from that Wikipedia link:

    According to Locke, personal identity (the self) “depends on consciousness, not on substance” nor on the soul. We are the same person to the extent that we are conscious of our past and future thoughts and actions in the same way as we are conscious of our present thoughts and actions. If consciousness is this “thought” which doubles all thoughts, then personal identity is only founded on the repeated act of consciousness: “This may show us wherein personal identity consists: not in the identity of substance, but… in the identity of consciousness”. For example, one may claim to be a reincarnation of Plato, therefore having the same soul. However, one would be the same person as Plato only if one had the same consciousness of Plato’s thoughts and actions that he himself did. Therefore, self-identity is not based on the soul. One soul may have various personalities.

    I think Locke was right. While the spirit/soul endures, personal identity is the consciousness we have here and now. Therefore, in my the American/German thought experiment, the soul and body did not change but the consciousness and personal identity did. The German version was a different person than the American version (again, even though the soul and body were the same). And if the amnesia ever was lifted then an new third person would emerge — different than the solely American and different than the solely German version.

    So then what of the marriage the German person had? How would the German spouse feel about his/her spouse being replaced by a new person (even though the spirit and body are the same)? Who knows… But the key here is that we can seemingly count on our current personal identity being obliterated after this life if memories from our pre-mortal life are to be restored. That seems like very big news to me…

    In some ways it is reminiscent of what Paul said about a seed needing to die for a plant to grow in its place. He likened that to our resurrection. I think it must apply to our personal identity too.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 4, 2006 @ 10:02 am

  17. I think you are overstating the whole obliteration thing. Just because you have individual X and after a time add individual X + memories does not make individual X unrecognizable. Who we are may be more resilient than you give credit for.

    I am reminded of reunions here. Alma and the sons of Mosiah after their long seperation were pleased that they were still brothren in the Lord. Reunions with my family show some change, but often the more that things change the more they stay the same. I certainly believe in the ability of the individual to change, but as we subject our bodies to our spirit and to The Spirit, I think the new person we are in the process of becomming will come closer and closer to our ultimate destination. For many the transition should be pretty smooth.

    Do you think the veil gets removed gradually as we progress or like a band-aid being ripped off? I think those on the proper path will have a more gradual experience.

    Comment by Eric — March 4, 2006 @ 10:31 am

  18. I think obliteration is an accurate description in the sense that our old personal identity will indeed be gone forever. But perhaps that word is a bit dire sounding. I should also note that the personal identity I had at age 6 or age 16 are also largely obliterated now with the additional experience I have had since then. The old me is forever gone and has been replaced by the new me. That process has been gradual, but if our premortal amnesia is lifted then there will be a sudden and dramatic collision of different versions of us. Very much like the American/German example I gave. Neither previous personal identity will survive. Both will be replaced by a new personal identity — one that is not the “us” we know here.

    The upshot is that whatever we bring with us from pre-mortality, it is not personal identity. I’m not sure what it is though. Like my amnesia example it must have something to do with affinities. If the American amnesiac had a great talent for music perhaps the German new version would discover that talent and be a musician too. If the American version was talented at empathizing and listening perhaps the German version would be too. And maybe this is how the amnesia we experience with our mortal birth works too…

    It is all pretty hazy though. My earthly amnesia thought experiment is a little easier to deal with because the same physical body is retained between the two identities. The question of how our physical bodies help define our current personal identities makes the subject of personal identity from premortality to mortality even harder pin down. Musical talent in mortality could/should be considered a function of the physical brain after all. If so, what does the spirit bring with it to mortality? Do spirits affect physical brains and help wire things and connect synapses or something? (That would be pretty cool — the infant’s physical brain being shaped and molded to match the indentity and talents of the spirit inhabitting it… Hmmm…)

    Comment by Geoff J — March 4, 2006 @ 11:01 am

  19. This discussion seems to be a variation of the nature vs. nurture problem. You characterize one aspect of this as an affinity, but how much of even affinities are genetic?

    The example of broccoli is a good one, because there is a specific gene that determines whether people find broccoli bitter or not. This taste preference can affect other food preferences as well, and thus impact overall health.

    There are other genes that affect the anti-cancer properties of broccoli for individuals.

