Personal Identity
Martin (Raymond) & Barresi (John), Eds.
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  1. Personal Identity brings together the most important readings on personal identity theory in a collection ideal for students, philosophers, and all other interested readers.
  2. The volume begins with a detailed introductory historical essay by the editors, which traces the evolution of personal identity theory in the West from classical Greece to the twentieth century. It also describes how, in the early 1970s, philosophers shifted their attention from the ′internal relations′ view of personal identity to an ′external relations′ view that explores, among other considerations, what matters1 in survival.
  3. The essays that follow are delineated by this twentieth–century philosophical shift.
    • The first section features seminal papers by such luminaries as Bernard Williams, Derek Parfit2, Robert Nozick, and David Lewis. These are the very scholars that were involved in initiating the revolution in personal identity theory.
    • The second section features papers by Christine Korsgaard, Peter Unger, Ernest Sosa, Raymond Martin, Marya Schechtman, Mark Johnston, and Derek Parfit3 that focus primarily on the new question of survival.
    • Finally, a recent paper on animalism4 by Eric Olson and one on the self by Galen Strawson indicate new directions in which further discussion might continue.
  4. Reviews:
    • This volume gathers together important essays from two generations of debate concerning the problem of personal identity. Does identity matter as much as survival? Is survival based on psychological continuity5 or on the animal body? Does the self last through a lifetime, or for much shorter periods of time? Should ethical issues about personhood constrain our metaphysical conceptions of the person? The editors provide a historical framework that places all of these questions in clear perspective.
      → Shaun Gallagher, Canisius College, Buffalo, New York
    • A balanced and stimulating anthology, capped by a valuable historical survey of the issues. It′s a natural for either primary or secondary class readings.
      → Stephen Braude, University of Maryland Baltimore County
    • This volume is a balanced collection of important contemporary essays on personal identity. The editors’ detailed historical overview provides a useful context for the essays. Overall, the book will be an excellent text for graduate and upper–level undergraduate courses, as well as a convenient resource for professional philosophers.
      → Lynne Rudder Baker, University of Massachusetts–Amherst

Amazon Customer6 Review
  1. My main problem with this book is that it is no up-to-date and contains little novelty. Personal identity is a perplexing and hot area in contemporary philosophy; and not only perplexing but also great fun. Compared to this, there are remarkably few textbooks on this important research. In fact there had only been two notable textbooks on personal identity until this one has been published: one by John Perry7 (which, in my view, concentrated too much on the history of personal identity rather than on contemporary theories), and one by A.O. Rorty8, which was great in its time, but is now obsolete.
  2. Does this book carry out its aim? I have to say not. Some of the writings are too well-known for everyone, others are brutally cut, and others just don't meet the standards to get in a textbook. I find it most easy to comment the texts piece by piece.
    • 0. Introduction. This one annoyed me. I simply don't care about the theory of personal identity9, especially not in 70 pages, which could have been filled with two contemporary texts.
    • 1-4. Williams', Nozick's, Parfit10's and Lewis's contributions: These are great texts, and are classics of the topic. The problem is that they are too well-known to everyone, and - most annoying - all of them are excerpts except Williams's one. I hate excerpts; I don't like it when someone else decides which parts of the text are important. Hence, these texts are useless for reference: you have to get the original ones.
    • 5. Korsgaard (excerpt) : Korsgaard argues against Parfit11 and says that persons are unified agents; so she wants to replace the 'Humean' concept of persons with a 'Kantian' one. She takes a so-called practical not metaphysical point of view. Though there are some good ideas in this article, I think it's unjustified to suppose that there is a sharp borderline between the practical and the metaphysical questions of personal identity. One cannot handle metaphysical problems by simply neglecting them.
    • 6. Unger: He argues that fission (when an imagined person splits in two like an amoeba) is worse than ordinary survival. I think his arguments are not sound, but - since, of course, it's an excerpt from his book again - the reader cannot judge.
    • 7. Sosa: This is a cutting-edge chapter in this book! Sosa defends the so-called 'neoconservative view' that personal identity - strict, numerical identity - does matter (Parfit12 believes it doesn't.) Unfortunately this is an excerpt again, a good one, nonetheless.
    • 8. Martin: A solid writing again. Martin argues against the neoconservative view described above. He introduces a new thought experiment13 which is immune to objections posed against the 'fission case'. I think he fails to prove his thesis, but the paper is still insightful and clever.
    • 9. Schechtmann: An excerpt again, and in my view, it's not very good. Her approach resembles Korsgaard's one: looking at the practical, everyday concept of identity instead of the metaphysical problem. I think she goes in the wrong direction, and misuses identity for cases which are problematic only for her.
    • 10. Johnston: He argues against Parfit14's reductionism: the thesis that a person is nothing over and above his his brain and body. Johnston writes clearly, but this article is quite complicated and sometimes is hard to follow. I think that he begs questions about important issues.
    • 11. Parfit15: In this newer (1995) paper Parfit16 defends the view elaborated in his Reasons and Persons. There is nothing really new here except an interesting classification of kinds of reductionism. Yet worth reading.
    • 12. Olson: A very clear and cutting-edge paper. Briefly, it's a short summary of the arguments presented in his great 'The Human Animal17'. If you want to know animalism18 better, you should read that book anyway, but this article is a good introduction. Olson is an animalist19, so his approach is radically different from anyone else's in this textbook. He thinks that psychology is irrelevant to personal identity at all.
    • 13. Galen Strawson: I admit that I can say nothing about this long article because I don't understand it. Strawson sketches a new picture of the self but that's all I learnt from this text. It's very ambiguous and is simply beyond my cognitive limits20.
  3. All in all: there are some good articles in this book, but they are not new. And there are new ones, but they are (with some exceptions) not good. Furthermore, this book doesn't show the width and scope of contemporary debates on personal identity, because it's desperately biased in favour of psychological theories. If you search for a good introduction to contemporary debates on personal identity, this book is not for you.

In-Page Footnotes ("Martin (Raymond) & Barresi (John), Eds. - Personal Identity")

Footnote 6: Naturally, this is not by me, but I agree with most of its sentiments.

Footnote 7: See "Perry (John), Ed. - Personal Identity".

Footnote 8: See "Rorty (Amélie Oksenberg), Ed. - The Identities of Persons".

Footnote 9: Well, I do, and this may be the most valuable part of the book, as the texts are mostly available elsewhere.

Footnote 17: See "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology".

Footnote 20: I’ve not read the paper, but I know what he means!


