The Illusion of Survival

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.

Survival isn’t a fact; it’s an attitude

How do you decide whether somebody you imagine in the future, or remember from the past, is yourself? And what’s the difference between deciding that it’s you or someone else? The second question is easier to answer: to believe that someone is yourself is to have a distinctive attitude towards that person, the attitude that you normally have towards yourself. This attitude is characterized by a special set of emotional dispositions, which includes anticipation of future experience, pride, shame, and guilt. Following Ray Martin, I group these special emotions under the term self-concern.

Self-concern is strongly motivational. Oriented towards protecting and strengthening the individual, thereby improving his or her chances of survival and reproduction, self-concern can be explained as a product of natural selection. Although self-concern is not unique to humans, it has been radically extended in humans, in ways not seen in other species. The highly developed human cerebral cortex allows us to imagine the future and remember the past, vividly and in detail. Those images and memories, in each one of us, largely revolve around ourselves. Our thoughts tend to dwell on our own lives because we care, strongly, about ourselves. Projecting our self-concern onto images of ourselves—especially in the future—has a highly motivating effect on us in the present. We worry about disasters that could befall us; we look forward to the rewards we hope will be the culmination of our present efforts. Our cortical apparatus allows us to learn from the past and make detailed plans for the future, while self-concern provides most of the motivational push. This combination of the emotions of self-concern and the cognitive ability to narratize and plan our lives over a long period, stretching from childhood until death, has been a winning one for our species, carrying us, despite our poor endowment of natural defences and weaponry, to an unchallenged position of dominance among large animals on this planet.

Many people take for granted that they are motivated primarily by self-concern. They accept it as a unquestioned fact of life—the way we are, maybe even the way life is. This idea is built in to commonly-accepted ideas about rationality. To act imprudently—to fail to look out for one’s own interests in the future—is widely thought to be irrational, whereas to neglect other people’s interests, or even to hurt them, is not usually considered irrational (although it may be criticized as selfish or immoral).

The common intuition that self-concern is rationally sanctioned, in a way that concern for others is not, is rooted in the idea that different times in each person’s life are united by a deep, important relation. This relation is thought to be the source of the reason each of us has to care about ourselves in the future. If I ask why you plan to shop for dinner tonight, one of your reasons, probably, is that if you don’t eat, you’ll feel hungry. This commonplace inference relies on a judgement of personal identity over time. You have a reason to go shopping now, while the supermarket is open, because if you don’t, you will be unpleasantly famished later on. The same person is affected—you. That is how most people look at it—being the same person is the deep, important relation which gives each of us a reason to take care of our future interests.

After wrestling with the puzzle cases of personal identity, Derek Parfit decided that identity could not have this rational status. He drew a distinction between personal identity and ‘what matters in survival.’ Parfit intended the latter phrase to cover the real relations of psychological continuity and connectedness that hold between different stages of a single person’s life. If you have a reason to go shopping for your own dinner tonight, a kind of reason that you do not have to buy dinner for a homeless person you pass on the street, you should look for it in those relations of continuity and connectedness. Missing dinner is an experience that most of us will try to prevent. The thought of spending a night with a growling stomach motivates us to prevent that from happening. If anything is a rational justification for our motivation, according to Parfit, it is psychological continuity and connectedness.

The puzzle cases are traditionally presented in terms of personal identity. Each of them describes a person undergoing a transformation (usually a radical one) and asks whether the survivor of the transformation (there is always at least one survivor, sometimes more than one) is the same person who was alive before the transformation took place. In distinguishing personal identity from what matters in survival, Parfit raises a second question: is what matters in the survival of the original person preserved in the survivor? What matters, we are given to understand, includes most or all of what matters in ordinary survival. Transformations are part of ordinary survival too, of course—we change constantly—just more modest ones.

Most people feel justified in looking forward to their next meal with pleasurable anticipation, if they expect the meal to be a good one. When people are asked to consider undergoing radical transformations, what they most want to know is whether they can look forward, in this way, to having the experiences of the survivor. They want to know whether they would be mistaken in doing so. That is the same as saying that they want to know whether the relation that matters in survival holds across the transformation, or does not.

Suppose the radical transformation is information-based teleportation. This kind of teleportation works by scanning someone at place A, sending her information to place B, and using that information to construct a live replica—a faithful replica which not only looks just like the original person but also behaves as she does, inheriting her skills, memories, personality and other physical and psychological attributes. In the meantime, the original person at place A is destroyed.

