Archive for the ‘Parfit’ Category

The Human Kludge

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Human Kludge (glowing edges)Natural selection—Richard Dawkins’ ‘blind watchmaker’—has come up with some remarkable designs over four billion years. Those that persisted are, to a greater or lesser extent, effective responses to evolutionary pressures. But many of these design solutions are far from optimal. Natural selection is an opportunist, whose default move is to recombine existing resources, cobbling something together from bits of earlier work rather than redesign from the ground up.

When I worked in software development, it was our default move too. Most programmers don’t mind describing themselves as “lazy.” Reinventing the wheel is rarely the best solution, if you have a library of previously developed, de bugged, tested implementations of rims, axles, and drive trains that have seen a few years of revenue service. Programmers like to re-use their old code because they know it works. Also, it’s usually the fastest way to meet a deadline. “Lazy” can be efficient and smart.

Although they may perform reliably, solutions assembled out of a hodgepodge of old components rarely look as nice as if someone had time to sit down and design them from scratch. And because the components were not originally made to work together , there is a greater risk of unintended side effects.

The Free On-line Dictionary defines a “kludge” (pronounced “klooj”) as:

1. A system, especially a computer system, that is constituted of poorly matched elements or of elements originally intended for other applications.

2. A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem.

Close scrutiny of the human motivational system reveals a kludgy design. A uniquely human, state-of-the-art module for visualizing and planning the future was bolted on to the emotional apparatus of an iguana. The result works, but not well. On the whole it has been hugely adaptive, allowing us humans to flourish, multiply, and dominate our planet, outcompeting all other large species. But it is far from optimal, often working against itself, driving behaviour that is not at all adaptive either for the individuals involved or for our species as a whole. Moreover, it has unpleasant side effects.

In this post I will outline a theory of this design: how it came to be, its primary components, and why it works as well as it does. I will also lay out some of its shortcomings, and recommend an alternative, improved solution. (more…)

The Illusion of Survival

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

TheIllusion of Survival (small)When people ask what the Phantom Self is about and I have to come up with an elevator speech of a minute or less, I’ve started saying something along the lines of, “There is no fundamental difference between your relationship to your future self and your relationships to other people.” This sometimes strikes a chord, making people want to hear more. It’s better than leading with teleportation, although teleportation is not bad at parties, where people take it as an invitation to play; they light up and start recalling the Hollywood fantasies they enjoyed in their misspent youth, the more outrageous the better. It’s way better than starting off with the idea that we are informational entities, to which people respond as though they’d stepped in something squishy.

There’s no doubt that this material is hard to understand, still harder to explain. It doesn’t help that it’s spread over 60-odd posts written over three and a half years. I can’t distill it all into a one-minute elevator speech. But if I had to pick one key finding—the most important—it would be that personal survival is an illusion. And although support for this claim—which is puzzling and incomprehensible if you come across it cold—is scattered throughout 400 pages or so, no single post addresses this point directly.

So here goes. (more…)

Religion as an Antidote to the Self

Friday, June 15th, 2012

“Why does religion exist?” is a challenging question for both the natural and the social sciences. There is a fact to be explained: a large majority (about 85%) of human beings profess religious beliefs and engage in religious practices. For evolutionary biology, the challenge is to explain why religion caught on so well. Did religions confer a competitive advantage on the members of our species who adopted them? If they once did, do they still confer a competitive advantage? Although a ‘gene for religion’ is unlikely, religious affiliation is heritable: the strongest determinant of an individual’s religion is the religion of his parents. [Dennett, 2006, p 86] Religious observance is costly, requiring the erection of places of worship and maintenance of a priesthood, and could be presumed on that account to reduce the evolutionary fitness of believers as compared to their more worldly competitors. Why, then, have religions flourished? Almost the same question confronts economic theory, which assumes human behaviour is best modelled by Homo economicus, an agent who always chooses what he believes is in his own interests. Why would such agents choose religion, which requires personal sacrifice with no clear payback, or at least without the kind of payback that motivates the same agents in their other transactions such as work for pay and pay for groceries. A parallel question faces psychology. Religions commonly advocate self-denial, which can be presumed to be psychologically repellent. Why are people attracted by institutions and practices which ask them to give up pleasures?