    There are genes for shyness, anxiety, and other aspects of our “personality.” There may even be a genetic component for religious belief (as suggested by the God gene book, but also as suggested by the very concept of the House of Israel being special in some way).

    Perhaps, as you suggest, our DNA is designed to reflect our spirits some way. But our spirits presumably never dealt with broccoli before, so in that case the DNA is probably arbitrary (as are many of our biological predispositions).

    FWIW, I think that only part of our spirit dwells in our earthly bodies. The best analogy I can think of is how we are different people at different times of the day: maybe we start off aggressively by playing sports first thing in the morning, then calm down by having breakfast and showering, then become more serious while at work, then more playful when we come home to the family, then more meditative at night when we read. Or we become these different people in a different order, depending on our daily activities, our professions, etc.

    In the same way, only a part of us is experiencing earthly mortality as “real,” while the rest of us (or another part of us) is elsewhere with all our premortal memories. The occasions when the spirit talks to us and reveals things we didn’t know could as easily be times when the “non-earthly part” of us is able to communicate with the earthly part. Like when the Christian part of us reminds the “natural man” part of us how to act.

    Then the resurrection is the reunion of all parts of us.

    Comment by Jonathan N — March 4, 2006 @ 2:58 pm

  20. Jonathan,

    While this could go into the nature vs. nurture question, I think the real issue eventually gets back to determinism vs. free will. Whether our traits and thus behaviors are caused by nature or nurture isn’t all that important to a determinist as long as they are not the result of free will. But as a firm believer in libertarian free will I reject the notion that all of our traits and characteristics are externally caused. So I believe that there is something that is essentially us that has power to cause changes in our character via free will. Part of what I am trying to understand is where the non-essentials parts of us end and the essential parts of us begin.

    Perhaps, as you suggest, our DNA is designed to reflect our spirits some way.

    Actually, I was suggesting that the developing human brain is very malleable and perhaps the spirit helps create the proper connections in the mortal brain to largely match its identity and personality. I have no evidence to back that idea. I am just throwing it out as one possible way to explain the issue…

    But our spirits presumably never dealt with broccoli before

    Well, as a person who leans toward the concept of multiple mortal probations I am not so sure of that…

    I think that only part of our spirit dwells in our earthly bodies.

    It seems to me that this idea creates an untenable dualism. It sounds like you are saying the each of us splits and sends part here to earth while another conscious part of us lives elsewhere. I think that is very hard to justify with the revelations. Blake made some good arguments against such dualism in his Christology chapters too.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 5, 2006 @ 12:35 am

  21. Geoff, even if we had multiple mortal probations, it’s unlikely that we would have dealt with broccoli before. The form of broccoli that we have today wasn’t developed (through selection) until the middle 1500s, and it didn’t become popular in the U.S. until the 1920s.

    The point is not about broccoli per se, but that our DNA causes us to react to experiences in predetermined ways. No matter how much you may want to enjoy broccoli, if you have the wrong genes, you won’t like it.

    I’m not suggesting outright determinism, but libertarian free will fails to explain the control our genetics asserts over us. I don’t understand how we can recognize that our genetics determines our physical appearance, for example, yet deny that it also determines at least some aspects of our personalities, preferences, and inclinations.

    Comment by Jonathan N — March 5, 2006 @ 3:04 pm

  22. Jonathan: I don’t understand how we can recognize that our genetics determines our physical appearance, for example, yet deny that it also determines at least some aspects of our personalities, preferences, and inclinations.

    I don’t think we can. That is largely the point of this post. But if there is such a thing as free will (and I feel certain there is) then there has to be a line somewhere where external causation ends and free will starts when it comes to our character.

    I have no problem with the idea that preferences for broccoli or not are causally determined by nature or nurture. But what about character traits such as kindness, charity, integrity, compassion on one hand or cruelty, hate, vengefulness on the other? If they are causally determined then we get back to the responsibility problem of the determinism doctrine.

    So it seems to me that there has to be something in our spirits that would endure even in my amnesia thought experiment in this post. If the spirit that inhabited the pre-amnesia American person was disposed to kindness rather than cruelty I have to assume the post-amnesia German person would also be disposed to kindness in spite of a completely different “nurture” and not only because of having the same physical body. Spirits must count for something in our character if our doctrines of judgment and probationary states and free will are to mean anything.

