I don't see that there have been any scientific developments in the last twenty years which make Parfit's thought experiments more or less plausible. The only exception I can think of is in his favour: there is speculation that teleportation may indeed be theoretically possible. In any case, it is telling that even Parfit's philosophical adversaries do not focus on lack of scientific plausibility as an argument against *philosophical* validity. For the most part, he could have made the same points had he been writing a century ago, drawing on religious mythology rather than science fiction for his thought experiments.


Perhaps a philosopher on the list could comment?


Stathis Papaioannou




Russell Standish writes:


> Sure, and if Parfit's discussion boiled down to "if we assume that a
> spectrum of identies is possible for the sake of argument, then..."
> We can also make the opposite assumption, and come to the opposite
> conclusions. Not especially edifying, wouldn't you think.
> Parfit was trying to bias the discussion one way by providing some
> plausibility arguments. With our extra twenty years of knowledge in
> complex systems, neurology and genetics, I argue that these
> plausibility arguments are looking a little threadbare. This does not
> diminish Parfit's contribution, seen in the context of the time he
> wrote his book. But I am not interested in historical relativism, I'm
> interested in the best understanding of a topic that can be wrought
> using all evidence and arguments available.
> Cheers
> On Wed, May 31, 2006 at 10:19:56PM +1000, Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> > 
> > Of course we have to have a grounding in understood terms if we are to
> > have any sort of discussion. But there is a difference between science
> > and philosophy. Philosophy need not necessarily deal with
> > verifiable/falsifiable facts about the world, which to science is the
> > sine qua non. The same thought experiment  can lead to completely
> > different discussions, depending on which way you look at it. Take the
> > idea of making an exact copy of a person. The physicist may look at
> > whether it is possible even in principle to make an exact copy of
> > something down to the quantum level, and whether this level of fidelity
> > would be necessary to yield functionally equivalent brain processes. The
> > neurosurgeon may consider what Parfit calls "fission": whether it would
> > in fact be possible to get two identical minds by cutting the corpus
> > callosum,  given the slight differences between hemispheres, the effect
> > of the surgical trauma, and so on. To the philosopher, on the other
> > hand, these questions are only a side issue. What he is interested in is
> > the conditional: IF a person could be perfectly duplicated, THEN which
> > of the two copies would we say is the continuation of the
> > pre-duplication person? Would it be one, both or neither? What should
> > the person about to undergo duplication expect to experience? Can we
> > come up with a definition of personal identity which provides a
> > satisfactory and unequivocal answer to these questions? If not, what
> > does this say about the concept of continuity of personal identity over
> > time, which hitherto we all thought we understood? 
> > 
> > I suppose there are some scientists (and probably even more laypeople)
> > who would regard the purely philosophical questions with contempt: if
> > mind duplication etc. is a practical or theoretical impossibility, why
> > waste time thinking about such nonsense? My purpose is not to enter into
> > that debate, but just to point out that Parfit is a philosopher, and you
> > have to keep that in mind when reading his work.
> > 
> > Stathis Papaioannou
> > 
> > 
> -- 
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