Being Protean – Johnston’s Narratives of Survival

This is the second part of a two part review of Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death. Part 1 is here.

Narratives of Personhood

In the third Surviving Death lecture, Johnston asks why the boundaries of the intentional self ‘roughly’ coincide with those of the living human organism, and answers:

It is because we have been brought up inside the narrative of the human being, a narrative which…tells us roughly how long we can expect to last…. This narrative, which forms a frame around our collective life, makes what could otherwise strike us as tendentious identifications of a consciousness or an arena across periods of deep sleep or unconsciousness seem utterly natural. In making such identifications we make them true or at least immune to refutation. [Johnston, 2010, p 247]

The boundary of the person, that circumscribes our self-concern, is a product of culture. To bring the point to life, Johnston imagines three populations in which different boundaries of personhood are accepted: the Hibernators, the Teletransporters, and the Human Beings.

The Hibernators are intelligent, culturally modern human beings with a genetic quirk that keeps them constantly awake for most of the year, but puts them soundly to sleep during the coldest months. Although the Hibernators are well acquainted with the facts that their organisms normally survive the winter slumber, they do not regard the lives to be lived next year as their own. They do not anticipate having the experiences of those who will wake in the spring, and therefore do not fear such of those experiences as are expected to be painful, or look forward with expectant delight to experiences that will be delightful. Despite the fact that next year’s Hibernators will have veridical memory-like experiences of the lives of this year’s Hibernators, they will not regard those remembered lives as their own. A Hibernator does not take personal pride in his predecessor’s achievements, or feel guilty about his transgressions.

The Teletransporters are a technologically advanced human culture who rely on teleportation for transportation over long distances. When planning trips, they unproblematically extend their self-concern to their reconstructed successors. The successors pay their predecessors’ debts, and bask in their glories.

And the third group, we, the Human Beings

…regard Teletransportation as a form of human Xeroxing that has the unfortunate feature of destroying the original. At first, it seems to us that the Teletransporters…are prepared to commit suicide and even kill their own children by putting them into the machine. [Johnston, 2010, p 262]

The Teletransporters know the machine destroys their original bodies. They just don’t care.

Johnston sums up the situation this way:

We have imagined three distinctive patterns of self-concern, guided by different framing narratives about the extent of a person. Each narrative plays a relatively fundamental role in the three communities, and so the same sort of justification could be given for each of these three patterns of concern. Each community could say: This pattern of self-concern is basic, and much that we find ourselves justifying is justified in terms of it. Would it not then be absurdly ethnocentric to insist that only we, the Human Beings, had got it right thanks to the adventitious history of our identifications? [Johnston, 2010, p 263]

No independent facts support one of these three competing views of personal identity over the other two. Only ‘extrinsic’ advantages do so. The Teletransporters welcome having their bodies periodically replaced, not only because the technology is a convenient means of transportation, but because of health benefits. Digitization facilitates a general cleanup and repair of bodily infirmities prior to reconstruction: cancers and arterial plaque are edited out, arthritic damage is undone, unwanted mutations are corrected to conform to the person’s standard genome, and excess weight is shed without effort. Although the Teletransporters would share their technology, these advantages are unavailable to the Human Beings because of their beliefs, which thus render them somewhat dysfunctional—albeit less dysfunctional than the poor Hibernators, many of whom suffer privation every spring as a result of their predecessors’ lavish expenditures in the preceding fall months when they frantically completed as many items as possible on their ‘bucket lists.’

What is thus emerging is the radical idea that unless we are focusing on such comparative extrinsic advantages, no basic pattern of future-directed identification can be said to be simply wrong. Of course, it may be unviable, or counterproductive, or less than optimal, and so in any one of these senses wrong. What it can’t be is wrong in itself, wrong because it is out of kilter with the independent justifiers that are the facts of personal identity. [Johnston, 2010, p 263]

We need, it seems, an unbiased way to describe our three cultures, an “even-handed treatment” “that counts them as each right on their own terms” when it comes to the question of survival. The treatment Johnston settles on is one in which each person’s identity depends on his or her disposition to ‘identify’ with persons in the future. Although Johnston lists eight characteristics of  ‘identifying’ with someone, in this sense, the essential feature is having self-concern for that person—with its accompanying feeling that no option to withhold it is available; the concern is rationally required. To identify with someone in the future is to absorb that person’s anticipatable interests, which then become motivating in the present.

