Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death scenario is like an Anthology Series, unlike Open Lifespan

Earlier I argued that indefinitely long healthy Open Life, ie. Open Lifespan needs an open narrative and that this narrative is already something most of us accustomed to due to TV series as a prevalent form of recreation. 

I have also used the Open Lifespan thought experiment to pinpoint a deficiency in Mark Johnston’s ethical argumentation using the personite concept. Reading Johnston’s Surviving Death last year was a highlight of my philosophy studies last year and my plan is to investigate his deep argumentation to dig out new positions for Open Lifespan. The positions I work out are going to be likely highly critical concerning Surviving Death. 

Today is my first light encounter with Surviving Death in the context of Open Lifespan and it will help us show an analogy to indicate what Open Lifespan is not. 

The solution offered by Surviving Death: the bird’s-eye view

Johnston’s main objective is to show that contrary to the ‘mainstream view’, death does not mean a threat to the importance of continued human goodness throughout history. To achieve this challenging task he overstretches the concept of person to build into the guarantees of ongoing goodness despite ongoing death. During his elaborate manoeuvre the most mature position he attacks is the revised package deal telling that ‘what it is rational to care about in caring about survival’  p317 consists of 

personal identity, that is the continued existence of the person one now is


the flourishing of one’s individual personalities, if many there be.

On p318 he dedicates a paragraph on the tedium of extreme longevity which applies in case his Teletransporter thought experiment who

as a result of their practical freedom from disease have to deal with the tedium of extreme longevity. Every young Teletransporter is told not only that he is likely to have many jobs and marriages through his lifetime but that he is also likely to come to have different personalities at various stages of his long life. Faced with that prospect, doubly revised concern seems to be rational. It is rational to care about personal identity and one’s present and future individual personalities. And this entails that it is rational to care about the continued existence of the person one now is.

It is not the main point of this post to argue against this philosophical tedium position on extreme longevity but prepares us to guess that Johnston’s own position concerning ‘survival’ goes into a radically different direction compared to Open Lifespan.

Johnston’s religiously tuned good-maintaining, and Houdiniesque death-defying argument (strange mix indeed)is trying to radically outdo the revised package deal above by removing the person what one now is and the flourishing of individual personalities, one is supposed to have in case of Open Lifespan, while keeping the tendencies behind both.

For this he develops the avantgarde, historically/fictionally available, theory of Protean persons and higher order identities to offer the select open-to-good persons an escape route.

This is not the post to hash out the nitty-gritty details of the key concepts here like person, personhood, self, personal and self identity, personalities and individualities. These are, I believe, not needed for grabbing the analogy am about to make.

Instead of going with the more formal treatment a key simpler quote of our Protean nature in Surviving Death is p283:

As with Proteus, who could assume the forms of a lion, a leopard, a serpent, or a pig, our essence could allow changes in our form of embodiment. The concrete embodiment of our identities as persons is in a certain way up to us to fill out; what we can survive, and the resultant facts of personal identity, are in a certain way response dependent.

So think of something super-flexible here as a person being able to ‘deeply and consistently identify with some future person” p274.

This in principle provides us access to a higher-order identity and here another mythical example helps us cut through a lot of argumentation. This is the Phoenix, the bird from Ovidius’ The Metamorphoses that goes through this interesting life-cycle of 500 years living -> ‘dies while fire lifts his soul away’ -> little Phoenix rises from his breast -> 500 years of living -> …

Imagine Phoebe, goes Johnston, a particular first-order bird in the Phoenix constituting sequence of birds want to go as long as second-order (higher order) species-like bird Phoenix itself. In attempting to do so, Phoebe absorbs the genuine interests of other first-order birds in the  Phoenix sequence. All we left with is not a deeper self but a series of birds with Phoebe making the jump into them ahead for the good of birdkind..

Leaving important details aside (concerning eg. multiple embodiment at a later time, see comment on multivalued function later in text) the Johnston solution is our-good-selves merging into the onward rush of selected mankind, or rather ‘living on with those that are not closed to goodness’. p335

Now for something not completely different: The Anthology Series Analogy

After all this preparation I can now contribute with an analogy that hopefully gives some imaginative leg to these heavyweight concepts supposed to achieve the miracle of surviving death under the flag of the good.