Blackwell Publishing, 2003

"Johnston (Mark) - Human Concerns without Superlative Selves"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 8


"Korsgaard (Christine) - Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit"

Source: Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Spring, 1989), pp. 101-132

Author’s Introduction1
  1. A person is both active and passive, both an agent and a subject of experiences. Utilitarian and Kantian2 moral philosophers, however, characteristically place a different emphasis on these two aspects of our nature. The utilitarian emphasizes the passive side of our nature, our capacity to be pleased or satisfied, and is concerned with what happens to us. The Kantian emphasizes our agency, and is concerned with what we do. Alternatively, we may say that the utilitarian focuses first on persons as objects of moral concern, and asks, "what should be done for them?" whereas the Kantian addresses the moral agent, who is asking, "what should I do?"
  2. One might think that this can only be a difference of emphasis. Any acceptable moral philosophy must take both sides of our nature into account, and tell us both how people ought to be treated and what we ought to do. Yet the difference of emphasis can lead to substantive moral disagreement. Kantians believe in what are sometimes called "agent-centered" restrictions, obligations which are independent of the value of the outcomes they produce. Even when thinking of persons as objects of moral concern, the Kantian is more likely to focus on agency. The question "what should be done for them?" is answered, roughly, by "they should be given the freedom to make their own choices, and to do things for themselves." Rawls believes that asking the agentless "what should be done for them?" leads to distortion in the utilitarian view of moral and political decision. The idea that burdens for some people can be justified simply by benefits to others "arises from the conception of individuals as separate lines for the assignment of benefits, as isolated persons who stand as claimants on an administrative or benevolent largess. Occasionally persons do so stand to one another; but this is not the general case." When persons are viewed as agents who are making agreements with one another, this way of looking at their relations is not the natural one.
  3. Of course the utilitarian claims to take agency into account. He acknowledges that persons do not just want things to be done for them but want to do things; he can argue, with Mill, that persons should be free to make their own choices because it makes them happy. The utilitarian regards agency as an important form of experience; he includes actions and activities among the things that happen to us. This is characteristic of the empiricist tradition in which utilitarianism has its roots, and is nowhere more evident than when Hume writes: "I desire it may be observ'd, that by the will, I mean nothing but the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind." Hume here identifies the will not with our power to initiate action, but with the feeling we experience when we exercise that power.
  4. And of course our actions and activities are among the things we experience. But in an equally undeniable sense, having experiences is among the things that we do. Activity and passivity are aspects of our nature, not parts, and each can be reduced to a form of the other. I will argue, however, that from a moral point of view it is important not to reduce agency to a mere form of experience. It is important because our conception of what a person is depends in a deep way on our conception of ourselves as agents. My argument is directed against the views about personal identity advanced by Derek Parfit3 in "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons". I believe that Parfit4's arguments depend on viewing the person primarily as a locus of experience, and agency as a form of experience. If we regard persons primarily as agents, we will reach different conclusions both about the nature of personal identity and about its moral implications.

Author’s Conclusion5=1
  1. Some of the discussion of Parfit6's work has revolved around the question whether we can, or even should, use a morally neutral, metaphysical conception of the person to support one moral theory over others. I believe that the answer depends on what "morally neutral" is taken to mean. When we say a conception is morally neutral, we may mean that it is constructed without regard to the fact that we are going to employ it in moral thinking; or we may mean that it is constructed without prior dependence on any particular moral theory. I see no point in being neutral with respect to the purposes of moral thinking, nor do I see that metaphysics achieves that kind of neutrality any better than, say, psychoanalysis or biology. On the other hand, if we are to find a basis for deciding among competing moral theories, an initial neutrality with respect to particular theories might be worth having. But Parfit7's conception of the person does not have this kind of moral neutrality.
  2. According to Parfit8, utilitarians disagree with those who insist on compensation and other distributive values because utilitarians think that the question "to whom does it happen?" is like the question "when does it happen?" They regard both of these as "mere differences in position" (340). Reductionism supports this parallel between the two questions because the Reductionist holds that an impersonal description of life is possible. Persons can be said to exist, but, according to Parfit9, "this is true only because we describe our lives by ascribing thoughts and actions to people" (341). It is a matter of grammatical convenience. Therefore "it becomes more plausible, when thinking morally, to focus less upon the person, the subject of experiences, and instead to focus more upon the experiences themselves" (341).
  3. So Parfit10 thinks that Reductionism supports the thesis that the quality of experiences is what matters, and so supports a utilitarian theory of value. But I believe instead that Parfit11 has assumed this theory of value from the start. The metaphysical argument about whether a person is a separately existing subject of experiences, or merely a stream of experiences with no separately existing subject, is preceded by an essentially moral assumption – the assumption that life is a series of experiences, and so that a person is first and foremost a locus of experiences. If you begin with the view that a person is a subject of experiences, and take away the subject, you are indeed left with nothing but experiences. But you will begin with that view only if you assume from the start that having experiences is what life is all about.
  4. This assumption dictates the reduction of agency to a mere form of experience which I described at the beginning of this article. That is, it involves regarding our actions and activities as among the things that happen to us, and so, once the subject is removed, as simply among the things that happen. Because they regard doings as mere happenings, Parfit12 and other utilitarians suppose that the question "who does it?" is like the question "to whom does it happen?": according to them, it is merely a question about position. But from the deliberative standpoint our relationship to our actions and our lives is not merely one of position. It is essential to us that our actions are our own, and we regard living our lives as something that we do.
  5. Unless persons are separately existing entities, Parfit13 supposes, the ascription of actions to people is a matter of mere grammatical convenience. The Kantian reply is that neither metaphysics nor grammar is the basis for such ascriptions. Rather, the conception of ourselves as agents is fundamental to the standpoint of practical reason, the standpoint from which choices are made. And it is from this standpoint that we ask moral questions, and seek help from moral philosophy. This makes the conception of the agent, along with its unity, an appropriate one to employ in moral thinking. In fact, it is from the standpoint of practical reason that moral thought and moral concepts – including the concept of the person – are generated.


In-Page Footnotes ("Korsgaard (Christine) - Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit")

Footnotes 1, 5:
  • Footnotes omitted from the Introduction and Conclusion.

"Lewis (David) - Survival and Identity"

Source: Lewis - Philosophical Papers Volume I, Part 1: Ontology, Chapter 5

Oxford Scholarship Online
  1. Prompted by Derek Parfit1's early work on personal identity, Lewis advances the view that persons are best regarded as suitably related aggregates of person-stages. Parfit2 argues that what matters3 in survival is either identity or mental continuity and connectedness; that the two cannot both be what matters4 in survival (because the former is a one-one relation and does not admit of degree, whereas the latter can admit of degree and may be a one-many or many-one relation); and that what matters5 in survival is not identity.
  2. Contra Parfit6, Lewis contends that the opposition is a false one, since it obscures the fact that mental continuity and connectedness is a relation between two person-stages (i.e., time-slices of continuant persons), whereas identity is a relation between temporally extended continuant persons with stages at different times.
  3. The postscript includes both Lewis’ rejoinder to Parfit7's objections, as well as a further defense of person-stages.

  1. Photocopy filed in "Various - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 09 (L)";
  2. Also in:-
  3. For Notes, see "Funkhouser (Eric) - Notes on Lewis, 'Survival and Identity'".

"Martin (Raymond) - Fission Rejuvenated"

Source: Martin & Barresi - Personal Identity, Chapter 8

COMMENT: Originally published in Philosophical Studies 80 (1995), pp. 17-40.

"Martin (Raymond) & Barresi (John) - Personal Identity and What Matters In Survival: An Historical Overview"

Source: Martin & Barresi - Personal Identity, Introduction

  1. Introduction
  2. Plato
  3. Aristotle
  4. Lucretius
  5. The Patristic Period
  6. Plotinus
  7. Augustine
  8. The Rise of Scholasticism
  9. Thomas Aquinas
  10. The Renaissance
  11. Descartes
  12. Leibniz
  13. Locke1
  14. Samuel Clarke and Anthony Collins
  15. Joseph Butler
  16. Hume
  17. Thomas Reid2
  18. William Hazlitt
  19. Kant
  20. William James

In-Page Footnotes ("Martin (Raymond) & Barresi (John) - Personal Identity and What Matters In Survival: An Historical Overview")

Footnote 1: This includes a large excerpt from "Locke (John) - Of Identity and Diversity".

