The Metaphysics of Identity & Persistence old texts

In Fred Feldman’s Termination Thesis, he argues for the view that when we die, we simply cease to exist. Feldman utilizes the term “annihilation” in order to demonstrate that the same metaphysical principle appeals to in both sides of the “evil of death” debate. He invokes the well-known Epicurean belief: “as long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist” (Feldman, 2000) in tandem with his termination thesis to demonstrate why death should not be feared. Simply stated, when we die, we stop existing—we have no perceptions, no awareness of our death—so it would be irrational to fear death itself because at that moment, we lack the mental state to experience pain and other unpleasant sensations, or even think about what is occurring.  This raises important questions about the relationship between existence and death that I will explore in this essay, particularly because of the relevance to psychological continuity, personal identity, and persistence. Among such questions, I will also ask whether people and other creatures continue to exist after dying. Such topics appeal to the metaphysics of death, and present a dualism between mental and corporeal existence—or mind and body—. Feldman maintains that the person is a complex entity, comprised of body and soul; these are separated at the time of death and bring extermination upon the person.  In measuring “existence” it is therefore essential to take both “mental” and “physical” existence into account. Feldman argues for a materialist account that suggests a dualism between the two, maintaining that mind and body are distinct when discussing issues about death. He asserts that people cannot be identified with their bodies when they go out of existence because personal identity depends on the presence of a psychological mind. As such, he believes that psychological connectedness, or having a mind with functional mental capacities, is a necessary requirement for personal identity. Moreover, due to the nature of TT, Feldman also believes that people cannot exist after dying. I, however, object to both claims and contend that it is incorrect to discount the physical body when accounting for personal identity; both mental and physical components are equal contributors and are interconnected in ways that cannot be easily dismissed. I also maintain that people can exist after dying, albeit in a different form—that of a corpse.  To support my arguments I touch on notions relating to the close relationships between the body and mind, as well as the significance of identifiable biological structures to account for persistence.

Early on in his exposition outlining the importance of the termination thesis as a concept, Feldman briefly explains this question “whether psychological connectedness is the mark of personal identity” (Feldman, 2000). Other philosophers have seemed to suggest that if people continue existing without psychology—which we will take as a mental faculty, or mind, in general—when they die, then a person could very well be identical to “some later thing (a corpse) with which the person is psychologically unconnected” to (Feldman, 2000).  In other words, when people physically exist but without a mind, or mental awareness of any sort; they become comparable to a corpse, which may physically exist but is separated from his or her mental faculties entirely.  Such instances are exemplified in cases where individuals are left completely brain dead after a traumatic and unfortunate accident, and remain physically “alive” but mentally “brain-dead”. As suggested by Feldman and others who agree with his account, this individual under such circumstances would have no traces of personal identity, being that their mental states cannot function properly.

This begins to highlight the connection between psychological connectedness and personal identity.  Is psychological connectedness, or the presence of a mental faculty (mind) a necessary condition to establish some sort of personal identity? A popular expression claims that “What we think is what we are”, so could it be that if we do not think at all, we are simply, not? If one does not have a functional mind to think about past and future events, have feelings, act on these feelings and desires, experience other emotions and perceptual sensations, evaluate current situations, and so forth; is it sufficient to assume that this person is basically dead because all these functions are central to personal identity, what makes humans unique, and what separates one individual from another?  I would have to argue that regardless of the “mental state” (or non-state) of an individual, as long as the physical being exists, it is safe to assume that the being still exists albeit in a substantially different form—the form of a corpse. As such, it seems that mind and body, although mutually dependent on each other in many ways, remain independent in their very natures. Even if a being is “brain-dead”, but still physically alive, that individual still exists because the physical being is still alive. As long as the biological foundations function—that is, as long as blood is pumping, heart is beating, organs are, for the most part, functional, and so forth—the person is still “alive” and therefore, exists. Even if the person is mentally unaware, or unconscious of their current condition and may even never regain consciousness, it would be immoral to terminate their lives prematurely. This circumstance is comparable to murdering someone when they are in a vulnerable state and cannot defend themselves. Like the unconscious or “brain-dead” person, the vulnerable individual has been stripped of their abilities to defend themselves, as well as their options to have a choice in their current situation. Despite this lack of autonomy in both cases, it does not follow that they cease to be a “person” at all. Rather, they exist as a person under very unfortunate circumstances, and if they had a choice or say to alter their situation, chances are they would do so. Therefore, I would maintain that psychological connectedness is not the only condition to establish persistence, or existence.  The person, regardless of the mental state they are presently in, are still physically alive. Of course, such arguments such as these, which appeal to brain removal, coma or even brain death, are difficult views to argue for. Many are apt to be wary of deliberations like these imagined, but possible, cases; mostly on the grounds that we remain unsure of what is involved in circumstances of coma and brain death, and whether they actually entail psychological disconnection. For all we know, a person in such a state may be more self-aware than we may give credence to at all. Yet, advocates of such reasoning, such as I, believe that these are nevertheless cases of persistence—corporeal persistence, or existence—regardless of psychological continuity.

