2014 MA Conference kicks off with Ben Winokur on ParfitPosted: May 3, 2014
After some coffee, introduction of faculty to our guests, and brief introductory remarks by yours truly, Ben Winokur got the annual MA conference started in earnest with his talk “Surveying Parfit’s Impersonal Beings Hypothesis.” Ben describes his topic:
According to Derek Parfit’s impersonal beings hypothesis, it is logically possible that there could exist a class of beings who are on epistemic and ethical par with us but who, all the while, lack the concept of a person – of a subject of experience. Parfit assumes these beings could be looked to as paragons of reductionist thinking: as beings who are thoroughly loyal to the principles of metaphysical reductionism and are, as such, not epistemically compromised by the long history of Cartesianism that seems to haunt even self-proclaimed reductionists today. These impersonal beings would be capable of perceiving the objective world – of achieving epistemic goods which allow for proper cognition of external objects, and so forth – all without thinking of themselves as persons. In turn, these beings could overcome the disadvantages we face in our commitments to the (Cartesian) concept of personhood. They might be more altruistic, abandoning the egoism that comes with chronic self-identification. They might also alleviate their fear of death; they might become less attached to their future selves, seeing no subject of experience to whom their present experiences could be anchored in the first place.
This paper explores Parfit’s hypothesis via a stream of criticisms, summarizing the many means by which one might take issue with Parfit’s ambitions, on the one hand, while scrutinizing the very possibility of his hypothesis, on the other. The thrust of all these criticisms is that the concept of personhood is in some ways necessary for proper epistemic conduct, contrary to his claim that impersonal beings could be better off without it. In the end, however, I defend the value of the concept of personhood in a manner that is weaker than those to be found in the literature. In essence, I defend the view that the value of the concept of personhood in our conceptual scheme is to be found in the cognitive efficiency that it grants us, rather than in its alleged cognitive necessity.
Sufficient coffee had been drunk, and lively questioning ensued. Ben had discussed a criticism Perry makes of Parfit about whether personal indexicals are dispensable (hint: wearing a hat might help you uniquely identify your impersonal self), and several questions picked up that thread of the talk.
Gary Foster wanted to know about the practical difficulties of reference over time for an impersonal agent, about how impersonal beings negotiate temporal reference– “can an impersonal being stop doing anything soon? Is ‘soon’ a personal indexical?”
And Rocky Jacobsen put it to Ben that he didn’t understand why Perry’s alleged objection was really a problem for Parfit; if Perry’s worry is that, lacking the indexical ‘I’, we wouldn’t have any error immune way of referring to our self, how is this a problem for Parfit? Why do we need that (an error-free way of referring to self)? He compared indexicals like ‘here’ and ‘now,’ noting that while it might always be true to say “the time is now” to pick out the occurent time, the price for this error-immune way of identifying the current time is its lack of informativeness. If ‘now’ is conceived of as the name of a time=big trouble. (Remember all the fun Lewis Carroll had with similar kinds of confusion in Through the Looking Glass? “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!”)
Rusin asked some questions about Korsgaard and Parfit on the potential significance of cases where the deliberative unit is not a single person, and before long Ben’s session was up. He left us with a lot to think about, but his fellow MAs facing their own presentations yet were especially grateful that they now could help themselves to a Parfitian mind trick in case they got buried in a difficult Q and A session–go impersonal! “Difficult Q and A occurring now!” So much easier than “I am getting my a*& kicked here”. Thanks, Ben!