On the view being proposed, it is not that the facts of personal identity independently justify our dispositions to identify. Rather, those dispositions to identify help constitute the relevant facts of personal identity, which in turn justify those concerns and expectations. [Johnston, 2010, p 295/296]

And so Johnston arrives at the view that persons are Protean. “The invariant part of our natures as persons, the invariant the three communities implemented in their different ways” is that all three are disposed to identify with some future persons in this way. By means of their motivational dispositions, persons self-create the kind of persons they are.

Being Protean, and Other Evenhanded Treatments

On Johnston’s account, all three of his communities are “right on their own terms.” The Teletransporters actually survive teleportation, although Human Beings cannot:

It is not possible to survive Teletransportation if your way of implementing your personhood over time is built around the relation of being the same human being. [Johnston, 2010, p 273/274]

I find Johnston’s Proteanism—the claim that the boundaries of a person’s life depend on his or her motivational dispositions—hard to believe, partly because I do not know of any other entities that are uncontroversially Protean in this way. What kind of thing can change its own identity criteria by changing its attitude? The absence of familiar examples makes Johnston’s claim implausible.

But the truth may be implausible. Perhaps Johnston’s account should be accepted if there is no more plausible alternative. His demand for an evenhanded account of the Hibernators, the Teletransporters, and the Human Beings—one that does not beg the question against the beliefs of any of them—seems reasonable. His search led him to the hypothesis of Proteanism. But perhaps he did not exhaust the alternatives.

I think another evenhanded treatment of the beliefs of these three populations is available—one which avoids the strange claim of Proteanism. It is the kind of account of conflicting theories that is often given in history of science. Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions describes, in an evenhanded way, theoretical paradigms that flatly contradict one another.  Such treatment helps the reader understand how scientific revolutions occur. It would be unenlightening to be told that Copernican cosmology replaced the Ptolemaic system because the former is true. Kuhn’s account illuminates the subject by drawing our attention to other characteristics of theories—how they interact with the intellectual environment of their day. Although written before Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” and argued that ideas are subject to the laws of natural selection, thriving and replicating—or going extinct—depending on their differential fitness in the environment of human culture, Kuhn’s book is full of examples supporting that view.

A Kuhnian comparison of Priestly’s and Lavoisier’s opposed accounts of combustion is evenhanded without entailing that both theories are ‘right on their own terms,’ or that either one is right at all.

The much-maligned phlogiston theory [espoused by Priestly]…gave order to a large number of physical and chemical phenomena. It explained why bodies burned—they were rich in phlogiston—and why metals had so many more properties in common than did their ores. The metals were all compounded from different elementary earths combined with phlogiston, and the latter, common to all metals, produced common properties. [Kuhn, 1962, pp 99-100]

Lavoisier’s theory of combustion as oxidation can be similarly evaluated. In history of science, competing theories are appropriately described using evaluative terms relating to their power to predict observations, simplicity, utility (for problem-solving), even elegance. We evaluate theories aesthetically when ‘harder’ criteria fail to distinguish them.

Simplicity and elegance sometimes even trump experimental data. In describing the complex process by which Dalton’s chemical atomic theory succeeded the affinity theory which underlay the successes of 18th C. chemistry, Kuhn remarks on the intransigence of observation:

…it is hard to make nature fit a paradigm. … Chemists could not…simply accept Dalton’s theory on the evidence, for much of that was still negative. Instead, even after accepting the theory, they had still to beat nature into line, a process which, in the event, took almost another century. When it was done, even the percentage composition of well-known compounds was different. The data themselves had changed. [Kuhn, 1962, p 135]

Kuhn understood the temptation to describe a scientific paradigm shift as the transition to “a different world.”

At the very least, as a result of discovering oxygen, Lavoisier saw nature differently. And in the absence of some recourse to that hypothetical fixed nature that he “saw differently,” the principle of economy will urge us to say that after discovering oxygen Lavoisier worked in a different world. [Kuhn, 1962, p 118.  Emphasis added.]

We have no recourse to a description of nature that is neutral with respect to competing paradigms. Hence the temptation to say that a change of paradigm is a change in nature itself.