Along these lines, Feldman poses another pertinent question relating to the relationship between a person and his “remains” (Feldman, 2000) or his corpse.  The question is whether there is any relation, or association, between “person” (before death) and ”corpse” (the state after death). Do they belong to the same entity, or are they two substantially different entities, being that the former (corpse) has significantly altered states from its previous entity (person)? According to Feldman’s TT, he suggests: “no one is identical to his remains” (Feldman, 2000). This question invokes matters related to personal identity by means of persistence. He seems to imply here that “person” and “remains” or “corpse” are two separate entities, and therefore cannot be treated under the same considerations. His reasoning here hinges upon a materialist account, which would state that people go out of existence when they die, even if their bodies survive. This most obviously adopts a dualistic approach to mind and body, where the mind goes out of existence at the moment of death, thereby signifying “non-existence” even if the physical body remains. It follows from this materialism that people cannot be identified with their bodies; it seems as if “identification” or personal identity depends on the existence and proper function of the mind itself, not the body. Therefore, Feldman and other materialists would suggest that it is impossible to measure personal identity according to the existence of a body, whether it be a corpse or not.  I would, under this view, refute this idea as well. On the contrary, I believe that the mind and body are mutually dependent on each other, and play the same sort of role in accounting for “identity”.

In my defense, it is important to recognize the relationship between mind and body, and how one may influence the other. We see these in cases of illness, where the mind’s instability can surely inflict physical ailments or increase the person’s susceptibility of disease. In other regards, the state of our mind; what we think, what we feel, how we perceive certain situations, what value we assign to certain experiences, how we understand certain concepts, and so on, are important for our own self-construal. This self-construal, in the most general term, is how we think of ourselves. As such it seems obvious that personal identity is definitely linked with our mental states, our psychological connectedness. However, the physical body is another way of expressing one’s personal identity, especially because of its interconnectedness with the mind. What we think, feel, perceive, will, desire, and fancy, can all be expressed in our physical bodies: how we dress, carry ourselves, present ourselves, and what we look like, among other aspects. It would therefore be incorrect to assume a strict dualism between mind and body, whereby both are separate entities that barely interact with each other. Rather, the mind and body are mutually dependent on each other in more ways than one can even fathom.  The mind and body work in tandem with each other, and are therefore both essential components in our self-concepts, which may strictly reside in our mental processes but are certainly expressed in our physical bodies.  It seems, therefore, that the mind and body are equal contenders in establishing personal identity. The extinction of the mind, therefore, does not entirely take away from being able to correctly identify any physical body.

Another parallel of this idea that may be easier to understand is that relating to “gender” and “sex”. Sex is defined by the biological or anatomical structures that mark one as either “woman” or “man”. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct that adheres more directly to the genderized social prescriptions (roles and rules) according to cultural expectations, which are typically defined as “masculine” or “feminine”.  For the sake of this explanation, we can take “sex” to correspond to the “physical” body, being that sex is measured by the physical appearance of certain male or female anatomical structures; and gender could represent the “mind” or how certain individuals—regardless of their sex—view and understand themselves. Many studies in Gender Psychology have shown sex and gender are independent conceptions, but simultaneously and inevitably depend on each other. For example, one may be biologically female, but not adhere to the “feminine” gender roles prescribed to her. In fact, there are many instances where women actually adopt more “masculine” roles, and the same phenomenon may occur for men adopting traditional “feminine” roles. An example would be working women who are more likely to adopt typically “masculine” roles such as being more agentic, dominating, and assertive. The same goes for men who hold “feminine” caregiver roles, who assume more gentle, nurturing and empathetic characters. Regardless of the mental state, or how individuals of both sexes perceive themselves under their particular roles, they still maintain a physical condition (their sex) that also serves to define them. It would be foolish, therefore, to assume that men who adopt “feminine” roles would regard their personal identity as “women”, and vice versa. In the same token, one must not presuppose that only physical conditions can account for personal identity because that would completely disregard all other mental constructions of the self, such as personality characteristics, for example, that hold equal weight. In this example, it seems that the physical being and mental being are two important components for personal identity, and it would be illogical to isolate one as a necessary and sufficient component.

