Friday, February 24, 2012

Narcissus Sought Himself Reflected In the World and Found Only Death


The division and other examples show, according to Parfit, that what fundamentally matters is that your psychology flows on, in you or in someone else. But notice that a weak kind of psychological flow between you and others occurs all the time. Friends and family may come to share some of your beliefs and preferences, and sometimes they act to fulfill your plans, as when you ask someone to do you a favor and bring over some milk. What’s more, psychological connections such as these—flows from you to others—usually remain after death, at least to some extent. “Now that I have seen this,” Parfit says, “my death seems to me less bad.” Parfit observes that his position bears some similarity to the Buddhist “no-self” doctrine of anatta, at least on one interpretation. As the philosopher Mark Johnston understands the doctrine in his Surviving Death (2010), "There are no persisting selves worth caring about."

...To refute death, we need to combine our protean nature with the point about higher-order individuals. Given that we are protean, we can change what sorts of events we can survive by changing our pattern of self-concern. For example, a Transporter is able to survive teleportation because she cares deeply about the person who steps out of the receiving station. And given that the Tiger is a higher-order individual, Humanity or Mankind is a higher-order individual too, transcending individual people as the Tiger transcends Tigger and Shere Khan.

What if someone were truly good, a follower of, per Johnston, “the command of agape or radical altruism,” and cared about everyone as if they were herself? That pattern of self-concern would make her a higher-order individual; not quite Humanity, but something like it. If someone conforms to the demands of agape and regards the interests of others as she regards the interests of herself, then she will survive by being partly embodied by those others. She would then “quite literally, live on in the onward rush of mankind,” Johnston writes.

It's a fun, thought-provoking article, and I agree with the general thrust of it. Still, though, it's a metaphysical sleight-of-hand trick to try to segue seamlessly from an individual perspective to a species-wide (or why stop there? Why not universal?) one without a sense of loss.

As far as I know, I haven't come up with any unique thoughts, certainly none that have significantly influenced the wider world. Even if I have managed to repackage certain basic ideas in a slightly different formulation, I didn't invent the language or conceptual categories I used in the process of doing so. All I am is a locus in time of particular experiences combined with imperfect memories of earlier ones. Yet the particular is what makes statements of desire coherent in the first place.

This is saying: I don't want to suffer the pain and fear of dying, so I'll just shift my pattern of self-concern to encompass the broader ideal of Humanity. But surely Humanity will die out one day too, like most species that have ever existed, so then what? Identify with all life on earth? The sun that makes its existence possible? The universe itself? By the time we find something we can be assured of existing permanently, we'll have lost any meaningful way of inhabiting that perspective and deriving peace of mind from it.

And there it is: maybe the quandary is just that you desire to experience joy without suffering.

1 comment:

noel said...

"Grasshopper, they can never hurt me; only this poor, tired out old body of mine."
Keep in mind that our inability to perceive something directly has little bearing on its reality. We are identical with the universe as conscious beings, not as flesh and blood; we may or may not realize this during our lives, but possibly at the moment we die. I once almost drowned - a near death experience, if you will. I was terrified at first, then, when my consciousness started slipping away, and I knew there was nothing else I could do about it, I suddenly felt a beautiful sense of peace - all responsibilities and anxieties melted away. I stopped being afraid. My sister pushed me out of the water and I took a breath - once again thrust into the fray.