Friday, September 15, 2017

Four-dimensionalism and caring about identity

In normal situations, diachronic psychological connections and personal identity go together. A view introduced by Parfit is that when the two come apart, what we care about are the connections and not the identity.


This view seems to me to be deeply implausible from a four-dimensional point of view. I am a four-dimensional thing. This four-dimensional thing should prudentially care about what happens to it, and only about what happens to it. The red-and-black four-dimensional thing in the diagram here (up/down represents time; one spatial dimension is omitted) should care about what happens to the red-and-black four-dimensional thing, all along its temporal trunk. This judgment seems completely unaffected by learning that the dark slice represents an episode of amnesia, and that no memories pass from the bottom half to the upper half.

Or take a case of symmetric fission, and suppose that the facts of identity are such that I am the red four-dimensional thing in the diagram on the right. Suppose both branches have full memories of what happens before the fission event. If I am the red four-dimensional thing, I should prudentially care about what happens to the red four-dimensional thing. What happens to the green thing on the right is irrelevant, even if it happens to have in it memories of the pre-split portion of me.

The same is true if the correct account of identity in fission is Parfit’s account, on which one perishes in a split. On this account, if I am the red four-dimensional person in the diagram on the left, surely I should prudentially care only about what happens to the red four-dimensional thing; if I am the green person, I should prudentially care only about what happens to the green one; and if I am the blue one, I should prudentially care only about what happens to the blue one. The fact that both the green and the blue people remember what happened to the red person neither make the green and blue people responsible for what the red person did nor make it prudent for the red person to care about what happens to the green and blue people.

This four-dimensional way of thinking just isn’t how the discussion is normally phrased. The discussion is normally framed in terms of us finding ourselves at some time—perhaps a time before the split in the last diagram—and wondering which future states we should care about. The usual framing is implicitly three-dimensionalist: what should I, a three-dimensional thing at this time, prudentially care about?

But there is an obvious response to my line of thought. My line of thought makes it seem like I am transtemporally caring about what happens. But that’s not right, not even if four-dimensionalism is true. Even if I am four-dimensional, my cares occur at slices. So on four-dimensionalism, the real question isn’t what I, the four-dimensional entity, should prudentially care about, but what my three-dimensional slices, existent at different times, should care about. And once put that way, the obviousness of the fact that if I am the red thing, I should care about what happens to the red thing disappears. For it is not obvious that a slice of the red thing should care only about what happens to other slices of the red thing. Indeed, it is quite compelling to think that the psychological connections between slices A and B matter more than the fact that A and B are in fact both parts of the same entity. (Compare: the psychological connections between me and you would matter more than the fact that you and I are both parts of the same nation, say.) The correct picture is the one here, where the question is whether the opaque red slice should care about the opaque green and opaque blue slices.

In fact, in this four-dimensionalist context, it’s not quite correct to put the Parfit view as “psychological connections matter more than identity”. For identity doesn’t obtain between different slices. Rather, what obtains is co-parthood, an obviously less significant relation.

However, this response to me depends on a very common but wrongheaded version of four-dimensionalism. It is I that care, feel and think at different times. My slices don’t care, don’t feel and don’t think. Otherwise, there will be too many carers, feelers and thinkers. If one must have slices in the picture (and I don’t know that that is so), the slices might engage in activities that ground my caring, my feeling and my thinking. But these grounding activities are not caring, feeling or thinking. Similarly, the slices are not responsive to reasons: I am responsive to reasons. The slices might engage in activity that grounds my responsiveness to reasons, but that’s all.

So the question is what cares I prudentially should have at different times. And the answer is obvious: they should be cares about what happens to me at different times.

About the graphics: The images are generated using mikicon’s CC-by-3.0 licensed Gingerbread icon from the Noun Project, exported through this Inkscape plugin and turned into an OpenSCAD program (you will also need my tubemesh library).

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