Footnote 2: Including extracts from "Reid (Thomas) - Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (I & II)" & "Reid (Thomas) - Of Mr. Locke's Account of Our Personal Identity".

"Nozick (Robert) - Personal Identity Through Time"

Source: Nozick - Philosophical Explanations - Metaphysics; The Identity of the Self; Chapter 1.I

  • The Closest Continuer1 Theory
  • The Theory Applied
  • Overlap
  • Structuring Philosophical Concepts
  • Problem Cases
  • Ties and Caring


"Olson (Eric) - An Argument for Animalism"

Source: Martin & Barresi - Personal Identity, Chapter 12

Author’s Introduction
  1. The view that we are human animals1, "animalism2", is deeply unpopular. This paper explains what that claim says and why it is so contentious.
  2. It then argues that those who deny it face an awkward choice. They must either
    • deny that there are any human animals3,
    • deny that human animals4 can think, or
    • deny that we are the thinking things located where we are.

COMMENT: For Notes, see "Funkhouser (Eric) - Notes on Olson, 'An Argument for Animalism'".

"Parfit (Derek) - The Unimportance of Identity"

Source: Harris - Identity - Essays Based on Herbert Spencer Lectures Given in the University of Oxford

Author’s Introduction (Full Text)
  1. We can start with some science fiction. Here on Earth, I enter the Teletransporter. When I press some button, a machine destroys my body, while recording the exact states of all my cells. The information is sent by radio to Mars, where another machine makes, out of organic materials, a perfect copy of my body. The person who wakes up on Mars seems to remember living my life up to the moment when I pressed the button, and he is in every other way just like me.
  2. Of those who have thought about such cases, some believe that it would be I who would wake up on Mars. They regard Teletransportation as merely the fastest way of travelling. Others believe that, if I chose to be Teletransported, I would be making a terrible mistake. On their view, the person who wakes up would be a mere Replica of me.

First Two Pages of Section I (Full Text1)
  1. That is a disagreement about personal identity. To understand such disagreements, we must distinguish two kinds of sameness. Two white billiard balls may be qualitatively identical, or exactly similar. But they are not numerically identical, or one and the same ball. If I paint one of these balls red, it will cease to be qualitatively identical with itself as it was; but it will still be one and the same ball. Consider next a claim like, 'Since her accident, she is no longer the same person'. That involves both senses of identity. It means that she, one and the same person, is not now the same person. That is not a contradiction. The claim is only that this person's character has changed. This numerically identical person is now qualitatively different.
  2. When psychologists discuss identity, they are typically concerned with the kind of person someone is, or wants to be. That is the question involved, for example, in an identity crisis. But, when philosophers discuss identity, it is numerical identity they mean. And, in our concern about our own futures, that is what we have in mind. I may believe that, after my marriage, I shall be a different person. But that does not make marriage death. However much I change, I shall still be alive if there will be someone living who will be me. Similarly, if I was Teletransported, my Replica on Mars would be qualitatively identical to me; but, on the sceptic's view, he wouldn't be me. I shall have ceased to exist. And that, we naturally assume, is what matters2.
  3. Questions about our numerical identity all take the following form. We have two ways of referring to a person, and we ask whether these are ways of referring to the same person. Thus we might ask whether Boris Nikolayevich is Yeltsin. In the most important questions of this kind, our two ways of referring to a person pick out a person at different times. Thus we might ask whether the person to whom we are speaking now is the same as the person to whom we spoke on the telephone yesterday. These are questions about identity over time.
  4. To answer such questions, we must know the criterion of personal identity: the relation between a person at one time, and a person at another time, which makes these one and the same person.
  5. Different criteria have been advanced. On one view, what makes me the same, throughout my life, is my having the same body. This criterion requires uninterrupted bodily continuity. There is no such continuity between my body on Earth and the body of my Replica on Mars; so, on this view, my Replica would not be me. Other writers appeal to psychological continuity3. Thus Locke claimed that, if I was conscious of a past life in some other body, I would be the person who lived that life. On some versions of this view, my Replica would be me.
  6. Supporters of these different views often appeal to cases where they conflict. Most of these cases are, like Teletransportation, purely imaginary. Some philosophers object that, since our concept of a person rests on a scaffolding of facts, we should not expect this concept to apply in imagined cases where we think those facts away. I agree. But I believe that, for a different reason, it is worth considering such cases. We can use them to discover, not what the truth is, but what we believe. We might have found that, when we consider science fiction cases, we simply shrug our shoulders. But that is not so. Many of us find that we have certain beliefs about what kind of fact personal identity is.


In-Page Footnotes ("Parfit (Derek) - The Unimportance of Identity")

Footnote 1:

"Parfit (Derek) - Why Our Identity is Not What Matters (Excerpts)"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, Excerpts

  • Introduction (Teletransportation)
  • 75. Simple Teletransportation and the Branch-Line Case
  • 79. The Other Views
  • 87. Divided Minds
  • 88. What Explains the Unity of Consciousness?
  • 89. What Happens When I Divide?
  • 90. What Matters2 When I Divide?
  • 91. Why There is No Criterion of Identity that can Meet Two Plausible Requirements

In-Page Footnotes ("Parfit (Derek) - Why Our Identity is Not What Matters (Excerpts)")

Footnote 1:

"Schechtman (Marya) - Empathic Access: The Missing Ingredient in Personal Identity"

Source: Martin & Barresi - Personal Identity, Chapter 9

Introduction (Full Text)
  1. Although substance-based views of personal identity still have adherents, psychologically-based accounts have achieved an undeniable prominence in contemporary analytic philosophy. Support for these views comes chiefly from thought experiments1 and puzzle cases. These cases are limited only by the imaginations of the philosophers who have offered them, and take a dazzling variety of forms. One important distinction to be drawn is between those cases which imagine a wholesale movement of a psychological life from one body to another and those which depict partial psychological change taking place within the scope of a single human life. The former category includes John Locke’s prince who "enters and informs" the body of a cobbler, as well as the teleportation, brain rejuvenation, and brain transplant2 cases found in more modem authors. The latter includes cases based on real-life situations (e.g. conversion, amnesia, brainwashing, dementia) as well as science fiction scenarios (e.g. involving evil neurosurgeons who can manipulate the brain to change traits or psychological states at will).
  2. These two types of cases play somewhat different roles within the discussion of personal identity. The first is used essentially to show that personal identity should be defined in terms of psychological rather than physical features. The second supports this case (by showing that the right kind or degree of psychological change within a human life threatens identity), but it also speaks to the more complicated question of what psychological continuation involves. Cases in which a person’s psychological life moves intact to a new venue make a good case for the claim that between body and mental life it is the continuation of mental life which is required for personal continuation, but fall short of telling us exactly what this entails. It is too much to require the exact preservation of psychological makeup for personal identity, since this is something we virtually never encounter. People do change in their beliefs, desires, character traits and values, and this does not usually imply a change of identity3.
  3. A theorist who wishes to define personal identity in terms of psychological continuation thus needs to tell us what "psychological continuation means, and this requires, among other things, specifying the degree and kind of psychological change that is permissible. A psychological account of identity must, that is, define the difference between ordinary personal development and identity-destroying psychological discontinuity. There have been two main attempts to offer such a definition in the literature: psychological continuity4 theories and narrative accounts. In what follows will argue that neither is adequate to capturing this crucial distinction, at least with respect to one important class of thought experiments5. With respect to the intuitions generated by these thought experiments6, I claim, both psychological continuity7 theories and narrative views leave out a necessary ingredient which I call "empathic access."
  4. I begin with a description of the class of thought experiments8 on which I will focus, offering two as representatives for further discussion, and briefly describing their importance in the discussion of personal identity and personal survival. I then show how the standard psychological accounts fail to capture the intuitions generated by these examples, and diagnose their failure by introducing the concept of empathic access. After further definition of empathic access and a sketch of some of the work which will be needed to develop the concept further, I conclude by discussing the broader goal of providing a viable psychological account of personal survival.

