In a remarkable book, Surviving Death, Mark Johnston reaches several surprising conclusions about persons and personal identity. One of them, as the title implies, is that persons can survive their biological deaths. This claim does not depend on the existence of anything resembling an immaterial, substantial soul; Johnston’s account of post-death survival is entirely naturalistic.
Johnston has packed a lot into five long chapters, originally presented as a Carl G. Hempel lecture series at Princeton. I am impressed by the stamina of the audience, who attended to what must have been a full week of close and often counterintuitive argument and stayed to ask penetrating questions. I doubt I could have followed it all—and so, am grateful to have the lectures in printed (actually e-book) form, for they are rich with insight.
Having read Johnston’s 1997 attack on Parfit’s neo-Lockeanism, “Human Concerns Without Superlative Selves,” I had pegged him as a ‘conservative’ about personal identity. But Surviving Death reveals a theory of personhood as radical as any. I agree with many of Johnston’s conclusions, although not with all his arguments. This convergence on a common destination via different routes is encouraging. It suggests that progress is being made, and that closer examination of the differences between fundamentally aligned positions may weed out lesser errors and culminate in a simpler, more robust, reformed theory of the self.
Outline of Johnston’s argument
I’ll start with a summary of the main points of Johnston’s argument: a preview, to serve as a map of what lies ahead.
Johnston proposes to argue against “all forms of neo-Lockeanism,” including Parfit’s views, which hold that a person’s continued existence consists in having “a unique, and sufficiently close, mental continuer.” [Johnston, 2010, p 44]
He rejects the method of using thought-experiments to expose our intuitions—and thereby our concepts—citing the ‘Lockean point,’ “one suggested by Locke’s own distinction between nominal and real essence, that our real essence cannot be discovered by attention to our concepts but only by empirical investigation into what is in fact the case.” [Johnston, 2010, p 60/61]
Against neo-Lockeanism, Johnston argues there is no reason to discredit the belief that one could survive “total psychological discontinuity.” [Johnston, 2010, p 58] He acknowledges the force of the kinds of cases advanced by Bernard Williams, in which the reasonable fear of being in severe pain tomorrow is not at all mitigated by the prospect of having one’s entire psychology—one’s memories, intentions, and personality—erased or replaced before the torture occurs. A minimal self, without any essential attributes other than being the ‘same arena of consciousness’ throughout the time of its existence, appears to be the bearer of personal identity.
Johnston devotes a large part of the first two lectures to establishing that people do not normally use criteria to reidentify persons; instead, they ‘offload,’ relying on stable, salient features of the human organism in order to reidentify persons, just as they do to reidentify inanimate material objects. Because they do so, Johnston argues, neo-Lockeanism, which claims that continuity and connectedness of psychological attributes is criterial for personal identity, is wrong.
Johnston sees self-concern as closely tied to personal identity, in that one’s willingness to extend self-concern stands or falls with one’s first-person judgments of personal identity.
He makes what Parfit called ‘the Extreme Claim’: the fact that some pain will be mine does not give me an additional reason to prevent that pain. “There are no basic reasons that derive from one’s own case as such.” [Johnston, 2010, p 66/67]
From this, he argues, it follows that persons are Protean: the kind of person I am is determined by how I allocate concern.
And: agape is “the only rational structure of concern given the incoherence of basic “de se” reasons” (reasons essentially derived from one’s own case).
If one adopts agape, “one’s concrete realization allows for a variable and multiple constitution over time; one becomes one of those who is present wherever and whenever future persons are found.”
And so he reaches the possibility of post-mortem survival. Because persons are Protean, if they adopt agape, an evenhanded concern for all present and future persons, they literally become all present and future persons, and so will live as long as anyone remains alive. Other persons, who are not truly ‘good’ in this way, are destined to perish.
This is indeed a bold theory, considering that Johnston commits himself at the outset to naturalistic, empirical methods.
Johnston’s ‘offloading’ argument is the centrepiece of his attack on neo-Lockeanism. He rightly points out that people do not usually use criteria for identity to track the same objects and persons over time. “For the very simple purposes of tracking and recognition, we need not know, and do not know, sufficient conditions for identity over time.” [Johnston, 2010, p 64] A child recognizes its mother (or its security blanket) without knowing sufficient conditions for something’s being the same person (or the same blanket) as the person (or blanket) experienced on an earlier occasion. Instead, the child ‘offloads,’ relying on the stability of solid material objects through time under ordinary circumstances.