Both Johnston and Kuhn, in striving for an evenhanded treatment of conflicting theories, countenance to some degree the idea that the nature of reality depends on how it is viewed. Scientists working within a theoretical paradigm, on the other hand, accept that paradigm as true, and reject older, conflicting theories as false.

Looking at the moon, the convert to Copernicanism does not say, “I used to see a planet, but now I see a satellite.” That locution would imply a sense in which the Ptolemaic system had once been correct. Instead, a convert to the new astronomy says, “I once took the moon to be (or saw the moon as) a planet, but I was mistaken.” [Kuhn, 1962, p 115]

Kuhn proposes to “inquire…about the possibility of avoiding [the] strange locution” that a change of scientific paradigm changes the world.

Did [Lavoisier and Priestly] really see different things when looking at the same sorts of objects? Is there any legitimate sense in which we can say that they pursued their research in different worlds? These questions can no longer be postponed, for there is obviously another and far more usual way to describe all the historical examples outlined above. Many readers will surely want to say that what changes with a paradigm is only the scientitst’s interpretation of observations that themselves are fixed once and for all by the nature of the environment and of the perceptual apparatus. On this view, Priestly and Lavoisier both saw oxygen, but they interpreted their observations differently. [Kuhn, 1962, p 120]

A settled concept of personhood is as indispensible to ordinary people, who must get on with their lives, as a settled theoretical framework is to a scientist who must get on with ordinary science. Johnston’s account of Protean persons may perhaps do as part of a meta-theory of persons—a theory about theories of personhood—but it does not serve the practical purposes of people who require a stable concept of the person as a persisting bearer of legal and moral rights and obligations.

Even while acknowledging that there are no justifiers of our typical “patterns of future-directed concern,” we must leave room for the special responsibility each person has for his or her own life. Hallowed legal and moral principles prescribe allocation of that responsibility along lines defined by the boundaries of personhood, during at least the adult portion of life, while the person remains competent. The concept of a Protean person has no place in a courtroom. If it were admitted, felons could enter the hard-to-falsify plea of “Not guilty because the crime was committed by a different person—that is, by someone with whom I no longer identify.”

We can account for the differing theories of the Hibernators, the Human Beings, and the Teletransporters in an evenhanded way without committing to the view that all of them are true (or that any of them are true). We can discuss their relative advantages and disadvantages in terms of evolutionary fitness conferred on the groups who hold these beliefs (the Teletransporters clearly ‘winning’ on that score) and fitness of the memes themselves (the paradigm of the Human Beings prevailing, so far, in a world that still lacks teleportation technology, and in which human beings don’t hibernate). We can do all that while embracing just one of the three theories, or none of them, or an entirely different theory. Our investigations of the concept of a person are not hampered by rejecting the view that conflicting theories of personhood are all “right on their own terms.”

A Deeper View of Proteanism

But the comparison to scientific paradigms may be misleading. Johnston’s idea that persons are Protean may be based on an insight that is specifically about persons, not phlogiston.

A person allocates her self-concern to a range of targets within the boundaries of the person she takes herself to be. Human psychology tolerates considerable variation in how those boundaries are drawn. And as Johnston says, there are no “natural joints” which determine how they must be drawn. If self-concern is the primary determinant of our first-person judgements of personal identity, then, arguably, the concept of the person depends on self-concern. Having the right sort of emotional concern for someone may be sufficient for believing that person to be oneself.

How human beings allocate self-concern is a fact about their psychology. Not only does it admit of variation between individuals, it can be influenced by cognitive and emotional events—by changes of mind and changes of heart. Therefore, in a straightforward sense, how I allocate my self-concern is ‘up to me’ (whether or not I am conscious of having any choice in the matter.) Since there is no objective criterion by which to arbitrate between competing models, we are left with the view that persons, by allocating their concern somehow or other, create their own boundaries—they are Protean, after all.

