Parfit, Napoleon and Me

If there is a number one question for zen meditation practitioners, it’s probably:

How do I integrate my meditation practice in my daily life?

I’ve witnessed many Q and A sessions with a zen master and somebody always asks this question. I’ll look around me and see other people nodding in agreement. I know in advance they’ll never get a satisfying answer. A zen master cannot give them an answer that would make them happy: it’s not what she’s there for!

A Chinese nun. By Ctny (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

A Chinese nun. By Ctny (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

I want to explore the fact that I never really understood this question. What exactly is the (daily) life that is separate from what you’re doing here at the zen centre? Are you trying to tell me that you’re a different person at home, or at work? What is this confusion between what we do or say and who we really are?

If I may quote Karen Armstrong in present company, I would like to tell you about a memory she describes in “The spiral staircase”. Here, Armstrong is reading English Literature at Oxford after being a nun for seven years and finds she’s late for dinner. Upon entering the dining hall, to the astonishment of about 400 other students, she:

“kneels down and kisses the floor”

It’s what she’s been trained to do. Perfectly normal behaviour for a Sister of the Holy Child Jesus who wants to apologise for being late. So she does it automatically. Later she describes how she and her fellow students at St Anne’s expected her to be a different person from the moment she closed the door of the convent behind her. She soon finds out that she can’t be.

Rollerblading nuns, by April Sikorski from Brooklyn, USA [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

Rollerblading nuns, by April Sikorski from Brooklyn, USA [CC-BY-SA-2.0

Apparently, the sum total of our opinions and behaviour is not the same as our identity. In Armstong’s case, you could say that her character was both responsible for her becoming a nun and for trying to cease being one later. Our character, Β (I have not found a satisfactory psychological definition of character yet. Please observe that there is also an ongoing philosophical debate on what character is and whether it exists at all.) seems more persistent than our behaviour.

However, if we move on from our character to our identity we have only our brains and our bodies to focus on. Derek Parfit has written about identity in “Reasons and Persons” and for starters he describes the Reductionist view of identity as:

“A person’s existence just consists in the existence of a brain and body, and the occurrence of a series of interrelated physical events.”

Many philosophers would argue there is an entity that is distinct from a brain and body that makes a person. A soul, maybe. I don’t want to look at that question here.

To explore identity, Parfit imagines a perfect replica of his brain and body and sends it to Mars. The original Parfit is destroyed. Meanwhile, on Mars:

“My Replica thinks he is me, and he seems to remember living my life (…)”

Apparently, having access to my memories is crucial for my experience of identity. I remember meeting a Korsakoff-patient who could not retain any memory for more than five minutes. I would say he still had an identity, but he definitely could not have anything that we would consider to be a normal life. Memories are very important.

In another example, Parfit replaces bits of his brain by Napoleon’s and when all of his brain has been replaced, he states:

“This would cause there to be no psychological connections between me and the resulting person. This person would be wholly like Napoleon.”

Napoleon, or Derek, by Jacques-Louis David [Public domain]

Napoleon, or Derek, by Jacques-Louis David [Public domain]

This leads to the problem that if you do replace the brain bit-by-bit, it would be hard to discern at what precise moment Derek becomes Napoleon. But on a deeper level, it also means that my identity consists of my not being Napoleon, or Derek. And that doesn’t say very much about who I am at all.

If you’re not dizzy yet, I would like to mention the next problem: what happens to our identity over time? All that needs to be done to suddenly make this a compelling problem is to ask Irving Copi’sΒ logical questions:

1. If a changing thing really changes, there can’t literally be one and the same thing before and after the change.

2. However, if there isn’t literally one and the same thing before and after the change, then no thing has ever undergone any change.

Are you still there? If so, who are you?

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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41 Responses to Parfit, Napoleon and Me

  1. sv says:

    In the process of finding out the real me , by trying to living from within

  2. Bastet says:

    Where is the mind that is changing…comes to mind…and the soun of one hand clapping? Interestin post as always!

