Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Palingenesis again

I haven't posted much about ancient philosophy, and certainly not about my own work, but there is always a first time.

It is always nice to find out that someone has read something you have written and has thought about it. For philosophers, often the most evident sign of this is that someone objects to what you have written. I have just picked up a copy of Richard Sorabji’s new book, Self: ancient and modern insights about individuality, life, and death (Oxford University Press, 2006) to find that he is not convinced by a short piece I published some time ago (‘Lucretian palingenesis recycled’, Classical quarterly 51, 2001, 499–508). There I argued that Lucretius does not, at DRN 3.843–51 commit himself to a psychological criterion of identity along the lines of Locke’s view of the matter, although Locke himself perhaps took inspiration from this very passage. Those with an institutional subscription to the journal can read the article here.
Sorabji’s objection is that at 3.861–3...

Lucretius ‘moves to the idea that, with memory interrupted and indeed missing, it will not be the very person after all.’ … ‘He appears to be taking the same view earlier at 677–78, where he infers from our not remembering an earlier life that any past soul has perished and our present soul only now has been created.’ (Sorabji, Self, 2006, 98).
The note to the second sentence just quoted wonders how I would take the lines 677–8 and 861–3.

677–8 is not particularly problematic for my account, and indeed I do discuss it – albeit briefly – at ‘Palingenesis’, 506. Here L. argues that the soul is not immortal because we do not remember the time before birth. The fact that all retention of past actions has been lost shows that this state is not far from death. So the continuity of memory is a good sign of the continuity of existence. And although this is close to saying that there is a psychological condition of personal identity, it is not quite there. Indeed, what Lucretius says is quite consistent with denying that the continuity of memory is a necessary or sufficient condition of identity over time. On that view, the palingenesis hypothesis (i.e. the notion that, given time, all the atoms which now constitute me will after my death return to the same arrangement as they are in now) leads Lucretius to say, for example, that the two individuals A and B, who are constituted by the same atoms in the same arrangement are indeed identical. Let’s say that person A at t1 has atomic formation F. A dies at t2. Later, this identical atomic formation (which I take to mean not just the same arrangement but the same atoms in the same arrangment) F will be restored. Let’s say B is born at t3 and at t4 F is restored.

677–8 on my account says that, for example, B at t4 will not remember any of the events between t1 and t2. Therefore the soul is mortal; it did not persist throughout t1–t4 since if it had there is no reason for this amnesia (pace, I imagine, a Platonist’s story about incarnation disrupting our souls such that we need to recollect truths acquired when discarnate. And, in any case, on a plausible view of what Platonic anamnēsis recalls, we certainly do not recall particular facts about any personal prior existence). But all this is quite compatible with asserting the identity of A and B and to think it is not simply begs the question. So I agree that ‘with memory interrupted and indeed missing, it will not be the very person after all’ but only in the sense that it is true that between t2 and t3 A and B do not exist.

True, we end with the slightly odd view that a person’s ‘death’ does not last forever – it lasts between one life and the next identical life (here, between t2 and t3) – and that sits uncomfortably with e.g. mors aeterna at 3.1091 (as I note in 'Palingenesis' p.506). But at no point does Lucretius say that continuity of memory is a condition of identity and none of his claims commit him to it.

861–3 is also compatible with my account. Lucretius says nothing in these lines, by the way, about memory (contrary to Sorabji’s claim). Rather, he makes the very general claim that for X to be a possible subject of harm at t, X must himself exist at t. (Compare Epicurus’: ‘Death is nothing to the living or the dead; for when we are it is not and when it is, we are not.’) So, taking up the last example, A (who on my account = B) cannot be harmed in the period t2–t3 (‘death’) because he does not exist then. Nor could A be harmed before before his birth. Does this mean that B can be harmed by something that happens between t1 and t2, i.e. during A’s life? No, and this is where psychological continuity is relevant. We are justified in feeling concern only at times to which we are/will be psychologically connected and since there is no psychological connection between A and B there is no reason for A to be concerned about what happens to B or vice versa. (That is what I take to be the point of 3.847–53.) But this is an entirely different matter from the question of the identity of A and B. On this Lucretius says nothing to qualify the statement at 3.445–5: ‘we and formed and held together by the banding together and union of body and soul.’

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