All the world’s major religions try to curb human selfishness. They attempt to break their followers’ obsession with their personal lives, and encourage them to care about something larger than themselves. An aim of religion is to alter human motivation: to guide thought and motivate action in directions that run counter to ‘natural’ inclinations.

I want to examine the hypothesis that religion arose as a response to the emergence of the self as a motivational centre in human psychology. (more…)

Being Protean – Johnston’s Narratives of Survival

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

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. (more…)

Anatta to Agape – Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death

Friday, April 27th, 2012

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. (more…)

Parfit’s Retreat: “We Are Not Human Beings”

Friday, March 30th, 2012

In a new paper, “We Are Not Human Beings,” Derek Parfit argues that persons are identically their conscious, thinking parts, which he identifies as their cerebrums.  This is a significant departure from the position he defended in Reasons and Persons, that personal identity consists in non-branching psychological continuity and connectedness with any cause:

Our identity over time just involves (a) Relation R—psychological connectedness and/or psychological continuity, either with the normal cause or with any cause, provided (b) that there is no different person who is R-related to us as we once were. [Parfit, 1984, p 216]

I call Parfit’s new view a “retreat” because it is a move away from the radical insights about what we are which illuminated Reasons and Persons, to a ‘conservative’ account of persons as physical substances. I find the move puzzling, because I can’t see that Parfit is compelled to make it, and disappointing, because it raises once again the fog of mysteries about persons that looked well on their way to being dispelled.

Parfit’s claim that persons are their cerebrums has as a direct consequence that persons cannot survive information-based teleportation. If  I plan to be teleported to Mars, I should accept that my replica on Mars will not be me, because my replica’s cerebrum is numerically different from my cerebrum. The cerebrum is a body part, which, like any other ordinary material object, ceases to exist when it is destroyed. Its replica on Mars is a different cerebrum—hence, if Parfit is right, a different person.

Parfit has long thought that survival—a person’s continued existence—is different from what matters in survival. His new view on what persons are could perhaps coexist with his earlier position that information-based teleportation preserves everything that matters in survival. But such coexistence, I will argue, is an uneasy truce between fundamentally warring ideas. An alternative account of what persons are—informational entities—is a better fit to Parfit’s intuition (which I endorse) that nothing important need be lost in teleportation of persons.

“Why We Are Not Human Beings” is Parfit’s response to animalism—the view put forward by Eric Olson and others that persons are identical to animals, or biological organisms. (In the animalist literature, “human being” is used as a synonym for “human animal.”) In this review of Parfit’s paper, I raise the following points:

  1. The arguments Parfit brings to bear against animalism rely on an intuition that has equal force against the paper’s conclusion that persons are their cerebrums.
  2. The claim that persons are their brains was strongly rejected in Reasons and Persons for reasons that supported a central argument of that book. If we were identical to our cerebrums, Parfit’s main argument against the Self-Interest Theory would be undercut in the same way that it would be if we were identical to our (whole) brains.
  3. The claim that we are our cerebrums weakens Parfit’s argument in Reasons and Persons that “ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a Replica.” If I am my cerebrum, it is hard to believe that destruction of my cerebrum is not especially bad for me, even if a replica of my cerebrum is manufactured in its stead. (more…)

The Unity of Persons

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

A joke that comes down to us from Epicharmas of Kos, a 5th century BC comic playwright, is made topical by Greece’s debt crisis:

Months after lending Yiannis five euros, Giorgos catches Yiannis’ sleeve in the agora and asks for his money back. “Ah,” says Yiannis, and stoops to gather a handful of pebbles. He arranges them in a pile. “See this pile of pebbles?” Giorgos nods. “If I add two more,” Yiannis continues, demonstrating this, “is it the same pile?”

“Of course not,” says Giorgos.

“And if I take a pebble away, is it the same pile, or different?”

“Different,” says Giorgos. “So what?”

“Ah. A man is made of small things, is he not?”

“Yes,” Giorgos agrees (being a thoroughgoing physicalist).

“Well, then!” says Yiannis with a Hellenic shrug. “Many days have passed, during which the man to whom you lent those five euros consumed many small things, and excreted others, and, therefore, no longer exists. I’m not responsible for his debts.”

