Tuesday, April 14, 2009

the truth is very different from what we are inclined to believe. even if we are not aware of this, most of us are non-reductionists. we [are] strongly inclined to believe that our existence is a deep further fact, distinct from physical and psychological continuity, and a fact that must be all-or-nothing. this is not true.

is the truth depressing? some may find it so. but i find it liberating, and consoling. when i believed that my existence was such a further fact, i seemed imprisoned in myself. my life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which i was moving faster ever year, and at the end of which there was darkness. when i changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. i now live in the open air. there is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. but the difference is less. other people are closer. i am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

when i believed the non-reductionist view, i also cared more about my inevitable death. after my death, there will be no one living who will be me. i can now redescribe this fact. though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connection as those involved in experience-memory, or in the carrying out of an earlier intention. some of these future experiences may be related to my present experiences in less direct ways. 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.

after hume thought hard about his arguments, we was thrown into 'the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness'. the cure was to dine and play backgammon with his friends. hume's arguments supported total scepticism. this is why they brought darkness and utter loneliness. the arguments for reductionism have on me the opposite effect. thinking hard about these arguments removes the glass wall between me and others. and, as i have said, i care less about my death. this is merely the fact that, after a certain time, none of the experiences that will occur will be related, in certain ways, to my present experiences. can this matter all that much?

derek parfit
reasons & persons


Ishmael said...

I like this, however, I suspect that most people (including myself) aren't anywhere near as mature as to actually be dreading their own deaths. Sure, I watch an existential film, a play, read Heidegger, and for the next few hours or so, i'm depressed and all 'woe is man's fate'. However, very quickly I'm right back to my quotidian concerns, very self-centered, very myopic, etc.

My point is simply this: How often is it the case that when we are down and depressed and distressed is this despair the result of a genuine fear of death and non-existence? I suspect that even our most theological convictions are there not to palliate existential dread but more as a way to frame rather in-our-face-everyday-but-too-terrible-to-acknolwedge facts like "How is it that my ex-girlfriend can actually prefer this guy over me? What does this say about the way I'm actually perceived and valued by her, and in virtue of how her opinion is as dependent upon her understanding of others' opinion of me (and others with similar traits) as it is, how I'm perceived and valued by others in general?" And lots of other similar superficial concerns. Facing such facts is devastating to me, something I prefer not to look into, an abyss as bad (if not worse) than death itself.

So my point is, Parfit might be onto something, and I might be able to understand it enough to debate it, but honestly, nothing like fear of death is motivating me on a daily basis. That being said, is there a link between the superficial concerns I have and the 'space' Parfit talks about between him and others, physically and psychologically. I am rather confident that there is, but to bridge that space, nothing about overcoming death is going to help me at the moment. Perhaps once I'm mature enough to see through the contingencies of all my superficial concerns.
(Note: This page makes it hard to proofread, so please read the above charitably.)

laura.g said...

you seem to be making a sort of empirical claim about human psychology. i'm not sure if i agree or if i don't. on the one hand, it seems to me that a lot of people fear their own death pretty explicitly, although i would guess that if fear of death really does motivate or paralyze human beings in certain ways, it probably does most of it's work on some kind of subliminal or subconscious level. but that's moving me toward some pretty sophisticated and perhaps controversial empirical claims, which i'm not the least bit qualified to make.

on a more conscious level, i think there's something right about what you say-- most people probably don't think a lot about their own death and it's significance. most people, in my experience, have to be forced to think about it all. but is this because they're lazy or uninterested? it seems to me that one might actively avoid thinking about one's own death just because the prospect is so simultaneously threatening and impenetrable.

i actually think that if people were more consciously motivated by the awesome mystery of their inevitable death, it wouldn't be such a bad thing. this fear subliminated is less useful, and what's REALLY not useful is being motivated specifically to AVOID thinking about one's own death precisely because it is so inevitable and mysterious. because then, of course, we'll fill the quiet minutes with all manner of worthless bullshit to keep those thoughts at bay.

Ishmael said...

Not sure if I'm making anymore of a claim about human psychology than Parfit is. From the quote you provide, Parfit suggests that the truth regarding the finality of our existence depresses some, while upon reflection, it liberates him. I'm saying, "Perhaps, Parfit, but honestly, I don't know many people (even people who are old enough to suspect their 5-year mortality rate is not great) who think much about death in terms of psychological continuity (even if they don't use such high-falutin' terms). And this includes me, a graduate student in philosophy." If I'm right and the reason they fail to confront these issues is similar to the reason in my case, it's because our actual day-to-day problems are much more distressing (however quotidian they might be). What makes me sweat? What makes me toss and turn at night? It's not the implications of psychological discontinuity. It's exorcising the ghosts of High School Past or praying "God Almighty, I'll do anything you want, just please don't let me get laid off from my job" and so forth. Not many of us are Hume.

Am I saying there's nothing to worry about when it comes to the metaphysical self? No, not at all. However, there are countless quandaries out there concerning the self and, more importantly, rather fundamental questions of value that are no less mysterious, and yet, despite how terrible it is even consider the possibility that my lover's interest in me is predicated upon pheromones (or some ex broke up with me because I'm genetically less-fit than some other guy), I see the people who postulate and 'believe' such theories living rather normal lives, giving no sign of being racked with pain and anguish at all the implications.

(But isn't it possible to come to some acceptance that love isn't the romantic story we've been taught, and that perhaps the natural order of things has its own beauty? Similarly, isn't it possible that accepting the limitations of our existence can be exhilarating and freeing, in a sense?)

Maybe. Not for me, not yet. And from what I can see of the large majority of people I encounter (which pretty means 'everyone I've ever met'), it's the very common things in life, values that presume a 'I-and-thou' type of value set, such as status and success and being in a 'loving' relationship (the fake kind of love described above), that motivate them, keep them happy, make them intolerably sad, etc. It's very infrequent that I see someone elated by the implications of a theory (mind you, not the simple beauty of Pythagorean Theorem or the incredible explanatory power of Natural Selection, but by the actual implications of the theories themselves- The sheer fact that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the square of the remaining sides is no more pleasing than if it turned out the rule actually applied to isosceles triangles).

So, yes, I am making a claim about human psychology, but it's no more of a claim (and evokes no less evidence in support) than the claim made by Parfit (in your quote at least). Do normal people ponder death? Yeah, but not nearly as much as reason would dictate (Just consider how many people smoke in this country... If they feared death more than other common things like social acceptance or the effort it takes to quit/resist, I'd guess there'd be very few chronic smokers...). And when people do ponder death, it's rarely motivated by philosophical curiosity. Usually it begins as Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich begins, when we realize how lonely and socially unpopular dying is (perhaps we see someone not much different than us in the hospice and say to ourselves "Wait, this is how it ends? How disgraceful...")