Friday, June 25, 2010
Reasons and Persons
"There are some people who believe that our identity must be determinate, though they do not believe that we are separately existing entities, distinct from our brains and bodies, and our experiences. This view I believe to be indefensible. What explains the alleged fact that personal identity is always determinate?...There are other people who believe that, though we are not separately existing entities, personal identity is a further fact. These people believe that personal identity does not just consist in the different kinds of physical and psychological continuity. This is another view that I believe to be indefensible. If we are not separately existing entities, in what could this further fact consist?...We cannot defensibly believe that our identity involves a further fact, unless we are to believe that we are separately existing entities, distinct from our brains and bodies." --Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons.
We have written several times about Douglas Hofstadter's book "I Am a Strange Loop," which was arguably the book that "pulled it all together" for us. In it, Hofstadter strongly recommended Derek Parfit's book "Reasons and Persons," a near-600 word philosophical tome that has sat, largely unread, on our bedside table for the past few years. We pulled it out the other day after seeing it referenced in a comment on a fascinating NY Times piece on whether this should be the "last generation," sent to us by a reader.
Let us put this as simply as possible. Get the book. Read it.
To be honest, the book starts with a tedious technical discussion of logical ethics that can probably be skipped. (It was this section that dissuaded us from reading further on previous attempts.) But beginning with Part II, which discusses issues of time and identity (e.g., why should one care if something happens in the past or future, or to one's self or another), the work is a masterpiece. It methodically and thoroughly debunks any and all attempts to create a vision of self-hood without reliance on some otherworldly realm, and lays out some very interesting implications for how one "should" act in the face of such facts.
We will not spoil the surprise here, in large part because this is a book that must be read to be truly understood. While some of the conclusions will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, others seem highly counterintuitive at first glance - we have found ourselves re-reading passages several times in the past few days - and the depth of the arguments is something readers should experience directly.
None of us actually exist. There is no "there" there. And yet, in an incredible cosmic accident, we find ourselves possessed of the ability to comprehend and study this truly incredible world we inhabit. A reviewer once described the late David Foster Wallace as someone who had a "tendency to explore the experience of living even as he’s living it" - this, in a nutshell, is the wonder of the absurd.
Posted by . at 10:51 AM