In-Page Footnotes ("Schechtman (Marya) - Empathic Access: The Missing Ingredient in Personal Identity")

Footnote 3: The issues involved in the dispute over whether identity is required for survival are tangential to those discussed here, and I wish to remain agnostic on them. I will thus use the terms “personal identity” and “personal survival” interchangeably. Wherever I have used “identity”, however, “survival” could be substituted.

"Sosa (Ernest) - Surviving Matters"

Source: Martin & Barresi - Personal Identity, Chapter 7

  • Life may turn sour and, in extremis, not worth living. On occasion it may be best, moreover, to lay down one's life for a greater cause. None of this is any news, debatable though it may remain, in general or case by case. Now comes the news that life does not matter in the way we had thought. No resurgence of existentialism, nor tidings from some ancient religion or some new cult, the news derives from the most sober and probing philosophical argument (the extraordinary Parfit1, 1984, Part III), and takes more precisely the following form:
      The Paradox. Even though life L is optimal (in all dimensions), and even though if it were extended L would continue to be optimal, it does not follow that it is best to extend it, even for the subject whose life L is.
    What is the argument?
  • Section II will defend a certain view of the nature of persons and personal identity, and Section III will then argue for the Paradox on that basis, and reflect on its philosophical implications and on the options it presents.

  • We set out from two assumptions:
    1. One is not a soul, one' s existence does not consist in the existence of any soul, and one's perdurance does not consist in the perdurance of any soul.
    2. One is not any body or collection of particles, one's existence does not consist in the existence of any body or collection of particles, and one's perdurance does not consist in the perdurance of any body or collection of particles.
  • Thesis 1 is often defended through epistemological arguments. Elsewhere I oppose these but propose other arguments ("Sosa (Ernest) - Subjects Among Other Things", 1987).
  • Thesis 2 is made plausible through the importance of psychological continuity2 for personal identity, and through the fact that the body itself will stand in a supervenience3 or dependence relation to yet more fundamental entities. ("Sosa (Ernest) - Subjects Among Other Things", 1987, contains discussion and defense of both theses.)


"Strawson (Galen) - The Self"

Source: Martin & Barresi - Personal Identity, Chapter 13

Author’s Introduction (Full Text)
  1. The substantival phrase ‘the self’ is very unnatural in most speech contexts in most languages, and some conclude from this that it's an illusion to think that there is such a thing as the self, an illusion that arises from nothing more than an improper use of language. This, however, is implausible. People are not that stupid. The problem of the self doesn't arise from an unnatural use of language which arises from nowhere. On the
    contrary: use of a phrase like ‘the self’ arises from a prior and independent sense that there is such a thing as the self. The phrase may be unusual in ordinary speech; it may have no obvious direct translation in many languages. Nevertheless all languages have words which lend themselves naturally to playing the role that ‘the self’ plays in English, however murky that role may be. The phrase certainly means something to most people. It has a natural use in religious, philosophical, and psychological contexts, which are very natural contexts of discussion for human beings. I think there is a real philosophical problem about the existence and nature of the self, not just a relatively uninteresting problem about why we think there's a problem. It is too quick to say that a ‘grammatical error ... is the essence of the theory of the self’, or that ‘"the self is piece of philosopher's nonsense consisting in a misunderstanding of the reflexive pronoun' (Anthony Kenney, The Self, 1988, p. 4).
  2. The first task is to get the problem into focus. I will recommend one approach, first in outline, then in slightly more detail. (I will model the problem of the self, rather than attempting to model the self.) I think the problem requires a straightforwardly metaphysical approach; but I also think that metaphysics must wait on phenomenology, in a sense I will explain. Most recent discussion of the problem by analytic philosophers has started from work in philosophical logic (in the large sense of the term – as used in "Cassam (Quassim), Ed. - Self-Knowledge", 1994). This work may have a contribution to make, but a more phenomenological starting point is needed.
  3. I will use the expression ‘the self’ freely – I am already doing so – but I don't want to exclude in advance the view that there is no such thing as the self, and the expression will often function as a loose name for what one might equally well call ‘the self-phenomenon’, i.e. all those undoubtedly real phenomena that lead us to think and talk in terms of something called the self, whether or not there is such a thing.

  1. Introduction
  2. The Problem of the Self
  3. The Local Question: Cognitive Phenomenology
  4. Phenomenology and Metaphysics
  5. Materialism
  6. Singularity
    • Introduction
    • Thinghood and mentality
    • Singularity
    • Multiplicity?
  7. Personality
  8. The Self In Time: Effects of Character
  9. The Self In Time: The ‘Stream’ of Consciousness
  10. The Conditions Question
  11. The Factual Question
  12. Conclusion
  13. Postscript


"Unger (Peter) - Fission and the Focus of One's Life (Excerpt)"

Source: Martin & Barresi - Personal Identity, Chapter 6

  1. The Standard Fission Case and the Standard One-sided Case
  2. The Focus of Life and Heavily Discounted Branches
  3. A Person's Singular Goods
  4. Three Ways for Singular Goods to Go Two Ways

  1. This is in fact a subset (pp. 269-82, ie. Sections 4-7) of "Unger (Peter) - Fission and the Focus of One's Life" from "Unger (Peter) - Identity, Consciousness and Value".
  2. Best to read the full Chapter (as I have done)
  3. The first section is Section 4 (The Focus of a Person's Life) of the Chapter, missing the first paragraph and with sundry other cuts.
  4. The other three sections are verbatim those of the corresponding sections of the same title in the Chapter, with a small cut in the middle section.

COMMENT: Excerpts from "Unger (Peter) - Fission and the Focus of One's Life".

"Williams (Bernard) - The Self and the Future"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self
Write-up Note1 (Full Text reproduced below).
  • For a précis and discussion, click File Note (PDF), now replaced by this Note2.
  • This text appeared in Commensal (Mensa) and in Aitia (Birkbeck).

  1. Also published in:-
  2. Printout filed in "Various - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 19 (W)",
  3. See "Funkhouser (Eric) - Notes on Williams, 'The Self and the Future'" for Notes,
  4. Originally in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 79, Issue 2 (Apr., 1970), 161-180).