All forms of neo-Lockeanism hold that psychological continuity and connectedness is criterial for personal identity. If neo-Lockeanism were correct, Johnston argues, we would have to employ such a criterion in order to make personal identity judgements. But we do not have to do so, as the case of the child recognizing its mother shows. Therefore neo-Lockeanism is incorrect.
Neo-Lockeanism is committed to the view that persons are not substances, but what Johnston calls “cross-time bundles,” a kind of entity which includes ‘the succession’ of Johnston’s pets throughout his life, and ‘a performance,’ broken by intermissions, of Tristan und Isolde. Substances endure, because “all their essence is present at each time at which they are present”; they are in that way “self-maintaining.” [Johnston, 2010, p 68] Cross-time bundles, by contrast, “perdure”; they can be present at times at which their essence is not wholly present. Johnston’s current pet may be present at a time when the succession of all his pets is not. If the first act of Tristan und Isolde takes place, but the rest is cancelled because of an air raid, a ‘performance’ of Tristan und Isolde did not take place. And if the whole performance does come off, we only know that it is ‘a performance’—that act II is part of the same performance as act I—by employing a cross-time identity criterion for performances. Offloading onto a substance won’t work, because there is no substance.
Assuming that I’ve fully captured Johnston’s argument—and I’m not sure I have—I’m not convinced by it.
Consider how we identify characters in a movie or TV drama. I’ll use as an example the TV series, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, which ran from 1954 to 1959. According to Wikipedia, four different dog actors (two of them related to the original Rin Tin Tin, who was a real dog) were used to film this series.
As a child, I watched Rin Tin Tin, happily unaware that the character was enacted by a whole stable of different dogs. I followed the story of Rin Tin Tin, reidentifying the character easily using the same kinds of evidential markers I used to reidentify my own pet at the time, a cat named “Bootsie”—the method Johnston calls “offloading.” But in reidentifying Rin Tin Tin, I was not actually tracking a substance. I was tracking a ‘cross-time bundle’ of short stages of four different dogs, cleverly presented by the filmmakers to give me the illusion of tracking a real substance.
So our ability to offload our reidentification of persons onto substances (their biological organisms) does not show that persons are not actually cross-time bundles. We have the same ability to reidentify Rin Tin Tin as to reidentify substantial persons or cats; but the TV Rin Tin Tin is a fictional character—a “cross-time bundle,” in Johnston’s terms. There is no substantial dog on which we can offload—nothing with “a power of self-maintenance, development, and persistence that would have to be cited in any adequate account of what it is to be” [Johnston, 2010, 72/73] that dog.
Johnston presents his ‘offloading’ argument as getting to ‘the core’ of what is wrong with neo-Lockeanism. Even if his argument fails, I think neo-Lockeanism can plausibly be denied, because it does not explain the fact, as Johnston puts it, that “we can imagine a person’s surviving a procedure resulting in total psychological discontinuity, and that there is no reason in the end to discredit this kind of imagining.” [Johnston, 2010, 57/58] I discussed such imaginings in a post on Bernard Williams’ “The Self and the Future,” explaining them as evidence of plasticity of the emotional attitude of self-concern.
As I do, Johnston sees the psychological facts of self-concern as central to the subject of personal identity. That being so, the rest of his book stands on a solid foundation even if his ‘offloading’ argument doesn’t have the force he attributes to it.
Our Self-Concern is for the Self, not the Person
Johnston observes that first-person judgements of personal identity carry more weight than the merely indexical use of the first-person pronoun, because they are bound up with one’s emotions. To believe that someone is oneself is, normally, to have the distinctive emotional pattern we have called “self-concern” for that person. Johnston captures the association between first-person identity judgements and emotion in this story:
So, sitting in a booth in the Triumph Brewery I overhear some thugs in the next booth planning to beat someone up. As a public-spirited citizen, I am appalled. But then I overhear them use my name and realize that they are planning to beat me up. My attitude changes, now that I know it’s me. My special concern for myself has been activated. Not me, I think, as if that would somehow be worse than having someone or other beat up. (Luck, someone once said, is when the other chap gets the bullet.) [Johnston, 2010, p 162]
He suggest that self-concern is a strong driver of human behaviour:
…this kind of everyday egocentrism is perfectly intelligible; we mostly organize our lives around it, and so it is treated as a reasonable default starting point in practical deliberation.
