Is R2-D2 a person?

Galen Strawson

  • Staying Alive: Personal Identity, Practical Concerns and the Unity of a Life by Marya Schechtman
    Oxford, 214 pp, £35.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 19 968487 8

What does it take for a person in 2015 to be the same person as she was in 1995 and will be in 2035? This is the question of personal identity, a question about persistence through time, or ‘diachronic’ identity. It seems enough at first to say that the person is the same in 2015 as in 1995 and in 2035 just so long as she is the same living human animal, the same biological organism (same passport, same national insurance number, same DNA). This is enough for the passport office, HMRC and those philosophers of personal identity who are called ‘animalists’ (notably Paul Snowdon and Eric Olson). But the concept of a person contains pressures that push us to say different things. We have for example to consider diseases that radically alter personality. People have divorced on the grounds that ‘this isn’t the person I married,’ and one doesn’t need to be unwell to feel what Henry James felt, writing to Rhoda Broughton in November 1915 after she had praised one of (what he called) his ‘old perpetrations’: ‘I think of it, the masterpiece in question, as the work of quite another person than myself, at this date – that of a rich (so much rather than a poor) relation, say, who … suffers me still to claim a shy fourth cousinship.’ People regularly and sincerely claim to have become a different person although they know they’re the same biological organism as before. They think that it’s their mental being – in particular their overall personality – that’s essential to their always being the person they are.

If this is right, it looks as if the person that I am can survive when a surgical supercomputer transplants my brain into a perfect clone body (assuming, plausibly enough, that my fundamental mental being is carried in my brain), leaving my 1952-2015 body to be cremated or recycled. And it’s not even clear that I need a perfect clone body in order to survive. Locke in 1694 imagined the souls of a prince and a cobbler swapping bodies, and we can run the same thought experiment today substituting brains for souls. It seems natural to think that after the swap the cobbler has the prince’s body and vice versa. Suppose the prince had committed a murder before the swap: who (which body) should be locked up?

Things become less clear when we increase the differences between the two bodies. (Emily Dickinson in Winston Churchill’s body? Martin Amis in Joyce Carol Oates’s?) We can reduce the impact of a strange body by imagining that the overall chemistry of the transferred brain is essentially the same as in the old body (no strange hormonal rushes). Even so, there may be limits on how different one’s new body can be if one is to remain the same person. I may feel I’m most essentially a mental self, that my identity is in some deep way independent of my body, but ‘I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship,’ as Descartes observed. ‘I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit.’

Locke leaves our bodies unchanged in another famous thought experiment. He imagines the instantaneous transfer of our whole mental being (personality, memories and so on) from one immaterial soul or ‘soul-substance’ to another. Derek Parfit also preserves strong bodily similarity in his ‘teletransportation’ thought experiment, a variation on Locke in which a superscanner records every last detail of the structure of one’s body (including one’s brain) and encodes it in digital form, destroying the body in the process. The resulting data file is then radio-transmitted to Mars, allowing a perfect replica of one’s body to be assembled from new matter.

Parfitian teletransportation is not like being ‘beamed up’ by a ‘transporter’ in Star Trek – if (as most people suppose) beaming transmits the matter that makes up one’s body as ‘energy’ which is reassembled exactly as it was on arrival. On the journey to Mars one exists only as a complex pattern of radio waves. This, perhaps, is why many doubt they’d survive teletransportation even when they think they’d survive Star Trek beaming. But it’s hard on reflection to see why teletransportation would be less good than beaming. In everyday life the atoms constituting one’s brain (in particular one’s neurons) are constantly being replaced in processes of cell repair. It may be that one’s brain today has almost no matter in common with one’s brain six months ago. So why should it be fatal if the replacement happens much faster than usual, or even all at once? It seems that there’s something deeply right about the Lockean idea that a person is essentially just a certain kind of complex informational pattern, a pattern that must have some concrete incarnation in order to exist, but that can nonetheless persist through time without its usual vehicle, i.e. a living brain (or, if you will, an immaterial soul). Suppose it becomes routine for medical 3D printers to issue new disease-free clone bodies for the seriously ill. How long will the old view survive, that a person’s fate depends on the fate of the body they were born with?

