Precis of 'Identity, Consciousness and Value'
Unger (Peter)
Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 52, No. 1, Mar., 1992, pp. 133-137
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  1. While it concerns other large issues as well, a single question focuses the inquiry of this book: What is involved when an actual person, like me, survives until some future time, like a century from now? To this question, some seek a completely general answer. Even if Berkeley should be right and there is no physical reality, their (desired) answer is to inform us about our survival. Although pretty ambitious in the matter, I'm content to settle for a lot less than that. For me, it's enough to give an answer that articulates, along lines general enough to prove philosophically interesting, our deep beliefs about the conditions of our survival. There's a good reason for this: By disclosing our deep beliefs about our survival, I indirectly articulate what are, as we most deeply believe, some quite general conditions of our survival. How do I detect these deep beliefs? Doing informal psychology, I uncover them by noting people's responses to examples. But many examples have contexts where responses are misleading. And, even in revealing contexts, some examples promote responses that are best explained away, as arising from sources other than our deep beliefs about ourselves. Still, often, we may sensibly avoid all the pitfalls. In chapter 1, I describe and defend the aims and methods of the inquiry.
  2. After a lot of methodical looking, what do I find to answer our question about survival? First, some bad news: In chapter 2 I find that, despite their undeniable initial appeal, there's no lasting credibility in dualistic views and in subjective (or transcendental) views. In chapter 3 I find that the same holds for (ie. that despite their undeniable initial appeal, there's no lasting credibility in) the psychological approach, the governing paradigm that's dominated the literature for decades.
  3. Then, some good news: In chapter 4 I come upon the basis for a good answer, the physical approach, whose two key ideas are these:
    1. For your survival, the causal furtherance of your distinctive psychology is of no importance: Against the psychological approach, we may ignore your personal memories, your constellation of intentions, your peculiar character traits, and so on. All that counts is the causal furtherance of your core psychology: Consisting only of things like your capacity for conscious experience and your capacity for very simple reasoning, your psychological core is exactly like that of even the dullest amnesiac moron.
    2. For your survival, the way the core is causally furthered is all-important: For you to exist at some particular future time, there must be the sufficiently continuous physical realization of a core psychology between the physical realizer of your core now (your brain) and the physical realizer (whether brain or not) of someone's core psychology at that future time.
  4. What is meant by this continuous physical realization? Mainly, I tell you in three ways:
    1. First, and right from page one, I exhibit scads of helpful examples; both lots of positive cases and many negative ones.
    2. Second, in section 5 of this fourth chapter, I tell you about very high standards for, and about lower standards for, the attribution of psychological capacities to people. Unlike almost everywhere else in our context-sensitive discourse, here it is the everyday standards that are the higher ones, and the theoretical standards that are the lower. On high (everyday) standards, we say people in "irreversible" coma no longer have even their basic mental capacities; on the lower standards more appropriate to philosophizing, we attribute many mental capacities to these unfortunates.
    3. Third, in sections 7 to 11, I discuss four of the aspects of physical continuity2:
      → gradualness of material replacement,
      → constitutional cohesion,
      → systemic energy, and
      → physical complementarity.
    Rather than just explaining one technical idea by means of several others, these aspects are used to organize still further examples. In these three ways, you get quite a serviceable idea of physically continuous realization. As this idea fits well with a contextually sensitive semantics3, as shown in section 3, it is true to say that, for you to survive, there can't be any interruption in the physical realization of the central psychology that you now have.
  5. As our intuitions regarding myriad cases attest, this physical approach provides an answer that's better than the others currently on offer. Yet, as we notice in chapter 5, even when well-endowed with constraints against unwanted cases of branching, it is not quite good enough. Perhaps there are two troubles. A small trouble is that distinctive psychology never counts. More plausibly, a tiny loss in the core might be offset by physically good furtherance of loads of distinctive psychology. So, in moving toward the physically based approach, first we allow for such trade-offs.
  6. The big trouble concerns assimilation, the main focus of the fifth chapter. Toward your seeing this trouble, I'll actually present you with a couple of cases.
    1. First case: Suppose that four non-overlapping quarters of my brain are, in sequence, replaced by their respective "duplicates4," each replacement starting five minutes after the previous one was completed. Taking about one minute to occur, each replacement may itself be very gradual; only one percent of it's done during each successive half-second. Hence, in the original body, there's always at least 99.75% of a whole healthy brain. For good measure, assume that every step in the process is part of a "statistical miracle," uncaused by any (relevant) event. As part of this miracle, anything replaced is trashed. (By the miracle's end, all the brain matter in the skull is new stuff.) Finally, between replacements, an emerging person will think and act quite normally for about four minutes. Now, in this situation, there is a great deal of physically continuous realization even of all my psychology. Yet, as most intuitively respond, by the end of these minutes, I do not exist. Why is that?
