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May 06, 2007

Parfit On Death, And Why It Isn't That Scary

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Perhaps the most amazing thing I've read on the failure of one's consciousness to continue was in Part III of Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons, which is concerned with the question of personal identity: What makes it the case that I'm the same person from one time to another? 

Parfit argues for a reductionist view of personal identity on which my being the same person from moment to moment is just a matter of various chains of psychological connectedness holding between my earlier and later self.  For example, there are chains of memory and intention going from that connect me now to myself when I was five years old.  That's what makes me the same person across time.  While I may now differ significantly from my five-year-old self, I'm connected to him by a set of smooth day-to-day psychological transitions.  Parfit rejects the non-reductionist view that most of us seem to hold, on which my being the same person now and then is a matter of some further, significant, sui generis fact.  He explains how seeing this changed his attitude towards death:

When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I 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 my 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. 

When I believed the Non-Reductionist View, I also cared more about my inevitable death.  After my death, there will be no one living who will be me. I can now redescribe this fact.  Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connections as those involved in experience-memory, or in the carrying out of an earlier intention.  Some of these future experiences may be related to my present experiences in less direct ways.  There will later be some memories about my life.  And there may later be thoughts that are influenced by mine, or things done as the result of my advice.  My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations.  This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me.  Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad.  (281)

Parfit takes the view of personal identity he works with here to be one shared by Buddha.  He agrees with Buddha that while accepting the reductionist view of personal identity is psychologically difficult for us, it is possible. 

When I am troubled by the fear of death, I try to look at things the way Parfit does.  The idea that my future experiences are tied to my present ones nothing more than these thin chains of psychological connectedness makes death look less significant.  It makes me take more pleasure in the happiness that others feel, now and after I pass away. 

May 6, 2007 | Permalink


One time I was in an art museum with a friend of mine. She described her reaction to a painting, and I suddenly felt a slight bitterness within me. It took me weeks to admit why I felt this, but it was because from what she was telling me I knew that her perception was vastly deeper than mine--that whatever consciousness is, she has way the heck more of it than I do. I felt dim. And shallow.

But when I realized that my limited mind was connected to a world deeper and brighter than me, my shameful jealousy faded.

I don't like calling it the "non-reductionist" view because there is more than one non-reductionist view, and not all of them assume separation of persons. David Chalmers is willing to assign limited consciousness to freakin' thermostats, it seems reasonable to assign something to the indirect causal connection chains between lives.

Posted by: Consumatopia | May 6, 2007 1:42:47 AM

In at least one of Parfit's essays, he suggests that the "you" who will exist a moment from now will in effect be a clone of the present "you": a someone who looks like you and shares your memories. That's just what identity is, and it's a mistake to think there is a continuing self in any more substantial way.

Posted by: mijnheer | May 6, 2007 1:47:05 AM

I've never been deeply impressed by "your experience is an illusion" claims of this kind. The experience itself is still there and is a real phenomenon to be accounted for, and saying that I can train myself not to feel what almost everybody does almost all the time seems like less than an overwhelmingly satisfactory answer.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | May 6, 2007 2:11:37 AM

I love this Parfit quote. The "glass tunnel" bit has stuck with me since the first time I read it.

At least one Buddhist school (yogacara? I can't remember) says that we pass through 3 million "selves" in a second. It also provides a nice answer for the infamous "teleportation" problem of philosophy. (If I'm reconstituted elsewhere from different matter, is my consciousness still "mine"?)

As far as training one's self...two hundred years ago, you'd be thought highly deviant for not believing in the afterlife, so if you've got a good reason to believe in the transitory nature of the self, why not?

Leaving the final word to Tom Stoppard:

Rosencrantz: Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no...Death is...not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I've frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no, no - what you've been is not on boats.

Posted by: mr waggish | May 6, 2007 3:15:50 AM

The first comment here is a doozy, very thought provoking. I'm pretty much still stuck in the me of it all, but occasionally I touch base with a larger, more friable, dispersed, understanding of self and the universe. Years ago my grandfather died. He had been a classics scholar, in his later years, and many a meal had been enlivened with "for instance, thucydides" and all our walks were in search of those little classical texts you could buy. After he died his son in law, my father, suddenly became fascinated with greek and roman history and eventually began collecting antiquities and publishing papers in archaeological journals. My point isn't that some mystical transformation or transmission of selves had occured. Its to say that the self lives on in its continuing effect on the lives of others. The bad and the good, surely, but we continue to know and be informed by the selves who have touched our lives and we will continue to have an existence, of a sort, long after we are gone just as we have an existence when we are in the next room. Whether the self is concious or not doesn't really matter, does it?


