Monday, February 24, 2014

Death and the sense of self

This is a postscript to some previous discussions on death, human identity and 'the phantom self'.

These issues are quite maddening because one feels they should be simple. But (certainly as philosophers like Derek Parfit present them) they don't seem so.

I have given my (provisional) views on all this, and one of my conclusions is that Parfit's suggestion that day-to-day survival is not what it seems, being virtually equivalent to dying and having an exact copy live on, is just wrong.

Sure, the notions of the self and identity are problematic, but our struggle for (bodily) survival is at the heart of things, surely. We know what it is to go into an unconscious state and subsequently wake up. And we can imagine – not waking up! (Foresee our own actual death, in other words.)

However, having had various private discussions on this matter, I recognize that some people see it differently from me and would be happy enough to have their bodies destroyed so long as an exact copy survived.

"But look at it from your point of view," I would say. "You go into the (transporter) machine, get scanned, lose consciousness, and that would be that. You wouldn't 'wake up' as the copy (or one of the copies if there were several). You wouldn't wake up at all. Ever. Whereas, of course, for other people 'you' would still be there. Your wife would not have lost her husband, etc.. But you would have lost your wife – and everything else."

"But this you you talk about, what is it? You speak as if it's a soul or an essence..."

Which I of course deny. But I see that my interlocutor just doesn't get what I am saying, and I begin to wonder if I am making sense.

People see these matters very differently, and I suspect that one of my interlocutors may have given an explanation of sorts when he said, "Some people just have a stronger sense of self than others."

Those with a stronger sense of self, then, would be less likely to identify that self with any copy, however exact.

You could also plausibly see a strong sense of self as being associated with a strong survival instinct (and/or egoism), and a weaker sense of self with a less-strong survival instinct. But the crucial question is: how does this translate into truth claims?

It could be that a weaker sense of self tends to obscure – or blur – the simple (and tragic) truth about death. Then again, perhaps a strong sense of self and survival instinct leads one to underestimate the equivocal and tenuous nature of the self.

The human self is a complex – and indeed tenuous – phenomenon, based as it is on cultural and social as well as biological factors. But tying its fate to the fate of the body does not entail identifying it exclusively with the body in any simple way. For the self depends on the body, even if it also depends on other things. And when the body fails, it fails.

A couple of final comments of a more general nature.

It seems clear that a straightforward scientific approach doesn't seem to work on these problems of death and identity just as it fails to work on other typical philosophical problems – like free will. Could this have something to do with self-reference?

The major paradoxes of logic are self-referential, and the problems being discussed here (and the free will problem also) have a self-referential element.

And though self-reference in logic doesn't relate to a human self but just to concepts turning back on themselves (like a set being a member of itself), there does seem to be a parallel that may help to explain the intractability of these sorts of questions.

The problems (or limitations) may, in other words, be logical as well as psychological (and so deeper).

Science aspires to an objective, third-person point of view or 'view from nowhere'. It is not undermined (though perhaps dogged at a fundamental level) by those self-referential logical paradoxes. And it can readily explain (albeit from a general, objective point of view) how first-person perspectives arise in nature – and much about them.

The first-person point of view is fine, in fact – until it starts to reflect on its own nature and make (science-like) claims about itself.