Being Everyone (Again)

Recall Johnston’s argument that because the self is merely an intentional entity, nothing worth caring about, it cannot give rise to reasons for self-interested action. The only remaining reasons for looking after oneself:

…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]

Persons’ interests are worthy of consideration; but no weight may rationally be given to whose interests they are. Hence Johnston’s position that agape is “the only rational structure of concern.” (With the word “legitimate,” Johnston clearly intends to exclude some interests from the ‘worthy’ camp, perhaps ones that are too egregiously self-serving; but I’ll ignore that for now.) To adopt agape is to  be motivated by everyone’s interests as by one’s own. When this happens:

…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. One quite literally lives on in the outward rush of humanity. [Johnston, 2010, p 64/65]

Those people who are “truly good,” who “obey the command of agape,” survive their own biological deaths, living “in the outward rush of humanity.”

Johnston has arrived at a position reminiscent of Daniel Kolak’s Open Individualism. People who believe that Open Individualism is true—who believe it not just cognitively, but in their motivational dispositions, those who actually adopt the interests of all present and future persons as ‘a starting point in their practical deliberations’—fit Johnston’s definition of ‘the good,’ and therefore, on his view, will live as long as anyone remains alive. (Open Individualists themselves are more inclusive, saying that everyone survives his or her biological death, not only ‘the good’ who believe in Open Individualism in this way.)

I have given reasons elsewhere for rejecting Open Individualism. On first reading, Johnston’s view may seem no more convincing than Kolak’s. His distinction between two groups of persons: the ‘truly good’ who survive their biological deaths, and the less saintly remainder who do not, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the views of fundamentalist Christians who divide humanity into the ‘elect’ who will be saved and the rest who will not be. Surely a naturalistic account of persons should have have shades of grey, some room in the middle for those whose concerns are neither purely altruistic nor hopelessly selfish.

In a section entitled, “Are We Good Enough?” Johnston discusses the possibility that his concept of the good person who survives his or her biological death may be entirely inapplicable, because “thanks to actual human psychology,” none of us are, or ever will be, that good.

So all of our work may leave everything as it was; for a life that is not driven by special self-concern, by the demand for premium treatment, may be practically impossible, whether or not it is justified.

Even given my less than rosy view about human nature, I don’t believe it. Many of us who are poor candidates to be listed among the good nevertheless do come, over our lifetimes, to exhibit the beginnings of a trajectory whose long arc tends towards goodness. [Johnston, 2010, p 356/357]

Johnston recaps the evolutionary causes of self-concern, and observes that we can rise above it, and see that ourselves, our kin and country have no special status—that we are “not independently distinguished as the ones to care for.” This cognitive realization transforms the emotional quality of the concern we feel for ourselves and ours.

So also—at least if one is lucky enough to have one’s basic needs satisfied, or to find the strength of living with their lack of satisfaction—one comes to love oneself in a more objective way, namely as one person among others, all of whose real and legitimate interests are sources of reasons for preferring and acting. Of course, one knows much more about the person one happens to be, one stands to him or her in the special relationship of having to live his or her life. But the narrative of that life becomes less the search for premium treatment and more the attempt to use one’s gifts, such as they are, to be as helpful as one can be.

In this way, a significant weakening of the sense of the self as a justifier of special self-concern is something many of us have lived through….

What does emerge is the discovery that one is oneself just one of the others, one among many whose needs are equally real and pressing.

To the extent that many of us move in that direction, we become good enough to feel some detachment from our own individual personalities and manifest a corresponding increase in our attachment to individual personality as such, and so to the many loci where real interests arise. To this extent, we are better placed to face death down, to see through it to a pleasing future in which individual personalities flourish. [Johnston, 2010, p 356-357]

Johnston shows sympathy towards those who are merely “good enough,” and seems to count himself among their numbers. Nevertheless, he says it is only the “truly good” who “survive death, living on in the onward rush of humanity.”

On Johnston’s view, a person will survive a future event if, after that event, someone will be alive whose interests presently motivate that person in the way that he is motivated by his own interests—if, in other words, he incorporates those interests into his present ‘practical outlook.’ [Johnston, 2010, p 300]  Our allocation of concern thus sets limits on our lifespans. To be someone is to care about that person in a certain way.

Those who are ‘truly good,’ Johnston says, lose their sentimental attachment to their individual personalities. This is not just a matter of ceasing to care about one’s idiosyncratic quirks—a cultivated appreciation of Wagner, a concealed fascination with Britney Spears, or being a passionate Tigers fan. Most of the important concerns of life would be lost as well. The special, personal love for one’s partner and children. One’s biased concern for their interests, their lives and careers. One’s deeply felt political, moral, even religious convictions. The aesthetic taste expressed in the way one decorates one’s home. And one’s commitment to one’s own work and other projects.

