Who are you?

054 Derek Parfit

At tomorrow night’s meeting of the New Inklings, the paper for discussion is Derek Parfit’s classic Personal Identity, first published in The Philosophical Review in 1971.

Here’s a teaser from Wikipedia.

Parfit uses many examples seemingly inspired by Star Trek and other science fiction, such as the teletransporter, to explore our intuitions about our identity. He is a reductionist, believing that since there is no adequate criterion of personal identity, people do not exist apart from their components. Parfit argues that reality can be fully described impersonally; there need not be a determinate answer to the question “Will I continue to exist?” We could know all the facts about a person’s continued existence and not be able to say whether the person has survived. He concludes that we are mistaken in assuming that personal identity is what matters; what matters is rather Relation R: psychological connectedness (namely, of memory and character) and continuity (overlapping chains of strong connectedness).

On Parfit’s account, individuals are nothing more than brains and bodies, but identity cannot be reduced to either. Parfit concedes that his theories rarely conflict with rival Reductionist theories in everyday life, and that the two are only brought to blows by the introduction of extraordinary examples. However, he defends the use of such examples because they seem to arouse genuine and strong feelings in many of us. Identity is not as determinate as we often suppose it is, but instead such determinacy arises mainly from the way we talk. People exist in the same way that nations or clubs exist.

A key Parfitian question is: given the choice of surviving without psychological continuity and connectedness (Relation R) or dying but preserving R through the future existence of someone else, which would you choose?

Parfit described the loss of the conception of a separate self as liberating:

My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness… [However] When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

Needless to say, I’m with Parfit on this one. His view is both liberating and … dare I say it, Christian.
(Or, at least, conducive to a Christian way of life.) (But with some startling implications for some Christian views of salvation.)


Here’s the Parfitian question again.

Given the choice of

(1) surviving without psychological continuity and connectedness (Relation R), or
(2) dying but preserving R through the future existence of someone else,

which would you choose? (Hint: what matters is Relation R.)

Related links: What are you? | Are you lego or logos? | Swallowed up by life | God vs. AI

4 thoughts on “Who are you?”

  1. I saw this blogpost Richard, and all I can say is life is too short for me to sit around listening to such waffle! “Blar Blar… you are not your memories… blar blar…” 🙂 Honestly Richard! It’s not that I am scared that I might get converted to materialism… It’s that I am already ‘drowning’ in a sea of unfinished business… of Mental projects littering my life like ‘DYI disasters’ that I simply don’t have time to add more stuff right this minute.
    It is a subject of interest, yet I am sure that had I the time to dedicate to contemplating this argument that I would probably agree with much of it yet would draw different inferences, and reach a completely different conclusions 🙂
    As I have said in the past that We Human beings *Are* to a great Degree Material beings.
    My Dualistic position is that When we are conceived that we are a material body Incarnated by a soul/spirit, and when you look at what that spirit is… it is like a ‘spark of consciousness’, yet in itself it has no memory of anything prior… as it has just been ‘conceived’, it has no knowledge of the world, no language, etc.
    (Thus Memories etc are aditions… not essential)
    And yet when we are born, we start to acquire memories, facts and concepts about the world etc. How that is achieved whether by Physical powers eg Grey matter= ‘Silicone chips’… I have no problem with any such probability, as God made us ‘dualistically’… and gave us physical brains etc for a reason… yet even if I concur that we use our brains to calculate, and to store memories, this does not equate to proof that we are merely material beings! In fact there are two important thing which indicate that we are not merely materialistic, and that is consciousness, and Freewill. I know that objectively speaking these things prove our spiritual nature *even though humanity may be incapable of understanding what this spiritual ‘stuff’/ being is* and Humanities vain desire to force everything the universe into a box labeled ‘Naturalism’.
    I know this is pure vanity and Subjectivism for the sake of saying ‘I want to simplify everything by philosophically de-mystifying all mysteries’… so that I can say ‘It makes sense to me’… therefore to achieve my Vain ambition I must reduce anything which does not make sense to me… to being merely an illusion!
    …and not everything fits in my Box!
    I’m happy with that!
    Self delusion is a wonderful thing!
    I say you would have been better of remaining Objective, and modifying your box!
    As soon as you write things off ‘as illusory’
    You have entered the realm of Subjectivism, and rationalism.
    So I refuse to ‘Demystify’ Consciousness, or Freewill!
    In fact Knowing God is there tells me Spiritual reality is *more real* than the Temporal finite physical realm which is contingent… not primary.
    The question for me is how does our Spirit ‘dive’ our bodies… and how does it access our physical Databanks? IE are our brains are a spirit/ body interface? or do we store our memories in our souls and mere use our brains like control panel, and when our control panel is damaged of dysfunctional it hinders our souls ability to ‘communicate’???
    This is where the subject is for me… yet I don’t deny my freewill, or the fact that God is a non-physical conscious Spirit being (even though that is a very ‘unnatural’ and mind blowing thing to contemplate!) I believe this is the objective position to take, and that it is the height of vanity, and ignorance to insist that is impossible for us to be non-physical conscious spirit beings…just because that would ‘save’ that idolatrous philosophy of Naturalism!

  2. I would be interested in hearing what he had to say about ‘Credit’/guilt, etc, because what is important to me about my Grandfather is not that I remember that much about him, but that I know that I owe him so much! That I know *he* loved me and cared for me… and that even though he is ‘Dead’… ‘He’ still gets full credit from me!
    Even if I was to forget him completely…. He would still *deserve* my respect.???
    I guess I am looking at how Personal Identity is attached to moral reality.

  3. Is Moral Reality… and love Transendental? Do they have a reality which survives death? or are they as the atheists would have us believe… mere vapours of the mind?

  4. This Renaissance Brewing Co Craftsman Chocolate Oatmeal Stout (Marlborough NZ) is starting to kick in 🙂
    … Australian International Beer Awards 2011 Trophy Winner.
    Champion Stout! Richard… BREWED WITH COCOA! 🙂

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