Tens of thousands of pages have been written about these matters, some of them wonderfully ingenious. In Parfit’s first variation of the teletransportation case, the scanning and replication take place as before, but the scanner doesn’t destroy your body. It does, however, malfunction, fatally damaging the heart in such a way that you will die four days later. A sheepish technician informs you of this fact immediately after the scan. Facing death, you talk to your replica on Mars via the superluminal videophone. How do you feel? How do you feel about the replica?

In another variant you die four days later as before, but no replica can be produced on Mars on account of technical difficulties. When you’re told of this failure, your heart sinks even further. But there is a bright side: a replica of you will be forthcoming, here on earth – in a year’s time. Will this make you feel better? How will your partner feel when the replica is generated? How should he feel? If he loves you, will it be wrong for him to love your replica? If he loves you for who you are (and why else might he love you?) is it coherent – or reasonable – to suppose that he couldn’t, or shouldn’t, love your replica? Should you feel happy for him to ‘get you back’ in a year’s time? Or should you feel bitter and desolate because you’ll be gone for ever and no one will mind, given that there’ll be someone exactly like you to step into your life and take over everything you care for?

Suppose you’re pregnant at the time of the scan. What about the baby? Don’t you want it to be born? Suppose someone irresponsible gets hold of the scanner. A duplicate of the person you love – Robert – is produced overnight, and none of you knows which Robert is the original. Do you love only the original, Robert One? If one of the two now dies, and if in fact it’s Robert One who dies, will you never love Robert Two – who may for all you know be Robert One? Would that be a betrayal of Robert One? Suppose (another standard thought experiment) that Robert One undergoes a kind of amoebic fission into two identical people, Robert Two and Robert Three. Do you love one and not the other? Do you love neither? Are you not going to fall – be – in love with both? How could you not? Or let’s say you cease to exist in a blinding flash, and that by vast cosmic coincidence a person indistinguishable from you pops into existence a yard away. In this case, unlike the previous ones, there is by hypothesis no causal connection of any sort between you (who have ceased to exist) and this charming person. Now suppose it’s Robert who ceases to exist in a blinding flash before an identical Robert coincidentally appears: you know this person in front of you has no causal connection of any sort with the Robert you loved. How do you feel about him? And how will you feel tomorrow and the day after? The situation seems to call for Così fan tutte pragmatism, but even that may have its limits.

Questions like these have been part of the core curriculum in analytic philosophy for nearly fifty years. Some philosophers have spent a professional lifetime in their company, and have undergone deep changes in their conception of what it is to be a person. Some who began by being confident that a person couldn’t possibly survive teletransportation have become considerably less sure. The thought experiments can break down prejudice and deliver a far better – and sometimes alarming – understanding of the way things are in reality. Philosophy, like physics, is one of the great sciences of reality. When Steve Jones proposes that ‘philosophy is to science as pornography is to sex, I mean it’s cheaper and easier and some people seem to prefer it,’ he makes a great mistake. (He’s like someone who inadvertently reveals that he believes that masturbation is all there is to sex.)

Some find the thought experiments irresponsible – too outlandish to have any significant probative force. Kathy Wilkes made this case forcefully in her 1988 book, Real People, and deep disagreements about personal identity remain. According to the Passport Office view, all you need to do if you want to track a person through time is follow the body. Others think it’s enough to follow the brain – or whatever part of us carries our mental being. According to James in 1915, and (I suspect) the generality of humankind, bodies are not enough and nor are brains. Suppose you brainwash a person and it’s absolutely irreversible. It can be argued that you’ve committed murder, though the body and brain survive. I think this is right: you have in this case killed a person. The essence of the person is Lockean: it’s the pattern, currently enacted in brain structure and brain activity, that carries – constitutes – what matters about you, mentally, considered as a person. To track a person through time one has to pay attention to the ‘beliefs, values, desires and other features [which] make someone the person she is’.

