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.


  1. Rick,

    Are you a mereological nihilist? I know you agree with number 1 below, which emphasizes the distinction. What do you think about number 2?



    I think there are two ways in which self can exist.

    1. One of these types of existance is definitely false. That is that the self is separate from the universe and uncaused. That somewhere in there is a real me, or an original me that is responsible for what I have become, an agent separate from the causes and conditions of the physical universe - the universe which created me and which I am part of and even made of. A soul. Along with this is the crazy notion that we could ever be truly independent or completely and totally uninfluenced by where we live and what we are exposed to and what we see and hear. As if I could lift myself out of the physical universe and sequence of mutual causality and be ME. That there is a me on another plane of existence guiding this brain and body. That it can be truly eternally RIGHT about stuff of its own accord. Believing that there is a truly separate entity that exists IN ADDITION TO the body and brain. This imaginary entity causes all kinds of problems.

    2. Now define self simply as the integrated composite entity which is comprised of the subsystems of the brain. The whole process of being a human with the various cognitive, perceptual, motor, etc. systems that comprise the brain. With no notion that we are separate from this. Now, does this composite entity itself even exist? Or, in what sense does it (or any composite entity) exist? If we are to say that this self still doesn't exist, then I think we would have to say the same thing about all composite entities. Does a car exist, or is it just a bunch of parts? Does the motor control part of my brain exist, or is it just a bunch of neurons? Does the self exist, or is it just a bunch of biological components? This is why I keep coming back to mereological nihilism. And you can't just take the cop-out and say humans EXIST but selves don't. A self in the simplest sense is just the larger composite mental process of identifying, conceptualizing, acting. If we are not allowed to give any kind of existence at all to this composite entity, why would we be allowed to give any kind of existence to any composite entity? If the self, as simply defined by psychologists, does not exist, then cars do not exist. One more step is to ask in what sense emotions exist. Do they exist? Yes admitting that they are comprised simply of a concert of brain cells firing, do emotions still exist in any sense? Well guess what: there is a coherent, integrated, composite, interconnected system of thoughts, memories, emotions, and desires. There just IS such a system. How can you deny that? Call this greater system the self. Does this system exist? The only way to say no is pure mereological nihilism (which I think I believe).

  2. This entity in number 1 is what I was talking about surrendering in "prayer" in my comment on the previous post about Mencken. Many hard atheists inadvertently believe in this type of self before exploring their views. I read somewhere something like, ~"There are the humble atheists who don't believe in God due to an open-minded look at the lack of scientific evidence, and then there are the arrogant atheists who don't believe in God because they secretly think they're Him, and the scientific evidence is dogmatically clung to as proof." or along those lines. Unwitting belief in a separate self is the key give-away between the two. One thinks no one’s in charge of it all, another thinks “I” am in charge of it all. “I” am separate, NOT part of the interdependent arising, and RIGHT, grrrr! I hope I am the first kind of atheist.

  3. Arthur-

    To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends what the meaning of "exist" is...

    We certainly agree with the concept of mereological nihilism (which has similarities with the idea of process philosophy laid out by Alfred Whitehead)- everything is temporary, and thus, as you say, there is no more reason to believe a basketball exists, in any real sense, than does the self.

    However, the problem with espousing such a view on a day-to-day basis is that it is so at odds with our actual experience with the world. It is one thing to remind ourselves that the self is illusory, and our life akin to acting in a play; quite another to convince ourselves objects are not actually there.

    Or, as an absurd colleague of ours put it to us earlier today: "None of it matters--we should just go grab a beer..."


  4. Rick,

    Very well said on all counts.


    PS: However, you guys really have a strange association between alcohol and absurdism that I don't get. But I guess the main take-away from absurdism is to be free and do whatever your thing is. None of it matters. Have a good day.

  5. Arthur,

    Your post was spot on. I am profoundly agnostic when it comes to case 1, but in case 2 I believe you hit the nail right on the head. I do not see how one can reject the self, as described as the emergent phenomenon of case 2, and believe in any kind of existence of a composite entity. Either the self exists or everything is simply the interactions of elemental particles and standing waves. Either way I do not see the compelling reason to abandon our sense perceptions. Our perceptions are the only thing (that I can find) that makes life preferable to not being alive, despite the fact that the misunderstandings and misapplication in assigning significance to these perceptions often causes some amount of consternation.


    I am sure it will come as a surprise to you that I have a couple of comments about your post.
    First, concerning the comment in the NY Times, I can’t help but to see the author’s questions as merely the fundamental question of suicide, writ large. If, as an individual facing a meaningless existence that entails a certain amount of suffering, I can still see the value of continuing existence, then I do not find any compelling reason why it would be different for the larger question of species survival. As well, in my own evaluation of the seeming meaninglessness I have exercised my own freedom to make the decision to reject suicide, it would be the height of hubris to take way this choice from possible future generations.

    As to your assertion that Derek Parfit's book ‘debunks’ the idea of self-hood without resort to some otherworldly realm, I think this is a case of reading into the message the answer you were looking to receive. While I have not read the book in its entirety, I have read a good portion of it, and I am familiar with many of the arguments that he presented throughout his book.

    The main thrust of the arguments in his book are not designed to dispel the notion of self-hood, but to illustrate that the existent self-hood as experienced by man should not matter in the moral calculus of how a particular reductive (read non-existential or other worldly) self ought to behave. He does this with pedantic analysis of both the self and the idea of self interest as the primary motivator of moral virtue.

    I have particular problems with his arguments of fission of self, and the argument of teletransportation, creating an identical self. In the split brain fission example he destroys the very thing that makes self possible and somehow, as if by magic, endows both halves with properties of the whole, and then presents scenarios that seem logically impossible because of this bit of magic.

    Likewise, in teletransportation argument the process of genesis of a self is replicated as if by magic. This situation presents thought provoking implications for considerations of moral consequence based on the ideas we have about self interest, but it does not debunk the notion of self itself. It is only the generation of self by means other than the normal laborious means of the self spontaneously growing up in the existent conditions of the universe.

    Don’t mistake me here, I agree with you that Derek Parfit's book is intriguing and thought provoking, and well worth the read, I just don’t think it goes very far in debunking the concept of the self.

    In the end you have to ask yourself; If self is merely an illusion what exactly is it that is being deceived. You may say that it is the near infinite recursive self referencing loop of awareness that is being deceived, but that, in the end, IS the self.