    2. A second case suggests an answer: Suppose that the period between quarterly replacements is a full year; between replacements, an emerging person always will engage in much normal thought and action. As we respond to this case, I will survive.
    So, what's the difference between the two cases? Roughly, it's this: In the first case, further new realizing parts enter well before previous newcomers have done enough in my life. In the second case, well before I take on yet another of them, the earlier central additions have been assimilated into me.
  7. Now, the various factors of assimilation are themselves pretty complex matters, as chapter 5 details. But this proves no obstacle to the physically based account's being quite a good answer to the book's leading question, perhaps much better than the available alternatives.
  8. Related to the leading question, I address several other issues: As early as chapter 2, I articulate six metaphysical doctrines that, as I argue, underlie the appeal of transcendental views, and of dualistic views, of our survival. The three most appealing of these concern conscious experience:
    • (1a) Experience is all-or-none.
    • (2a) Experience is completely private to a single subject.
    • (3a) Experience is absolutely indivisible.
    Deriving appeal partly from their connection with these doctrines are three others, concerning the subjects that experience:
    • (1b) A subject is all-or-none.
    • (2b) A subject is completely separate.
    • (3b) A subject is absolutely indivisible.
    By confronting them with numerous thought-experiments5, in chapter 6 the appeal of these doctrines is dispelled: Insofar as there is any truth in the displayed sentences, that is owing to conventions of language, or to certain unproblematically natural facts, or to a combination of the two. Briefly, the most positive results of the encounter are these: We subjects ourselves are wholly objective entities, mainly or wholly physical, and our experiences are wholly objective processes, mainly or wholly physical. Moreover, in an important sense, we are conventionally demarcated entities, and our experiences are conventionally demarcated processes.
  9. Drawing on material from the first six chapters, in the last three the focus is on some main questions of our broad ego-centric values: As argued in chapter 7, by itself my survival has no value. Rather, it is a pre-condition of certain things that I (rationally) value, like my leading a long happy life. Equally, my survival is a pre-condition of certain things that I (rationally) disvalue, like my being severely tortured for the next ten years. Similarly, my son's survival is a pre-condition of certain of my other broad ego-centric values, like his leading a long happy life. Partly owing to confusions about all this, and partly owing to confusions over various uses of expressions like "what matters6 in survival," strange views have recently dominated the discussion about the relation between (strict) survival and our values. Against these views, I argue for a realistic compromise view of what matters7
    1. In the relevant prudential use of the term, "what matters8," what matters9 in a given person's survival basically is only that the person himself will still exist.
    2. Also, certain continuities do matter, but they matter only derivatively.
    3. Now, as happens in the middle of certain physically well-based spectra of examples, these continuities may have great independent importance: Regarding what matters10, some of these cases of non-survival are "pretty nearly as good as" cases of strict survival itself.
    4. But, this derivative independent importance will never be as great as that basic importance: Concerning what matters11 in survival, any case that lacks strict survival will be worse than every case in which the person himself does survive. Closing with an argument from a spectrum of assimilation, the case for this view is multi-faceted.
  10. Chapter 8 starts with a clarifying discussion of fission. Because the existing literature on these matters appears nearly as confused as it is engaging, such a discussion is worth some effort. Anyway, increased clarity yields a double payoff:
    1. First, even as we find it's not (determinately) true that one survives fission, we find yet more reason to endorse the realistic compromise view of what matters12.
    2. More important, we uncover a previously unnoticed basic (pre-condition of) broad ego-centric value: the focus of a person's life.
  11. In the final chapter, I undertake an appreciation of our actual values. Because you are pretty normal, among your strongest (broad ego-centric) values are these:
    1. Certain particular people – you yourself, your lover, your children – should lead long and pleasant lives of a certain complex character.
    2. In your life, you should have close personal (developing) relations with these people, not changing (mid-stream) to precisely similar relations with precise duplicates13 of them.
    3. Further, and as is pretty obvious, you should have pleasant and interesting conscious experience.
    4. Less obvious, this experience should not just happen to give you an accurate idea of what is actually going on between you and your loved ones. Rather, much of this conscious experience should be experience of those people, and experience of your intentional behavior with regard to them, and experience of the effects of your actions upon them, and experience of their resulting behavior toward you, and so on.
  12. For these values to be fulfilled, it is argued, there must hold, between the active lives in the world and your own conscious experience, the "right sorts" of causal relations. Now, while we'll allow some slack about which causes count as being of the right sorts, still, as further arguments show, we're pretty inflexible in this regard. By contrast, and as still further reasoning shows, we don't require that sublime metaphysical ideas be satisfied: Quite rightly, we regard these strong values as very well fulfilled even if the world should be wholly deterministic - with no transcendental free will, and, more to the main topic, even if the world should be fully physical - with no immaterial souls.

Comment:

Symposium on "Unger (Peter) - Identity, Consciousness and Value".



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