Johnston’s account of goodness seems to have no room for partisan goodness.

…a good will is a disposition to absorb the legitimate interests of any present or future individual personality into one’s present practical outlook, so that those interests count as one’s own. [Johnston, 2010, p 347/348]

Everybody’s interests (provided they are ‘legitimate’) are equally motivating to ‘truly good’ persons. As a result, the ‘truly good’ appear to be hopelessly caught on the fence when faced by most issues which divide people. If good persons are equally swayed by all interests except ‘illegitimate’ ones, then partisans are denied membership in the ‘good’ club. No matter how worthy their cause, or how unprincipled their opponents may be, partisans won’t be ‘truly good’ unless they internalize their opponents’ interests.

Is excluding ‘illegitimate’ interests enough to save ‘the good’ from feckless waffling? That depends on how ‘illegitimate’ is characterized, a question on which Johnston is silent. Do the interests of Warren Buffett, who owns a controlling interest in BNSF and profits from hauling coal out of the Powder River basin, lack legitimacy on grounds that burning coal for energy recklessly endangers the liveability of our shared planet within a very few generations? If so, then Johnston’s definition of ‘illegitimate’ admits of partisanship. But that is not what his writing suggests.

The issue here is whether, and to what extent, Johnston’s ‘good person,’ who gives equal weight to everyone’s ‘legitimate’ interests, can favour certain values over other, conflicting values. One hopes he could, somehow; but it is incumbent on Johnston to spell out how this is possible.

Persons and Personalities

Johnston’s central thesis boils down to the claim that to be someone is to care about that person in a certain way. If that’s right, then the subject of survival is neither more nor less than the subject of emotional concern. Wouldn’t it then be clearer to drop talk of persons altogether in favour of talk about emotional concern—much as Johnston himself does in the passages quoted above? One can be more or less self-absorbed, more or less engaged with the wider world and the people in it. A plausible, and verifiable, claim about human psychology is that the more we spread our emotional concern to the wider world beyond our biological lives, the less we fear our biological deaths.

Johnston seems to be saying that claims about personal identity can be reduced to claims about emotional concern. But to ask the question whether reductionism about personal identity could be true—whether talk of persons can be dropped in favour of talk of emotions—is to begin to see where he goes wrong. There is more to surviving than caring about those who survive. Leaving aside for the moment all the social and legal aspects of personhood—the bearing of rights and obligations—there are all the attributes, psychological and physical, that make us what we are. Johnston denies that such attributes are relevant to personal identity. But it is hard to accept that a person’s continued existence next year—even assuming a reformed concept of ‘person’—amounts to nothing more than that person’s concern for someone who will be alive next year.

When I think of someone whom I very much want to be alive next year, her personality is prominent in my imagination. So is her appearance, for that matter. Wanting her to be alive is wanting someone to talk as she talks, remember what she remembers, feel the way she feels about things, cook with her trademark culinary genius—and smile at me in a particular endearing way. If I were told that no one will be alive next year with her personality or appearance, but that doesn’t matter because, “She is now concerned about others, and they will be alive next year; so, literally, she will survive,” I would strongly protest the substitution. The loss of that idiosyncratic gestalt of her living, embodied personality is the loss I would mourn.

To be fair, Johnston does not deny that personal attributes including personality, memories, abilities, and appearance are important. But his denial that they are important for survival of the person sticks in the craw. Such a watered-down ‘survival’ implies too great a distortion of our accustomed concept of a person. No concept built around a disinterested concern for ‘interests’ of all stripes could fill the important roles of our concept of person.

Despite Johnston’s anti-Lockean thrust, his discussion of personality is full of illuminating observations that could be used to support the Lockean position that a stable personality—psychological connectedness over time—matters greatly in personal survival. Bearing legal and moral rights and obligations is a central role of  personhood. Only an actor, or agent, can possess rights and obligations. And agency, as Johnston shows, requires a stable personality. He analyzes personality as “a certain concrete style of agency,” one that “requires the holding of certain psychological continuities and connections, and partly enforces them by way of ongoing commitments to distinctive projects, policies and relationships.”[Johnston, 2010, p 275/276] In order to make plans for the future, “we have to imagine ourselves as temporally extended entities.” Here Johnston comes close to equating a belief about personal identity (“imagining ourselves as”) with confidence in the ongoing stability of one’s personality.

