Evidence for God: Humanness and Personal Identity
by Tom Gilson
Part of the extended series Evidence for the Faith
Are you the same person you were when you were two years old? Not entirely: you’ve changed in many ways since then. But are you the same person? I heard someone recently ask it this way: were you ever two years old? Of course you were. Whatever the differences between the you of today and the two-year-old you, there is something about you that has endured across the years, to make you the same “you” now that you were then, in spite of all that has changed in the meantime.
What is that something? What is it about you that has caused you to remain you? What is personal identity, and how does it endure?
There is a mystery here, not easily resolved by naturalistic explanations. It constitutes one thread in a line of cumulative evidences for Christian theism. It is far from the strongest thread—I would not bank my entire belief-set on it, and I’ve only dabbled in study on this—but it is a fascinating one.
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The ancient Greeks wondered about a ship whose parts were replaced one by one over the years until none of the original remained. At the end, was it the same ship? I prefer the farmer’s story: “I’ve had this axe my whole life. I’ve had to replace the handle a few times, and it’s needed a new axe-head every dozen years or so, but it’s been a good axe, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other.”
Are you the same “axe” you were as a baby? Most of your body is far younger than you are. Your brain cells may be the same age as you, but almost nothing else is. Or perhaps even your brain cells are younger than you are. Were you ever a fetus? If so, then you were you at the time, even without all those neurons in place. (Some of you reading may doubt that you were really “you” when you were a fetus. That is to say, you doubt that whatever-there-was-that-was-about-to-become-you was really you when whatever-was-about-to-become-you was a fetus. That’s not just clumsy English—though it is indeed that. It’s nonsensical on its face.)
Physically, you are not what you once were, yet you are still who you once were. How is that possible?
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