- The view that psychological continuity1 is necessary for personal identity remains popular in discussions of personal identity. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that this view currently constitutes orthodoxy. I shall call this view the Psychological Necessity Thesis, or PNT for short.
- In this paper I shall advance the following argument against the Psychological Necessity Thesis:
- (1) In some cases of death, what is left behind after the death is a dead person.
- (2) In at least some such cases, the dead person is not psychologically continuous with the earlier living person.
- (3) In such cases, the dead person is identical with the earlier living person. Therefore
- (4) Psychological continuity2 is not necessary for personal identity.
- What, if anything, is wrong with this Death Argument? I am not the first to claim that people can continue to exist, as corpses, after their deaths3. Yet this line of thought seems to have had little impact on the personal identity debate. It seems likely that the reason for this is that most philosophers believe that the idea of arguing from the case of death in this way is obviously misguided. My main aim in this paper is to show that that is not so. I shall consider in detail the various possible responses that might be made to the Death Argument, and explain why they fail. I conclude that the argument does, in fact, present a serious challenge to the Psychological Necessity Thesis.
- But since there are other, more familiar, arguments against PNT, it is worth explaining first why I think we ought to consider the Death Argument at all.
- One obvious reason is simply that proponents of the more familiar arguments have not yet succeeded in persuading the prominent defenders of PNT of the falsity of their view. Defenders of PNT believe that there may be responses to those more familiar arguments. In these circumstances, a new argument may strengthen the case against PNT.
- In addition, the Death Argument may have advantages over the more familiar arguments. Other arguments against PNT typically appeal either to imagined cases like the 'brain zap' and the case of brain- (or cerebrum-)4 removal, or to cases of coma or brain death5. These are claimed, by proponents of the arguments, to be cases of identity, or persistence, in the absence of psychological continuity6. But rightly or wrongly, many people tend to be suspicious of intuitions elicited by consideration of the imagined cases, mainly on the ground that we may not really know what would be involved; while there is at least some lack of clarity as to whether the cases of coma and brain death7 really involve psychological discontinuity. By contrast, death is a real phenomenon; and there are cases where it is quite uncontroversial both that the death of a person has occurred and that there is no one psychologically continuous with the earlier living person. That is not to say, of course, that there are no points of controversy here. In defending the Death Argument, I shall make two controversial claims:
But if, as I shall show, these claims can be defended, there will be no room for the objection that it is questionable whether I have really described a genuine case of psychological discontinuity, or that it is unclear what my case really involves. In that sense, at least, the Death Argument may present a clearer case than other more familiar arguments against PNT.
- first, that people can continue to exist after their deaths;
- secondly, that this fact has the significance I claim it has for the personal identity debate.
- Thirdly, my use of the Death Argument serves to draw an important distinction between different non-psychological views about personal identity. Some philosophers who reject PNT defend a view according to which continued life is necessary for the persistence of persons. Perhaps the most obvious example is Olson's 'biological approach8'. Like Olson, I accept Animalism9 – the view that we are human beings - and claim that since Animalism10 is true, PNT is false. But I reject Olson's positive account of our persistence conditions. Consideration of the Death Argument forces us to recognise that Animalists11 face a genuine choice between different accounts of the persistence conditions of human beings. The question what those conditions are has not been adequately debated in the literature, and there has been a tendency to assume that continued life is required. But, as I shall argue (especially in section VII), that assumption is quite unwarranted12.
- Finally, as I shall show in section IV, the most common response to the Death Argument betrays a serious confusion in the minds of many about what question it is that we are asking when we try to discover the criterion of personal identity over time. The easiest way to highlight, and clear up, this confusion is to examine the response in question, and show why it is inadequate. That provides an additional reason for considering this Death Argument
Footnote 8: See "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology".
- Judith Thomson is a prominent dissenter from the Psychological Necessity Thesis; she recognises that her own view that people are bodies commits her to the view that there are dead people who are identical with earlier living people; and she has argued that this commitment is unproblematic (see "Thomson (Judith Jarvis) - People and Their Bodies").
- Fred Feldman has published an extended defence of the view that people can continue to exist for a while after their deaths. He does not use the term 'psychological continuity', or relate his claims explicitly to the personal identity debate; but he considers, and rejects, criticisms of this view that are based on claims about the relevance of psychology to the persistence of persons; and it is clear that his own position must be that his views about death are inconsistent with PNT (see "Feldman (Fred) - Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death" (1992), ch. 6 – "Feldman (Fred) - The Survival of Death").
- And Eric Olson, though he himself rejects this view, mentions that many people believe that organisms can continue to exist, as corpses, after their deaths ("Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology", 1997, p. 119 – ie. in "Olson (Eric) - Are People Animals?").
- Note that the Death Argument can be regarded as a kind of temporal mirror image of the (perhaps more familiar) argument that, since foetuses are identical with, but not psychologically continuous with, later people, PNT is false (see, for example, "Carter (William) - Do Zygotes Become People?" (1982), "Olson (Eric) - Was I Ever a Fetus?" (1997), "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology" (1997, ch. 4 – "Olson (Eric) - Was I Ever a Fetus?")).
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