What’s more:

Crucially, part of the overarching mental activity that sustains rational agency is imagining oneself, in an anticipatable future, enjoying the fruits of one’s acts. But this presupposes that there will be a certain persistence of dispositional psychology along with one’s plans and projects, so that the one who inherits the consequences of one’s present acts will not see them as alien or paternalistic intrusions on his life but as things he himself partly authored by his previous acts. [Johnston, 2010, p 275/276]

The agent must assume that his personality will remain stable in order to be motivated by the expected rewards of his actions, when looking forward, and, when looking back, in order  to accept the consequences of his previous acts as his own doing. Despite this apparent concession to the neo-Lockeans, Johnston proceeds to state that persons and their personalities are distinct entities, invoking familiar examples of moral conversions, mental breakdown under torture, and severe Alzheimer’s disease—cases “where an observer might remark, ‘He is no longer the person he was.’” Johnston insists that “he” refers to the person, and “person” to his personality, on grounds that “to no longer be the person he was, he had to be there before and after.” [Johnston, 2010, p 277/278]  The argument is unconvincing, because there is another entity which was there all along, uncontroversially, and which therefore would serve as a referent for “he” in such loose talk—the living biological organism.

I found myself puzzled as to what kind of entity Johnston thinks a personality is. He argues that even God somehow caused some beings to inherit our psychological attributes after we die, it would be ‘nothing to us’—we would not survive. For the survivors would not have “the very same (token) personality” as the deceased. [Johnston, 2010, p 308/309]  This implies it is possible to distinguish between numerical identity and exact similarity when it comes to personalities. Johnston says as much, stating that when a person ceases to exist, then his (token) personality also ceases to exist. This is a flat denial of neo-Lockeanism. And surely it is also—independently—a mistake. A personality is a collection of attributes, not a substance. If the personality of one substantial person were copied to another (possibly newly created) person, it would remain the same personality, in exactly the sense that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, if its text is copied from manuscript to moveable type to printed pages, remains the same play.  Johnston himself seems to agree in a footnote that says “An individual personality is more like an aspect or a process than a substance. [Johnston, 2010, p 309]  He describes an ‘individual’ personality as a “style of agency.” But styles are the sorts of things that keep their identity when copied. No clear picture emerges from Johnston’s account as to what a personality is, or how to distinguish a personality token from a personality type. I doubt the distinction can be made.

Higher-Order Individuals

It is important to understand how Johnston reconciles his view of persons with the logic of identity. Numerical identity is transitive and symmetric; emotional concern is neither. Johnston’s ‘good person’ survives as all humanity, whose interests he has adopted as his own. If the good person is identical to everyone, symmetry entails that everyone is identical to the good person; but Johnston denies that most people are that good. If the good person survives his biological death by being everyone, then by Leibniz’ Law, everyone survives his biological death; but according to Johnston, the not-so-good do not survive.

Johnston addresses this problem by distinguishing between identity and embodiment. When a person becomes good,

…then he becomes generally embodied; his constitution is made up of the constitution of all present and future beings with interests.

The good person is embodied in everyone’s body, including yours. You, being not so good, are only embodied in your own body.  The good person overlaps with everybody else. But “overlap in constitution does not make for identity.”

Suppose that somewhere in the world there has once been a good person. He is now partly embodied by the human organism that embodies you. Still, that does not make him identical with the person you are.

If you remain selfish, “then you will cease to exist when the human organism that embodies you dies.” But the good person continues to live. His “extensive future embodiment is not threatened by this limitation in your embodiment.”

He is not identical to you. He is temporarily embodied by the human organism that also embodies you. He is generically reincarnated in the onward rush of humanity, and you are not. [Johnston, 2010, p 346/347]

It follows that if I look at you, I am looking at two persons, not one: the good person and you. Johnston thereby agrees with David Lewis in denying that the number of persons in a room can be counted by counting heads. Like Lewis (and myself) Johnston thinks that more than one person can overlap in a region of space-time.