Write-up3 (as at 21/04/2018 20:05:17): Williams - The Self and the Future

"Williams (Bernard) - The Self and the Future" – An Analysis and Critique4

Introduction: An initial Question
    Is it possible that you could exchange bodies with someone? You are to understand 'possible' not as 'practical' or as 'possible', but only as something that is coherent or possible in thought. If you think it is possible, describe the circumstances that would have led for this to happen. And if you think it impossible, say why.
  1. This question is raised preparatory to discussing a thought experiment described in Williams' paper. A similar idea, to which Williams is reacting, occurred in the late seventeenth century in Chapter 27 of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which Locke imagines a Prince's consciousness inhabiting the body of a cobbler.
  2. Technicalities aside (a wiring problem) there seems nothing conceptually incoherent about having one's own brain transplanted into another's body. The alternative is the "dump and restore" technique - where the contents of one's brain (one's memories and presumably one's capabilities) are copied onto a storage device and then further copied onto the physical brain of another, overwriting or erasing whatever was there beforehand.
  3. There seems nothing utterly inconceivable about either of these techniques, but they seem to be conceptually different. Williams recognises that describing such thought experiments as "changing bodies" begs the question of what constitutes the substrate of consciousness and what makes up an individual person.
  4. The "brain transplant" approach has the benefit of some physical continuity, as the brain is a physical thing, and we are reasonably confident that the transplanted brain would be capable of retaining its information processing capacities. It would have a new body to get used to, but we would expect the mental abilities and memories of the transplantee to be as they were beforehand, though the physical abilities would be much changed and mental functioning would be affected by a different hormonal and respiratory environment and by a different sensory apparatus. Whether the hybrid felt himself to be the same person after this procedure would depend on that person's self-image and capabilities. A man whose abilities and aspirations were predominately physical (such as a boxer or footballer or even a musician or painter) would presumably not feel himself the same person after the operation, because it is not likely that these capabilities would cross over successfully, though a philosopher might not consider himself so badly off. Saying you have "exchanged bodies" while retaining your personhood would imply that your body was not of much significance to you as a person other than a rather passive vehicle for your mind. Not many people can say this.
  5. The "dump and restore" approach leaves the added complication of possibly cloning the original person (or at least their consciousness) - the original "me" can be left there undisturbed, after the contents of my brain have been copied, to awake as before. There is no necessity to copy the other person's brain-contents into my brain. I don't feel fully confident that the "restored" me would actually wake up - maybe it would be a zombie - though presumably a non-vitalist should have the courage of his convictions. Life would presumably be even harder for the new me in this "asymmetrical copy" case than in the "brain transplant" situation, as I would not only have the rest of the world confusing me with the previous owner of the body I then occupy, but I would have to contend with someone with a prior claim to being me - though as he is in on the act, this might be more of a help than a hindrance. It is this asymmetrical situation, which Williams turns to right at the end of his essay, that raises the most interesting questions.
  6. Enough of this pre-amble … we'll see how these initial prejudices (admittedly already influenced by Williams) change after some serious consideration of Williams' thought experiment. We now analyse in some detail what Williams has to say in his essay.

