Crítica, Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Volume 22, number 64, abril 1990
Cuestiones de sobrevivencia
[Matters of Survival]
Ernesto Sosa
Brown University


Section I introduces to “the paradox” in the following way: “Life may turn sour and, in extremis, not worth living. On occasion it may he hest, moreover, to lay clown one’ s life for a greater cause. None of this is any news, debatable though it may remain, in general or case by case. Now comes the news that life does not matter in the way we had thought, No resurgence of existentialism, nor tidings from some ancient religion or some new cult, the news derives from the most sober and probing philosophical argument (the extraordinary Parfit in Part III of his Reasons and Persons), and takes more precisely the following form:

The Paradox: Even though life L is optimal (in ail dimensions), and even though if it were extended L would continue to be optimal, it does not follow that it is best to extend it, even for the subject whose life L is.”

Section II defends a certain view of the nature of persons and personal identity. Assuming that (1) one is not a soul, one’s existence does not consist in the existence of any soul, and one’ s perdurance does not consist in the perdurance of any soul, and that (2) one is not any body or collection or particles, one’s existence does not consist in the existence of any body or collection of particles, and one’s perdurance does not consist in the perdurance of any body or collection of particles, an Aristotelian answer to the question “what then is the person, and what might constitute its existence and perdurance?” is offered, divided into three parts:

1. The personal profile of a person on an occasion is a combination of a psychological profile (experiences, thoughts, actions, beliefs, desires, virtues, abilities, et cetera) and a physical profile including whatever properties of appearance or physical prowess may he thought significant for the identity of a person.

2. The existence of a person on an occasion consists in the embodiment by a body of a personal profile, on that occasion.

3. The life of a person through a sequence of occasions is a sequence of embodied personal profiles, occasion by occasion, interrelated by causal links such as realized intentions, true memories, and the physical mechanisms of growth and aging. The perdurance of a person across a sequence of occasions consists in the embodiment of a personal profile by a body on each of those occasions, and in the appropriate causal linkage amongst those embodiments.

Four different objections to this thesis of survival as continuity are commented upon and evaluated.

Section III argues for the Paradox on that basis, and reflect on its philosophical implications and on the options it presents. In a first step, the discussion delineates three distinct concepts of my surviving and studies the relations between them: (1) my surviving as “my life’s extending without branching, by means of appropriate causal relations linking present and past stages to future stages”; (2) my ‘surviving’, explained thus: “that my influence extend by means of appropriate causal relations linking present and past stages of my life to future psychological states, with or without branching”, and (3) my “quasi-surviving”: “that the sequence of psychological states constitutive of my past and present life he followed by further psychological states with a certain ‘similarity’, whether accompanied or not by either causal influence or nonbranching”.

In the second part, two lines of argument both leading to the conclusion that survival is a misvalued commodity are presented and discussed. They are as follows:

First line:

Premise 1: The worth of personal survival must he “derivative”, and must derive from the concern that we invest in our “nonprivate” projects.

Premise 2: But one’s “nonprivate” projects would sometimes be advanced even better by a team of duplicate “survivors” than by a solitary one.

Conclusion: Sometimes it would be better for one’s life to branch (yielding two or more duplicate “survivors”) than for it not to branch (yielding only a solitary survivor).

Second line:

Premise 1: What matters in the personal survival of a continuing life (a) cannot depend on features “extrinsic” to the pertinent relation among its stages, and (h) cannot depend on any “trivial” fact.

Premise 2: (Suppose the main stream M of a life arrives at a certain juncture 1. And consider how that main stream may he related to an effluent E flowing from main stream M at juncture 1. Are there other effluents, “equipoised” to E, which also flow from M at J?) Whether or not there are such effluents is a matter that must be “extrinsic” to the relation between M and E in virtue of which E might constitute the continuation of M; moreover, it is a matter that must he “trivial” to the protagonist of that mainstream M.

Conclusion: What matters in the survival of life M through an effluent E beyond that juncture J (or, equivalently, what matters in the survival of the protagonist of M through E) cannot involve or depend upon whether or not there are other effluents flowing out of M at J, and equipoised to E.


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