Archive for the ‘Williams’ Category

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…)

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…)

Kolak: I Am You

Friday, September 30th, 2011

People who think deeply about the puzzle cases of personal identity have come up with a variety of bold and radical responses. Like Alexander hacking through the Gordian knot, Parfit wielded an analytical scalpel to divide personal identity from what matters in personal survival, reaching the conclusion that ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and replaced by a replica. Robert Nozick was so impressed by the difficulties posed by fission cases that he decided personal identity must depend on extrinsic factors: you are identical to whatever person is your closest continuer at any future time, a thesis with the odd consequence that, if your closest continuer after fission dies, you may suddenly find yourself being someone who until that time was someone else, your second-closest continuer. David Lewis’ solution to was to abandon the tried-and-true principle that persons can be counted by counting heads. Since there are two persons after fission, there were two all along, even though, before fission, they occupied the same body and were unaware of their duality. (Bizarre though it sounds, I support Lewis’ solution as one that inflicts the least damage to the traditional concept of a person.) Thomas Metzinger’s analysis led him to conclude that “no such things as selves exist in the world.”

In his book, I am You, Daniel Kolak offers yet another radical theory of personal identity: There is only one person, and that person is all of us.  What are commonly understood to be boundaries between individuals, he says, do not “merit the metaphysical significance ordinarily accorded to them.”

Our borders do not signify boundaries between persons. We are all the same person. [Kolak, 2010, p 1] (more…)

Death, Revisited

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I am always skeptical of claims that humans are unique.  The facts that we use tools, and clothes, and language, have failed to differentiate us from other species.  The more we learn about nature, the less well defined seem to be the boundaries between natural domains.

Avoiding sweeping generalizations, I will still say that the human species has gone further than others in some directions, including preoccupation with the future and awareness of death.  I doubt my cat Charlie thinks further ahead than his next meal, and not even that far when his belly is full.  Charlie lives in the day, and in the hour: he hunts with ferocious intensity, and sleeps soundly afterwards.   I, in contrast, devote most of my energy to projects which may not yield results for weeks or years, results which in some cases (like the Phantom Self project) are highly uncertain.   Charlie lives mainly in the scene of his immediate experience; I concern myself mainly with the future portrayed in my imagination.  Charlie’s experience is, by and large, an accurate representation of the world he lives in; but the future events I imagine are often very different from events in the real future, as it finally turns out.

As early as young adulthood, some people feel a need to plan their entire lives.  Our society encourages them: to choose a career path, for example, that will finance a mortgage.   Before young people have paid off their student loans, ads exhort them to start saving for retirement.  Careful planning for the future is praised as prudent behaviour.

Such prudent planning allowed our ancestors to make the transition from roving bands of hunter-gatherers to settled agrarian societies – a transition that presaged a population explosion and the beginning of human dominance of this planet.  Success in farming required thinking about next year.  Migration to colder climates would have been impossible without the ability to think things through: to preserve and tan the hides of slaughtered animals with the intention of making clothes and footwear; to collect stones and sods in summer in order to build shelters for the coming winter.  Natural selection favoured the species – ours – with the greatest ability to plan for the long term.  And so it has continued to this day: our powerful imaginations allow us to coordinate our efforts, invent, design, and build, anticipate potential disasters and sometimes successfully avoid them.   Being so preoccupied with our futures leads inevitably to thinking about our deaths. (more…)

The Plastic Self

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Neurologists have demonstrated plasticity in the spatial sense of self, or body-image.  Not only are the ‘phantom limbs’ of amputees somewhat malleable, under special circumstances (and also remarkably intractable under others), but we can be induced to perceive a detached rubber hand, lying on a table, as our own hand, and even to feel that the table-top itself is part of our own body.  But how plastic, if at all, are our ideas of ourselves extended into the future and the past?

Published in 1970, Bernard Williams’ “The Self and the Future” is one of the seminal papers that gave rise to the contemporary philosophical debate on personal identity.   Williams presents two series of thought-experiments, which lead his own intuitions in opposite directions on the question whether a future person, described as having a certain relationship to his present self, would be himself or someone else.  One set of cases tends to persuade him that what matters in personal identity – the relation that makes us the same person over time – is psychological continuity.  The other set of cases makes him think that bodily continuity is more important.  Williams reports being left “not in the least clear” which is right.

Williams presents this as a philosophical problem.  I suggest it is more fruitfully regarded as an experimental result – a single data-point in a psychological experiment, with Williams as both subject and experimenter.  If repeated with a larger, and less contaminated, sample population, such an experiment could shed the light of empirical research on the question with which I opened this post.  I hope someone will undertake such a study, which could lead in interesting directions. (more…)