Why I Have No Future
Strawson (Galen)
Source: The Philosophers' Magazine (Issue ?? Appeared on TPM On-Line on 21st December 2007)
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. If, in any normal, non-depressed period of life, I ask myself whether I’d rather be alive than dead tomorrow morning, and completely put aside the fact that some people would be unhappy if I were dead, I find I have no preference either way. The fact that I’m trying to finish a book, or about to go on holiday, or happy, or in love, or looking forward to something, makes no difference. More specifically: when I put this question to myself and suppose that my death is going to be a matter of instant annihilation, completely unexperienced, completely unforeseen, it seems plain to me that I – the human being that I am now, GS – would lose nothing. My future life or experience doesn’t belong to me in such a way that it’s something that can be taken away from me. It can’t be thought of as possession in that way. To think that it’s something that can be taken away from me is like thinking that life could be deprived of life, or that something is taken away from an existing piece of string by the fact that it isn’t longer than it is. It’s just a mistake, like thinking that Paris is the capital of Argentina.
  2. I’ll call this view No Ownership of the Future – NOF for short. Most will think it absurd, and I don’t expect to be able to change their minds. A few, though, will know immediately what I mean and think it obvious. It’s worth noting that it can take some effort to imagine one’s imminent death in a vivid way and at the same time imagine that it’s completely unforeseen, so that life is absolutely normal up to the moment of annihilation. (There is no fear, no suffering. Nothing bad is experienced.)
  3. NOF isn’t a position taken up after reflection on Epicurus’s famously unsatisfying argument that death is not an evil. This, briefly, has two parts: [1] You don’t mind that that you didn’t exist for an eternity before you were born, so you shouldn’t mind if you don’t exist for an eternity after you’re dead, [2] there’s no one there after death to experience harm, so no harm is done to anyone, so death is not a harm.
  4. In the case of people like myself, NOF is a natural, untutored, pre-philosophical given. It’s compatible with fear of death, which I feel, and it has nothing to do with Epicurus’s argument, which is meant to be a palliative or cure for fear of death. It isn’t meant to make anyone feel better about death, much as I would like to. It’s just a report of what I find I think/feel.


For a write-up, Click here for Note

Write-up1 (as at 23/12/2007 21:11:31): Strawson - Why I Have No Future

This write-up is a very brief review and commentary on "Strawson (Galen) - Why I Have No Future".

Galen Strawson argues for what he calls the NOF (No Ownership of the Future). This is the view that if we suffer a sudden and painless death2 of which we are unaware, we suffer no wrong and no loss. Or at least, that nothing is taken away from us. We leave a gap, which causes others to grieve, but not on our account.

Strawson claims that this view is unconnected to another view he holds – an Episodic as against a Diachronic view of the Self3 (where the Self is distinguished from the human being4). He doesn’t think that the Self persists.

His argument for the NOF is a simple appeal to no-ownership. He thinks this claim does not rest on a 4-D account of persistence, though he thinks the intuition is even stronger on a perdurantist5 view.

I disagree with him on both these issues. I think the self does persist, even though human beings are the ultimate persistents that host selves. I hold a continuity6 rather than connectedness7 view of the persistence of selves. That the self persists is central to all our planning for the future. I agree with Baker on the criticality of the first-person8 perspective, and if this persists continuously (though with regular unconscious intermissions), then we have full concern for our future self, even if viewed from the perspective of psychological connectedness, the future self has a lot of different intensional properties from the present one. I disagree with Parfit’s9 claims that we have a lesser concern for our more remote self, which depend on a connectedness view.

Strawson nowhere seems to consider how we actually run our lives prudentially. We deny ourselves present goods in order to enjoy greater future goods. If we have made these sacrifices, and are then terminated so that we never receive the expected benefits, then we have suffered a loss. Not of something that we possessed, but something that (in the statistical sense) we had a right to expect. The fact that Strawson takes an Episodic view of the self may make him unconcerned about the future of an unrelated self. Yet, does he in fact act this way – does he live this belief – or does he act as though his self will persist. Maybe he would think that anything done purely for a future (selfish) end is irrational, but can he live rationally by his own lights?

This isn’t the only issue. Strawson raises the case of young children, who have presumably only lived for the day. They have not made prudential sacrifices for their future. It is still a loss that their lives are terminated, but maybe only for their parents, or society as a whole, which have made the investment in their production.

I also think that there is a coherent concept of the expectation-value of future goods, which one is deprived of if one’s life is terminated prematurely, however abruptly and unbeknownst to one. The fact that one will never be aware of this harm doesn’t mean that one has not suffered it.

I found Strawson’s thoughts on perdurantism obscure. He didn’t actually use that term, but referred to the relativistic “block universe”. I’m not sure that the two views are equivalent. Again, he considers “ownership” and doubted that one part of a 4-D object can own another part of that object. He made an analogy with a part of a 3-D piece of string not owning another part. Yet, I certainly feel as though I own my left leg, and would feel a loss if it was taken from me. However, I’m not sure Strawson has the analogy right. On a 4-D view, that potential temporal part of me that was in fact “cut off” was never a part of the 4-D me. It only belonged to one of my counterparts in another possible world.

This will receive further consideration10 in due course.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:
  • This is the write-up as it was when this Abstract was last output, with text as at the timestamp indicated (23/12/2007 21:11:31).
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