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.

10 thoughts on “Derek Parfit, Personal Identity, and Death

  1. Nature designed us to survive using fear of death as a main method. Nature does not care if that causes us emotional pain. There’s no good guy looking out for us. It’s just how evolution has worked it out to the benefit of the species. According to Ernest Becker the vast majority has created and used culture to limit awareness so that the fear of death does not overpower us.(Culture distracts us) Those of us that did not get the message ( full enculturation program for whatever reason) have a more difficult and painful time because we have more awareness than the average drone. So then you learn to live with it and you suffer and accept that or take the hero’s way( IMO and some few others) and kill yourself rather than play a game you think sucks.

    “While a modicum of consciousness may have had survivalist properties during an immemorial chapter of our evolution – so one theory goes – this faculty soon enough became a seditious agent working against us … we need to hamper our consciousness for all we are worth or it will impose upon us a too clear vision of what we do not want to see … Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are – hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones”
    Thomas Ligotti

    “The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by over-evolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment. In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.
    Peter Wessel” Zapffe

    “The seed of a metaphysical or religious defeat is in us all. For the honest questioner, however, who doesn’t seek refuge in some faith or fantasy, there will never be an answer.
    Peter Wessel” Zapffe

  2. I’ll repeat my suspicions, developed over a decade of contemplation in philosophy and the frontiers of science …
    If equally-valid-multiple-paths is the solution to quantum indeterminacy (anything that can happen, does happen, in “branching” realities), then anything which can be experienced by an observer WILL be experienced by an observer.
    Grossly simplified, for an observer on the “edge of death,” there will be two possibilities: end of consciousness, or an additional moment of consciousness. Since only one of these possibilities can be experienced, indefinitely prolonged existence seems inevitable for each of us.
    There are no guarantees about the QUALITY of this immortality, though. If I’m right, attempting suicide won’t end anything; it will only increase the immediate chances of misery through survived trauma.
    Perhaps the best we can hope for (aside from sudden organ failure) is descent in old age into a timeless dreamland of dementia, followed by reawakening in a wholly different reality. I plan to skew the odds of reawakening in a reasonably familiar future by making arrangements to have my head cryonically stored.

  3. Though flattery comes from fools, this site gets better all the time; perhaps it will become ‘immortal’. People do live on through their creations. Do we actually remember Beethoven or Shakespeare for being real men? No, they’re abstractions. Even Christ is “historical Jesus”.
    Would hazard to guess that people mostly live on through their descendants, although such is changing. To this day, parents usually put Everything into their offspring-posterity. IMO even more so into their grandchildren– in reliving the past.

    “There are no guarantees about the QUALITY of this immortality”

    Could be pure hell. Atheists say Hell does not exist, but it does. More than just one Hell.
    ———————————————————————–
    Frankly, though I would not (discretion is the greater part) say so in public, the problem in the future wont be death, it will be the unintended consequences involved in the conquering of death. Now that the Great Equalizer of death is fading, we deep down might miss it. But perhaps that is for a guest scientist to go into here; a scientist who removes his face from the computer screen to observe what is happening in the meatworld.

  4. Many of these claims lend themselves to empirical analysis. The many worlds interpretation (Everett) of Quantum physics mentioned above is a hypothesis. However, assuming it is an accurate representation of reality, it provides absolutely no insights into how we should behave, think or feel because there will be a universe where we do all these things in different ways. So while perhaps there is some universe where I am alive, millions of years old and oh so miserable, there are an infinite number of universes where I am dead. Regardless, the Everett interpretation is very unlikely to be the final description of reality.

    As to culture/religion reigning in the abyss-staring tendencies of our consciousness, this is exactly the kind of question we can answer with data vs. armchair conjecture. In fact, the data shows no clear connection qua religion itself and a weak relation between specific religions/beliefs and the strength of those beliefs as held by the believer. This is further complicated and often dwarfed by the person’s own level of neuroticism. So it appears there is simply a continuum of how much people fear death in and of itself with the vast majority being in a healthy and functional 1 sigma from the median.

    More properly, as with most life forms, it’s pain avoidance which generalizes in us and other higher animals to fear of the unknown as our minds conjure up what-if scenarios and humans do it better than any other animal as we see patterns and agency where there is only noise. The false positive never hurt anyone theory. But it can’t all be false positives. Our belief generation systems have to be most right and mostly synonymous with truth-seeking systems.

    Our culture is a good counterexample. It in no way comforts people with respect to death. It ignores death completely unless it’s of the gratuitous violence variety. We fear death in large part because we don’t live with it, see it or talk about it until it’s upon us. So our minds conjure up the terrible yet unlikely.

    Religious beliefs cause at least as much consternation and suffering as relief. Believing in an eternal prize or torment certainly raises the stakes for belief acquisition for example.

    If we faced our mortality head-on, discussed it, analyzed it, poked and prodded it we’d likely find, as most horror stories, that it’s all smoke and mirrors. Yes we should seek to disarm the ticking time bomb strapped to each of us. But it’s the psychology of death that we will still need to contend with. Even if we were safe from death by disease or old age, we’d still fear pain and suffering. We’d still fear spending eternity in a profligate and ultimately meaningless manner. If ultimate meaning requires omniscience and omnipotence in order to generate some libertarian notion of free will then I think we’re just chasing ephemera and need to find meaning wherever it may lie in whatever amounts, no matter how meager, it may exist. Because dammit, the vast majority of the universe is deeply inhospitable to life of any form. 99.999% is just vacuum and radiation. 99.99999% of what’s left is stars and black holes. To think that in what remains, we can find meaning is a lucky thing indeed.