In this way, we treat personal identity as a rational motivator.
Johnston argues that the entity that motivates us—the thing we primarily care about protecting and nurturing—is “the one at the centre of this arena” of consciousness. The ongoing subject of experience—who is at risk of suffering the pain and humiliation of being beaten up if he doesn’t do something about it—is the central object of Johnston’s concern, not his biological organism or his continuing memory and personality.
So, Johnston distinguishes between the self, as the primary target of self-concern, and the person, who is the bearer of personality and other psychological attributes. Being the same subject of experience is the alleged reason for our special concern for ourselves in the future. I fear the pain of my future self because it will be my pain.
The Self, However, Does Not Exist
But, Johnston argues, there is no such reason, because there is no continuing subject of experience ‘worth caring about.’ The self, the “one at the center of the arena” is “a merely intentional object.”
The problem with the self, in this sense, is a deep difficulty about reidentifying the same arena, the same consciousness, the same subject of experience. No evidence counts for or against getting such a reidentification right. So, there is no fact of the matter as to whether the same consciousness (or arena, or subject) will exist tomorrow as exists here and now.
In explaining this, Johnston again invokes his ‘offloading’ argument:
So our observational tracing of ourselves and others can be criterionless because we are thereby tracking substances and not, say, cross-time bundles of events and states that do not include an active principle which itself determines what it would be to have the very same bundle again. [Johnston, 2010, p 186]
The general point at work here is that criterionless tracing is viable, that is, has determinate success and failure conditions, only when there is some substance (or more generally some endurer) being traced.
Now, our most basic “inner-directed” tracing of ourselves is also criterionless. In looking into my mental life and finding that I am here as I was a moment ago, I am not deploying necessary and sufficient conditions to bundle together events and states at one time with events and states at another. In effect, I am offloading onto a supposed something manifest in my inner experience. [Johnston, 2010, p 186]
If no spiritual or mental substance exists, then there is no fact of the matter as to whether the same consciousness persists or not. Johnston has already examined the idea that we are immaterial substances of this kind, and found it wanting. The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence tells us that consciousness itself, and the persistence of psychological attributes such as memory, depends entirely on brain function.
The intriguing specificity of cognitive loss, depending often on the precise location and extent of this or that brain lesion, continually confirms that brain function cannot be overridden as a source of mental capacity. Even in case of recovery from the specific cognitive losses produced by local brain damage, there is, significantly, no reported phenomenology of memories of an intact thinking soul being “locked inside” an inept, because damaged, brain and body. The thoughts and mental capacities were just not there, it seems. Yet an immaterial bearer of these mental capacities and thoughts need not be damaged just because the brain is damaged. [Johnston, 2010, p 146-147]
Johnston’s “general point” that criterionless tracing is viable only when there is a substance being traced is telling, despite my Rin Tin Tin case. Although my case lacks a single substantial dog on which reidentification can be offloaded, we can objectively distinguish success from failure in reidentifying Rin Tin Tin. Suppose that in one episode there is a second German Shepherd character, acted by a dog darker in colour than any of the Rin Tin Tin actors. Let’s say the plot turns on this other dog stealing a valuable document and delivering it to the villains of the piece. A child viewer might fail to notice the darker colouration, mistake this sinister dog for Rin Tin Tin, and then be confused as to why the hero first helps the ‘bad guys’, then foils their plot and brings them to justice by the end of the show. An adult could correct the child’s confusion by pointing out his error in identification. Here we have “determinate success and failure conditions” for reidentification, despite the lack of a substance being traced. But this example is not one on which those who count on their very same consciousness to exist tomorrow should pin their hopes. Correct identification of the two dog characters in the show is not criterionless. It depends on something—darker colouration, in the example—serving as a marker to distinguish them.
But does colouration count as a criterion in Johnston’s sense? A real animal could survive an episode of dark colouration. The colour of a real dog is evidence of its identity, not a criterion. In the case of fictional dogs, a difference in colouration, not explained in the story by any fact other than a difference of identity, becomes effectively criterial. There are no facts outside the movie itself to appeal to. But that is enough, because the movie—unlike the mind—belongs to the objective world.
