Chapter 23 – Why The Good Place Must treat Personal Identity as a Substance

In Chapter 23, we find Chidi and later Eleanor questioning which version is their best self.  The neighborhood has been rebooted 802 times.  Each time, people’s memories were erased.  Here is the problem.  Are they the same person in each version?

John Locke defines a person has a thinking thing capable of reason and reflection that thinks of itself as itself the same thinking thing over time.  The question then becomes, what makes one person different than another?  The standard interpretation of Locke holds that it is memory.  The difference between any two persons is memory.  Locke even proposes a situation where the memories of two individuals are switched where he argues that the switching of memories results in a switching of personal identity.

From this perspective, then is Chidi from version 802 the same as Chidi from version 46 or version 1?  The obvious answer seems to be no.  Without the memory of those events, then it is not the same person.  What Locke can conclude is that it is the same substance, i.e. the same soul.  But does torturing of the same soul serve any purpose if it is not the same person?

Imagine a case where a person is sent to The Bad Place.  However, if the person would have died before the age of 20, then the person would have gotten into The Good Place.  If we erased the memory of the person back to 18, then shouldn’t the person go to The Good Place instead?  If personal identity consists in memory, and you no longer have a memory of something, then tge person who did that action would not be you.  The only justification for saying that the person should not go to The Good Place after the memory is erased, is if we assume that a person is more than just memory.

In “The Self and the Future” from Problems of the Self, Bernard Williams asks us to imagine a situation where we are captured by an evil scientist.  You, along with one other person, are going to be either tortured or rewarded.  One body will walk away wealthy while the other one remains and undergoes torture.  Williams described the situation from two perspectives.  In the first situation, it is described as body switching.  The mind of Body A will be put into Body B and vice versa.  Before the switch, Body A is asked what body gets the money and what body gets tortured.  Body A will say that Body B should get the money.  The reason being that the person believes that he or she resides in Body B after the procedure.

In the second situation, the evil scientist describes only what is happening to Body A.  The evil scientist tells Body A, that its mind is going to be erased.  Then, false memories will be given to the Body.  Thus, the Body will not remember this conversation.  Then, after the false memories, the Body will be tortured.  This will happen at some random point in the future.  The question is then, how will the person feel after being told this?  Williams supposes that the person will feel bad.  This is exactly what happens in the previous scenario.  It is just not described as switching.  Without discussing it from the viewpoint of switching, we identity only with the body.

While Williams’s point is simply to argue that what we think of personal identity is dependent on how we describe a situation, I believe it commits us to think that memory is not necessary to personal identity – at least through the viewpoint of The Good Place.

If erasing memories makes someone a different person, then wouldn’t the wrong person be tortured?  What we need is something that preserves continuity.  Given the ease by which memories can be erased or altered, then it must be substance.  In other words, what links Chidi version 1 with Chidi version 802, is that they are both the same thinking thing.  Think of your computer – or phone.  If you remove a program, isn’t it still the same computer?  We do not think that the identity changes with programs.  In the same way, we should not think that the identity of a person changes with the addition or subtraction of memories.