  5. Only one paragraph to disagree with:

    “Our culture is a good counterexample. It in no way comforts people with respect to death.”

    In one way.
    Comforting people with respect to death is what religion in general, and a house of worship in particular, does best. Cold comfort.

    “It ignores death completely unless it’s of the gratuitous violence variety. We fear death in large part because we don’t live with it, see it or talk about it until it’s upon us. So our minds conjure up the terrible yet unlikely.”

    Our culture doesn’t ignore death at all; people make morbid remarks and jokes all the time; attend funerals frequently. Many write wills and testaments; they think of dead family & friends. They mourn deceased pets as well, and pine for them.

    “Even if we were safe from death by disease or old age, we’d still fear pain and suffering. We’d still fear spending eternity in a profligate and ultimately meaningless manner.”

    Would have to think about for a long time, perhaps forever. I don’t fear death but, rather, fear the dislocation to come from ending death. The following is merely an anecdote from long ago, however it does give a glimpse into the psychology of death:
    After a Timothy Leary lecture in 1982, an elderly academic complained, “You heard Tim say tonight that someday a pill will be available to make us live forever? Well, it makes us old folks feel worthless.”

    I took that remark to mean the elderly of 1982 would die before ‘immortality’ could be realized, and it caused them to dwell on how all they had worked for and valued would become worthless.

  6. Mr. Shrode:

    “However, assuming (the Everett interpretation of quantum indeterminacy) is an accurate representation of reality, it provides absolutely no insights into how we should behave, think or feel because there will be a universe where we do all these things in different ways.”

    Nice point! If Everett is right, then only people who deny reality have an incentive to behave morally.

    The cold, meaningless universe rears its terrifying head again, and I reach for the bottle. 🙂

  7. Voltaire one of those rare humans worth anything seems to have a way with words that go beyond my skills. So I’ll quote him below.

    “Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills.”
    Voltaire

    “I have been a hundred times on the point of killing myself, but still was fond of life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our worst instincts. What can be more absurd than choosing to carry a burden that one really wants to throw to the ground? To detest, and yet to strive to preserve our existence? To caress the serpent that devours us, and hug him close to our bosoms till he has gnawed into our hearts?”
    Voltaire

    No one knows what death will be like. No one. Speculation on death only tells us about our own fears or desires. However there is comfort in knowing that it’s not something that’s just going to happen to us. I think a few hundred Billions have likely been there ahead of us. We’ll be totally lost in the crowd.

  8. “Religious beliefs cause at least as much consternation and suffering as relief. ”

    Worst of all, when religionists (countless religionists) feel challenged, they think of such exciting, engrossing activities as flying jets into buildings, bombing abortion clinics, dissecting a recalcitrant with bone saws, and so forth. Sure cure for boredom.

    “Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills.”

    And animals don’t possess hundreds of thousands of WMDs, nor do they dump billions of tons of toxic waste. Something Voltaire couldn’t have foreseen.

    “then only people who deny reality have an incentive to behave morally.”

    Believing in God would be a convenient way to be moral. That is, Would be. For my definition of moral is holistic morality– not the disconnected ethics that science increasingly has to offer. Therefore even true-believing deniers of reality no longer pursue morality, they only pursue scattered ethics.
    Used to be virtue was its own reward; as virtue fades, there is scant reward ‘tall.
    One must negotiate a Scylla of hedonism, and a Charybdis of excessive rejection of Scylla. Simply, moderation– surfing the possibilities.

  9. ONE more, as a brief summation.

    Someone can, naturally, be remembered by their works. (Thousands of years ago Egyptians prepared for their afterlife: the Western Lands. Since then numerous of their artifacts have been shipped to the West and put on display: perhaps partially fulfilling their interest– as best as could be hoped for– in immortality.)
    In the past, people believed their spirits would live on through their descendants; today many are grateful for the small favor of a practically nonexistent ‘immortality’ by way of genetic posterity. Sylvia is correct that we can’t live on through our descendants, albeit such is the closest anyone can at this time come to immortality, be it ever so scant.

  10. Just to clarify my comment about our culture ignoring death. I was referring to the subset of our culture that is the mass media and our particular brand of Capitalism (no pun intended). We fetishize youth and many markets and many billions of dollars are built around chasing youth. Ageism is the result where we value people less as they age. Studies have shown that we, specifically Americans, care less about an old character in a movie than a younger character. Whereas the reverse is true in cultures which venerate their elders. In the U.S. we’re always just partying like it’s 1999 and just don’t think about 2000. The religions do not deal with death either. They lie about it. “It’s not really death! What you thought was life was just a weird test! Now eternity begins! Hope you passed the test!”

    So attending a funeral is usually about consoling the living that the departed is simply that…departed to somewhere else that’s really nice and you’ll all be together soon enough. “Don’t get too worked up about injustices in this life either, the most important thing is to save as many souls as possible before you die. The rest is just details and God will dispense perfect justice anyway.”

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