Posted by: aimai | May 6, 2007 7:40:23 AM

Be completely empty.
Be perfectly serene.
The ten thousand things arise together;
in their arising is their return.
Now they flower,
and flowering
sink homeward,
returning to the root.

The return to the root
is peace.
Peace: to accept what must be,
to know what endures.
In that knowledge is wisdom.
Without it, ruin, disorder.

To know what endures
is to be openhearted,
following the Tao,
the way that endures forever.
The body comes to its ending,
but there is nothing to fear.

Posted by: Adam Piontek | May 6, 2007 7:41:41 AM

Mumon's Zen Warnings:
" To obey the rules and regulations is to tie yourself without a rope.
To act freely and without restraint is heresy and deviltry.
To be aware of the mind, making it pure and quiet, is the false Zen of silent illumination.
To arbitrarily ignore causal relations is to fall into a deep pitfall.
To abide in absolute awakening with no darkening is to wear chains with a yoke.
Thinking of good and evil is being in Heaven and Hell.
To have ideas about the Buddha and the Dharma is to be imprisoned inside two iron mountains.
Becoming aware of consciousness at the instant it arises is toying with the mind.
Practicing concentration in quiet sitting is an action of devils.
If you go forward, you will lose the essence. If you go back you oppose the truth. If you neither go forward nor back, you are a dead man breathing. Tell me now, what will you do? Make the utmost effort to attain realization completely in this life! Do not let yourself circulate karma forever."

Mumon's post script: "These remarks of mine are just like smearing milk on red soil. If you pass through the gateless gate, you make a fool of Mumon. If you are unable to pass through the gateless gate, you are turning your back on yourself. It is rather easy to realize the so-called nirvana mind, but it is difficult to make clear the wisdom of discrimination. If you realize the wisdom of discrimination, your land will be peaceful by itself."

Posted by: Mumon | May 6, 2007 8:06:15 AM

How uncomfortable and unsure it is to be an atheist!

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 6, 2007 9:19:57 AM

there are so many planes of existence, so many interworkings that we cannot understand, so many connections that extend beyond time and space...there are continuums and manifold existences within our existence at every waking and sleeping moment.
....i believe we all have a neshama. a soul...and there is an interconnection between all souls.
our physical selves are fragile and temporal shells to house our neshamas, until we have completed our journey and our soul moves through this dream, and this sphere.
our neshama is here to interact, to transform, to grow.
i believe we have been brought here to make choices for the good, to heal, to elevate other souls with love.
the failure to do so results in brokenness here...each act of kindness and love, elevates this sphere, and also expresses the holiness and purpose of our neshama on this journey.
.....make the learning and teaching here about love.
our perpetuity here in the holiest sense is about what we create and imprint with our love and goodness.
...this transforms, brings light, is never lost.

love and beauty.
it is all i remember of the dream.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 6, 2007 9:25:30 AM

Young dude: Who the heck wants to be ninety years old!??

Old Dude: The guy who's eighty nine.

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 6, 2007 9:30:08 AM

Fred Jones,
first thing I've ever liked that you posted!


Posted by: aimai | May 6, 2007 11:00:37 AM

How uncomfortable and unsure it is to be alive.

Posted by: Consumatopia | May 6, 2007 11:32:25 AM

If you can think of Self as...
A 'Story in The Telling' and then
Oneself as a 'Stakeholder'.

Just that -- you will find a clarity about a lot of
what seems -at first blush- to make little sense.

But the analogy works with current neuroscience, and very well.
Has implications for the forced birth 'discourse'.
And THAT one is ....One, is marvelous and altogether unique.
The phenomenon of You, truly can never happen, ever again.

No fully identical clone, fully refreshed to the instant (see B'Star Galactica) can be You for more than a nanosecond.

Fun stuff and strangely comforting.

Posted by: has_te | May 6, 2007 11:34:28 AM

I'm a young dude who came to the Fred's old dude perspective watching my grandfather in the last few years of his life. Even in the midst of tragic dementia, he still wanted to be alive--or perhaps, more accurately, he didn't want to be dead.

My grandmother, who's still alive with her wits about her, talks as though she has the young dude point of view. That's probably more about seeing your husband fade away than being old, though. That's a perspective that's beyond me and, with mercy, will always be so.

