Thursday, December 12, 2013

The glass tunnel

Adrian McKinty is to blame. He started a discussion on Derek Parfit's perennially frustrating ideas on personal identity and death. You will see that I reiterated my previously-stated views* (which are similar to Adrian's own) in the course of an exchange on the comment thread.

And now I have stumbled across Gordon Cornwall's sophisticated analysis which defends Parfit's view and so implicitly challenges mine.

My intention, then, is to revisit the very important questions that lie behind these discussions, initially by reading and thinking about what Gordon Cornwall has to say. I can't reject it just because it has a mystical or religious feel which I don't like and which makes me suspicious (just as Parfit's approach does).

But first let me make a few general comments on my attitude to Derek Parfit as well as trying to set out the emotional context of my thinking on these matters.

When I first encountered Parfit's 1984 book, Reasons and Persons, I remember concluding that his view seemed inconsistent with planning and caring about one's future, with prudence basically. But Parfit himself seems to have made it into his eighth decade without any trouble – and (if his claims are to be believed) with less stress than would have been encountered had he retained his earlier, more conventional view of human identity.

My main concern, however, is not to decide which view is more conducive to longevity or quality of life, but rather to figure out which view gives the truer picture of our individual selves.

Parfit experienced his change of viewpoint on personal identity from a conventional view to one which did not privilege the future over the past – and which downplayed the centrality and perhaps even the reality of his very existence as a self – as liberating.

Previously, he had, as he put it,

"... seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of the 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." [Reasons and Persons, p. 281]

This talk about caring for others (especially from a son of medical missionaries) makes me wary. Is Parfit merely adopting (the broad outlines of) an essentially religious outlook and rationalizing it in philosophical terms?

But before turning (in a subsequent post) to examine alternative views more closely, let me set out briefly the broad outlines and emotional drivers of my current position.

My view could be seen to be based on a narrower view than Parfit's, and aspires to an almost animal-like simplicity. ('Almost' because animals don't worry about the future – or foresee their own inevitable deaths.)

Though I doubt that my self has any substantive reality (and to this extent I may have more in common with Parfit than I am assuming here), I know that whatever reality it has is entirely dependent on the continuing existence and proper functioning of this body. Oversimplifying: I am my body.

The tragedy is, of course, that this body, like all bodies, will fail in the end. This is just how things are. Life is tragic (and comic and pathetic), and not at all bathed in sweetness and light as some religiously-inclined people are inclined to see it. From my perspective, at any rate, it seems more honorable – and more honest – to interpret life in pessimistic and uncompromising terms.

This need not entail an entirely non-religious outlook (think of Miguel de Unamuno, for example), though my approach is non-religious.

An anecdote might help explain some of my values and attitudes. Some years ago my mother had very bad pneumonia and spent a number of truly terrible weeks in an intensive care unit: close to death, hooked up to a daunting array of machines and unable to speak (because of a tracheotomy). The family was called in for a meeting with the senior doctors and nurses: they were clearly expecting her to die.

In the ICU, there was a 1:1 ratio of nurses to patients, each nurse on duty assigned to one patient only, and we visiting family members got to know some of the nurses quite well. I don't remember much of what was talked about, but I clearly remember one of them commenting that she preferred dealing with (and liked) patients who fought against death. And my mother decidedly was (and still is) such a fighter.

On more than one occasion when I came to sit by her bed when she was at her lowest ebb and hooked up to all those tubes and machines she turned and appeared to attempt to climb over the bed rails towards me. When I first witnessed this, it took a few moments to realize what she was trying to do. It was at once grotesque and sublime – and extremely moving.

I don't want to make too much of this and suggest that those who "rage against the dying of the light" are right and those who opt for more dignified options are wrong. And I fully realize that of course a nurse – especially one specializing in critical care – is going to prefer patients who don't die on her.

But speaking personally, though I admire those who decide to end their own lives when the signs are that those lives have reached a certain level of completeness, I am rather less keen on going (when the time approaches) with dignity and rather more keen on hanging around for as long as possible.

Now, having aired my general thoughts and feelings on the matter, I will try to put them out of my mind and examine what Gordon Cornwall has to say (see link above) with an open mind.

* See, for example, this post.