Why wouldn’t Lockean criteria allow me to reidentify “my consciousness” from its contents—specifically, its memories? Because memory-like experiences can be pseudo-memories; not all of them are veridical. Because even if they are veridical I might quasi-remember scenes from your life. (This can happen without special thought-transfer technology. Merely being told about an interesting experience, and imagining it vividly, is sometimes enough to generate a later impression of ‘remembering being there.’) Although memory-like experiences are good evidence of personal identity, they cannot be criterial.
Well then, couldn’t “being supported by the same brain” be criterial for sameness of consciousness? Not if we can, with Locke, imagine waking up tomorrow as “a rational parrot.” But what weight should be placed on our ability to imagine such things? If scientific investigations of brain damage and cognitive function are sufficient grounds to reject the claim that our brains house a mental substance, why should we give any weight to the human ability to anticipate a future life as a rational parrot, or as Britney Spears, or as a resurrected or teleported facsimile of oneself? Does any philosophically interesting conclusion follow from those psychological facts? Some people can and do project their self-concern onto an imagined life as a replica, or as a disembodied soul in Hell, or as their niece’s as-yet-unborn child. Those people do not think that being supported by the same brain is a criterion for being the same person. On their concept of a person, brain identity is not criterial for personal identity. The fact that so many people find it easy to vividly imagine, and strongly believe, that such an allocation of self-concern is rationally justified, and the fact that such people actually invest their hopes and fears in such a future, is clear evidence that nothing so trivial as a conceptual mistake is at work here. The concept of the persisting self is independent of biological concepts like the living organism and brain.
Likewise, the fact that people can extend their self-concern to the survivors of extreme psychological transformations shows that the concept of the persisting self is independent of the psychological criteria to which neo-Lockians appeal.
But—I think Johnston would agree—the concept of the self is not independent of the emotions of self-concern. To believe that a given target is oneself is to believe that one has reason to extend self-concern to that target. And believing that a given target is oneself is, for almost everyone, psychologically inseparable from actually extending self-concern to that target. Hence, the idea that this inner self, this same consciousness, may cease to exist, is a frightful one.
When I fear my death in the vivid first-personal way that makes me enter into what that death really involves, what I fear is that at some point in the future no one will have the property of being me. No one will be at the centre of this arena of presence and action, for this arena will be no more. [Johnston, 2010, p 178/179]
Johnston maintains that nothing real corresponds to this concept of the persisting ‘inner’ self which seems to rationally justify our forward-directed self-concern. That alleged entity is a mere ‘intentional object,’ an entity with no better claim to being real than the dagger hallucinated by MacBeth.
What, Johnston asks, are the criteria for reidentifying an intentional object? If MacBeth ‘sees’ a dagger on two different occasions, is it the same dagger, or a different one? We can only ask MacBeth. If he takes it to be the same dagger reappearing, there is no further fact to which we can appeal to confirm or deny his belief. If he thinks of it as a different dagger, then that’s what it is. So it is, says Johnston, with our beliefs about identity and non-identity of conscious minds.
I believe that we were able to get going with a concept of an arena of a consciousness as a persisting thing because our own arenas or consciousnesses have been continually striking us as persisting through time. In this way, we are each like a version of MacBeth who takes himself to be seeing the very same dagger over time. Likewise, in each case, HERE, whenever I consider the issue it strikes me as the very same consciousness or arena from one moment to the next. [Johnston, 2010, p 246]
If I believe I will be the one who wakes up in my body tomorrow morning, then it is so: there is no further fact to appeal to. And if I believe my conscious experience will end when I fall asleep tonight, and that the person who wakes up in my body tomorrow will be someone else, then that too is so. Besides the psychological fact that I have alienated myself, emotionally and cognitively, from that person, there is no further fact.
In being criterionless, our inner-directed tracing of ourselves presupposed that we were mental substances of some sort or other. But the empirical facts suggest that there are no mental substances in the vicinity. [Johnston, 2010, p 190]
What does this mean for the prospect of death? Johnston asks, “Is there then any residual sense to be made of one’s ownmost death, the death that REALLY matters?” and answers:
The thought of my ownmost death is the thought of this arena of presence having a future that terminates at some point. That is the very kind of thought that may now lack determinate content. [Johnston, 2010, p 185]
Thus Johnston arrives at the core Buddhist doctrine of anatta, or ‘no-self.’ The next step in his argument bridges from anatta to an idea from the Christian tradition—agape, a pattern of evenhanded emotional concern for everyone. Agape treats everyone evenhandedly because it does not privilege the self. If the self is no more real than an hallucinated dagger, agape, Johnston argues, is the only rational position.