  3. David Yerle says:

    Well, it looks like I’m not the only person obsessed with Parfit here. I always use his examples to dissect personal identity. Actually, I used to believe in personal identity until I read his book. It took me two months of mulling until one day I realized he was right. I was in shock. It was as if my whole outlook on life crumbled around me. It was terrifying and exhilarating.
    Regarding your first example about “real life,” as a physics teacher it always shocks me that people seem to disconnect what they learn from their lives. I like physics because it tells me things about this universe and, therefore, about myself. We learn so that we can adapt our behavior and our ideas: it makes no sense to isolate compartments. Some lessons in physics (like the existence of time as a separate dimension) are huge: it means you’re eternal, you’re there forever! If this doesn’t change the way you look at life, what does?
    But that was my reality in high school: most of my classmates went through the motions, without even stopping to think whether what they were learning had any kind of importance in their lives. No wonder they didn’t like studying.
    Sorry about the long comment and the off-topic rant…

    • On the contrary! If you and BR had not mentioned Parfit I might have never bought the book. Fact is, I did not know who to thank πŸ˜‰
      I know exactly what you mean by having these sudden revelations about life. Terrifying, exhilarating and not to be missed, I’d say.

      And I had the same experience in high school. Having this urge to know, to understand, to ask all these questions that exasperated many of my teachers and knowing that nobody else was the least bit interested in any of it. Right? πŸ˜‰

      Great point about physics being very relevant when it comes to the big questions. Thank you. Please feel free to comment off-topic any time.

      • David Yerle says:

        Really? I didn’t think anyone would follow on our recommendations! That’s great!
        It appears we both had the same experience in high school… yes, people’s indifference towards knowledge is truly mind-boggling. It makes me wonder what they base their actions on.
        And isn’t it nice that we call him BR now? πŸ™‚

        • Yes, I’m really happy with the abbreviation. πŸ™‚
          And I take recommendations (from some people) really seriously. It’s one of the advantages of blogging, I think.

    • Science as a path to the “spiritual”. You know, that’s a fruitful line of research. Back in the day, people seemed to be ok with that, as when they treated their scientific research as supporting their religion by revealing the wonder of the divine. Divine or not, one doesn’t really see this kind of attitude in science — at least I don’t… A way to use science to gain that spiritual perspective. Math as an example of a contemplation of a perfection.

  4. Mordanicus says:

    Funny, I am now busy with writing my bachelor thesis (in political sciences) on Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons.

    • Thank you for your comment. I hope you don’t mind me mentioning just a tiny bit of the book. I really love it. I’d like to know what you think of it. Are you blogging on it in any way, or do you blog to get away from Parfit? πŸ˜‰

      • Mordanicus says:

        My blogging is not quite related to Parfit (although I might write about it if there is any connection with the subject of blog and his theory).

        However, I need to take breaks from time to time in order to relax.

  5. john zande says:

    There’s a physicality to this as well. Every 7 to 10 years we’ve completely replaced every cell in our body. At the end of every year 90% of all the atoms that makes us up are new.

  6. makagutu says:

    Mate, this is a difficult question. In the words of Descartes, I think therefore I am. So if I think not, am not. The next pressing question is it I who thinks and how do I do it?
    I am my brain and my body, change my brain it is no longer I.

  7. It’s awesome you wrote about Parfitt!

    The part about asking how to apply meditation practice to daily life assumes a split between the two: excellent point. I think the question reveals a problem — people don’t integrate. They partition the two into different spheres, to the point that their meditation time is supposed to fix the stuff in their lives, rather than being the basis upon which they live their lives.

    • Thank you for your comment! πŸ˜‰ I agree 100% with what you say about meditation. People want to use it to fix stuff in their lives. And that is fine in itself. I’m not against anyone using meditation for any benefit. πŸ™‚
      But when people start asking the ‘daily life’-question, there’s something in their lives they’re not happy about. In every discussion, that’s what surfaced. The zen-master would ask what was wrong, or missing. The person would talk about the family, the job, the kids, the mess, whatever was keeping them from practising. And everyone would talk in circles and get bored with it.

  8. I think Descartes’ argument is flawed. All that really can be said is, ” I think, therefore there is thinking.” And maybe you can’t even say that. To paraphrase Nietzsche, we can’t get rid of God because we still believe in grammar. We assume the verb to be is actually meaningful. Aristotle struggled with trying to prove that being was a quality like colour or weight. Fun to read, but no cigar.

    • You know Steve, every time you write a comment, you make me want to drop what I’m reading and dig into the blessing/curse that is language. I’d love to read your elaboration on this!