Posted by: Consumatopia | May 6, 2007 11:40:55 AM

Another thing I find oddly comforting is the view (which I wouldn't describe as proven, but which there is pretty good reason to believe) that our sense of "moving through time" is an illusion of sorts -- there's really just a bunch of individual moments stacked up along the axis of the temporal dimension, and it's not just the present moment but the entire four-dimensional spacetime world that actually exists. Or in other words, if you think of the world as a movie, it's not the case that the individual frames are moving, one by one, past some (metaphorical) light source that makes one moment at a time "real"; rather, it's just that, within each moment, we are (for obvious reasons) in a state of feeling that moment to be real.

So sure, I'll die; but I'm alive at other moments in spacetime (28 years worth so far, who knows how much more) and those moments don't lose any reality just because at other moments in the future I won't be alive.

Posted by: Christopher M | May 6, 2007 12:25:24 PM

Excellent post and comments.

Posted by: nolo | May 6, 2007 12:28:52 PM

Alternatively, of course, there is the possibility that nothing connects us to another moment -- that all memories are simply messages from a prior self, and that life is but a neverending cycle of instant death. To me, and this is probably where waggish goes with this, this shows the illusion of the self, rather than the immediacy of death

Posted by: R/W | May 6, 2007 1:09:31 PM

"how uncomfortable and unsure it is to be alive..."

consumatopia...here is a beautiful poem for you....


on the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

and when your eyes
freeze behind
the gray window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colors,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

when the canvas frays
in the curach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the stars
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

may the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

and so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

john o'donohue

Posted by: jacqueline | May 6, 2007 1:12:13 PM

"What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person."

-- George Orwell, "The Lion And The Unicorn"

Posted by: Martin | May 6, 2007 2:30:24 PM

There are three monsters that attack the thinking mind -- 1) the possibility that each momentary shift in consciousness, however slight, is death, so that death is but a moment away, that we live always as would a head the moment after it is removed by a guillotine, 2) the possibility that the sensations to which we attribute an internal life -- those of our loved ones -- are in fact hollow, and 3) the possibility that death is not the end of consciousness, and that we continue to live inside the box, but without the power to engage in willful movement. Once these are conquered, fully and finally, whether by reason or by a willful refusal to contemplate them further, the struggles of life, however ghastly, are fleeting and mundane. They cannot hurt you, and life can be lived with joy.

Posted by: R/W | May 6, 2007 4:37:25 PM

Thanks, Neil. I became utterly convinced of the correctness of the reductionist view of personal identity when I first read Parfit's book a few years back; it was quite a lightbulb moment. Whenever I try to explain this view to people, I find myself viewed as a rather pitiable and sad specimen, as many people find this view utterly dehumanizing; and yet I experience this view as utterly liberating. The blogosphere needs more Parfit blogging.

Posted by: djw | May 6, 2007 6:25:45 PM

Fred: What has atheism, or theism for that matter, to do with the Tao?

Posted by: Adam Piontek | May 6, 2007 8:11:17 PM

Thank you, jacqueline.

Posted by: Consumatopia | May 6, 2007 8:37:14 PM

This is pretty cool, but it doesn't help the fear of death for me very much.

I think what this view ignores is that the problem with death is that it's a stoppage of consciousness, not that it's a stoppage of personal identity. The view that identity is a chain of experiences is valid, as is the point in this quote, that these chains are not isolated, but are inter-connected with other chains. In this sense, it's correct to say that one's identity doesn't come to a halt at death, but ebbs away into many others' lives.

Nonetheless, my consciousness sure as hell doesn't stick around when I die. It might be selfish and irrational to value one's existence over one's personal identity - especially because existence without the continuity of personal identity that we feel normally would be hellish - but still, the idea that I, as the consciousness that experiences, will no longer be around at some point even if I, as the personal identity, in some sense gently fades out - it's still scary and shitty.

Posted by: conor | May 6, 2007 9:14:25 PM

I think the argument is that there is consciousness of some kind that persists after death (ignore universal death by entropy/black holes etc) and that all that need be overcome is the fixation on whether it is yours.
Don't get me wrong, I can see why this, too, might not be especially comforting. I think there is experiential obstacle to actually viewing this as an escape from (the fear of?) death. I am nonetheless open to the possibility that it is possible to have an experience that makes this reality as plain as the reality of a cessation of consciousness seems to be now.
Er, follow?

Posted by: R/W | May 6, 2007 9:24:01 PM

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