Among the psychological attributes which the survivor inherits is the belief that, for all practical and moral purposes, she is the original person. When she looks in the mirror, she sees what she expects to see. Her sense of her own identity is unshaken. And because her appearance, personality, and behaviour are unchanged, her family and friends have no difficulty seeing her as the same person.

And so it appears that because teleportation preserves a person’s attributes as well as they are preserved from one minute to the next in ordinary survival, nothing important is lost. What is important about a person is not her substance, the physical molecules that make up her biological organism, but the form in which those molecules are arranged. The physical substance doesn’t matter.

That’s one view of teleportation. There is another view—that the survivor is a “mere replica,” and that the original person died in the process. This is what you would believe if you thought that what matters in survival is continued life of the same biological organism, or some part of that organism such as its brain. The original brain and body are destroyed by this process.

There’s a third view. If what we really are is some kind of immaterial spiritual substance—call it a “soul”—then we survive teleportation if…our souls go along for the ride. But the idea of souls is not scientifically respectable, and for good reason. There is an overwhelming lack of evidence that any mental activity is independent of brain activity. Without such evidence, a scientific view of reality has no place for immaterial spiritual substances, such as souls are supposed to be. So that view, known as mind-body dualism, should be rejected—as it has been, overwhelmingly, by the scientific community and most academics.

Of the remaining two views, both appear to be compatible with all available facts. To frame a scientific test to rule out one of them looks hopeless. We can only take a position. Either teleportation preserves what matters in survival, or it does not. If what matters is preservation of informational content, then it does. If what matters is preservation of our bodies, or our brains, then it doesn’t. (If we were immaterial souls, then what matters might be preserved, but until we can devise a test to track the movements of souls, we can never be sure.)

Some readers may have strong intuitions that one or another of these views is correct. Rather than defending your intuition, I invite you to turn the spotlight of inquiry on the intuition itself, as a psychological phenomenon. Others hold the opposite view, although they are not guilty of any obvious factual mistake. What explains this psychological fact—that, presented with the opportunity of teleportation, some people would embrace it as a convenient means of transportation, while others would avoid it as they would avoid the business end of an assault weapon? Hard-headed materialists, who are otherwise in agreement about metaphysical fundamentals, are on both sides of this question.

This psychological difference between individuals can be explained if there is, in fact, no relation that matters in survival—no relation that justifies our anticipated experience of our next meal. The psychological facts are consistent with the hypothesis that self-concern is never justified, that it is only an attitude which we project onto some human targets and not others. If this hypothesis is true, then the idea that any relation matters in survival,in this way, is illusory. No actual relation matters in that way.

That result, although more radical than Parfit’s conclusions in Reasons and Persons (it is equivalent to what Parfit calls The Extreme Claim) does entail his famous remark:

Ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a Replica. [Parfit, 1984, p 280]

The fact that different people contemplating teleportation allocate self-concern in such strikingly different ways is evidence of its plasticity. Considered as a psychological phenomenon, the attitude of self-concern appears to be plastic; different people follow different rules in deciding whose future to look forward to. The teleportation example is not conclusive by itself; but there is much more evidence once we start to look for it. Human individuals and cultures differ widely in their actual allocations of self-concern. To a more limited extent, this plasticity can also be demonstrated within single individuals.

Evidence of differences between cultures, and between individuals, is found in the wide variety of beliefs about life after death. To believe that you will live at a time following the biological death of your body is, in our terms, to imagine a conscious being who is alive after your death, and to have the attitude of self-concern towards that being. Different cultural and religious traditions imagine these post-mortem survivors in different forms.

Some traditions hold that the survivor does not have a material body. This often goes with the idea that the bearer of personal identity is a soul or spiritual substance that, following biological death, is freed from its mortal coils and takes up residence somewhere off-Earth. It may be happy in the afterlife, or it may suffer. Millions of Roman Catholics, Muslims, and others are strongly motivated by hopes and fears for this dematerialized post-mortem phase of their lives.

Another vision of life after death takes the form of bodily resurrection at some distant future date. The resurrected individual strongly resembles the original person who died, and is usually thought of as bearing full psychological continuity with the original at the time of death. There may be physical alterations, though. The person is not resurrected as they were at the point of death, but is restored to health and strength. Interestingly, the Christian resurrection scenario bears an outward resemblance to information-based teleportation, with added medical benefits.