    • Thank you for your comment. It was not my intention to agree with the Cartesian model. Actually, I referred Makagutu (an earlier comment) to an article by Tonguesandwich that takes Descartes’ argument apart in a very thorough and funny way. I put a link in. Out of interest: where did you see me support him? πŸ™‚

  9. If you mean me, I didn’t think you supported Descartes. I was piling on fuel in agreement.

    • Thank you very much for mentioning that. I did mean you and I am sorry I misinterpreted your comment. When I read bloggingisaresponsibility reacting to your comment, there was a fleeting instant of: “Am I missing something here?”. But I didn’t act on it. Sorry about that.

  10. violetwisp says:

    I enjoyed that. And I enjoy that you are a new picture so I feel like I’m commenting to a new character. I’m going to say something really silly and potentially embarrassing, so bear with me. But I wonder if the character thing is like the Meyer’s-Briggs tests – there maybe are basic things about us that normally don’t really change – extrovert, introvert, thinking, intuitive, feeling, critical, judgemental – or whatever the classifications are. I get the feeling that people do have fixed inclinations like those that depend on the structure of our brains, and that regardless of the journey in terms of opinions and perspectives and beliefs and style of expression, do stay fixed from childhood to old age. And if these have something to do with how our brains fire things down pathways, then the sum of our experiences in terms of data transferred into a new brain would have different firing around in new hardware (although I’m not sure that was part of what you were saying …).

    • Thank you! The change of picture came about when a friend commented how the one I was using looked like the famous Dutch novelist Arnon Grunberg (You may google him to check). He’s a nice, but scruffy-looking male. πŸ™‚ So I thought it might be time for a change.
      I actually think many psychologists would agree with what you say about character. The ideas on character being more or less fixed over the years are shared by most of them. I personally think Meyer’s-Briggs’ Indicator is as good a way as any to describe a person’s personality. And like you said, it leaves room for opinions, beliefs and style of expression to change. The description of character structure in Wikipedia was to crappy to make the article. πŸ˜‰
      I’ve recently read Kathleen Taylor’s book “Brainwashing” and she makes a difference between types of beliefs that are quite flexible and others that are extremely resistant to change. In fact, when you challenge those they will be reinforced. Taylor relates that to what she calls ‘cogwebs’, certain pathways in the brain that are trodden so frequently that they make sidestepping almost impossible. If she’s right, that would make convincing some theists very hard. (!) But I think she has a point. Still, even though she is a practicing neuroscientist, all she can do is speculate on what exactly goes on in the brain. Parfit creates some wonderful images, but I’m sure he’s not interested in their validity from a technical perspective. (He says so in the book.) He just uses them for his philosophical argument, where anything is (literally) possible.

  11. When I meditate, I find myself in the double life scenario that you mention. It’s when life takes over that the essence of meditation becomes part of my experience of life and I stop meditating as a separate activity. The duality dissolves and what I don’t often manage while meditating: I experience bliss.

    So it is with identity. When you consider it, you end up with the being me or not being me duality. When you forget that notion of me, you become all your experiences and boundaries quickly disappear. Dualities cannot be resolved – only transcended.

    I once had a letter published in the paper edition of the International Herald Tribune (read: peak of my writing career) which concerned national identity thatanother contributor had lamented about: (second letter)

    • Thank you for your comment. I really like your description that ‘the essence of meditation becomes part of my experience of life’. But you need some experience and some luck to actually experience that, I think. I agree 100% with the idea of our identity creating the boundaries and with the need for transcendence. Actually, in the wikipedia article on Reasons and Persons, Parfit is described as saying that ‘what matters’ is not personal identity but rather mental continuity and connectedness. Like you said, really. And his view on the self is compared to that in buddhism. Sadly, I could not put all of that in the blogpost. πŸ™‚

      I read your letter. You did keep the paper version, I hope? In these days of cheap, easy virtual commenting on any newspaper-article one has managed to half-skim I think something like your letter should be cherished even more. πŸ™‚

      • I agree that you need enough experience to take meditation “to the street” but if you do – and why not – meditation stops being a time limited activity on our busy agendas. At times it is a state of being πŸ™‚ at other times it is noticeable for its absence 😦

        It took me a while to get a paper copy of my published letter. IHT doesn’t tell you when they publish! I only found out when a friend asked my wife a few days later if that was me… Thanks for reading!

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