I read Mark Johnston’s book, Surviving Death, which was based on his 2006 Carl G. Hempel lectures at Princeton. I had liked his previous book, Saving God (which I mentioned here); in comparison, Surviving Death is more densely argued and challenging, relative to the “payoff”. But I’m glad I read it: Johnston is an interesting and unique thinker.
In the book, Johnston looks for and finds a naturalistic sense in which a person could be said to survive death: a good person can truly identify with all of humanity by directing his or her actions in concert with this concern. He or she will then live on in the “onward rush of humanity.” A highly condensed summary follows below.
Most people believe in an afterlife, where their personality lives on and justice is meted out in some fashion. Johnston points out that, even for the non-religious, death seems to pose some threat to the project of being good. It’s not that one necessarily needs the incentive to be good, but that death is discouraging, and morality would seem to be greatly supported by an afterlife.
In a lengthy first chapter, Johnston examines and rejects the various Protestant Christian efforts to make the notion of a future bodily resurrection coherent. I didn’t need convincing here, so I’ll pass over this section. In contrast, Johnston rejects quickly the idea of an eternal soul, pointing out that while we can’t rule it out, the preponderance of empirical evidence is against the idea: having a consistent personality appears to wholly depend on the functioning of an undamaged brain.
Then Johnston enters into a lengthy argumentation about what constitutes a self or a person and whether any such entity is a legitimate target for self-directed concern. He determines that it is the unified “arena of presence and action” we seem to be at the center of, which is the leading candidate for our concern (as opposed to the indexical-person we are in the affairs of the world).
But does this arena of presence and action persist? The impression of the persistence of the arena is just a matter of how it subjectively strikes us. While we’re well founded in saying I exist now, where I refers to the center of the arena, we’re not well-founded in saying this “I” will exist in the future. Whether this I has a future depends on its being acknowledged as a past by the future “arena-I”, but there is no guarantee of this. Therefore nothing justifies a future-directed self concern.
The practical implication of this conclusion is that there is no reason to favor one's own interests over another.
Johnston backs up to reconsider this surprising conclusion. There is reason to privilege this moment of presence. And this is connected with a person – a human being – and these do persist, right?
Well, Johnston enters into some thought-experiments which have the goal of breaking down this connection of the present arena with the lifespan of a living body. The “Hibernators” are beings which view each new spring as entailing the incarnation of a new person, even though the organism has continuity with last year’s model. And the “teleporters” identify with the being which exits the teleporter, even though the process involves the complete destruction of the organism which entered the teleportation device.
So, we can’t look to the organism as the link to the persistence of the “arena-I”. There is nothing (physical or metaphysical) we can point to which can justify future-directed self-concern.
(Johnston also spends some time distinguishing personality from personhood. For instance, we can picture having a cure for a completely devastating case of Alzheimer’s disease, which has the effect of restoring health, but with no recovery of pre-disease memory. We still might associate this person with ourself, but with no continuation of personality.)
How should we react to this conclusion? Well, what seems distinctive about personhood is the demand to live one’s life. And we do this in accordance with what seems to be good. A person is a practical reasoner, and this practical reason is future-directed. But we saw that personal identity does not justify a future-directed concern. So, here we see a “reversal”: personal identity doesn’t justify the future-directed disposition; rather it is the disposition which constitutes our notion of personal identity.
Here is the next key insight: we can change this disposition. If you change the disposition, you thereby change what it means to be a person. If the persisting self is determined to be unreal, and just how things seem to us, then we should alter our disposition.
Persons are “Protean”. We can change what personhood means (we could trains ourselves to be like the Hibernators or Teleporters), so what we are “capable of surviving” can change. Altering the Teleporter thought experiment a bit: we could imagine teleportation devices also duplicate, and we could identify our future-directed concern based personhood with all of the duplicates which result.
Note an interesting result here: that even if a supernatural afterlife were true, it would not matter to these conclusions! (Of course, even if it was true, it is inconsistent with altruism: concern about the eternal persistence of one’s personality is selfishness writ large – if it was true, it would be distraction from living a good life).
So, to maximize the good (“follow the command of agape”), we should implement personal identity in such a way that we should survive wherever and whenever interests are to be found. We should identify with the “onward rush of humanity” (a phrase used by John Stuart Mill). We would, “quite literally”, live on in this onward rush.
The good, then, can survive death.
A final chapter deals with a disagreement with Parfit on the nature of personhood, and comparisons of the conclusion with Kant, Schopenhauer, and ideas from Buddhism and the Vedanta.