Survival and Experience


(Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1996: 17-36) I If I am to survive until some later date, what must happen, and what must not happen, over the intervening period? I am talking here about survival in the strict sense. Take an earlier and a later person, if they are one and the same, what is it about them that makes this so? In addressing this question the preferred tool has long been the exploitation of imaginary or science fiction cases. We are asked to reflect on scenarios in which an ordinary person is subjected to some unusual treatment which effectively removes one or more of the elements that usually accompanies personal persistence. If we think the subject survives the treatment, the conclusion is drawn that the elements removed are not necessary to personal identity as we conceive it. The hope is that the repeated use of this method, with a variety of scenarios, will finally produce a convergence of intuitive responses as to what is necessary and sufficient for survival. Unfortunately, this method has failed to produce the goods. The literature is brimming with cunningly constructed scenarios yet consensus as to what personal persistence involves seems as elusive as ever. So it is hardly surprising that the method has come in for some criticism recently. There is a feeling that much time has been wasted on devising fantastic stories about which many people have no firm or reliable intuitions. Hence the demand for a different approach. As for the direction the new approach should take, a general trend can be detected: a focusing on human beings, biological entities of a particular kind, with species-specific identity conditions - a move away from science fiction, towards science. I shall be arguing here that this response is premature. Although it would be a mistake to expect too much from the standard method, it delivers at least one significant result: that of the several strands that make up a human life, we believe that one particular strand is of overriding importance in regard to our continued existence.

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Barry Francis Dainton
University of Liverpool

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