[extropy-chat] Resend: Parfit's Reasons and Persons

Stathis Papaioannou stathisp at gmail.com
Sat Apr 21 12:04:21 UTC 2007

On 4/20/07, Jef Allbright <jef at jefallbright.net> wrote:

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
> experiences
> in this life are all had by this person . We can explain this unity only
> by describing
> 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.

Parfit uses the term "Reductionist View" in a very specific sense,
contrasting it with the "Non-Reductionist" view as shown in this passage
(R&P, p210):

"Many Non-Reductionists believe that we are separately existing entities. On
this view, personal identity over time does not just consist in physical
and/or psychological continuity [i.e. the Reductionist View]. It involves a
further fact. A person is a separately existing entity, distinct from his
brain and body, and his experiences.On the best-known version of this view,
a person is a purely mental entity: a Cartesian Pure Ego, or spiritual
substance. But we might believe that a person is a separately existing
physical entity, of a kind which is not yet recognised in the theories of
contemporary physics."

(Actually, I think Parfit is too generous in the space he gives the
Non-Reductionist view, which I see as not just wrong but incoherent, but
that is another argument).

This does not mean that the emergent phenomenon/ illusion/ trick of personal
identity is not significant or lacks explanatory power, any more than
chemistry should be called fraudulent because it reduces to physics.

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.

My being me consists solely in the fact that I think I'm me and remember
being me. The details of the workings of my brain or the laws of physics are
irrelevant except insofar as they allow those thoughts to occur, in the same
way as the chemical composition of paper and ink is irrelevant except
insofar as it allows writing to occur. If that's dualistic then I guess I'm
a dualist.

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".)

I'm not familiar with what you mean by "perceived agency with respect to an
abstract entity". What if I close my eyes and think, "Yep, I'm the same
person I was a moment ago all right" ?

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 which is in
> no sense arbitrary but rather an increasingly probable outcome of
> evolutionary processes.

I'm less impressed with Parfit's attempt to derive reconcile ethics with
personal identity theory. Suppose it turns out that God issued us all with
souls that determine our unique identity from birth to death, so that
teleportation experiments lead to mindless zombies: would that have any
implications for morality?

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
> considered.

Hmm, you're probably not going to like "Language, Truth and Logic", although
you might appreciate it as a masterpiece of English non-fictional prose.

Stathis Papaioannou
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