[extropy-chat] Parfit's Reasons and Persons

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Thu Apr 19 18:50:52 UTC 2007

On 4/18/07, Jef Allbright <jef at jefallbright.net> wrote:

> On 4/17/07, Anders Sandberg <asa at nada.kth.se> wrote:
> I remember my disappointment with the tentativeness of his
> conclusions, but after so many years I don't remember the specifics.
> I just retrieved my copy of the book and upon perusing the table of
> contents I am surprised anew by its extent.  I'm also reminded that
> nearly any idea that feels original to me has been picked up or
> synthesized from other sources.
> I'll review the book and organize my thoughts and get back to you on
> this as quickly as practical.  Who knows, I may find that I see it
> differently so many years later.

Anders, I spent a few hours last night reviewing _Reason's and Persons_. The
challenge to reassess my impression that Parfit stopped short was a
sufficient motive for me to review and type in all 154 topic headings and
create the bookmark structure for my electronic copy of the book.  On a
possibly relevant note, was something of the book's essence lost as I
destructively scanned the sheets, or might it be that the essence of the
book was actually enhanced by being made more accessible and interactive via
the electronic medium?

While doing so I refreshed my recollection of the topics, subtopics and
arguments, and I found that my impression has not substantially
changed.  Very briefly it is this:

Parfit argues theories of personal identity and of morality. He does so
within the paradigm of classical analytical philosophy, uncovering branches
of reasoning and pruning those branches via the discovery of inconsistencies
at various levels.  This approach follows an esteemed western philosophical
tradition thousands of years old and still very influential and active
today, but such a paradigm, in its Aristotelian rigor, transparently assigns
the human reasoner a privileged position as an effectively rational,
objective observer of the world being described.  This is quite acceptable
when the topic being described is within a sub-context that can be treated
effectively objectively, however the topics of personal identity and
morality are subjective at a fundamental level. This paradigm, strikingly to
me, neglects the subjective certainty, systems theory, evolutionary theory
and semiotics that (seem to me) essential to understanding not only our
world, but more importantly, our understanding of our world.

With regard to personal identity, Parfit shows very clearly and correctly
that there is no logically warranted basis for belief in a discrete
self.  He then proceeds to espouse what he calls the Reductionist View,
claiming that

"...we cannot explain the unity of a person's life by claiming that the
in this life are all had by this person . We can explain this unity only by
the various relations that hold between these different experiences, and
their relations
to a particular brain . We could therefore describe a person's life in an
impersonal way,
which does not claim that this person exists."

True to the spirit of Reductionism, it can't be faulted on its own terms,
but it misses the point that the meaning of personal identity doesn't inhere
in such detail, and stronger yet, such detail is to a variable extent
irrelevant and could be altered with no practical effect on personal
identity.  Personal identity has no ontological status; it consists entirely
in its role as a label.  Parfit recognizes the logical inconsistency of the
concept of a discrete personal identity, but retreats into reductionism
rather than taking the conceptual leap to a more encompassing paradigm
encompassing the observer and the process of meaning-making.

I don't intend to join the debate on the strengths and weaknesses of
reductionism, but my main point is that explanations should be evaluated
according to their explanatory power which is necessarily dependent on
context.  I went down that same road many years ago and found that there was
no Self at the end.  This was significant, because it meant I could stop
looking for an ontic Self.  I then asked myself, what is the *meaning* of
self, and found a very effective extensible operational description that has
passed testing for several years since.  Meanwhile, some people are still
down near the end of that road scratching around and looking for what *is*
Self, and Parfit appears to be standing at the very end of the reductionist
road shaking his head knowingly and saying "there is no self, but it leaves
tracks in terms of its relationships to other things."  There's still a bit
of unresolved dualism left in that view, resolvable by expanding the
paradigm.  People deal perfectly with personal identity every day, without
ever resorting to tracing the web of relations to a particular brain.
Nature deals perfectly with soap bubbles without ever computing the infinite
expansion of the digits of pi.

Further, as I have argued in other posts, personal identity depends not on
any physical, functional or historical similarity whatsoever, but rather on
perceived agency with respect to an abstract entity. The agency is perfectly
knowable, while the entity is only indirectly knowable, even if it's
oneself. (There's only one mention of agency in the book, and that's the
"agency of hearing".)

With regard to moral theory, Parfit recognizes the moral problems of narrow
collective self-interest, but concludes that these imply the need for a more
*impersonal reductionist* approach.  He apparently doesn't consider the
possibility of a more coherent but typically non-intuitive approach of
*broadening* the context of self-identification, in other words making
decisions not impersonal, but *more* personal, over larger context of
decision-making.  This is again due to operating within a  reductionist
paradigm.  He describes with great accuracy the pitfalls of consequentialist
ethics, but does not appear to consider anything like morality assessed as
the extent to which the values of an increasing context of decision-making
are expected in principle to be promoted over an increasing scope of
consequences.  He realizes that the discrete Self does not exist, but does
not follow the implications that a fully *effective Self* most certainly
does (else who makes decisions, and is assigned responsibility for
consequences?) and he does not consider that this effective Self could
effectively identify with an expanding sphere of values much as a good
mother identifies with her children, and further in an expanding sphere of
understanding of our causal and consequential inter-relatedness

In the concluding chapter, Parfit mentions the Non-Identity problem as yet
unresolved, along with the Mere Addition "paradox" and the resulting
Repugnant Conclusion and Absurd Conclusion.  I have not taken the
considerable time that would be required to construct an adequate reply, but
these problems seem to be the natural result of assuming a privileged status
(both moral status and observer status) for humans, rather than reasoning
from a more realistic  Systems Theoretical paradigm of computing agents
reasoning within bounds, evaluating choices relative to necessarily local
sets of values, and acting not as objectively rational goal seekers, but
subjective values promoters.

I recall that when reading the book several years ago, I was impressed with
the depth and breadth of logical rigor, but disappointed that the work
seemed transparently enmeshed in the classical paradigm of analytic
philosophy, with little or no consideration of the implications of the
semiotics of  subjective agents embedded in the very reality being

Parfit's work is a quite comprehensive and rigorous analysis of concepts of
personal identity and provides a valuable contribution to the field, but
remains confined within the limits of his paradigm.  In the concluding
chapter he acknowledges some weaknesses and paradox and expresses his belief
that "others could succeed." which is in no sense arbitrary but rather an
increasingly probable outcome of evolutionary processes.

A work as important as Derek Parfit's _Reasons and Persons_ deserves a well
researched and presented response and so I would not want to give the
impression of criticism of what stands, when my intent, time allowing, would
be one of extension. I apologize in advance for the sloppy and incomplete
presentation in this brief email.

Paradox is always a matter of insufficient context.  In the bigger picture
all the pieces must fit.

- Jef
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/attachments/20070419/0ec72d39/attachment.html>

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list