A third, widely-held belief is that persons are reincarnated, soon after they die, as new individuals. Ray Martin describes a case of a dying Inuit who believes he will be reborn as the next child of his niece, a baby who will be neither psychologically nor physically continuous with him, but whose experiences, nevertheless, will be his. [Martin, 1998] Belief in reincarnation is common in Eastern traditions, which hold that one’s next life might not even be a human one. Whether one is reincarnated in human, animal, or some other form may depend on how one has conducted oneself in this life; so again, the belief in post-mortem survival creates strong pre-mortem motives to behave in ways that will bring about a happy personal future.

Viewed as a psychological phenomenon, belief in life after death is characterized by (1) imagining someone or something alive after the time of one’s death, and (2) projecting the attitudes of self-concern onto that imagined being. Most importantly, it is to expect to have the experiences of that being. Belief in an afterlife is very marked among humans: not only widespread, but deeply felt and strongly defended, despite being backed by essentially no evidence.

What explains these beliefs? Explanations on offer include wishful thinking, and deference to authority. Wishful thinking cannot be the whole story, since the afterlife is often imagined to contain hardships, up to and including frightful pain, to avoid which the believer must accept severe constraints on his behaviour in this life. Deference to authority seems more plausible—stories of the afterlife used by a society’s leaders and elders to control wayward members—but doesn’t explain why such beliefs remain popular in Western cultures with a high tolerance for diversity of thought and behaviour.

There may be another explanation. Perhaps something in the structure of the human mind inclines people to believe that they will go on living after their biological deaths. Perhaps people believe in continued life after death because they are so strongly inclined to expect continued experience before death. We are so ingrained in the habit of anticipating future experience—of projecting our self-concern onto a future target—that we have trouble imagining a future in which there is no such target.

Although an explanation along those lines remains speculative, it is, I think, worth considering.

The plasticity of self-concern can be demonstrated in other ways. Evidence can be obtained from another teleportation-related thought experiment. Unlike most thought experiments in philosophy, this one could be a model for an actual experiment in social psychology. The experiment cannot be performed today, because our technology is not there yet; but it may be sufficiently advanced in a few decades. No known law of physics says that human replication technology is impossible. Because the economic incentives are great, it is likely to be developed. Although predictions of how the actual future will play out are notoriously risky, a good case can be made that this technology could be commercialized within 50 to 100 years.

Suppose that the technology is developed, and that teleportation is one of its commercial applications. If that happens, I predict that the view that a person about to be teleported has no future to look forward to—a view widely held today—will quickly fade away. The popular view that the teleportation survivor is a ‘mere replica,’a new and different person who does not bear the relation that matters in survival to the original, will become unbelievable to most people.

That is because some people, ones who believe that they can survive teleportation, will actually use it. After they are teleported, the survivors will of course be confirmed in the opinion that they were right. To them, their teleportation appears to be just another event in their lives—like a plane trip, but faster and more pleasant. When teleportation survivors mingle with the rest of the population, others will find it psychologically impossible to maintain the view that teleportation does not preserve what matters in survival.

Imagine that you run into a good friend on the street and start talking. You pick up on the last conversation you had together, which was about your kid being bored in school. Your friend is concerned; she has a daughter the same age who doesn’t see the point of math. You know exactly how your friend feels about her daughter. In many ways she feels the same way you do about things; that’s why you are friends. You mention you’re planning a vacation getaway to a place with very nice beaches. “You’ll love it!” she says. “We were there last week. I’ll send you a list of the best restaurants. Oh, and you’ll teleport, won’t you? Until we tried it, I didn’t realize how much I hate flying!”

This may come as a shock. But at this point, if you are like most people, you will find it difficult to believe that your friend is dead, and that the person you are chatting with is “someone else.” What do you say to her? “You’re not my friend, you’re a replica!” That would be offensive. And it’s not what you want to believe, because if you believed it, you’d be plunged into grief. When your friend is right there talking to you, it will just seem crazy to start mourning her death. And so, you won’t.

And although you may still be afraid to teleport, you’ll be less afraid. After more people you know do it—your kids, your spouse—and you find yourself in the same relationships with the survivors as you had with the originals, your worries will quiet down.. And finally when you find yourself stepping out of a teleportation booth in some tropical paradise, hearing the crash of the surf and smelling the coconut oil, while remembering how you had to screw up your courage to buy the ticket, you’ll relax and think, Well, here I am. I survived. And then you’ll be sure that the people who still rant against teleportation are under a misapprehension.

This scenario strikes me as not merely plausible, but utterly compelling, given my experience of human nature. To hold on to the view that teleportation is equivalent to dying, while remaining part of a society in which people you know use it, will be—almost—psychologically impossible. It will be like trying to hold on to the belief that the universe is geocentric. If I’m right in this empirical claim, then changing circumstances—the actual advent of teleportation services—will trigger a change in many people’s allocation of self-concern. That shift will be another demonstration of its plasticity.

