Daily Archives: March 4, 2019

Derek Parfit, Personal Identity, and Death

What does it take for a person to persist from moment to moment—for the same person to exist at different moments?

In a previous post, my guest author Ms. Wojcik expressed worries that death undermines meaning or perhaps renders our lives altogether meaningless. (Her argument is actually much longer and more complex but I think that is the salient idea.)

An anonymous reader (see comments section of “What’s It All About?) responded by claiming that there is no personal identity over time—we are continually dying and being reborn—an insight he claims should assuage our fear of death and help us realize that we should care for others about as much as we care about ourselves. To help explain, the reader quotes the philosopher Derek Parfit:

When I believed [that personal identity is what matters], I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

When I believed [that personal identity is what matters], I also cared more about my inevitable death. After my death, there will be no one living who will be me. I can now redescribe this fact. Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connections as those involved in experience-memory, or in the carrying out of an earlier intention. Some of these future experiences may be related to my present experiences in less direct ways. There will later be some memories about my life. And there may later be thoughts that are influenced by mine, or things done as the result of my advice. My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad.

However, Ms. Wojcik didn’t find comfort in Parfit’s words.  As she puts it:

It seems to me that just because the nature of the biologic process involves the swapping out of atoms, it does not follow that we are ever “different” persons.  Rather, there is an essential continuity that does not get lost in the physiologic process of life, including sleep … What I am today does not originate as a copy of the previous day’s experiences, but rather it’s a continuously evolving stream of the experiences of a single conscious entity.  That my experiences may have an effect on others provides no comfort or mitigate the finality of my death.

Brief Reflections – I don’t know how to resolve this dispute. On the one hand, I regard death as an ultimate evil to be defeated. On the other hand, I find the idea of my continuity with those who will continue on after my death to be both comforting and insightful. Bertrand Russell beautifully expressed this latter sentiment:

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.
If we must die perhaps this is our best response.