Surviving Death (4): Is Survival Real?

There are different ways a person/group could think about personal identity and this is crucial to Mark Johnston's argument in Surviving Death.   Take the Hibernators (see yesterday's post).  They think they don't survive hibernation. The person who falls asleep dies, they think, and a new person wakes up three months later.  By contrast, in Star Trek the crew thinks they do survive teletransportation.  The Hibernators have a much more demanding notion of what it means for a person to be the same over time than the Star Trek crew.  We (Johnston assumes--and I'm really not sure why) have a third notion--we would not want to get into the transporter, because we think it would kill us while generating a copy of us at our destination.

Johnston says the Hibernators, the Teletransporters, and us Human Beings differ in their dispositions.  The Hibernators presumably feel bad about dying when they get ready to hibernate, instead of planning the next stage of their own lives, as we would.  The Star Trek crew isn't concerned about stepping into the Teletransporter, as we might be.  So...which of the tribes is right about personal identity?

Johnston says they're all really right in a fashion--the dispositions make for three forms of personal identity.  Basically, there's no disposition-independent fact of the matter about whether any person survives hibernation or teletransportation.   Should we go along with this? 

A bit of medical anthropology might be useful here.  A child from an exotic community has a bad stomach ache.  The doctors say he must have an operation.  The boy has heard talk in his community about how operations put an end to persons and replace them with new persons, but he never really understood this.  So he wonders what will happen.  When he wakes up, he remembers his question, and feels he got his answer. "I survived!" 

Now imagine he had been well trained in the theory, so he was terrified before the surgery, and willingly participated in a christening when he woke up.  He begins calling himself by his new name and buys into all the strange theories the group has about why he feels so much like the boy who went into surgery,

Since the boy really has no dispositions in the first scenario (he just wonders what will happen) are we really to say he neither survives nor doesn't survive?  In the second scenario, do we really want to say that the boy doesn't survive, because of his dispositions? 

Come on.  The boy survives, and he knows it in the first scenario. In the second, he's been brainwashed into having unnecessary fears.  Though at the edges, personal identity is murky and there are very hard cases, there are also clear cases of survival and non-survival.  Johnston's dispositional view of personal identity doesn't have room for this.

Sadly, I think I'm getting close to jumping off this boat before it reaches it's destination--a story about how I can survive the death of my body, if I just develop a certain set of dispositions.


Faust said...

I think the notions surrounding the transporters are not uncommon. From Athena's article posted a while back on your cryogenics post:

"Unless the transfer of a mind retains the brain, there will be no continuity of consciousness. Regardless of what the post-transfer identity may think, the original mind with its associated brain and body will still die –- and be aware of the death process. Furthermore, the newly minted person/ality will start diverging from the original the moment it gains consciousness. This is an excellent way to leave a detailed memorial or a clone-like descendant, but not to become immortal."

All we are doing in the full teletransporter scenario is disintegrating the original brain, and creating a clone. If you find it uncontroversial that this continues identity, then you are arguing that there is one and only one non-dispositionaly based way identifying a particular identity over time, and that people who go through teletransporters meet this condition.

Jean Kazez said...

I wasn't actually taking a stand on transporter survival. What I'm wondering is why Johnston thinks the whole tribe of Human Beings do not accept post-transport survival. After all, everyone watches Star Trek and thinks it's Jim who enters the transport room and winds up below on planet whatever. Philosophers can certainly make this seem problematic, but I would say most Human Beings do not, without a big push.

As to what I think--I think survival after transport is a very hard case because of the possibility of fission--multiple copies. It doesn't follow that there are no clear cases, or that a person's dispositions are what determines whether they survive. I think my example of the kid with no dispositions (scenario #1) makes that case pretty effectively. For him it's a question whether he survives--he has no disposition to believe either way. I think it's fair to say he discovers that he does survive. So his survival is "real" and non-disposition-related.

Faust said...

