Afterlife and the Persistence of the Self

In a recent blog post, Ian accuses me of being “instinctively a strong dualist.” His reason seems to be that I affirm that the self persists in normal circumstances but does not persist under teleportation. Unfortunately I could not follow his reasoning.

I hold that from moment to moment, we persist as persons. I don’t see anything inconsistent with physicalism there.

I hold that if we were teleported to another location, we would cease to exist and be replaced by a replica. My reason is that instead of being teleported, we could be duplicated at another location without ceasing to exist at the original location. Intuitively we would remain the original person who is duplicated, and the additional person being created at the new location would be a mere replica. Again, I don’t see that there is anything inconsistent with physicalism here.

Ian insists that according to physicalism, our identity is in our physical body, therefore if a body is a replica of me, it must be me. But this is impossible. If I make a replica of me without destroying the original, how can the replica be me? By hpothesis there are two numerically distinct persons! It seems that Ian is confusing numerical identity with qualitative identity. All I’m saying is that a replica is not numerically identical to the original–a rather basic point.

Incidentally, Ian also invokes near death experiences, apparitions, and ESP. While near death experiences and apparitions are real hallucinatory phenomena but are no evidence of an afterlife (or of a non-physical mind), I am not aware of any serious evidence that ESP is real.

If anyone detects merit in Ian’s objections and feels like explaining such merit to me, I would be grateful.


  1. Corey

    I suppose one thought is that, according to physicalism, a particular mind is completely characterized by the occurrent pattern of some physical stuff; the particles, their relations to one another, etc. An uncontroversial additional premise is that, for any particular particle P, a qualitatively identical particle Q could replace P without making a difference in the mind. That is, it doesn’t matter that it’s those very particles, just those types of particles in the right arrangement.

    Then the inference is that any arrangement of those particles just is that particular mind. To speak of a replica, one has to be able to distinguish an original, which of course has a certain history that the other doesn’t. But “having a certain history” need not be a physical property, and need not be a part of physicalism. Alternatively, one needs to characterize something like the “thisness” of one mind that distinguishes it from the other. Again, that’s an intuitive thing to do, but it’s not clear how that is a part of physicalism either.

    That’s my charitable reading, anyway.

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    it’s not “part of physicalism” but it’s not incompatible with physicalism either. what’s more important, everyone–physicalist or not–needs to solve this problem. if you make a molecule-by-molecule copy of a body, that’s still a numerically different body. there are two, so they can’t be numerically the same.

  3. J. Azpurua

    “Again, I don’t see that there is anything inconsistent with physicalism here.”

    The fundamental different between you and your detractor is that you place emphasis on the matter itself, whereas he places emphasis on the arrangement of matter.

    A simple question that would clarify your position is the following:

    If I were to replace your neurons, one at a time, with functionally equivalent nanobots, would you still be you at the end of the process? (I hope it is understood that by ‘you’ I mean the phenomenological first-person frame)

    If no, you are at least being consistent… but you have to bite a bullet since it seems you are saying that not all matter is capable of producing your phenomenological state, only the particular bits of matter composing your brain at this time. This is extremely counter-intuitive, and would mean that any time a neuron dies and is replace in your brain you then it’s now a new person looking through your eyes.

    If your answer is yes, then you are being inconsistent, because in your duplicator example your phenomenological self should also be replicated.

    I don’t know (and don’t care to speculate) on what a duplicated phenomenological self would experience. You would have two overlapping sets of qualia, but two brains to process them, so… *shrug*

  4. GNZ

    I agree with J Azpurua,

    It doesn’t trouble me much that my conciousness might be duplicated by teleportation or be split (I feel I have experienced that before anyway).

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