From Anatta to Agape
Johnston advances an argument for what Parfit called The Extreme Claim: the mere fact that some future experience will be mine does not provide me with a reason to care about it. If the experience will be one of severe pain, the fact that it will be my pain is not, in itself, a reason for me to go out of my way to prevent it. If I have any reason to prevent the pain, it must be grounded in some fact other than that it will be my pain.
Derek Parfit, in Reasons and Persons, could not come up with a convincing argument either for the Extreme Claim or for its denial. [Parfit, 1984, pp 307-312] Johnston comes out squarely for the Claim. The fact that some future experience will be my own does not provide me with an additional reason to care about the quality of that experience.
Johnston distinguishes between “de se” and “de re” thoughts about oneself. Crucial to the meaning of the former, unlike the latter, is the recognition that they are about oneself. If the element of self-recognition were removed from a de se thought, its content would be importantly altered. An example of “de re” thought is “as when Muhammed Ali in the last stages of mental decay and forgetfulness takes a wholly impersonal interest in the career of a fighter named ‘Cassius Clay,’ no longer realizing that this man is he….” [Johnston, 2010, p 205] Ali’s thought might be, “He was the greatest!” If, after having this thought, Ali were suddenly to remember, or be told, that he was Clay, he would then have the de se thought, “I was the greatest!”— which, unlike the de re thought it displaced, is capable of supporting the self-concerned emotion of personal pride.
“It has been widely noted,” Johnston writes, “that de se thought is rationally motivating in certain characteristic ways.” He recounts John Perry’s example
…of shopping in the supermarket, happening upon a looping line of sugar, and concluding that someone has a sugar bag with a hole in it in his cart. Then comes the essentially de se or first-personal realization, “It’s the bag in my cart,” and this leads to, and rationally motivates, the action of Perry’s…attending to the cleaning up of the mess. [Johnston, 2010, p 205]
The reason for action which this realization provides to Perry stems from the impersonal principle that everyone should take responsibility for cleaning up messes he makes in public places. Johnston does not call such derivative de se reasons into question, only non-derivative ones. There is no plausible impersonal principle according to which Johnston’s pain is worse than someone else’s pain, from which he could derive a reason for preferring that the thugs in the Triumph Brewery beat up someone else rather than himself. That preference, to which he admits (and which we all have felt), the impulse to seek premium treatment for oneself, presents as being non-derivative. If Johnston has a reason to prefer someone else to be beaten up instead of himself, the reason is that the pain and injury would be his to bear. That reason requires no further justification.
But that reason vanishes when Johnston realizes that there is no fact of the matter as to whether that anticipated experience, of someone being beaten up, will be his experience.
A fundamental question in moral philosophy has been the question of how to balance impersonal reasons with such non-derivative de se reasons. And we are now in a position to answer that question. No issue of balancing arises. There are no non-derivative de se reasons. The relevant considerations are merely apparent reasons, which have been shown to have no force because they depend for their coherence on the persistence of a self worth caring about.
The reasons of prudence, or reasonable self-care, are none other than the reasons of impersonal altruism, applied to one’s own case. One’s own interests are not worth considering because they are one’s own but simply because they are interests, and interests, wherever they arise and are legitimate, are equally worthy of consideration. [Johnston, 2010, p 251/252]
And so to agape. The Golden Rule, says Johnston, is Janus-faced.
It is not just the command to be moved by the legitimate interests of any other just as, and to the degree that, you are moved by your own legitimate interests. It is the command to treat oneself as if one were an arbitrary other, albeit one whose life one is called to live. [Johnston, 2010, p 252]
This argument is akin to Parfit’s criticism of great imprudence [Parfit, 1984, pp 318-320] (although Johnston’s claims are stronger). Unlike Johnston, Parfit thinks that relations of psychological continuity and connectedness may be a source of reasons for self-interested action; but as connectedness weakens with the passage of time, so do the corresponding reasons. Wishing nonetheless to criticize a young man who chooses to smoke, disregarding the health risk he thereby incurs to his future (older, much altered) self, Parfit invoked a moral reason. The young man should protect the health of his future self, not because it is his future, but because it is someone’s future, the care of which is entrusted to him now.