More evidence of plasticity comes from a series of thought-experiments dreamed up by Bernard Williams. Williams describes the same transformation in two different ways. The transformation has two survivors, one of whom is psychologically continous with the original, the other inheriting the original’s body. Williams asks the reader to imagine being the protagonist of his story, contemplating this transformation before it occurs. The protagonist is forced to choose one of the survivors to be rewarded and the other to be punished. Williams describes the case in a way which strongly persuades the reader to reward the survivor who will be psychologically continuous with him—the one who inherits his memories, personality, and the belief that he is the original. Then Williams presents a second description of the same case, which induces the reader to believe that the protagonist’s personal interests reside in the future of the other survivor, the one with the protagonist’s body. Reading Williams’ article, it is hard not to be pulled in both directions, as Williams himself was.

That the intuitions of Williams and his readers are pulled in two different directions is a psychological fact. As in the teleportation case, there seems to be no principled way to settle the question which intuition is correct by scientific experiment. Instead, both the statements:

The survivor who inherits my psychological attributes preserves what matters in my survival


The survivor who inherits my body preserves what matters in my survival

seem to describe something that goes beyond the facts which can be settled by ordinary observation or any conceivable scientific test.

I suggest we should conclude that there is no fact of the matter which of those statements is true. And, barring positive evidence to the contrary, there is no fact of the matter whether or not ordinary survival preserves ‘what matters in survival’ either. The belief that some sort of continuity, whether bodily, psychological, or spiritual, rationally justifies our self-concern—our motivational bias to prefer the interests of one person in the future over all others, on selfish grounds—is illusory. Our special concern for ourselves in the future is fully explained as a feature which natural selection cultivated in our Paleolithic ancestors, because it improved their chances of propagating their genes. We have Darwinian principles to thank—or blame—for the fact that we devote such a large part of our considerable intelligence to fretting about our personal futures.

It is hard to believe that our anticipation of future experience is founded on an illusion. We are not built to believe that; we are built to believe the contrary. Perhaps right now you are looking forward to something, like your lunch. How can you take me seriously when I say that nothing in nature justifies such natural anticipation? No matter how much we philosophize, will pleasurable anticipation of a good lunch ever seem unreasonable? Will it ever fade away?

Nothing will change until we take control of our own motivational apparatus and start to change it. Understanding how it works is the first step. Knowing that self-concern is not rationally required already begins to weaken its grip. That knowledge allows us to regard self-concern like any other feature we were born with, like our appetites for food and sex, something that we can, when necessary, resist, channel, or redirect. Perhaps we are more selfish than is good for us, more than makes us happy. How should we change? I am not attracted to Puritanism, so I will not recommend that you stop looking forward to lunch. Instead, I suggest an experiment to see how plastic your self-concern really is. Try looking forward to somebody else’s lunch.

To look forward with pleasurable anticipation to somebody else’s lunch is actually to give up the attitude of self-concern and replace it with another, more inclusive attitude—one familiar to most of us—which I call sympathetic concern. Unlike self-concern, sympathetic concern is even-handed, motivating us to look out for other people’s futures as well as our own.

The world would be very different if we all looked forward to each other’s lunches.


Martin, Raymond (1998), Self-Concern: An Experiential Approach to What Matters in Survival, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy

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

Williams, Bernard (1970), “The Self and the Future”, in Martin and Barressi, ed. (2003) Personal Identity


Return to the Phantom Self home page.



Tags: , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “The Illusion of Survival”

  1. susan kahn says:

    Excellent article! All of your posts are extremely penetrating and the writing is clear and beautiful. I think that you should publish them formally. They would be helpful to so many.

  2. maksims says:

    Humans always think that such things as truth are big and require lots of mental work. That something great to achieve requires hard work. We can’t stand the thought that all could be free and accessible. For us there must be a goal, a lock, a key for it, and consequently a price. Our mind creates reason for us to exist, thus constricting itself to a one particular plain of existence.

  3. Excellent article. Is it available in .pdf form? If not, why not. Even better, why not publish it (with external links’ contents embedded) as a Kindle book? It would very likely attract a considerable audience.

  4. Thanks, Ullrich. I actually didn’t think it would work as a stand-alone publication. I guess I still think that’s true, for most readers who haven’t already read extensively on this topic. Anyway, I appreciate your interest.

Leave a Reply