The Unity of Persons

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?

Connectedness to Oneself and to Other People

If persons are bundles of attributes—equivalently, bodies of information—the answer must lie in relations of continuity and connectedness. Obama is now the same person he was at those earlier times because there is an unbroken (continuous) series of stages connecting the baby and the president, each of which is causally constrained to be very similar (strongly connected) to stages that closely preceed and follow it. In assessing degrees of connectedness, there is no need to distinguish between physical and psychological characteristics. Although for Locke and for Parfit—both philosophers, who value the life of the mind—psychological attributes are more important than physical ones, others may not agree; and if an Orange County matron considers her cup size more definitive of herself than her memories of her first husband, who are we to argue?

One problem is that relations of continuity and  connectedness seem to hold between different persons as well as between different stages in the life of a single person. If that’s so, the real difference between being the same person as someone and  being a different person from someone else is a matter of degree at best, not of kind.

Take the case of John, who thinks and feels about his survival the way most people do. His belief that he will be alive on some future date is, in his mind, inseparable from his feelings of concern for the person he imagines will be alive on that date.  Those feelings are, in turn, firmly attached to John’s belief that his concern is rationally required—that failure to look out for his own interests in the future would be foolish, imprudent.

Those of us who have examined the reality of personal survival and revised our views see John’s case differently.  John has a strongly motivating emotional attitude towards someone in the future. He cares about that person in the special way that makes him fear that person’s misfortunes, hope for that person’s successes, eagerly anticipate his pleasures, dread his suffering. John, now, would go to a great deal of trouble to ensure the happiness of John in the future. But there is no underlying, real relation between John, now, and that person in the future that rationally requires this attitude, which so strongly influences John’s present behaviour.

The real relation between John now and John in the future is of the same nature as the relation between John now and other people in the future. Relations of continuity and connectedness hold in both cases. They may hold to differing degrees, but even that is not guaranteed.

Joel is John’s adopted child. (I could have used an example of biological parenthood, because the relations that matter between biological parent and child, and between adoptive parent and child, are about the same. But a case of adoption is clearer, because it is not muddied by motivations which can be attributed to Darwinian natural selection.)

John, who is nearing the end of his career with limited savings, must make a choice—he can put money aside for Joel’s university education, or he can keep it for the retirement activities he has dreamed of, which are exotic travel and golf games with his friends. Forced to choose between acting on his own behalf or on his son’s, he chooses Joel’s, because Joel “has his whole life ahead of him.”

John worries that his investment in Joel might not pay off.  Joel might squander his opportunity, as children of John’s friends and relatives have done. So John seeks to instill values in Joel to ensure that he will make the choices most likely to culminate in a successful career. Understanding something about human motivation, John takes care that Joel’s opportunity is not “handed to him on a silver platter”—he lets Joel know that he too must work and save towards this goal. They talk it over, and Joel agrees to earn and save $1000 per year for the next five years, to put towards his education. For his part, John undertakes to come up with the balance, which he estimates at $5000 per year over the same period. So both will work towards, and make present sacrifices for, the same goal, which is Joel’s future.

Because John loves Joel, he looks out for him in a variety of ways, as parents, including adoptive parents, commonly look out for their children. He warns Joel sternly against drinking and driving, and watches for signs that his warnings might be disregarded. He corrects Joel’s grammar and table manners, makes sure he thanks people for gifts and favours, and teaches him to use the power tools in John’s workshop competently and safely. When he overhears Joel boast to a friend about cheating on an exam, John makes him confess to his teacher and accept the consequences. He also takes the trouble to talk the matter over with Joel until the boy understands that, in cheating on an exam, he is only cheating himself.

John’s care for Joel is difficult to distinguish from John’s care for himself. Even his efforts to instill his values in the young man are echoed by John’s own efforts at self-correction. Finding himself behind the wheel one night after too many beers with his buddies, he swears off alcohol for a month because he knows self-punishment will help him resist temptation in the future.

Relations of continuity and connectedness hold between John and Joel, just as they hold between different stages of John’s own life. Of course the relationship is not the same. John does not try to manage every aspect of Joel’s life, recognizing that the boy needs freedom to find his own way. Nonetheless, John does his best to help Joel, and to persuade his son to adopt the values that John found most important in his own life.. This is exactly what we do (or should do) for our future selves; look out for their well-being, and encourage them to stick to our values and principles.