What kind of entities are persons, that can overlap in this way? According to Johnston they are ‘higher-order individuals,’ like species and word types. Johnston uses the tiger species as a central example. The Tiger is not identical to any individual tiger, nor is it identical to the property of tigerhood. The Tiger is embodied by all the tigers that there are. Truths about The Tiger include: having come into existence in northern Asia in the Pleistocene epoch; having “moved from northern Asia to Bengal, although no first-order individual tiger made the whole journey;” being an endangered species which may soon become extinct.  None of these predicates are true of individual tigers.

“Individual tigers are examples of their species; they stand to it in roughly the way that a word token stands to a word type.” [Johnston, 2010, p 336/337] Or, I would add, the way the ebook file displayed on my iPad stands to Johnston’s intellectual work, Surviving Death. Thus Johnston arrives at the view, also favoured by Mark Walker and myself, that individual persons are what Walker calls “types,”  and I call “informational entities.”

Teleportation, as we have seen, carries the risk of duplication. When Johnston’s Teletransporters are accidentally duplicated (a frequent occurrence!) they become doubly embodied.  The single person who was duplicated by the teleportation process becomes a two-bodied person. On Johnston’s view, he does so only because, before being duplicated, he was disposed to adopt the interests of both teleportation survivors as his own.

As a result, a Teletransporter survives fission twice over, and with no violation of the one-one logic of numerical identity. There is a single person who is around before and after; the only thing is that afterward that person is doubly embodied—he is constituted by two human organisms, which will diverge psychologically with the passage of time. [Johnston, 2010, p 344/345]

Johnston is silent as to what such a pair will become after the psychological divergence occurs. Assuming, as is probable (since they are human), that competition eventually prevails over cooperation in their relationship, they will be most naturally regarded as two different persons. In that case, since they share a common past, a David-Lewis-type treatment of them as two persons who coincided during part of their life seems appropriate.

Towards Synthesis – The Reality of Persons

A main strength of Johnston’s work lies in its recognition of emotional concern as the key to the concept of personal identity. But emotional concern is not the whole story. Johnston’s anti-Lockeanism leads him to discount the importance of other realities of personhood such as the continuity of memory and a stable personality. A main strength of Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity in Reasons and Persons lay in its recognition of the importance of those realities.

The theory of persons and personal identity is going through a crisis as profound as any of the historic scientific crises documented by Thomas Kuhn. Introspection of intuitions shaped by a cultural past will not resolve the crisis, which has been brought to a head because none of our inherited concepts of what we are is a good fit to our emerging scientific understanding. Older ideas about personal identity are no longer credible. A new synthesis is needed, which must take as starting points what we can agree on as real, and the various roles which the concept of a person is required to fill. The realities that we can agree on, from a scientific perspective, are our biological organisms and their attributes, including (but not limited to) the motivational attributes of emotional concern emphasized by Johnston, and the stable personality and memory emphasized by Parfit. The roles that must be filled are diverse, including (Johnston’s list): “father, lover, friend, leader, supporter, colleague, nemesis, regular customer, etc.”[Johnston, 2010, p 276] More abstractly, a person is an agent, a bearer of rights and responsibilities; to fill those roles, he or she must be an individual. A concept of personhood which has no place for individuality, like Johnston’s ‘good’ person, or Kolak’s universal person, can never catch on. Johnston is right that personal identity is conceptually inseparable from emotional concern. But Parfit is right that preservation of memory and personality is what matters in personal survival.


Johnston, Mark (2010) Surviving Death, Princeton University Press. (Page numbers cited are from the e-book edition.)

Dawkins, Richard (1976) The Selfish Gene (3rd ed. 2006), Oxford University Press.

Kolak, Daniel (2004): I Am You: The Metaphysical Foundations for Global Ethics, Synthese Library, Springer

Kuhn, Thomas (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. 2, Number 2 (2nd ed. 1970), University of Chicago Press.

Lewis, David (1983) “Survival and Identity,” in Martin and Barressi, ed. (2003) Personal Identity

Parfit, Derek (1984) Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press.

Walker, Mark (2011) “Personal Identity and Uploading,” Journal of Evolution and Technology, vol. 22, issue 1.


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