These are Marya Schechtman’s words in The Constitution of Selves (1996), her vivid first book, which refreshed the debate on personal identity by (among other things) re-emphasising the importance of continuity of character and stressing the significance, in Locke’s account of personal identity, of a moral-emotional connection with one’s past. In her new book, Staying Alive, her fundamental concern is similar, but her stresses fall differently, and she has a great deal to say that is new. Some philosophers see no reason to believe that answers to metaphysical questions about what it is to be and persist as a person should march in step with answers to questions about what we take to be most important in everyday life. Schechtman disagrees: she thinks we need a unified account of what a person is, an account ‘that defines a single, unified entity which is the target of all of the many practical questions and concerns that are associated with personal identity’. In pursuit of this goal she’s prepared to give the view of persons embedded in our everyday life something close to a power of veto when we broach the metaphysical question about what persons are. Answers to the grand metaphysical questions must fall into line with our ordinary practices, she claims, because these are basic to the concept of a person. So the best way to elaborate a theoretically satisfactory concept of persons is to examine these practices very closely: to look at what we do in fact treat as the persisting ‘target of all of these myriad concerns and practices’.

Following this trail, Schechtman develops the ‘Person Life View’. She takes an ordinary human life to be a paradigm example of a ‘person life’, and proposes to elucidate the notion of a person on the basis of the prior notion of a person life, ‘in terms of the unity of a characteristic kind of life made up of dynamic interactions among biological, psychological and social attributes, and functions mediated through social and cultural infrastructure’ that together constitute what Schechtman calls a ‘person space’. This approach immediately delivers results that diverge from many standard views. For example, it has the consequence that adult Robert is the same person as the newborn baby he was – contrary to views according to which babies aren’t persons at all because they lack a sufficiently complex psychological life. At the other end of life, it has the consequence that Robert is still a person when he has advanced Alzheimer’s and once again lacks any complex psychological life.

Schechtman works out her picture with admirable tenacity. Staying Alive is a beautifully constructed and often subtly argued book. It treats contrary views with great courtesy, and shows a powerful and bold philosophical mind. It makes free and open-minded use of the abstruse metaphysical concerns that have driven much of the recent debate without being in thrall to them. It aims to put back together things that philosophers have taken apart. But the result – to my mind – is a painfully constricted vision of personhood.

The constriction seems inevitable in any account that gives so much weight to our human condition – including our allzumenschlich sentimentalities. No doubt we have to start from our own case, taking ourselves as paradigmatic persons, but as soon as we admit the possibility that at least some human ‘person practices’ are not essential to any adequate definition of a person life – and I think we must do that, on pain of ‘speciesism’, even if we have somehow managed to define a central minimal core of essential human person practices on the basis of a comprehensive worldwide anthropological survey – we raise the question of which ones are actually essential and which aren’t. And at that point the original space of argument about what a person is is simply reopened.

In that large and multidimensional space we find, at one extreme, the idiotic view that the only true person life is the kind of life lived by a human being in a particular human culture at a particular time (this seems to be what quite a number of xenophobes think). Somewhere in the middle we find Schechtman’s far more reasonable position, according to which a true person life must bear strong systematic similarities to typical human lives. At another extreme we find the view I’m drawn to: to be a person is simply to be self-conscious, fully self-conscious, to be a creature that can in Locke’s words ‘consider itself as itself’.

There’s more to Locke’s definition of a person than this. His account of personal identity is specifically geared to questions of moral and legal responsibility, so he also holds that a person must be a moral being, must be ‘capable of a law’, by which Locke means capable of grasping the import of a law in such a way that it can understand itself to be subject to it and thereby be subject to it. Locke also requires that self-consciousness have a certain temporal reach (if it didn’t reach into the past, one couldn’t be responsible for one’s past actions, on his view). A person must be able to ‘consider itself as itself, [as] the same thinking thing in different times and places’ (my emphasis). I doubt this is necessary for personhood, because I think that Clive Wearing is a person, in being self-conscious, although his brain is damaged in such a way that he has no significant sense of himself as having a past or future. So too Antonio Damasio’s patient ‘David’, who

cannot learn any new fact at all … He knows very little about himself except his name. He talks to you very charmingly, even intelligently … Left to his own devices, he sustains purposeful behaviour relative to the context he is in for many minutes or hours, provided that what he is doing is engaging … He can play a whole set of checkers – and win! – although he does not even know the name of the game and would not be able to articulate a single rule for it … and … the affective modulation of his voice as the game approaches its decision point is a primer of human emotion … He’s a very happy person, jovial, delighted to talk to people … But he doesn’t know the date, why he is talking to you or who you are. He doesn’t know who he is in the proper sense of the term. He is a consciousness without an identity.

