HOW TO SURVIVE
Why survival has always been the aim of the philosophical game
By Dr Patrick Stokes
Personal identity – the philosophical inquiry into what we are and what makes us the same people from one day to the next – has become an engine- room for endless books and papers, by turns arid and outlandish, combining thrilling science -fiction what-ifs with numbing technical precision. But historically, the wellspring of this discussion is fear: fear of death, fear of damnation, fear of oblivion. Survival has always been the aim of the game.
From the Buddha denying the reality of selves to early medieval Church Fathers wrestling with the mechanics of bodily resurrection, discussion of selves is never far from talk of their endings. Writing in the 1690s, John Locke set the tone for the modern debate by conjuring wild thought-experiments about princes and cobblers swapping minds in the night and the Mayor of Queensborough sharing the soul of Socrates. Yet Locke’s concern is ultimately with “that great day, wherein the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open” and how we can be sure, when that judgment day comes, of each of us getting our just reward or punishment. Upon the death of Derek Parfit, the most important philosopher of personal identity since Locke, many obituaries quoted a passage in his Reasons and Persons where he claims that his reductionist theory of personal identity had eased his fear of dying. “My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness,” Parfit wrote. “When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air.” Few of us have found the same comfort.
That’s not for want of trying, though. Personal identity is one of the most highly discussed topics in Anglophone philosophy today. We’ve been grappling in earnest with the question of what links us to our past and future selves on a near-industrial scale since the 1960s. It’s not that we can’t answer this question. We’ve answered it over and over again. It’s just that it refuses to stay answered.
Aristotle was only half-right when he said that philosophy begins with wonder. Some philosophy begins with fear.