In clarifying some possible misunderstandings of the termination thesis, Feldman points to the following tendency: “I have heard people say things like this: ‘when I die I will no longer exist. I will just be a corpse’. Such a remark seems self-contradictory” (Feldman, 2000). He goes on to explain this apparent inconsistency; when the individual claims that he or she will exist as a corpse, then he or she will surely exist—but in the form of a corpse. Feldman explains that it would be more consistent to claim: “When I die, I will no longer exist as the same sort of thing I am now. Instead I will exist merely as a corpse” (Feldman, 2000). However, regardless of this apparent consistency, he maintains that TT says nothing about existing as “a kind of thing”. Instead, TT is meant to be taken in its simple form—the individual will cease to exist overall. The argument does not entertain the possibilities of the type or kind of person that the individual will become; rather, TT implies that “when people die, they don’t go on existing as anything” (Feldman, 2000).

I would refute this claim on several grounds. Firstly, it is important to make a distinction between “people” and “dead people” in order to suggest that people continue to exist as people—albeit in a different state of existence—even after they die. The idea that supports this claim is the simple notion that if enough of an individual’s or animal’s biological components remain intact following his or her death, then the person or animal will continue to meet this condition for some significant time interval following the moment of death. That is to say, that as long as the physical body and its biological organization is somehow identifiable, or identical, to the individual’s state of being while alive; it is safe to claim that the “dead person” or “dead animal” continues to exist as a “person” or “animal” but in a different state of existence. That is, the “state” of being dead rather than alive. This is a view that is typically adopted by “animalists”, who claim that we are human beings and can survive for a time after death, but as corpses.  As long as the physical body of a dead person or dead animal remains in some identifiable form, the corpse of that person or animal still exists. As long as we can see it, we can recognize what species or what particular individual the corpse belongs to, we can touch it, bury it, and other actions such as these; if the body is there, it exists.

There is a tendency for people to assume that a continued life is required in order to account for the persistence of human beings. It is tempting to respond to this argument by bringing up a different perspective. That is, highlighting a difference between what one may call a “dead person”, which is not in fact a person at all, but rather a dead body or a corpse. This idea highlights a significant point, that where is no such thing as a dead person at all because what is termed as a “dead person” is really just another way of referring to a corpse.  It would seem, therefore, that if dead people are not really people at all, then they are irrelevant in this discussion of personal identity.  It is indeed a natural tendency to refer to “remains” as “dead people”, but this usage is certainly not self-contradictory as Feldman asserts.  On this more radical view, admitting that there are “dead people” who lay beneath a grave does not necessarily commit oneself to the assumption that there are really people in the grave, but that they are dead. Rather, “dead people” and “people” in general must be distinguished as meaning two significantly different things.

First of all, the word “dead” is simply an adjective to describe the current state of being of a what-once-was a living entity. Such a term undoubtedly exists, and can refer to a myriad of nouns—plants, dogs, butterflies, and so on. In an article by philosopher David Mackie titled Personal Identity and Dead People, he brings up a very interesting point about this word “dead”. He compares this adjective to another, similar one: “counterfeit”. He intelligently states: “For just as counterfeit money is not really money, so counterfeit rubies are not really rubies…. So if ‘dead’ is an adjective like ‘counterfeit’, then just as dead people are not really people, so dead roses will not really be roses… worse still, dead bodies will not really be bodies” (Mackie, 1997). He takes this example to point out that most people hold exceptions when it comes to defining humans, perhaps because of the personal significance it has. Within this understanding, it seems as if anyone would readily agree that dead butterflies are still butterflies yet hesitate to carry this association with bodies. As such, it is “doubtful whether anyone could seriously maintain that dead bodies are not really bodies. It is only when it comes to people, or persons, that we are at all inclined to hesitate” (Mackie, 1997).  What he means to say is that there is a special weight attached to “people” or “persons”, meaning that there ends up being no such thing as a dead person at all. This is certainly untrue.  According to Feldman’s paper, for something to be “identified” as a person, or for something to have any sort of “personhood” it must have some psychological endowment, or have a mind that is organized in some sophisticated and functional way. I do not deny this definition of what is the nature of a person, a view similar to Locke’s criterion of a thinking and sentient being. It would seem, therefore, that things that are dead fall short of adhering to this seemingly pertinent and necessary psychological/mental condition.