When we consider the case of John and Joel without starting from the assumption of a deep metaphysical divide between them, just looking at real relations of continuity and connectedness, the differences between them seem to fade like a mirage. Joel’s table manners, habits of courtesy, and competence with power tools are directly attributable to John’s, just as John’s present manners, habits, and competences are attributable to his manners, habits, competences and aspirations in the past. All are products of instillation and cultivation, the main differences lying in the medium of transmission. The connections between John-past and John-present are supported by durable states of his brain—but those brain states may need further support from external aids such as a personal diary, or from resolutions spoken aloud in the presence of other people. The connections between John and Joel are forged mainly by word and example, given authority and weight by the underlying nurturing, loving relationship.

I doubt that any naturalistic account of the unity of persons could succeed in grouping all the stages of John’s life together, while at the same time distinguishing clearly between his life and Joel’s. When the variety of intrapersonal and interpersonal relations are considered on their own merits, without prejudice towards the question of what constitutes the unity of persons, they simply do not fall into two natural kinds. I don’t see evidence of a real relation in nature that serves to draw the boundaries between persons. The natural relations of continuity and connectedness obtain to varying degrees, and it looks unlikely that we will be able to specify a degree and/or kind of continuity-and-connectedness relation that corresponds at all closely to the traditional concept of a person.

If we drop the idea that some real relation rationally justifies self-concern, there doesn’t seem to be any natural substitute to replace it as the unifying principle of personhood. Dropping the idea that self-concern is rationally justified goes a long way towards dropping the old idea of a person.

Yet we can’t just give up the concept of a person, because it is deeply woven into our social lives, inextricable from the precepts of morality and the law by which we govern ourselves. A person is a bearer of rights and responsibilities, capable of binding himself to a contract, owning property, becoming a debtor or a creditor, and incurring responsibility for actions. Persons are needed as moral and legal entities. If there is no natural unifying relation of personhood, could one be established by convention?

Why not? “Conventional” does not mean “arbitrary.” A conventional drawing, or re-drawing, of the boundaries of personhood could, and should, be given careful consideration, wisely taking into account the real relations that obtain between and within persons, the facts of human psychology, the needs of a stable society, and (last and, probably, least) the traditional ways of drawing those boundaries that are rooted in out-of-date metaphysics and our animal nature. Where the boundaries of persons are drawn has a direct bearing on their many important functional roles, both individual and social.

The Unifying Boundary of the Body

Knowing we are informational entities does not free us from our close association with, and dependence on, the animal bodies in which we are instantiated. The Gutenberg process for replicating persons has not been invented yet. Although we can disseminate our thoughts and values by communicating with other people, although we can teach, and occasionally inspire others to imitate us, propagation of our attributes by such means is piecemeal. I can hope to share some of my ideas with you, but not all of them, because communication is slow and your patience is limited, and also because, most importantly, you have your own interests which you are unwilling to neglect in favour of mine. I cannot occupy your body unless you are prepared to remold yourself in my image, which I am reasonably sure you will not attempt to do. This means that, given current technological limitations, there is only one living body which I can reasonably hope to use more or less exclusively, and that’s my own. My body is very valuable to me as an instrument for carrying out my intentions, which gives me a reason to look after it.

The notion that I exclusively control my own body is actually a bit exaggerated. If I am not extremely rigid, other people influence me just as I influence them. We can, and do every day,  act through other people by means of request, persuasion, orders, example, and even, unfortunately, trickery. But there are some goals I could not accomplish without the continued existence of my own body, which instantiates my particular thoughts and memories and ambitions. One such goal is to complete the Phantom Self project in the way I hope to do. I don’t know anybody else who is likely to pick up this project and continue it, if I were to die today.  (Of course that could change. If anyone out there is interested in becoming my backup for the Phantom Self, let’s talk. For now, my main point is that a lot of talk would have to take place between us in order for that to happen.)