Ahh I see. I agree that many people will find basic teletransportation to be uncontroversial.

I don't find your take on the boy who "discovers" that it's still himself really blocks Johnston's argument. If he decided to describe himself in some alternative way would there be a fact of the matter as to whether or not he was wrong? That is to say, if he bought into his new identity would he just be confused?

Johnston is suggesting that there is nothing that in fact decides how identity should be viewed, and that there is no definitive way to suggest to some group of people who have these alternative ways of construing identity that they have it wrong. One could complain that their view "just doesn't make sense" but one could also say that some group of people's taste in music or politics just doesn't make sense. We need a bit more than surface implausibility from our point of view.

As a pragmatic issue I find it interesting to consider what it would take to alter one's view of identity so that it changed to these various points of view. Is it IMPOSSIBLE to do (maybe!)? If not and one was successful would one be WRONG about one's view of identity? Do we, in our current thinking, have the INDEPENDENTLY CORRECT view of identity?

There are a lot of exptremely counterintuitive suggestions he makes, and I not really inclined to dismiss them out of hand just because they don't match up with day to day intutions about these things.

Jean Kazez said...

You have to somehow test a theory, and I think the class of cases where people wonder if they'll survive, and then seem to find out (without "dispositions" playing any role) are a problem for him. The boy seems to find out he survives--it's a huge strain to think otherwise. Johnson has to say "no dispositions, so no fact about whether he survives." That's extremely counterintuitive. I think in theorizing about personal identity, that's the kind of thing that does count against a view.

Faust said...

Well part of the problem here is that Johsont split the problem into two parts: there are "selves" and "personalities" (don't recall if this is exactly how he does it, I'm away from my books). He agrees that personalities do not survive. He thinks that there is this other thing called "arenas of presence and action" that are much more mutable, and can be seen as having much more flexible identities over time.

I thought you might be interested in these arguments because when I was reading them, I was thinking about how animals have essentially (in my view) little to no personalities. In the case of an animal, if we are tracking its existence over time, do we have anything OTHER than a bodily criterion? Their personalities are so much more limited (if they are present at all), that problems like fisioning simply don't seem to be all that problematic. If I fission a dog 1,000 times, its not clear that anything particulatly problematic would result.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes there are many different things we trace--the animal, the self, the person, the personality. It is all .... complicated. I agree there's animal-relevant stuff in here, which I've been enjoying.

Faust said...

"You have to somehow test a theory"

Well that's the interesting thing. If Johnston is right about selves, then there is no "test." It would be like testing for pain. Doctors don't say "Oh you say you are in pain? We don't believe it. Let's do some tests and see if you're really in pain." Reports of pain and certain other reports are considered incorrigible.

I'm thinking here of Rorty's "Incorrigibility as the Mark of the Mental" and also Dennett's response "Cog: a Just so Story."

If Johnston is right, we should class a certain kind of identity report because those reports are, like reports about hallucinations, incorrigible. Johnston's arguments around this issue are complicated and actually go a bit beyond the scope of SD as they are pulled (some passages quite directly) from his essay "The Obscure Object of Hallucination." But I've not anatomized his argument sufficiently to do a thorough defense here, other than to say I think your quick sketch of a test doesn't do the full argument justice, and may confuse the categories (which may be bad categories, but your test doesn't address his categories imo).

I also kept thinking of Metzinger" "On Being No-One" which I've not read yet, but watched a lecture on, and was struck by the fact that there may be some overlap with that approach as well, though that will require some more research (too many damn books to read!).

Just some thoughts.

Jean Kazez said...

OK--I made it out to be too simple. The boy doesn't simply find out he survived, but he finds out something, and that something does seem relevant to whether or not he survived! His community strikes me as being in the grip of a superstition about general anesthesia, and the same goes for the Hibernators and their superstition about hibernation. It seems like a good theory ought to be able to say that some ways of thinking about personal identity really are just irrational and superstitious, but Johnston rules that out.