Analysis of Williams' Paper
  1. Williams asks us to consider his (tendentiously-entitled) "exchanging bodies" experiment. We have before us two persons, A and B, each with their own memories and characters and distinctive physical mannerisms for displaying them. After the exchange, however achieved, body A displays the memories and character of person B by physical manifestations appropriate to person B, and vice versa.
  2. Williams adopts a simplifying assumption to make the experiment more likely to be understood as that of "exchanging bodies" - he assumes some similarity between A and B so that there is a good chance of B's mannerisms in A's body not being made unrecognisable by gross physical or psychological differences between A and B.
  3. For us seriously to be convinced by the B-ishness of A-body's post experimental character, another condition must obtain according to Williams. B's memories must be reflected by A's body in such a way as it seems true that there is a causal chain between B's experiences and A-body's demonstration of apparent first-hand experience of them (presumably to guard against the supposition that A had simply studied B's background and the "memories" are learned rather than records of first-hand experience). Williams insists that the causal chain should not run outside of A's body, and therefore the simplest way to ensure this is by transplanting B's brain into A's body. However, Williams thinks a less radical version of copying B's memories and then restoring them to A's brain will suffice, for the reason that of the three grounds for knowing about one's own past - remembering, being reminded and learning again - there is no sufficient reason for describing the restored memories of B in A as "learned again". It is an interesting question whether this will do, because for A-body to be B, he needs not only B's memories, but B's information processing abilities. It is an open question whether the contents of B's brain can be copied onto different hardware (or in this case "wetware") while retaining the B-ishness of B. The restore mechanism would need to reconstruct the entire structure of A's brain to be as B's (which it might have to do in order to accomplish memory transfer, as memories are (most likely) physically encoded as connections between neurons). However, the firing rates of these neurons would presumably remain A's. Hence, I prefer the brain-exchange as the most likely method of "exchanging bodies". This form of the experiment is not, however, as interesting.
  4. After this exchange, we have the A-body-person and the B-body-person (where the A-body-person is the person occupying the body that was A's prior to the experiment). Those unaware of the experiment will initially presume the A-body-person is A, while the description of the process as "exchanging bodies" presumes that the A-body-person is B. A non-question-begging approach leaves it open as to whether either the A- or B-body-person is A.
  5. Williams now tries to determine which person is which using a thought experiment from the third-person perspective. A & B are informed before the procedure that post-operatively one of A- and B-body-persons will be tortured and the other given $100,000. They are asked what, on selfish grounds, they would prefer to happen to which. Williams notes that, depending on the choices of the victims, the experimenter may or may not be able to satisfy both of them, but that their choices and reactions to being told prospectively what is going to happen will reveal how they understand the procedure to work in accord with personhood. As Williams notes, while if the post-operative state is announced beforehand it makes sense to say prospectively that A or B got what he wanted, it is an open question whether retrospectively either of them can be said to have got what he wanted, as this begs the question that either of the A- or B-body-persons is A or B, or whether, for instance, they have been hybridised.
  6. Williams suggests that there are good grounds for presuming that we could say retrospectively that either A or B got what he wanted. He takes the case where A and B presume this to be an "exchanging bodies" experiment, so that A chooses that the B-body-person receives the good treatment and B the A-body-person. He then further supposes that the experimenter in fact awards the good treatment to A and the bad to B, though he doesn't tell them beforehand. After the experiment, the A-body-person, with B's memories, remembers that he chose the good outcome and is doubly satisfied on the grounds both that he got what he wanted and that what he got was good. The B-body-person, with A's memories, is similarly doubly dissatisfied. At face value, this seems to imply that B chose wisely, got what he wanted, and that the A-body-person really is B, whereas A also chose wisely, but was unlucky, and that the B-body-person really is A - and that "exchanging bodies" is a correct way of describing the experiment.
  7. That the A-body-person really is B and that the B-body-person really is A can be made to seem probable by variations on the experiment - eg. with the same experimental outcome as before, A chooses that the A-body-person receives the good treatment and that consequently the B-body-person is unhappy with the outcome, but acknowledges that this is what he chose and that he chose unwisely (and similarly, mutatis mutandis, for the B-body-person). Finally, Williams considers the hybrid case where A chooses unwisely and B wisely, with the experimenter acting as before. Both get what they chose, but B-body-person is happy, A-body-person unhappy with the outcome. All three cases seem to support the "exchanging bodies" hypothesis.
  8. Williams now starts to expand the perspective of the experiment by considering the post-operative responses of A- and B-body-persons to their bodies (he is careful not to describe them as B & A respectively, though notes that their responses would be consistent with this assumption - he also notes that if they had viewed the experiment as changing bodies, they would have had to be reasonably satisfied with these bodies before agreeing to take part in the experiment at all). He tries to tease apart the consequences of the supposed body-swap by asking questions such as, if the B-body had a wooden leg that B had become habituated to, would the post-operative B-body-person also be habituated to it; ie. is the habituation a mental or a physical thing?
  9. Williams now proceeds to consider the matter laterally by thinking in detail about A & B's psychological expectations, concerns and responses. In particular, he stops begging the question by presuming that the experiment results in A and B exchanging bodies. It thus at least makes sense for A and B to ask whether, post operatively, they may be able to escape some of the mental hang-ups they currently have. So, he imagines A with bad anxiety and B with fearful memories, but concludes that the post-operative B-body-person would possess this proneness to anxiety while the A-body-person would have the bad memories. This is still consistent with the "exchanging bodies" hypothesis, and so far the argument leads us to conclude that the requirement for bodily continuity as a necessary condition for personal identity is mistaken and that, as Locke thought, we should identify ourselves with our memories rather than our bodies.
  10. Williams now considers what appears to be a different thought experiment, but which is really the previous experiment this time viewed from a first-person perspective. I am told that tomorrow I am to be tortured, but with allegedly increasingly ameliorating circumstances, as below:-
    • Shortly before the torture I will forget that I have been forewarned
    • I will lose all my former memories
    • I will be given a new set of memories, ie. a new past
    • That my then memories will correspond to those of another person now living
  11. The point is that, at no point in this Sorites-type5 argument will I feel any comfort; rather, I will feel even more disquieted - for (despite being told how this is to be brought about) not only would I still have the prospect of torture to endure, but would have mental derangements equivalent to total amnesia and madness imposed on me as well.
  12. As this is just another view of the first experiment, can we confidently say this view, rather than the first, in which I would be happily escaping from the soon-to-be tortured body, is wrong. Williams thinks not. The experimenter may simply be intimidating me by persistently using the term "you" to me - thereby begging the question in the opposite direction to the "exchanging bodies" perspective - but it seems clear that, at the moment of torture, whatever impressions I have of the past will not influence my then present pain, and in reviewing the process there seems to be no point at which I've been "beamed up" into another, happier body.
  13. Williams now briefly explains why he's chosen the example of torture as a future dread event, rather than some other thing one might fear. This is because many of our fears are character- or memory-based, which, in this experiment, are likely or known to be about to change. However, aversion to physical pain is minimally character- or belief-dependent. Having started on this aside, Williams also points out that it may still be valid to fear a psychological disturbance in which our then selves would be perfectly happy - as in our being turned into contented vegetables - and the reason we would fear such a turn of events would be selfish rather than the altruistic acknowledgement that we'd be unable to fulfil our obligations. Personally, I do not view this as a paradox of hedonistic utilitarianism (nor, I suspect, does Williams). What makes our pleasures so exquisite is that we have chosen to have them, maybe struggled for them, and so the utility of a life of our own, with all its vicissitudes, exceeds that of one in the orgasmatron6.
  14. Returning to the chase, Williams now points out the second difference between this first-person report of the events and the "exchanging bodies" one - there is no mention of the second person, other than as the source of my new memories. From this first-person perspective, this second person is irrelevant except as an object of our envy, but in the third person account this is the new me, the one on whose account I ought to be afraid, if at all. One who subscribes to the "exchanging bodies" interpretation of events will count this as a fatal objection to the first-person account. However, Williams doubts this is so.
  15. To demonstrate why not, Williams rehearses the first-person account again, imagining the torture occurring at the end of each of the six steps in the process (starting with me suffering total amnesia, and ending with the other person undergoing the analogous character-change to that which I undergo). Since these steps are important for subsequent discussion, and already succinctly summarised by Williams, I have filched them verbatim from Williams' paper:-
