Reading Mark Johnston: the problem of leftover, future personites and open lifespan

I spent yesterday on a philosophical pilgrimage to Oxford and the zenith of the day was attending the talk of Mark Johnston, of Princeton, called ‘How the Liquid Self Corrodes Ethical Life’ held at Merton College.

The real moment came after the talk when I managed to ask a question from Johnston on the way walking out of college. I got a hint back on how his answer would look like but the quick chat has been abrupted as Oxford philosophy hosts were taking him to an after-talk event and I had to go home to Cambridge. But Johnston suggested I should email him and I have managed to hand over a business card, that was ‘accidentally’ in my back pocket.

Yesterday (and in the previous weeks) I also spent hours studying Johnston’s out-of-the-box and fascinating Surviving Death and will also post about those encounters later.

But what I’m writing about today is something I thought up since yesterday when introduced to Johnston’s argument about how reductionism (naturalism) make ethics unworkable constructed by using the concept of ontological trash and personites.

This is a work in progress and I do not attempt to formalise the argument at all at this stage, although that formalisation technically can kill the whole thought, we shall see. But I want to formulate the idea of the argument, just like mathematicians might give out the main idea behind a proof. Sometimes the idea is worth in itself even if the formal proof bleeds out due to some technical details. Or the idea might be just trashy due to some blatant assumption, in this case better push this out and ask others to kill it off quickly.  But also an important point here is to show how I am applying the concept of ‘open lifespan’ to ongoing philosophical problems in the literature.

Johnston’s argument is briefly along the following lines: assuming reductionism about personal identity (based on psychological continuity) moral status needs be assigned to personites, temporal slices cohabiting the same spatio-temporal space with the actual or possible person. But if all-too-many things  (watch out for Ockham) have moral status ethics becomes unworkable.

The talk was pretty much overlapping with Johnston’s Personites, Maximality And Ontological Trash and luckily it is an open access paper published in 2017 in Philosophical Perspectives.

My attacking point is related to the concept of personites, so how are personites defined?

In the paper Johnston is using the 4D account of persons relying on ‘unrestricted mereological summation’ the principle according to whenever there are some things, there exists a whole that consists exactly of those things, the mereological ‘sum’ or ‘fusion’ of those things that now can be called parts.

As a first approximation, personites are longish‐lived non‐maximal sums of continuous stages. Their being non‐maximal means that there are stages not included in the sum which are continuous with stages in the sum. That is how a person’s personites differ from that person.

Non-maximal sums can be expressed as at least the beginning (t’1) or the end (t’2) of the personite’s temporal slice should be different from the corresponding cohabiting person’s beginning (t1) or end (t2).

Let me phrase now my comment, argument snippet where at the centre there is a personite construct I’m asking questions about.

Temporal slicing is at the heart of constructing personites but what if we add temporal indexes to our statements on real or fictional personites, introducing second-level, or meta-level temporality. Why complicate the case further?

One thing I noticed that in the personite examples constructed by Johnston, we are already in possession of the full narrative of the personites mentioned and do a retrospective evaluation when enlightening these personites. For instance take the case of Johnston personites learning Hungarian before the visit to Budapest or the fictional story of Dee-minus, near duplicate with the person Dum.

But what about the case of future personites? What about for instance, our future personites, lasting, filling up time between just now (whenever it is, the actual indexical now, call it t1) and our approaching death? Say Mark Johnston is 64 and a fraction of xxx year old now on the 6th of June (just a day after giving a successful 2018 Gareth Evans Memorial Lecture at Oxford) and we know that he will live for an interval of X (hopefully many tens of decades) before his death. So how about the leftover Johnston personite X at t1 (the actual indexical now) who is constituted by Johnston t(death of Johnston) – t1 (now), so the remaining Johnston that will span over future Johnston minus actual Johnston, the 64 year old person? Based on what we know about constructing personites, leftover Johnston X will qualify as a personite, as it is non-maximal, only not the usual (counting from birth) but an inverse (counting back from death) way. Once we agree on this we can ask the question, that is Johnston’s main hammer,: Does leftover Johnston X have a moral status at t1 (which is the actual now?)

I think there’s a problem here and let’s see the 2 horns of the dilemma:

1. If we grant so constructed leftover personites a moral status then we assign future personites a moral status. And that is problematic, am not even going to tell you why, just try to figure it out. 2 more comments here: Although there is a similarity this is not the same as the potentiality case for foetuses, capable to develop sophisticated cognitive capacities as Johnston is already at the top of his cognitive capacities. So the problem is not potentiality in a usual way, please see SEP entry 5.2. Second, think about leftover personites constructed in a world where time travel is possible. So a leftover personite Johnston X can end up being earlier than actual Johnston, so the problem ceases to be the problem of absolute future, but it still stays the problem of individual ST downstream trajectory. In any case, this horn of the dilemma says that leftover personites do have a moral status. So the rest of Johnston’s original argument against ethics in a reductionist world follows. But a good additional argument is needed for why leftover personites can be granted a moral status just like earlier personites that happened already before t1, the actual now.
2. Leftover personites cannot be granted moral status ahead of their time. But then there seems to be a problem with the operational definition of personites based on which Johnston’s argument against reductionism relies upon as it turns unworkable. So the definition needs to be updated, modified somehow to exclude leftover personites explicitly.

One more comment, am not going to elaborate on now as it leads to deep and deserves further investigation: This is the question of whether statements about leftover, remaining personites are future contingent statements or not. Future contingent statements according to SEP

Future contingents are contingent statements about the future — such as future events, actions, states etc. To qualify as contingent the predicted event, state, action or whatever is at stake must neither be impossible nor inevitable.

To me it seems that the existence (the happening if we process talk) of leftover Johnston relative to the actual now will be borderline inevitable, even if, god forbids, it is only a very short amount of time and Johnston is struck dead by a meteorite tomorrow. I assume a probabilist phrasing here would help to reach some clarity on the status of leftover Johnston but am not doing that now. But I leave the possibility of the existence of leftover Johnston as necessary open.

Also please note that we are NOT taking a position concerning reductionism vs non-reductionism here as we are asking about the consistency of the personite concept that leads to a position/consequence concerning reductionism and moral status.

So assuming we ran into problems by resolving the horns of the dilemma raised by leftover personites what might be the way out?

My solution would be to redefine moral persons with open ended lifespans, so constructing leftover personites with a near certainty won’t be an option anymore. One just needs to get away from closed lifespans enough to not run into issues like leftover personites.

But what we gain instead is a whole new world and new moral situations.

Considering a current living person, say Johnston at 64, a moral person with an open ended lifespan is a perfectly viable thought. A closed lifespan person with normal life expectancy and without any terminal illness can be considered as a person with an open lifespan at the limit.

But more on this idea in another post.