However, I wish to finally point out the ambiguity in the term “person”. Once this distinction is established, it may clarify my argument against Feldman’s assumptions of psychological necessity for personal identity, as well as persistence.  The first sense of the word directly relates to the common-sense assumption that personhood requires proper psychological or mental capacities. For the sake of this argument, we shall call this P1. There is another way of interpreting “person”, which includes “dead person” and I will call this P2. It can be immediately assumed that dead people are not people (P2 is not equivalent to P1), by the mere distinction I just outlined. As such, P1 are not the beings whose persistence, or existence after “death”, we are concerned with.  It may also seem that the “personal identity” question would eliminate P2 (dead persons) from the deliberation, being that they are not connected with a psychological component. However, I object to this common notion (of dead people not possessing any personal identity) by appealing to a question that Feldman proposes in his own exposition; what is the association between a Person at one time, and something at another time (presumably, the “dead person”), which renders these two identical?” In answering this, I maintain a previous claim that a body can continue to exist regardless of psychological continuity.  Feldman’s claim here is that when death comes upon someone, persistence comes to a full halt. That is, the being simply stops existing. However, he does not take into consideration existence or persistence as a person, a “dead person” (P2).  The association between a (living) person (P1) at one time, with the (dead) person (P2) at another time, is that the physical body—the biological foundations, the anatomical structures and physical appearances—remain the same throughout the time interval before and immediately after death.  It is not consistent to assume that the resulting entity cannot be identified with the original person. Although the dead person—the physical remains—may not be psychologically continuous, it would be incorrect to assume that they are nevertheless identifiable. As such, it would also be incorrect to assume that this dead person, the corpse, does not maintain an identical (physical) identity similar to the original (living) body.

While discussing these matters of personal identity, persistence conditions are central. However, as I have discussed, that dead people (P2) are not irrelevant to this personal identity question merely because they are not psychologically apt people (P1).  If dead people do exist, as I contend, they are identical to the earlier living human beings because of the bodies they still have. Although their mental capacities have—as many believe, yet it is difficult to prove this as such—been relinquished, the physical bodies are still, at least for some time, intact.  Therefore, they remain identifiable and identical to the original being. It can even be said that this being has passed from a state of being “alive” to a state of being “dead”; it could be that they are a brand new person in that sense, how they are categorized, but this in no way alters their true identity. To explain this further, I will elaborate on an example given by Mackie (1997) about a butterfly collector. If the butterfly collector were to become aware that what he collects are not in fact butterflies, he would be quite surprised. Mackie explains: “the items in the collector’s collection are dead; but that does not mean that they are not butterflies. This man goes out in the morning with a net, and spends the day catching butterflies. In the evening he comes home and mounts them” (Mackie, 1997).  Those philosophers like Feldman who strictly believe that members of certain biological categories cease to exist when they die, should also commit to believe that the butterfly collector does not mount butterflies at the end of the day, but some other completely distinct things—that is, butterfly corpses.  In other words, this assumes that butterfly corpses are of a different biological kind than butterflies. Or to relate it to human beings, it would assume that dead people are of an entirely different biological category than living people. The discussion about biology is important for both mentions because the corpses, just like the living bodies (of humans and butterflies alike), have all their features—anatomical structure, as well as their genetic composition—because they are members of a unique biological species. This is a certain and obvious fact of nature, and evolutionary science supports it with a myriad of evidence. As such, the sheer absence of life does not imply that butterfly corpses are not butterflies.

