First, a sort of apology: this post is a bit lengthy, and it may be a bit more “metaphysicsy” than the usual on PEA Soup, but it’s on a topic that has an important bearing on the ongoing debates over the role metaphysics, and in particular personal identity theory, has on our practical concerns, in particular our future-directed self-concern. It has to do with an exchange between Derek Parfit and Mark Johnston, stemming from Johnston’s argument (in, among other places, “Human Concerns Without Superlative Selves,” from the Dancy collection Reading Parfit) that personal identity can still have non-derivative importance, even on Parfit’s reductionist view, according to which the facts about personal identity just consist in more particular facts about brains, bodies, and mental/physical continuity, and even where those more particular facts themselves don’t have non-derivative importance. In “The Unimportance of Personal Identity,” Parfit replies to Johnston’s objection. Here I simply want to try and track the dialectic between Johnston and Parfit, and I’ll explain why I think that Parfit’s response doesn’t adequately meet Johnston’s concern. (Because I want to keep the post as short as possible, though, what I say here will be quite compressed and will assume knowledge of Parfitian reductionism, so readers not familiar with the basics of the debate may not want to read any further.)
Johnston first gets Parfit to admit that his reductionism is actually compatible with a further fact view, one according to which the facts of personal identity might still consist in facts that are distinct from facts about mental and physical continuity. Since Parfit’s reductionism can’t be an analytic reductionism – it can’t be that talk of persons has the same truth value as talk of mental and physical continuity – it must be an ontological reductionism. And of the various types of ontological reductionism – identifying, eliminative, and constitutive – Parfit’s is constitutive: so persons are wholly constituted by brains, bodies, and mental/physical events, although persons are still distinct from their brains, bodies, etc., so facts about persons may involve further facts. On Johnston’s view, for instance, persons are essentially human beings, wholly constituted by brains and bodies, but such that the facts about human beings are further facts from facts about brains and bodies. In this way, then, persons are like the statues in the famous statue/lump case. Parfit thus adjusts his statement of reductionism slightly, not so that it involves no further facts simpliciter, but so that it involves no independent or separately obtaining facts, where the fact of personal identity “is not a further difference in what happens” (“The Unimportance of Personal Identity,” in Henry Harris, ed., Identity (Oxford: OUP, 2001), p. 19).
OK, so on to the main exchange. In discussing the original teletransportation case, Parfit claims we shouldn’t care if the same brain is preserved between me and the person who walks out of the transporter on Mars, just as long as Relation R (psychological connectedness and/or continuity) obtains between us. Parfit suggests that we can call the survivor me if we like, but he actually thinks the identity of the survivor is indeterminate. Johnston disagrees, but suggests that, in trying to figure out what matters with respect to these cases, we need to consider both possibilities (indeterminacy and determinacy). If the identity of the survivor is in fact indeterminate, Johnston argues that we should merely extend the scope of our ordinary self-concern to include our R-related successors, and not, as Parfit has argued, switch over our ordinary self-concern to track Relation R, even in the non-exotic cases. But what if the identity of the survivor of teletransportation is determinate, i.e., he is not me?
Here Johnston gives his Argument from Above: if fact (a) consists entirely in facts (b) and (c), then even if (b) and (c) don’t matter, (a) might, in which case (b) and (c) will have only derivative importance (insofar as they constitute (a)). We can contrast this with Parfit’s Argument from Below (which he reaffirms in “The Unimportance of Identity”): if fact (a) consists entirely in facts (b) and (c), it can only be (b) and (c) which matter. Thus, if one has no non-derivative concern for (b) and (c), one should not have a non-derivative concern for (a) either. Now the specific facts in the teletransportation case are as follows: if (a) the survivor of teletransportation isn’t me, that fact just consists in the facts that (b) he’s not physically continuous with me, and (c) the R that obtains won’t have its normal cause. For Parfit, because we just don’t have a non-derivative concern for either (b) or (c) (and Johnston can agree that we don’t), then the fact that the survivor won’t be me shouldn’t matter as well. Johnston, however, maintains that even if the lack of physical continuity and the normal cause of R don’t matter non-derivatively, that doesn’t yet mean that the fact the survivor won’t be me doesn’t matter non-derivatively.
Now this might seem just to be a standoff, but here Johnston gives two reasons why Parfit’s position is something of a disaster. First, it yields the reductio of nihilism: given that all the facts of the world consist, ultimately, in facts about microphysical particles, and because we don’t have non-derivative concerns for those particles, then all values based on them shouldn’t matter either, which is absurd. Second, it commits the fallacy of composition: just because the parts of which some fact consists have no non-derivative value, that doesn’t mean the thing they consist in has no such value.
Parfit’s reply is two-fold: he gives an example of the disagreement between Johnston and himself and assumes his take on the example is more plausible than Johnston’s, and then he tries to respond directly to the nihilism reductio. I’ll here focus solely on the first response. He gives the example of something’s being “alive.” If “alive” is understood in a reductionist way, then the fact I’m still alive, despite having undergone irreversible brain damage, say, just consists in the fact that my heart and other organs are still functioning. If we decide these lower level facts don’t matter, then the fact I’m still alive shouldn’t matter either. On Johnston’s view, even though it may not be non-derivatively good that our hearts beat, it is good to be alive, and so we may be rational in hoping that our hearts continue to beat, given that their beating is what constitutes our being alive.
Parfit simply believes his argument is more plausible here, and his crucial point is this: if fact X consists entirely in more particular facts, then (1) X is not an independent or separately obtaining fact, and (2) X is also, in relation to those other facts, merely a conceptual fact. It’s not a fact about our concepts, of course; rather, it’s a fact about the application of our concepts to some feature of the world. The challenge, then, is this: why should a merely conceptual fact matter, when the lower level facts don’t?
Take, then, the beating heart case. Suppose we agree that the fact your heart is still beating doesn’t matter, but we also hold that it does matter that you’re still alive. If we do that (and we agree that the fact of your being alive just consists in the fact that your heart is beating), then “we’re treating language as more important than reality” (p. 32), and that can’t be plausible.
Nevertheless, it’s not at all clear to me that (2) follows, that, if X consists entirely in more particular facts, X is, therefore, just a conceptual fact. Consider the statue/lump case, for example. The statue is wholly constituted by the lump of clay, so facts about the statue consist entirely in facts about the lump. Now surely the lump doesn’t matter non-derivatively. Nevertheless, (a) facts about the statue aren’t just conceptual facts, it seems, and (b) it’s certainly rational for me to care non-derivatively about the statue.
So it seems that not all wholly constituted facts are conceptual facts, and this seems to be the real source of the disagreement between Johnston and Parfit: are the facts about identity more like the facts about “alive” or more like the facts about statues? If there are different kinds of wholly constituted facts (some conceptual, some not), then Parfit has to explain why “identity” is merely conceptual. And if all wholly constituted facts are conceptual, we need an argument to that effect. At this point, then, it looks as if Johnston has the better of the exchange. Well, he does, that is, unless someone can show me that (a) wholly constituted facts are merely conceptual, and (b) there’s some argument to that end that I’ve missed. So please enlighten me.