Everybody with goals in life has a vested interest in keeping his or her body in good working order. Therefore, the boundary of the body is an important functional boundary of the person. But it is not supremely important. The tools and resources we own or control outside our bodies may contribute just as importantly as some of our own body parts to our power to do.  And although we tend to think of tools and resources as replaceable, in contrast to body parts, the distinction between self and other cannot be grounded in replaceability. John’s ability to help pay for Joel’s higher education depends on the wealth John accumulated during his working career. If all that suddenly disappeared, he would not be able to help to the same extent. Although a bank balance and house are in principle replaceable, they may not be practically replaceable. As for body parts: in the last fifty years or so many of them have become replaceable, albeit not so painlessly or cheaply as tools or furniture. Lots of people get about on artificial hips and knees; a smaller number, but still significant, live with organic kidneys, hearts or corneas transplanted from other people. Bioprinting technology promises to make fully-compatible replacement organs, grown from the recipient’s own stem cells, much more readily available within the next decade.

In the early 21st century, only our brains seem truly indispensible to our continued lives. The ability to build a replacement for a diseased brain, fully populated with the important psychological attributes of the original, is still too far off to see even the outline of its enabling technologies. But the possibility should be not dismissed as “mere science fiction” which no sensible person would take seriously. Neuroscience is a lively field; knowledge of how brains work is increasing geometrically. The possibility of affordable brain replication in the mid-21st century is no more far-fetched, in 2012,  than the possibility of an internet-enabled iPad would have been had someone suggested it 1962, when text-based mainframe computers built with vacuum tubes occupied whole rooms. I suggest it won’t be long before people start to think of their bodies as being composed entirely of replaceable parts. And the replacement parts will come in ever-improving models, enhanced in ways that will make us stronger, faster, smarter and more perceptive as we age and upgrade our old components. When that happens, the boundary of the body, the importance of which is already eroding, will nearly vanish.

The replaceability of body parts completely erases the boundary once thought to separate the “extended self” from the “core self.” But that boundary has long been indistinct. In the 19th century, William James saw the self as a continuum of layers from inner to outer: one’s body, one’s clothes, one’s immediate family, one’s home, one’s property, one’s social circles, city, sports teams, political affiliations, all are appropriated to oneself and recognized as one’s own by being objects of distinctive feelings of self-concern. James considered the emotions to be  primary. We become attached to our bodies, our careers, our possessions, our social position, and therefore we identify with those things. The intellectual judgement of personal identity follows from the emotional attachment, rather than the other way around. [James, 1890, ch 11]

If I cut your skin with a knife I am guilty of assault, whereas if I slash your coat I am only guilty of property damage. What if you are an amputee and I deliberately damage your prosthesis? Does it matter if you are wearing it at the time? Or if I dent the hood of your Porsche Carrera, in which you take enormous personal pride? Or I poke holes in a philosophical theory in which you have invested years of work and your professional reputation? Or I pollute your air and heat up your planet? Which are assaults on the person, which only on property, and which on things that belong to nobody, regarding which you have no rights of recourse? These distinctions may be enshrined in law—that is, in convention, duly considered and agreed on by legislators—but they are not found in nature. Nor are they recognized by the human heart (or the amygdala).

Personal Unity and Social Convention

Society needs to recognize persons who survive through time—who bear rights and obligations, own property, bind themselves to contracts for future fulfillment, and are held to account for their past actions. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have been groomed to assume the role of full personhood, to affirm our identity and accept its consequences through thick and thin, for decades to come.

Yet, society sets limits on those rights and responsibilities. Incompetence is a recognized reason to revoke some aspects of the status of personhood. Young children’s rights are limited to a claim on their parents (and on the state, failing the parents) for nourishment, shelter, and care, and a claim on the state for protection. They may own property, but are rarely allowed to do what they like with it; and they have no liberty of movement. If an Ontario child chooses to leave home before his sixteenth birthday he is subject to arrest and confinement. He can consent to sex as young as twelve, but only with someone less than two years older than himself. And at the other end of life, when the vicissitudes of age and disease have eroded our competence to the point that we can no longer be counted on to manage our own lives; then society relieves us of some of the rights of full personhood, as well as some of its obligations, relegating us to a reduced status in many ways like that of the immature.