From this example, there is no reason to believe that members of our biological species are any different. As such, being dead does not evict the “dead person” from the category of “person” or “human being” in any way. Living people can easily become dead people through one event, but are still considered “people” as long as they are mostly identifiable as belonging to the human species. Of course, I acknowledge some exceptions to this rule for dead people, such as when bodies are cremated after they pass, or when the event of death occurs in a traumatic fire of which no remains are left. It is obvious in these cases, among many others, that the remains would not be an identifiable body of any form. Moreover, there would be nothing that could possibly identify the remains as a human body or distinguish it from any other animal or object that was also victim to the fire. In these cases, these “remains” would not be considered “dead bodies”, being that there are no actual bodies that have any identifiable features of any sort of biological species at all.  In such cases, the biological organism would lose a significant amount of matter, or substance. Due to the lack of any substantial remains in these cases, it is not enough to assume persistence. Rather, in cases where actual physical bodies—dead bodies or corpses—remain, we can claim persistence. Even though bodies that lie underground for long periods of time do come to disintegrate into the earth, they still persist (exist) as long as there is something substantial left to identify them. The persistence and personal identity conditions, therefore, seem to depend on the organism—human or non-human—retaining an adequate amount (or kind) of components, which are the product of their unique biology. This condition allows bodies to “persist”, granting them some existence albeit in “dead” form. Therefore, it does not seem as if life condition, or psychological connectedness, is necessary for persistence and personal identity.

Based on the arguments outlined above, I would reject the Termination Thesis. As far as I am concerned, Feldman’s arguments relating to definition, personal dualism, and personality; are all quite weak. He falls short of providing an adequate explanation of the difference between “people” and “dead people” which I have geared to be a central component for my own argument. His dualistic approach separating mind and body are two distinct entities is not a convincing approach in order to support his claim that the mind (psychological connectedness) is a necessary component of personal identity.  Rather, I maintain throughout my defense that the mind and body are interconnected, and perhaps more mutually dependent than one may fathom.  I propose then, as an alternative to the Termination Thesis, that biological “intactness” is just as indispensable in order to establish personal identity of any creature, human or non-human. It seems, also, that humans and issues relating to human bodies (or persons) are held to a different standard than other organisms. However, taking this approach may almost immediately lead someone to falsehoods. Like gorillas, dogs, cats, snakes, horses; humans are just another type of species. As such, human biological processes of life, reproduction, and death; do not vary too significantly from that of other species. Therefore, it would be inconsistent to hold human beings to a whole new standard than other animals when discussing issues of life and death. As I have demonstrated, the butterfly collector mounts butterflies on his walls; regardless of whether they are in a state of being “alive” or “dead”, they are nevertheless butterflies. These creatures look like butterflies, act like butterflies, and are in fact, unique members—and variations—of the butterfly species.  Simply because they have passed on to another state of being, from alive to dead, does not mean that they have ceased to be entirely. They still exist; their bodies are preserved in between the glass that is mounted on the butterfly collector’s wall. Any non-collector could very wall walk into the room and identify these items on the wall as butterflies because their perceptions unmistakably lead them to form the idea, and thus believe, that they are butterflies. The term “dead butterfly” is merely an adjective that surely describes a state of being, but it does not imply their non-persistence or non-existence.

As goes for humans; if I were to visit the grave of my recently dead hypothetical sister and unbury her, I would undoubtedly see the dead body of my hypothetical sister.  She still exists, regardless of the current state that she is in—that of being “dead”.  The butterflies and my hypothetical sister still maintain their personal identities despite their psychological un-connectedness.  This is greatly attributed to their biological foundations, which render them identifiable members of a distinct species, with unique features.  Despite this lack of a psychological component, the physical bodies still persist, which accounts for the persistence conditions by means of their identity as being in a “dead” state. As such, these organisms persist in a significantly different state than before, despite their psychological continuity, because they have maintained their personal identity as particular members of their kind. For the reasons outlined in my paper, as long as many others of which I could argue; Feldman’s arguments concerning personal identity, psychological connectedness, and persistence conditions, are all pathetic attempts to substantiate his termination thesis.

Bibliography:

Feldman, Fred. The Termination Thesis. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXIV (2000). Pp 98-107.

Mackie, David. Personal Identity And Dead People. May 1997.

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