- In his recent book and earlier articles, Derek Parfit has made an impressive case for the truth of reductionism with respect to persons. Having strongly argued for this metaphysical thesis, Parfit goes on to suggest that it has normative implications. In particular, he claims that, once we are convinced of the truth of reductionism with respect to persons, we will see that "personal identity is not what matters1" (p. 217). What matters2, rather, is Relation R- psychological connectedness and continuity-and even that, he goes on to suggest, does not matter all that much. Thus, he thinks, once we are convinced of reductionism, our interest in particular persons will (or ought to) fade and be replaced by a weaker interest in particular R-related beings and a broader interest in humanity at large.
- "Reductionism" here refers to the view that "a person's existence just consists in the existence of a brain and body, and the occurrence of a series of interrelated physical and mental events" (p. 211). To find out whether a particular person exists, we may simply find out whether certain other facts hold, facts which can be stated without presupposing the existence of the person in question. Persons, then, are not separately existing entities, apart from their brains, bodies, and experiences. Their existence just consists in the existence of these brains, bodies, and experiences, related to each other in appropriate ways.
- Parfit's own brand of reductionism is exclusively psychological. That is, he believes that a person's identity does not necessarily involve the continued existence of a particular brain or body but only the existence of a certain sort of series of psychological events. The details of Parfit's version of reductionism is of less concern here, however, than the conclusions he draws from the truth of reductionism generally for the question of what matters3. According to Parfit, what matters4, both for personal identity and independently of it, are the relations of psychological con nectedness and continuity which together form the complex relation that he calls "Relation R."
- Psychological connectedness refers to the holding of direct connections between, say, the experiences of an individual at one time and the memories of an individual at a later time, or between the intentions of an individual at one time and the actions of an individual later. More boring, but no less important, connections include those between the beliefs and desires of an individual at one time and the (continued) beliefs and desires of an individual at a later time. Psychological continuity5 refers to the existence of overlapping chains of strong psychological connectedness. Psychological connectedness and/or continuity together make up Relation R which, to return to the earlier point, is what Parfit thinks ought to replace personal identity in our thinking about what matters6.
- Of course, the suggestion that there is some single thing that matters, be it personal identity or R-relatedness, is a false one, as Parfit himself acknowledges in at least some sections of his book. Still, at present we do express considerable concern about persons, and it is clear that Parfit thinks that reductionism implies that, strictly speaking, this concern is misplaced.
- Parfit has convinced me of reductionism with respect to persons. But I find that this conviction does not lessen the degree of my interest in persons a bit. For it seems to me that my reasons for being interested in persons never had much to do with my beliefs about their metaphysical composition in the first place. Changing these beliefs, then, naturally has very little effect on the strength of my interest.
- If not only my reasons but everyone's reasons for being interested in persons have little to do with beliefs about their metaphysical com position, what allows Parfit and many others to mistakenly think that they do? The mistake arises in part, I think, out of an ambiguity in the statement of the general question at issue. For the question, Does personal identity matter? is typically identified with the question, Is there reason to care whether some future person will be the same person as some present person? and this identification, despite its naturalness, is particularly misleading. By this formulation, the distinction between a request for justification of an interest in particular individuals and a request for justification of an interest in individuals who are, particularly, persons is apt to be overlooked.
- The waters are further muddied by the practice of taking as a paradigm of an interest in a particular person the interest that one typically has in oneself. By identifying, or nearly identifying, the question, Does personal identity matter? with the question, Why care about whether some future person will be me? Parfit and those who follow him encourage confusion and a certain amount of mystification, thus providing an intellectual environment in which metaphysics is at home.
Also in "Noonan (Harold), Ed. - Personal Identity (Readings)".
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