Society’s rules of morality and the law help to define the boundaries of personhood. Those boundaries deserve respect, even if we doubt that there is a natural unifying relation of personhood. The realization that the boundaries are drawn by ‘mere’ convention need not stop us from recognizing wisdom and value in those conventions. But it should inform our judgement when we grapple with difficult moral and legal cases, which are never in short supply. New technologies exploding all around us compound the problems, more so each year.

A classic difficult case is that of the reformed felon. A serious crime, perhaps a murder, was committed two decades ago. At last the perpetrator—call him Matt—has been apprehended. Back then, he was a nineteen-year-old punk from a troubled family, running with a gang. Now, his brief career of crime is long behind him. He is married, has two young children and a responsible job; his employer as well as his family rely on him. Confronted by the evidence, he admits to the crime and shows sincere remorse.

Our society harbours more than one school of thought about how justice should be meted out in such a case. The ‘conservative’ school is more impressed by the fact of identity than by the reformed personality. The man is guilty, and should be punished. A more ‘liberal’ way of thinking takes note of the radical, and by now entrenched, improvement in Matt’s character and lifestyle. He has abandoned crime and bad companions in favour of honest work and commitment to his family. He expresses regret for the misdeeds of his youth, and most unprejudiced observers judge his regret to be genuine. He is deemed to be at no risk to reoffend. A jail sentence commensurate with the crime would pile evil upon evil, certainly bringing hardship to Matt’s family and probably wrecking his life which—before he was caught—showed every sign of having been redeemed.

If you believe there is a deep unifying principle of personhood, then you are likelier to believe that Matt’s crime is like a debt which, even though incurred long ago in spendthrift youth, is not cancelled by prudent habits of living within one’s means in maturity. Having committed the crime, he deserves punishment. That is the old law; but it may not be the best law. Judges’ discretionary powers of sentencing are intended to minimize the evil which would result from a too-mechanical application of written statutes. They recognize that ‘going straight’ may be a genuine and profound change, to ignore which would be to do harm.

Understanding the unity of persons in terms of continuity and connectedness lets us see that the real relation between the young punk and the responsible paterfamilias may be more distant than the relation between that same young Matt and his younger brother, Jack, whom Matt initiated to the gang at the tender age of sixteen. Unlike Matt, Jack remained in bad company, eventually becoming a Hells Angels kingpin with a mansion on Lake Okanagan, a fleet of cigarette boats, and bank accounts in the Bahamas. Back then, Matt and Jack talked the same talk and walked the same walk, competing to outdo each other in criminal bravado. If Matt had not had a soft spot for Mary, who told him in no uncertain terms that they were through if he didn’t quit the drug trade, his future might have been very different. Nowadays, one of Matt’s deepest regrets is having introduced his brother to a life of crime. If Matt should pay for Matt’s crimes, should he also pay for Jack’s? Tradition stands against it, but not solidly; society has punished “corrupters of youth” at least since Socrates wandered the agora; and if the age disparity between Matt and Jack were greater, many people would hold the older brother at least partly responsible for the misdeeds of the younger.

Not much analysis is needed to show that the boundaries of personhood enshrined in law artificially simplify the truth, masking important similarities and differences. At what point, exactly, in the decline of age or the onset of mental illness does a person become incompetent to make a will? No clear answer presents itself. There are cases towards both ends of the continuum of decline about which reasonable observers would agree; there are also intermediate cases about which reasonable opinion will be divided, and many will be unsure. Society’s usual response, when a person has entered this ‘grey zone’ of declining competence, is to apply informal pressures and persuasion to preserve the status quo, deliberating steering the weakened or unstable personality away from decision-points of consequence, leaving the dignity of nominal personhood untouched as long as possible, while avoiding the risk of a definite legal ruling which might go the wrong way.