“I get it,” says Giorgos, and punches Yiannis in the face.

Rubbing his bruised cheek, Yiannis complains,“Why did you do that?”

“Me?” says Giorgos. “That wasn’t me.”

The joke works because we know the criterion of personal identity to which both characters appeal is bogus. A person’s identity is not like that of a collection of pebbles. Being responsible for promises and past actions is part of being the same person over time, despite gains and losses of matter, and other changes. But if we, like Yiannis and Giorgos, deny that being the same person consists in the abiding presence of some sort of immaterial substance, it is incumbent on us to give some account of the sameness of persons over time. What is the unifying principle of personhood which makes it true that, for example, Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States is the same person as the Barack Obama who was born at the Kapi’olani Maternity Hospital in Honolulu on Aug. 4th, 1961, and the Barack Obama who directed the Developing Communities Project in Chicago’s South Side in 1986—and different from everybody else? (more…)

What Does Matter

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons began, “Many of us want to know what we have most reason to do.” He aimed to establish a foundation for ethics, a project which required addressing the conflicts between morality and self-interest. In asking what the claims of self-interest really are, Parfit came to grips with the question of whether or not there is a rational basis for the special concern that persons feel for themselves. Although Reasons and Persons did not answer that question, Parfit tried to show that the Self-Interest Theory—which claims that each person has the “supremely rational ultimate aim: that his life go, for him, as well as possible”—is false.

Parfit went on to write On What Matters, following an honoured tradition of searching for a kind of Unified Field Theory of ethics—one law, from the correct application of which all moral precepts can be derived. Reasons and Persons famously argued that personal identity is not what matters in survival; and it is surely not coincidental that the phrase “what matters” recurred in the title of Parfit’s new book.  Normative ethics consists of giving reasons for action; and reasons for action matter. Because the survival of persons is very important, what matters in survival can be presumed to be a significant part of what matters.

On What Matters says little about personal identity. Parfit’s primary interest is in discovering reasons for action—a rational basis for decision-making. My primary interest is in gaining a better understanding of human nature—of what we are. Parfit’s work is driven by prescriptive aims, mine by descriptive ones. Parfit and I would probably agree that reasons for action are rooted in values. But where he asks what has value, I ask what people actually value, and—a more interesting question—why they value what they do. (more…)

Anticipation and the Extreme Claim

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

The Apparent Rationality of Prudential Concern

Consider the following apparently straightforward inference:

I do not expect to die soon. Therefore I expect to be alive in the future. I expect I will have experiences in the future. I anticipate having experiences in the future. Because experiences can be pleasant or unpleasant, I have reason to care about the quality of those experiences.

Notice the flow of argument: from a straightforward prediction of fact—that my death is not imminent—and the seemingly innocuous observations that persons persist through time, that persons have experiences, and that experiences vary in quality, to the conclusion that I have a reason to care about the quality of my future experiences. The steps in the argument seem innocent and deeply familiar. These ideas are so closely linked as to seem inseparable.

I suggest they seem inseparable because the core concept of a person is that of a subject of experience that persists through time. Because experiences can be pleasant or unpleasant, we think a subject has reason to care about their quality in the future.

By “subject of experience” I just mean whatever has experiences. I am not claiming that the concept of a person is that of a Cartesian ego, or a spiritual substance, or a biological organism, or its brain, or any sort of psychological entity. I claim only that the concept of a person is of something that has experiences. This claim is uncontroversial.

The above argument illustrates how a motivational idea—having a reason to care about something—can be embedded in what appears to be a straightforward factual description. (more…)

Towards a Scientific Theory of Persons

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Paradigm Shift

I do not expect a theory of personhood to match all our pre-reflective philosophical intuitions, even if deeply considered and strongly felt (especially if strongly felt!) for two reasons: (1) our best intuitions on this subject are demonstrably unreliable, and (2) billions of otherwise sane and competent people hold beliefs about personal identity which are unsupported by empirical evidence, but to which they have strong emotional attachment. These two facts strongly suggest that there is something wrong with what we are naively inclined to believe about our identity. Hence we should not be surprised to find that a satisfactory solution, when it is found, will at first seem counter-intuitive. (more…)