Death According to Derek Parfit

As most people who follow the news about the discipline will now, a renowned philosopher, Derek Parfit, died on the New Year’s Day. There’s already plenty of obituaries praising his life around – I wonder if the authors ever consider that such praise might have been nicer if the recipient could still receive it. In any case, I think that if not the best, then at least the most productive fate that can meet a person of ideas is the continued discussion of his or her labour.

Much of Parfit’s work is dedicated to the issue of personal identity. Not in the sense of one’s skin colour, personal qualities and quirks as observed by others, but in the sense of what makes a person that particular person – what makes people feel convinced that they are themselves. This of course faces obstacles in the form of our assumption and intuition that there is nothing to dissect. After all, it is a common thing to experience and a banal thing to express: “I am me. For as long as I have lived, I have always been me, and until I die, I shall always remain me”. But who is this “me” that is you? Is it just about your brain? Surely, if we take a part of your brain out of your skull, it wouldn’t be fair to say that you’ve stopped being you – we do this to people with brain tumours or people with epilepsy and while they may change, the changes usually aren’t extreme enough to warrant calling them different people. Similarly, if we cut your corpus callosum, the part of your brain that connects both hemispheres (which also used to be a treatment administered for some cases of epilepsy), we wouldn’t say that there are suddenly two of you. And yet, such a brain (more accurately, two brains) will develop two separate perceptions. On the basis of some behavioural changes, it may seem warranted to say that in fact there are two persons in a split brain skull now. Yet, maybe just for our sanity, we keep on treating these cases as one and the same person.

But should we? And, more generally, what is the relationship of one’s personal identity to one’s psychological and biological identity? Can we have a meaningful identity without psychological continuity? Parfit explores some of these in his 1971 article in The Philosophical Review.

Speaking of continuity and the changes within biological creatures that continue existing, one might wonder what would happen as the changes to the brain accumulate? At what point do we say that that person is no longer there? Certainly death sounds like a good candidate. But what makes death so different? In reading one of his obituaries, I came across this quote from Parfit’s Reasons and Persons:

There will later be some memories about my life. And there may later be thoughts that are influenced by mine, or things done as the result of my advice. My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad.

Whether this is really a comforting thought is up to the reader to decide. For Parfit at least, it’s no longer an issue.


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