Most Western democracies have stopped granting early-stage fetuses the right not to be killed that they accord to all human beings after birth. This recent shift in policy recognizes that the early fetus has never achieved the consciousness of a kitten, and has no attachment to its personal future beyond those of the physiological processes of growth and homeostasis, which are shared by oysters and apple trees. Adopting the technological innovation of abortion procedures which are virtually risk-free for the mother, society has taken a practical step to reduce the number of unwanted children in an over-crowded world. At what cost? Society’s position, expressed through law, denies certain beliefs which many people still hold, according to which a person, with all attendant fundamental rights, begins to exist at the moment of conception. There is as yet no general consensus on whether the cost of changing the recognized boundaries of personhood in this way is high or low. Some see it as an attack on the truths of revealed religion. Some argue that it undermines moral and legal principles by substituting a fuzzy boundary for a clear-cut one, thereby introducing a ‘slippery slope’ on which people will inevitably lose their footing and slide into manifest evil. Those who think the benefits outweigh the costs see the availability of abortion as a reduction in misery, and a move towards a sustainable human presence on Earth.

To give permission to abort is to step away from the dogma that there is a real, unifying principle of personhood. The abortion controversy is littered with conflicting criteria for pesonal identity, fiercely attacked and staunchly defended. Such a plethora of viewpoints, with no generally-agreed rules for settling differences, is a hallmark of disagreements which are more about values than facts, about what to do rather than what is. To those cooler heads who have not staked their all on one position or another in the abortion wars, society’s assertion that the right to life begins at birth, or at some other ontogenetic milestone such as viability, quickening, the development of the neocortex, or even self-awareness (which would deny the right of life to young babies), appears more a matter of decision than discovery. However the decision is made, clearly it might have been made differently. Like most public policy decisions, the line drawn in law where the right to life begins will be accepted by the majority if its consequences are perceived to be not obviously much worse than the consequences of the available alternatives. To those cooler heads, the boundaries of the person already appear to be a matter of convention rather than of nature—even if only at the leading edge of life.

Nature is generous with deviant cases, and when society tries to fit them into a one-size-fits-all concept of personhood, conventionality can become glaringly obvious. Abigail and Brittany Hensel are bicephalic conjoined twins who have adjusted courageously and successfully to a world designed for ‘separate’ persons. With two heads and independent brains, they are generally acknowledged to be two persons; yet they share a pelvis, liver, and other organs. Between them they have four lungs (the two medial ones fused) within a sngle ribcage, two arms, and two legs. Each twin has motor control over, and feels sensation from, her side of the shared body, which they use cooperatively to live independent, though tethered, lives. Although the twins regard themselves as two persons, they often act as one, finishing each other’s sentences, coordinating their movements with the exquisite control required to tie a shoelace or hit a baseball, and writing emails in the first-person singular, except when they disagree. A remarkable Learning Channel program shows them growing up, going to school, and earning their driver’s licenses—which is the point of this example. When they drive, Abby, who is on the right, operates the brake and gas pedal; Brittany the wipers and turn signals. Because each twin controls one arm, they steer jointly. On their sixteenth birthday, to get their drivers’ licenses, they were required to take the road test twice! They drove the route and were evaluated twice, once in each girl’s name, although there was no difference in either the test being administered or in who was, in fact, being tested (or, luckily, in the result). Administering the same test twice over served no purpose beyond a bureaucratic one.

The video leaves many other questions unanswered, because the circumstances in which they would be answered had not yet arisen when it was made.  If the twins were pulled over for speeding, would one ticket be issued, or two? If the answer is, “One ticket, given to Abby because she controls the gas pedal,” then what should happen if they were stopped for making an illegal turn? These examples show up inadequacies in the rules we all take for granted that define “one person” for social and legal purposes, revealing their man-made, conventional character.

In the video, the girls’ English teacher, Kevin Boozikee, wonders:

Are they going to be hired as one or as two? Are they going to be able to share salaries? All of those things are to be determined.

And Professor Nick Fisk of Queen Charlotte’s Hospital speculates about the twins’ prospects for entering into the contract of marriage:

It’s tricky. Do they marry two boys, or one? If it’s one, is he married to two people with separate identities? Is that bigamy or not? Or do they marry two, which makes more sense if you respect their identity, separately. What if they marry two, though, and marriages don’t last, and one wants to get divorced? … Then you’re stuck with three of you, one wanting to be single…but not. It raises all sorts of questions about, “Are they one or two people?” Society really has no basis for ruling on this.