“In this fashion,” Johnston concludes, “the doctrine of anatta can be seen to pave the way for the command of agape.”
How You Get to be the Kind of Person You Are
Johnston’s finding that there is no persisting self or consciousness worth caring about is not enough to ‘completely undermine’ his self-concern. He observes that his self-concern still attaches to the person he presently finds himself to be.
This puzzled me on first reading. Earlier, Johnston distinguished the (‘inner’) self from the person, and observed that, in imagined cases when the two diverge, self-concern attaches to the self, not the person. Then he showed that the concept of the self is ‘busted’; the self is a merely intentional object, not a fit target of rational self-concern. Going further, Johnston embraced the Extreme Claim: self-concern’s demand for premium treatment for oneself is never rationally justified. The only prudential reasons that remain are the reasons of impersonal altruism, applied to one’s own case. Yet he opens his fourth lecture by observing that his self-concern still has a purchase on the person, “the human being, Johnston.”
I can make sense of this when I think of the psychological fact that self-concern seeks a target—a phenomenon I described in an earlier post as the plasticity of self-concern. We are strongly disposed to attach the emotions of self-concern to some object. Most of us are inclined, as Johnston argued, to be concerned first about the self rather than the person, in imagined cases in which they diverge. But preferring the self depends on believing that the self exists. Now the self has been exposed as a fraud, Johnston’s self-concern naturally settles on an entity that exists, and is a plausible candidate for being himself. Johnston, the human being, is a living biological organism which indubitably exists, and so becomes the new target for his self-concern.
Many people who are not philosophers have arrived at this position independently. Having decided that there are no spiritual substances, they invest their self-concern in the lives of the human beings that they are, and believe that doing so is the only position compatible with hard-headed scientific materialism. Such people, if they were to read Johnston’s book, might be impatient with his entire discussion of the self, which ends with the conclusion that there are no such selves. They knew that all along. To them, investing self-concern in the human being seems the only rational alternative.
Have we therefore arrived at animalism, the view that persons are their biological organisms? No—our understanding has advanced beyond that.
Johnston makes the by-now familiar point that self-concern is a product of natural selection. Then he adds something new and interesting about the possibilities which that knowledge opens up to us:
But special self-concern is also, to some extent, under our emotional and rational control. Once we see that the focus and extent of that concern is not justified by any demand outside of the concern itself, we can use our intellectual and emotional resources to elaborate that concern in different ways. Under various circumstances self-concern could come to be directed to quite different parts of nature. The living body, the thing that sits between the gestation and death of a human animal, is one particularly salient kind of thing around which to organize our patterns of self-concern. But there is no general normative fact that says: You must take the bodily envelope to be the boundary of personal identity, and hence as the focus for self-concern, on pain of being out of joint with reality. [Johnston, 2010, p 260]
Johnston goes on to say that “superlative selves” (his blanket term for the souls, subjects of experience, arenas of consciousness, etc. now exposed as no more than intentional objects) “represented the best hope for guarantors of such a normative fact…. But since there are no superlative selves, there are no privileged joints which, independently of our actual concerns and tendencies to identify, already mark the boundaries of personal identity.”
Well: if the boundaries of persons are indeterminate in this way, how can we talk clearly about persons at all? Johnston proceeds with a series of thought-experiments involving different, plausible boundaries of persons. He stresses the need for an even-handed account of these different ‘kinds’ of persons—an overarching theoretical framework which would allow us to describe them without prejudice as to which account of persons is ‘correct.’
He is led to a boldly original position: there are different kinds of persons, with different identity criteria. What’s more, persons are Protean: each person makes himself the kind of person he is. This will be discussed in the next post.
Johnston, Mark (1997) “Human Concerns Without Superlative Selves,” in Martin and Barressi, ed. (2003) Personal Identity.
Wikipedia, “Rin Tin Tin,” accessed Apr. 23, 2012.
Williams, Bernard (1970), “The Self and the Future,” in Martin and Barresi, ed. (2003) Personal Identity.