Parfit, connectedness and death

[3d post in a series, start with the first post here]

On Tuesday, I wrote about Derek Parfit’s paper, Personal Identity, and his views about how thinking of the future self as not fully the same person as the present self (i.e., as not fully psychologically connected) might have implications for how people think about death:

“The second consequence which I shall mention is implied in the first. Egoism, the fear not of near but of distant death, the regret that so much of one’s only life should have gone by — these are not, I think, wholly natural or instinctive. They are all strengthened by the beliefs about personal identity which I have been attacking. If we give up these beliefs, they should be weakened.”

This is a view that he took seriously in his own life, and that he evidently found liberating.

In 2015, we organized a conference on personal identity and decision making. Shaun Nichols gave a fascinating talk on work he and his co-authors were doing on exactly this question, including comparing across religions with different views of personal identity. He briefly discusses his research in the video below (at the 1:10 mark).

It turns out not to work for most other people quite as Parfit described in his own views. In Shaun and his co-authors’ experiments, making people more connected did not seem to reduce their anxiety about death. They speculated that when people think about death, they are not thinking in terms of a future self, but are imagining it as occurring in the present.

I also wonder if the psychological will to live transcends how we think of tradeoffs between present and future. One potential implication of how Parfit thinks of death is that we are kind of constantly dying a little bit. Every day’s self is at least a bit disconnected from the previous day’s self, and that previous day’s self is gone. For Parfit, this makes the entire question of death moot, in a way — there is no single long-term enduring self that ceases to exist. But another way of thinking about this is to see your child self as (at least somewhat) dead, and to know that at some point in the future, your future self will consider your present self to be (at least somewhat) dead too.

In some sense that seems right. My 10 year old self is gone, and in a weird way, I kind of miss that kid. A lot of what defined our past selves can remain in our present selves, of course, but some of it is gone. I think for most people, what is gone is a combination of those things that they wanted to change, those changes that are inevitable, and those aspects of the self that somehow just slip away when we’re focused on other things.

So, while I think Parfit’s view resonates with people’s experience to some degree, it’s not clear to me that the implication is to necessarily be less threatened by death.  If a person has low connectedness, believing that the future self will be fundamentally different, then that eventual death of the disconnected future self may be less threatening. But if the low connectedness itself is seen as a kind of gradual death of the current self, thinking in terms of connectedness could feel threatening rather than liberating.

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