    1. A is subjected to an operation which produces total amnesia;
    2. amnesia is produced in A, and other interference leads to certain changes in his character;
    3. changes in his character are produced, and at the same time certain illusory 'memory' beliefs are induced in him: these are of a quite fictitious kind and do not fit the life of any actual person;
    4. the same as (iii), except that both the character traits and the 'memory' impressions are designed to be appropriate to another actual person, B;
    5. the same as (iv), except that the result is produced by putting the information into A from the brain of B, by a method which leaves B the same as he was before;
    6. the same happens to A as in (v), but B is not left the same, since a similar operation is conducted in the reverse direction.
  16. At the prospect of none of these six cumulative experiments do I feel anything other than disquiet. This is because from this perspective at no stage do "I" (A) escape into the other person's (B) body.
  17. Viewing everything up to the fifth step (copying B's dispositions & memories into A's brain while leaving B otherwise alone), Williams thinks we have two answers to the "exchanging bodies" objector. Firstly, there is no reason (given the primal pain aversion common to us all) why I should not be just as afraid of torture, even with B's dispositions, as normal. Secondly, because B still exists undisturbed, A-body-person (me) cannot be (numerically) the same person as B as there are two persons with a claim to B-ness. Locke would say there are two men but only one person. I would agree with this, but only for an instant - the two men diverge into two persons as soon as either has an experience (I wanted to say "has an experience not shared by the other" but feel that even if their experiences were miraculously kept synchronised they would still be two persons because they are two consciousnesses). From the "exchanging bodies" perspective, if we stop after step five, A has died (or is at least in suspended animation) and B has been partially cloned. This situation is critical. B's consciousness cannot have "hopped" to body-A as it must still be in Body-B at this stage. So, what consciousness is in Body-A? It is tempting to think of this consciousness as a scrambled version of A's, but we "exchanging bodies" types7 should maybe stick to our guns and assert that the consciousness in Body-A is also B's; for the consciousness in Body-A it will feel like B having swapped bodies, and having temporarily a mental twin in Body-B, though because of its necessarily different environment it will rapidly diverge from Body-B's. Williams’s assertion that at the end of step five A-Body-person and B-Body-person are certainly not the same person is too strong (though, as I noted, they soon would be).
  18. Williams now tries to find out whether we can make out that the transition from (v) to (vi) is important for A, and does not simply refer to something happening to someone else (B). The point is that, at the end of (v), B-Body-person is very definitely B, so if A-Body-person is not A, then no-one is. This seems fair enough (as I've alluded to above), but if A doesn't exist at (v), when in the process does he disappear? Williams argues that A still existed after (i) and (ii), that is, after the total amnesia and personality change, so maybe we should draw the line after (iii) or (iv), memory exchange with a fictitious person or, in (iv) B. Williams question is rhetorical, presuming a "no" answer. I think, though, that he gives insufficient weight to the catastrophic nature of the changes affecting A-body-person. His analogy is with the normal amnesia, personality disorders or delusory memories that might afflict someone going out of his mind. Well, if someone had been afflicted to the total degree suggested in the thought experiment, we would forensically count them as having become a new person, and treat the original person at least as being in abeyance. The question is, when would A suddenly suffer a dislocation of consciousness, so that a new person with no historic conscious continuity with A pop up in A's body. Personally, I think this would be after step (i), the total amnesia, though possibly after (ii), the total personality change. We could apply more granular Sorites-type8 arguments against this (memory draining away bit by bit, personality changing gradually) and ask just when does A cease to exist? This is not the same situation, however - A would be adjusting to this unfortunate state of affairs and would evolve into A*. We wouldn't be troubled by such thoughts in the "brain transplant" version of the experiment. If A's brain was taken out of A's body, there would be no chance of A's consciousness remaining there, not even in his little finger9!
  19. Williams now repels a rather silly proposal, along the lines that we can't decide whether or at what point A-body-person ceases to be A, so why worry about it; some things are just like that. Well, Williams adopts the first person perspective of A, and points out that, while this situation might be acceptable for a third party, it is of vital interest to A, who is either going to be tortured or not depending on the outcome. I have to say I can almost feel Williams being argued into accepting Pascal's wager (after all, what is worse than being tortured for ever!), so there must be something dodgy going on here. Williams labours the rather obvious point that I will retain fear at the prospect unless I am sure that I won't be involved in the unpleasant things yet to happen to A-body-person, and will be fearful in proportion to the probabilities involved. Williams seems to be suggesting that in this case, the situation must resolve itself one way or another - the coin has to be heads or tails - A-body-person will either be me or not, but until I know which, I have good reason to be in trepidation.
  20. Williams thinks that this situation of undecidablity is unthinkable from a first person perspective in that if I lose my fear on account of the undecidablity, I have effectively decided that it will not be me who will be tortured, while if I continue to worry about it, it is because I think it will be me. Williams tries to envisage whether I might adopt ambivalent concern towards the event, as I might towards something to which I was sentimentally attached that underwent some puzzling confusion of identity. Williams, of course, thinks this won't do, for as soon as I adopt this ambivalent stance towards A-body-person, while I may be hazy about who he is, I've already concluded that he's not me. If I still thought he might be me, I wouldn't be so detached. I think that Williams is getting into a muddle here, and mutiplying zero by infinity and getting any number he likes (as in Pascal's wager). If the prospect was a remote chance of a slapped wrist rather than unbearable torture one would easily become dispassionately involved.
  21. Williams states that "there seems to be an obstinate bafflement to mirroring in my expectations a situation in which it is conceptually undecidable whether I occur". Isn't this parallel to any future contingency? What's the difference between this and being worried on being told that all first-year BA students who fail their exams will be mercilessly tortured. While I might concur that this sentence, though just, is unlikely to befall me - I would do well to fear it because, confident though I may be, there is no way of knowing that I will pass.
  22. Later, Williams considers, returning to the six-stage experiment, whether we might not choose to identify A with A-body-person after stage (v) because there is no better candidate, but not after (vi) because B-body-person will then do much better. Williams thinks this is like disposing of the effects of some intestate relative - we just have to decide as best we can within the confines of the law. Williams rightly doesn't think this will help A at all, for if he's still frightened at the prospect of (v), the thought that there would be a better candidate for A-ness after (vi) will not console him.
  23. When Williams starts to sum up, he thinks the opposite conclusions reached by the third and first person perspectives of A's fate are conceptually undecidable, and that he's not sure which choice he'd make were he to have the bad luck to be A. Not surprisingly, he's disturbed by this (he's taking his thought experiment rather too seriously, one might think). Williams brings up the dichotomies between, respectively, first and third person perspectives and "mentalistic" and "bodily continuity" considerations involved in questions of personal identity. Williams points out that his thought-experiments have revealed a reverse parallelism to that usually considered for these two pairs of concepts - the third person perspective is here associated with "mentalistic" considerations while adopting a first person perspective led us to support bodily continuity. Williams considers this inversion of some enigmatic significance.
  24. Finally, Williams considers whether the presentation of the third-person perspective in its neat symmetrical form unfairly induced us to consider it as "exchanging bodies". This is a very important point, and in my view more space should have been devoted to it at the expense of the angst-ridden ramblings that occupy most of the latter half of the paper. Clearly, according to the rules of the experiment, we could have generated any number of A's and B's in any number of brains / bodies. This is in sharp contrast to the more invasive, but allegedly equivalent, "brain swap" alternative experiment. This leads me to feel there is a little bit of slight of hand in Williams' introduction of his non-invasive equivalent, which is not equivalent in the least - though depending on what Williams is seeking to demonstrate, this lack of equivalence may not matter. The possibility of "me" being "restored" into the brains of numerous bodies (while being left alone in my own body - let the reader please forgive the tendentious language here!) makes it unlikely that my consciousness would flip over into B-body-person at any stage in the experiment - otherwise, in variants of the experiment, I could be saddled with an open-ended number of (presumably incommunicable) selves to cope with. We would have to suppose that these new consciousnesses, for all their similarities to me, are not me, and that in the experiment both A and B die, with two new consciousness emerging in their places.
  25. So, Williams comes down to the decision that if he were told that he (as the A-body person) could choose who would have the post-operative torture, he would choose B, being convinced by his psychological angst arguments. My view is that, in Williams' "dump and restore" variant of the experiment, I would opt out because both A and B are dead, but in the "brain transplant" version, assuming I'm confident of surgical success, I'd choose the easy life for the body with my brain in it any day.

