RE: Dualism and the DA

From: Jonathan Colvin <>
Date: Fri, 17 Jun 2005 13:34:09 -0700

Hal Finney wrote:
>It's an interesting question as to how far we can comfortably
>or meaningfully take counterfactuals. At some level it is
>completely mundane to say things like, if I had taken a
>different route to work today, I wouldn't have gotten caught
>in that traffic jam. We aren't thrown into a maelstrom of
>existential confusion as we struggle to understand what it
>could mean to have different memories than those we do. How
>could I have not gotten into that traffic jam? What would
>happen to those memories? Would I still be the same person?
>We deal with these kinds of counterfactuals all the time.
>They are one of our main tools for understanding the world and
>learning which strategies work and which don't.
>Then there are much more extreme counterfactuals. Apple
>Computer head Steve Jobs gave a pretty good graduation speech
>at Stanford last week,
>He explains that he was adopted, and his life was changed in a
>major way by the circumstances. His biological mother, an
>unwed grad student, wanted him raised by college graduates, so
>he was set to be adopted by a lawyer and his wife. At the
>last minute the lawyer decided he wanted a girl, so Jobs ended
>up being given to a blue collar couple, neither of whom had
>gone to college. They were good parents and treated him well,
>sacrificing so he could go to college, but after six months
>Jobs dropped out, seeing little value to consuming his
>family's entire savings.
>He continued to attend classes on the sly, got into computers
>and the rest is history.
>But imagine how different his life would have been if the
>original plan had gone through and he had been adopted by a
>successful lawyer, perhaps raised in an upper class household
>with his every wish met.
>He would have gone to an Ivy League college and probably done well.
>But it would have been a totally different life path.
>Does it make sense for Jobs to say, who would I have been if
>that had happened? Or would he have been such a totally
>different person that this stretches the idea of a
>counterfactual beyond reason? I think his telling the story
>demonstrates that he does think this way sometimes.
>Yet none of the memories or experiences that he has would have
>been present in this other version. At most the two versions
>might have shared some personality traits, but even those are
>often strongly influenced by upbringing - his tenacity in the
>face of adversity, for example, might never have become so
>strong in a life where everything came easily.
>Probably there are many people in the world who are at least
>as similar to Steve Jobs in personality as the person he would
>have been if his early life had gone that other way.
>The point is that we can imagine a range of counterfactuals
>where the difference is a matter of degree, not kind, from
>trivial matters all the way up to situations where we would
>have to consider ourselves a different person. There is no
>bright line to draw that I can see.
>So yes, if you can imagine what it would have been like to eat
>something else for breakfast, then you should be able to
>imagine what it would have been like to be born as someone
>else. It's the same basic technique, just applied to a greater degree.

Those are counterfactuals regarding personal circumstance, and do not seem
particularly controversial, even admitting that it is not straightforward to
define a single theory of personal identity that "covers all the bases".
There's a continuous, definable identity that follows a
physical/causal/genetic/mental chain all the way from when egg and sperm met
up to Jobs' graduation. It does not seem problematic to alter contingent
aspects of this identity-chain and yet insist that we retain the "same"

It is a great deal harder to see how to make sense of a counterfactual such
as "Who would I be if my mother and father hadn't had sex?", or "who would I
be if they'd had sex a day later and a different egg and sperm had met?".

I have to disagree with you here, and state that this sort of counterfactual
seems to indeed embody a difference of kind, not just degree. We're not
talking about "imagining_whats_it_likeness". We are talking about me *being*
someone different.

Jonathan Colvin
Received on Fri Jun 17 2005 - 16:35:16 PDT

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