This whole sequence, series (not discriminating now between the 2, perhaps another time) looks a whole lot like an anthology series to me.

An anthology series is a radio, television or book series that presents a different story and a different set of characters in each episode or season. In literature you can think of something like the Canterbury Tales

This is the most flexible type of series of all, it allows different everything basically, also almost anything can be turned into the cohesive element between different episodes or storylines. Usually there’s a constant that can be recovered, for instance the in some radio programme the only invariant was the host like in Inner Sanctum Mysteries.

But the most typical thing is to have some sort of thematic connections between standalone episodes or seasons. And this is usually coming from a genre or from a particular point of view (an aspect, an angle) of looking at things.

An example of the latter is Black Mirror, where the aspect under investigation is the human effects of new technologies so each episode is standalone and takes place in an alternative present (the actual possible world of the possible world universe). Black Mirror was inspired by The Twilight Zone, pulling together nerdy niche genres like ‘fantasy, science fiction, suspense, horror, and psychological thriller’ 

An example of the former, genre based anthology series is American Horror Story which was the first pioneering series, starting in 2011, where each season is a standalone mini-series, as opposed to just each episode in case of earlier examples.

The analogy is between a Protean Person (or a Person of a Protean Nature as Johnston imagines it) and the whole anthology series (or an episode) and one mini-series or episode corresponds to the trajectory of a normal First-Order Person.

Johnston’s suggestion is then the following, re-framed as an anthology series: First-Order Persons have their normal life trajectory then they die at the end of the each standalone season (or episode). And the next season is a different First-Order Person’s normal trajectory that ends with the end of season 2. And so on and so forth.

And there’s an important and constant thematic connection and that is the disposition towards goodness. So the cohesive element, the genre, of Protean Persons capable of Surviving Death as an Anthology Series is goodness. 

The first, unbounded version of ‘good will’ is described by Johnston as

A good will is a certain kind of fundamental disposition manifested in one’s style of practical reasoning and action. More specifically, a good will is a disposition to absorb the legitimate interests of any present or future individual personality into one’s present practical outlook, so that those interests count as much as one’s own.

Johnston, Mark. Surviving Death (Carl G. Hempel Lecture Series) (p. 332). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Important distinction: the goodness directed toward present individual personalities is the simple textbook goodness, empathy, distributive justice whatnot. This only applies within what’s happening within a season, within the trajectory of one first-order person. This provides us with some topical restriction concerning what might happen within a season. But what interests us here is the future orientation of this good will, cause that leads to another season aired.

Here comes a crucial argument about showing how this goodness is bounded, starting at p334. By adding rationality to the mixture of those with good will and assuming individual personalities so locked into selfishness as to be irredeemably closed to the good, Johnston argues, ad absurdum, that goodness should be bounded in that 

instead of thinking of the good as living on in the onward rush of humanity, we should think of them as living on with those that are not closed to goodness.

Johnston, Mark. Surviving Death (Carl G. Hempel Lecture Series) (p. 335). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

This also means that there’s a picking out mechanism that leads from one person to pick out another person or set of persons who are open to good. In fact this is the main operational principle, the drive that makes the jump from one season to the next, from one person to another.

Here I need to make clear that the Anthology Series I’m using now as analogy for Johnston’s argument is a restricted, moderated version of Surviving Death. For Johnston’s goodness either as unbounded, or as bounded towards only the open-to-good is, to use a mathematical analogy, a multivalued function. A multivalued function is not an ordinary one, Johnston’s argument is extraordinary, just like his Protean Person concept, as an element x in the domain X can be associated with multiple elements y,z, … in the co-domain Y. What it means for the Anthology Series scenario is that there’s a lots of spin-off anthology series can follow up just one season of the ‘Protean Good’, because one person will dilute out into many in the second season. This all fits into the super-flexible Anthology Series format but also raises the slightly mathematical problem of how to start this series at all with just one such first-ordered person. Please consider that the problem of one-to-many disappears if the series takes indefinitely long as all the one-to-many relations can be turned, linearised into one long sequence. So let’s say Phoebe turns into Phoebeus, Phoeberina amongst others and Phoebeus turns into Phoebereus and Phoeberin amongst other and Phoeberina turns into Phoe and Phoel amongst others. This can be written down as a linearised, ordered sequence of  