Further Questions

At Birkbeck, we are supplied with a Commentary that expatiates on aspects of the passage under discussion and asks (and sometimes sketches answers to) various questions. Because answering questions not surprisingly tests comprehension, I'll seek to answer some of the questions and you must let me know whether you agree with the answers:-
  1. Say which of the following seems the best account of what will have happened in the initial "third person" account of Williams' thought experiment:
    1. A turns into B, and B turns into A.
    2. A comes to inhabit B's body, and B comes to inhabit A's body.
    3. A and B will both die and two other people emerge, say A+ and B+.
    Can you think of any other descriptions that fit what happens more closely?
    • The fourth description (d) sought by the question would be that all sorts of horrid mental events happen to A and B, including total amnesia, character change and implantation of someone else's memories, but that A-body-person remains A and B-body- person remains B.
    • Description (a) is inadequate because what makes A or B a person includes both somatic and mental attributes, and the post-operative individuals are hybrids of A and B; the function "turns into" loses this sense of what's happened.
    • As discussed above, in the case of the "brain transplant", I would favour (b) as the best description, while for "brain copying" I would favour (c).
    • In case of brain transplantation it is not possible for any of A's conscious experience to remain behind in A's body, which rules out (d). The effect on A of finding himself in B's body, with different somatic, sensory and hormonal structures to get used to, would be exceedingly traumatic, but, though A would necessarily lose consciousness while the operation was performed, we (or at least I) can just about imagine him waking up feeling highly disorientated, but still feeling, as in (b) that he was A and not, as in (c), A+.
    • One reason I'm reluctant to support (b) in the "brain copying" example is the (science-fiction-) fact that multiple copies can be made of A's mental structures and parked in as many Xi-body-persons as we wish, and can they all be A? However, and I believe this to be a very important point, while we're making use of the technology, we could go further and use our matter-copier to clone A's physical brain multiple times and wire him up in the Xi-body-persons, or go the whole hog and clone the whole of A producing the set {A*i}. Would all these A*i's feel themselves to be A? I think it's clear that, subject to the caveat in the next paragraph, they would, though, like twins, they would instantaneously diverge into separate persons as they developed further.
    • One caution - given how little consciousness as a phenomenon presumably derived from physical processes is understood - we should not get carried away by our thought experiments; for all we know we may be suggesting techniques that are not just impractical but impossible (as, for instance, would be the case if there was some immaterial soul that animates a person and that couldn't be cloned or copied by our ingenious devices). The metaphysical assumptions as to what makes up a human being are not made explicit in Williams' paper. It does seem, though, that the first-person perspective tacitly assumes that there's something more to "me" than the contents of my brain and that it's this "me" that continues in my original body as the (highly disturbed and utterly disorientated) person with a new mind. The first person perspective might almost be described as "exchanging minds", which is an even more difficult concept to get our heads round that "exchanging bodies".
  2. Williams considers different things that A and B might say if they were asked to choose the fate of the A- and B-body-persons, and also what they would say about their willingness to undergo the experimental operation. Summarize these various options in your own words.
    • Williams considers various responses (which I detailed above) all based on the "exchanging bodies" paradigm that A's consciousness ends up in B-body-person and vice-versa. From this third-person perspective, A chooses wisely if he chooses pleasant things to happen to B-body-person. Whether A would like to play this game would depend on what he thought of B's body and whether he found the prospect of occupying it appealing.
  3. If, when you answered the earlier exercise, you thought that this (ie. A and B changing bodies) was not the best description of the case, has the series of choices and estimates of outcome changed your mind? If not, what do you think might be wrong with the way these choices are described?
    • As Williams later points out at the end of his essay, the "exchanging bodies" paradigm is made more plausible by the perfect symmetry of the operation, whereas we might stop the procedure after we've copied B into A but before we've copied A into B. Also, though we've followed A & B's prudential thought-processes, we've not put ourselves firmly enough in their shoes to experience the angst they would feel at the possible results of the experiment for them, and hence may have missed out on the possible continuing A-ness of A-body-person.
  4. Williams considers ways in which one might resist this conclusion about the second of the perspectives on the example (ie. considered from the first-person perspective, at no stage does it seem as if you and the other change places). The arguments here are careful and sometimes dense, but you should read them over several times, and try to summarize them in your own words.
    • Williams doesn't seem very convinced that the first-person conclusion can be resisted, because, firstly, as A views the prospect before him, as summarised in Williams' (i) to (vi), at no stage does his fear abate, and in particular not at step (vi) which from this perspective appears to be something happening to someone else. The key point is after (v) when B is very much alive and kicking, but A has not been reconstituted. Where is A, and who is A-body-person if B is still B? How do we resist the conclusion that A-body-person is still A? Williams doesn't hold out much hope for doing so, but recognises that someone committed to the exchanging bodies view will take it that step (vi) involves the re-introduction of A, who had at sometime prior thereto dropped out of the plot. Williams' problem is just when this might have been - he thinks it unlikely after (i) - amnesia - or (ii) - character change - and thinks it would have to be after (iii) - fictitious memory introduction - or (iv) introduction of memories modelled on B's. I've argued above that Williams underplays the catastrophic nature of these changes and that he ought to be more sympathetic to A dropping out of the picture after (i).
  5. Williams presents several arguments against the strategy based on thinking of our concept of a person as sometimes undecidable. Summarize his points in your own words.
    • This strikes me as the most difficult part of the essay. Williams rejects the idea that abandoning hope of clarity on the grounds of formal undecidability may provide some comfort. While it may supply some to third party observers of A's situation, it will supply none at all to A who is, potentially at least, intimately and disastrously involved. To clarify the situation, Williams asks us to consider a future situation S at which we (in fact, I) may or may not be involved. I will only feel fear at the prospect of S if I expect to be involved (and, of course, if I believe there is something in S for me to fear). If some dread event is going to befall one of a company of people, of whom I am one, my apprehension will rise to fear in proportion to my imagining that the one will be me. Moreover, I know that this situation will resolve itself and that it will either involve me or not. Williams also says that I may be neurotically apprehensive of some indeterminate ill from some range of possibilities, or even of some nameless horror, but the common factor for me to display fear at the prospect of one of these things happening is that they should happen to me. When I think that S may involve me, I am able to imaginatively project myself forward to my involvement in the event.
    • Williams now returns to our experiment, and finds A's predicament to differ from the indeterminacy in the examples just cited. It is not like the nameless horror, since that, whatever it was, was definitely going to befall me, nor is it like the probability case, where it would either involve me or not, depending on how the situation worked out. A's (my) fear of torture in the experiment seems neither appropriate (as it would be if I knew myself to be A-body-person) nor inappropriate (if I knew myself not to end up as the A-body-person), nor is it appropriate for me to be dispassionately equivocal, since the stakes are too high.
    • Williams seems to argue that if I try to imagine myself present at some situation S at which it is formally undecidable whether I will be there or not, then if my effort of what he calls projective imagination is successful, then I have effectively decided the situation in the affirmative, while if I am unsuccessful I've decided it negatively. Personally, I cannot see what is demonstrated by one's ability, or lack thereof, to work oneself up into a lather of apprehension. I find a later argument even more confusing. Williams states that "material objects do occasionally undergo puzzling transformations which leave a conceptual shadow over their identity". An example of what this is supposed to mean would have helped. Whatever this is supposed to mean, we are to imagine that we are sentimentally attached to some object which undergoes this strange transformation, so that afterwards we are supposed now to feel ambivalent concern for it - neither as we did before, yet not totally disinterested. Not surprisingly, Williams does not think this a fair model of the situation envisaged when I'm not sure whether or not I'll be present at situation S, but that if I am something nasty is going to happen to me. I will not feel ambivalent concern for the person involved - I will feel terror on account of it possibly being me!
  6. Williams dismisses this second, conventionalist, way of evading the problem (of being precise in our definition of a person). What is his reason for dismissing it?
    • Williams' view is that whatever forensic decision is given by third parties on this subject, this is of no use to me who is vitally involved. If the conventionalists have decided that the best candidate for being A after (v) is A-body-person, to whom nothing further happens (apart from being tortured, of course !), the fact that there is a much better candidate after (vi), namely B-body-person, will be no consolation, as we had no necessity to proceed with step (vi) at all, so, from a forensic perspective, he might have been left as the unfortunate A-body-person.
  7. In the final paragraph of his essay, Williams tentatively suggests a resolution to the conflict between the two cases. Say what his conclusion is, and what argument he uses to reach it. Finally, give some reasons for either agreeing or disagreeing with him.
    • Williams' comes down tentatively on the side of the first-person perspective, and says that if he were A, he would choose for the torturing to happen to B-body-person. His reasons are that we were deceived by the symmetry of the third-person perspective experiment into considering it as an exchange of bodies, whereas if the experiment had been conducted asymmetrically (eg. only as far as the equivalent of (v)), we would not have been so convinced that this was the correct description of the procedure. As I have previously stated, I think Williams gives insufficient weight to the drastic changes that come over A- and B-body-persons, and that if the focus was on brain-transplantation, which is allegedly parallel to the experiment being performed, he would be on the side of the body-exchangers.

In-Page Footnotes ("Williams (Bernard) - The Self and the Future")

Footnote 3:
  • This is the write-up as it was when this Abstract was last output, with text as at the timestamp indicated (21/04/2018 20:05:17).
  • Link to Latest Write-Up Note.
Footnote 4:
  • This essay is based on one of my first Supervision papers in my first year at Birkbeck, and appeared as here in February 2001 in Mensa’s Commensal when I edited it.
  • A version appeared in Aitia the Birkbeck Student Philosophy magazine, in the Summer 2002 (Volume 2) edition. From a quick check, the text seems unchanged.
  • I’ve not changed the text – see later versions (if any) for my current understanding.
Footnote 6: This allusion to Woody Allen's Sleeper was made before the recent announcement of the invention of such a device, honest!

Footnote 7:
  • January 2016: did I ever really believe this?
  • I’d thought I’d always agreed with Williams that exchanging bodies – other than by a brain transplant – was impossible.
Footnote 9: An allusion to another thought experiment by Locke.

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