Schechtman would agree with this, in fact: it’s important to her position that we apply the term ‘person’ to severely damaged human beings like Wearing or David. But one also has to consider other possible non-human creatures who are naturally lacking in temporally extended self-consciousness, and creatures who are fully self-conscious but whose lives have few or none of the ‘social attributes and functions mediated through social and cultural infrastructure’ that are for Schechtman definitive of a person life. When we analyse the concept of a person we need to twiddle all the knobs, vary the parameters, run stress tests. We need to consider the possibility of self-conscious creatures who are wholly solitary (no social life), who spring into existence fully formed (no intellectual and cultural formation), and so on. I think these creatures have a certain sort of fundamental presence to self that is arguably sufficient for personhood whatever else is or isn’t the case – along with the replicants in Blade Runner and everyone in the smoke-filled cantina in Star Wars, including perhaps the droid R2-D2 (assuming that it’s conscious). So too Mr Spock and Lieutenant Commander Data, chief operations officer on the USS Enterprise, before he’s equipped with an emotion chip. Data may be a cold fish, but he is nevertheless a person, a fully conscious and indeed fully self-conscious creature. I don’t see that a person has to be a moral being, or capable of emotion or pleasure or pain.

Schechtman holds that a human being in a persistent vegetative state is a person even when there is no consciousness and, provably, no possibility of a return of consciousness, but it seems no less plausible to say that there is no longer a person there in this case. Nor is it in any way heartless. I also think a naturally non-conscious being couldn’t possibly be a person, but the Person Life View tempts Schechtman in another direction. She considers the possibility of creating ‘a machine that could replicate the most sophisticated human behaviour and interactions without sentience’, and while she doubts that the idea really makes sense – she thinks it isn’t actually coherent – she’s still ‘inclined to say that if it is possible for there to be [such] non-sentient androids … then these androids would be persons,’ because they would enact a person life and move seamlessly in a person space. ‘They are strange persons, but so are many humans, and [the Person Life View] is meant to allow for a great deal of variation.’

Schechtman and I are in opposing camps, though I can’t easily imagine a more interesting opponent. But I want to take apart again what she has put back together. I think the truth about persons is thinner, arguably colder and in a certain sense more impersonal. If pressures within the everyday concept of a person threaten to pull it apart, we should let it happen. The attempt to elaborate a concept of a person that is practically and theoretically unified in Schechtman’s way seems Procrustean. The charge may seem paradoxical, since she aims to respect our everyday intuitions about persons, but I think the Procrusteanism shows up in Schechtman’s reaction to the fission thought experiment in which Robert One splits into Robert Two and Three. She allows that such fission products could possibly come to be, but the Person Life View pushes her to say that ‘they will probably not be persons.’ Unfair to fission products, I say.

Finally, although Schechtman has moved a long way from the ‘Narrative Self-Constitution View’ she endorsed in The Constitution of Selves, according to which one must be in possession of a full and ‘explicit narrative [of one’s life] to develop fully as a person’, she still sees it as a requirement that persons ‘experience their lives as unified wholes’ in some way that goes far beyond their basic awareness of themselves as single finite biological individuals with a certain curriculum vitae. I think this rules me out as a person, along with many others, including Samuel ibn Naghrillah HaNagid, poet, warrior, tax collector, spice merchant and grand vizier to the king of Granada in the 11th century, who responded in a poem to congratulations on reaching his fiftieth birthday: ‘For my part, there is no difference at all between my own days which have gone by and the distant days of Noah about which I have heard. I have nothing in the world but the hour in which I am: it pauses for a moment, and then, like a cloud, moves on.’