    Just what that interaction between physical nature, nurture, and input from our spirits consists of when it comes to our fundamental character and identity is not clear to me. I plan to investigate this new-fangled theory of mine that spirits help wire our physical brains, though. As I understand it, the connections in the brain are very active and flexible and can reroute quickly when neural paths are blocked or damaged. But I need to look into it more… Perhaps I’ll post on this further in the future.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 5, 2006 @ 6:29 pm

  23. Your topic Geoff sounds like the movie:
    Unknown White Male.
    You can check it out at the imdb.

    Comment by Speaking Up — March 6, 2006 @ 3:28 pm

  24. One last thought on this topic. I don’t think you’ll get very far down the path of spirit-influenced physical bodies because the DNA seems to have demonstrable and specific impacts on character traits.

    Instead, I propose that our free will plays off of whatever physical body we are given. A person whose DNA predisposes him/her to be shy (or to hate broccoli or to believe in God) will exercise agency within those parameters. This is the concept behind “Where much is given, much is expected.”

    This is yet another reason why we must avoid judging others. We can say that someone is “kind” and not “cruel,” but that may be as much an aspect of that person’s DNA as of that person’s free will.

    I believe it was C.S.Lewis who spoke of the surprise people will experience in the next life, when their mortality is shed and they are who they truly are. Some will be amazed at how magnificent they are, when on earth they were debilitated for physical reasons. Others will be amazed at how shriveled they are, when on earth they were enhanced (charismatic, philanthropic, etc.) for physical reasons. This is the reason everyone has to continue to work on becoming Christlike, all the time.

    Comment by Jonathan N — March 7, 2006 @ 10:30 am

  25. Jonathan: DNA seems to have demonstrable and specific impacts on character traits

    I’m interested in this comment — can you flesh it out a little more? How are you defining character traits? I wonder because I don’t think natural inclinations or predispositions are the same as character traits and your second paragraph seems to indicate you agree.

    I agree with the ideas in your second paragraph though. I don’t think that the idea I was mentioning (that spirits somehow help wire brains) should be scuttled by the notion that such a process is somewhat limited by the raw material the spirit is given to work with. Bodies probably do limit our spirits but I suspect there could be a lot of wiggle room for spirits to help wire brains even into adulthood than you are implying. Of course the other (and probably harder) question is what effect physical brains and bodies might have on spirits. This gets into that sticky middle ground between science and religion and I’m afraid we are left to simply guess on these sorts of things.

    Your third paragraph raises knee-jerk red flags for me though. It seems to be leaning too far toward the no-responsibility aspects of determinism for my tastes. I realize that some bodies and brains are broken so there is freedom from responsibility in those cases. But with healthy brains there seemingly must be free will else there is no responsibility.

    As for the CS Lewis quote — I’m not sure. I think that our character here must be pretty closely aligned with our disembodied character.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 7, 2006 @ 12:04 pm

  26. I don’t know if you’re still watching this, but there is evidence that genes (such as the shyness gene and the violence gene) can be activated by environmental factors. In this sense, parents can influence their child’s personality.

    I think it is also possible that our own decisions can trigger or suppress genetic predisposition. In this sense, I agree that determinism is not a good explanation for personality. And I generally agree with the free will approach, but only within the constraints of a particular person’s biology.

    To be more specific about determinism, I recognize your association of no responsibility with determinism. I’m saying that there is responsibility for free will, but I’m also saying that free will is relative to the individual’s biology. A person who is genetically disposed to violence or cruelty may be doing exceptionally well to moderate or even overcome those genes, while a person who is not so disposted may be falling far short (and hence be more responsible) even if that person is less violent or cruel than the one with the violence gene. IOW, one’s responsibility is judged based on one’s genetics and environment, not based on how one compares to someone else.

    Here’s how C.S.Lewis expressed it, and I think his approach is being borne out by modern genetics:

    “Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices…. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend….
    “Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends…. That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it….
    [When we die, a]ll sorts of nice things which we thought our own… will fall off some of us; all sorts of nasty things… will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.”

    Comment by Jonathan N — March 10, 2006 @ 10:11 am

  27. Jonathan,

    Good thoughts and excellent quote. I am in agreement with you.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 10, 2006 @ 9:06 pm