The special circumstances of the Hensel twins that strain the concept of a person are extremely rare, and likely to remain so. If their case were more common, society would be better prepared, and the Hensens would not have to face the uncertainty whether they are jointly or separately responsible for making a prohibited turn, or whether to marry would constitute bigamy. (Since the Learning Channel program was made, the latter question has been answered, I believe, in the negative; this too was a decision.)

The Hensels’ lesson for all of us is that society ignores person-straining developments at its own peril.  We would be well-advised to think, and think deeply, about the impacts of information-based restorative life insurance on legal responsibility for past actions, long before that technology comes to market.

The Fiction of Personal Unity

Returning, then, to the question what makes the Hawaiian-born baby the same person as the community worker in Chicago and the current occupant of the White House, two answers suggest themselves.

One answer is that he is the same person by virtue of the criteria for reidentification of persons sanctioned by society and enshrined in law. Those criteria place primary importance on the identity of the living body; biometrics are the state’s favoured tools for determining personal identity. This roughshod criterion roughly works for most practical purposes—but exceptions like those noted above, and many others, are easy to come by. This criterion for personhood,  sanctioned by widespread assent, is a convention which piggybacks on the natural boundaries of biological organisms. But as the example of the Hensels shows, the natural boundaries of organisms are not always the best-considered boundaries for persons.

Another, different kind of answer (which is more relevant to the question of which candidate one might vote for) is that what unites Barack Obama throughout at least his adult life (although not his entire life since birth) are the continuity relations collectively known as integrity. The people we find trustworthy do not abandon their principles lightly; they maintain a recognizable constellation of values; they honour their past commitments; they are loyal to their friends. Those people are stable and consistent in word and deed. We count on that kind of continuity in our friends and look for it in our leaders. Of the real relations which unite the threads of a person’s life, integrity is arguably the most important. Those who lose their integrity lose their all.

But the other kind of continuity, which is commonly supposed to unite a person’s life from unformed immaturity to the decayed wreck of extreme old age (and potentially to an afterlife), through all changes of heart and mind, through loss of ideals and ‘born-again’ conversions, does not exist. It has filled the role of a useful fiction, adequate for a primitive species competing against others in the Darwinian contest, but inappropriate for the winner. The winning species must give up its ceaseless struggle for personal advantage and adopt an attitude of responsible stewardship of the whole Earth. If it fails to do so it stands to lose everything it has worked for.

I think Obama, despite having had to make some hard compromises, passes the integrity test. Not everyone would agree. If he does not, then the situation resembles a kind of bait-and-switch electoral fraud, in which the man who was elected is not the one who ends up holding the reins of power. If you find this hard to swallow, reconsider the arguments that persons are best understood as informational entities, such as, for example, the old joke with which I opened this piece; and then consider what Daniel Dennett has to say about the identity criteria of jokes:

Have you ever wondered, when hearing a new joke, where it came from? If you are like amost everybody else I have ever known or heard of, you never make up jokes; you pass on, perhaps with “improvements,” something you heard from someone who heard it from someone who… Now, we know the process cannot go on forever. A joke about President Clinton, for instance, cannot be more than a year or so old [Dennett wrote in 1994]. So who makes up the jokes? Joke-authors (as opposed to joke-purveyors) are invisible. Nobody ever seems to catch them in the act of authorship. There is even folklore—an “urban legend”—to the effect that these jokes are all created in prison, by prisoners, those dangerous and unnatural folks, so unlike the rest of us, and with nothing better to do with their time than to fashion jokes in their secret underground joke-workshops. Nonsense. It is hard to believe—but it must be true—that the jokes we hear and pass on have evolved from earlier stories, picking up revisions and updates as they are passed along. [Dennett, 1995, p 99]

A person’s history is much like the history of a joke—the people we know are built upon an evolving succession of earlier versions of themselves. Every day they pick up revisions and updates by assimilating fragments of other people, who in their turn are altered by bits and pieces absorbed from all their encounters. Dennett used the example of jokes to support the point that there is no date on which a species can be said to originate. It is equally illuminating about the origins, and ends, of persons.


Advanced Medical Productions (2006), “Joined for Life: Abby and Brittany Hensel Turn 16,” The Learning Channel.

Dennett, Daniel (1995), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Simon and Schuster.

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


Return to the Phantom Self home page.


Tags: ,

Leave a Reply