Phoebe -> Phoebeus -> Phoeberina -> Phoebereus -> Phoe -> Phoeberin -> Phoel …

The mapping (jumping) rule being even numbered members of the sequence are the ones following Phoebeus line, odd members are following Phoeberina line. The Anthology Series is so flexible that might allow this kind of a connection rule set up between odd and even numbered seasons. And this can be turned into arbitrarily complicated with different indices to accommodate for even more personalities. I’m not going to overexploit my mathematical analogies here further, yet I still hope they will help us here to proceed with the argument. Johnston’s boundedness argument opens up a space to such mathematical, quantitative interpretation. 

Hence, for the sake of simplicity, here I only focus on a one-to-one picking out scenario that I call the moderate or simple or single ‘Protean Good’ or ‘Phoebe, the Phoenix’ as Johnston’s example itself suggests this to help with our imagination in these complicated matters.

Even if we stick to just one sequence of Phoebe the point is that the narrative is a discontinuous one as there is a jump at the end of each season into the next first-order person (and into the great unknown) in the consecutive season. It’s tempting to use here again another mathematical analogy, that of a discontinuous function that behaves weirdly, unpredictably for some input values in some domains. As opposed to continuous functions where the trajectory of the visualisation of the function is not disrupted.

Now let’s ask 2 questions by considering this ‘Phoebe, the Phoenix’ series that is aired on your favourite and trusted and affordable network. 

First question: What commits Phoebe to the next standalone season internally? Luckily, here we have our answer already provided by Johnston: it’s the good will Phoebe has, ready to jump into any future good personality who is willing to do the same in order for the series to continue. Please note here the forward recursive manner sequence interminability supposed to be guaranteed. The guarantee itself is the good will of Phoebe but how can that good will pick out only the open-to-good in the onward rush of birdkind? What’s the guarantee that open-to-good Phoebeus is not going to turn into closed-to-good by selfishness halfway through Season 2?

Second question: This is the big question to me: the question of the commitment of the external viewer. From an external point-of-view what makes me commit to watch the second season of ‘Phoebe, the Phoenix’ after the first season finale? Here I run into a problem with the Anthology Series analogy. For instance I really liked the first season of HMS Terror but then I read that it has been turned into an Anthology Series so next season follows a totally different plot, with different characters, different filming and production crew, different actors, different almost everything, except some bizarre deaths and elements from the horror genre.

Suddenly I’ve just lost my particular interest to watch the next season of The Terror because am not hooked by it anymore. I might watch the next season but it is as good as any other new series to me. No extra selection on my part. Even if am only interested in horror series, no extra push towards picking out this one and allocate time.

Going back to the Phoebe series. I’ve grown fond of Phoebe’s textbook good personality, including the radical empathy towards the presently living but Phoebeus in second season might be totally uninteresting, besides Phoebeus can suddenly become closed-to-good. So in the lack of the future forward recursive goodness guarantee and in the lack of external continuous guarantees I’ve lost my interest in this series.

What I want to say with this is that I believe Johnston has a problem to explain how watching present good from the outside can be turned into full time support of future good. Solipsists might like the internal side of jumping into the onward rush, whatever that is, but it won’t be sufficient for others. Johnston needs to show that watching this good from the outside should be sticky enough for the external viewer to follow it along. And for this I believe new second-order good arguments are needed. 

Open Lifespan is a continuous trajectory with a continuous open narrative

Reached the last part of what I’m about to say in this post and it will be brief. In case of Open Lifespan the trajectory is a continuous one and even if individual personalities will change radically from season to season those changes are bounded by the co-domain values that can be picked based on current values. This is the traditional series with the open narrative where season finales can be turned into continuously new beginnings for consecutive seasons. Ends are temporary, just like beginnings, and the middle overstretches into ends and beginnings. 

Internally it comes as a default to want to go on indefinitely and do good.

Externally it is represented as a strong drive to watch others thrive throughout and throughout their indefinitely long and healthy lives.