Thought Experiments in Personal Identity: A Literary Model

2013-06-28T00:00:00Z (GMT) by Aleksei Zarnitsyn
Thought experiments are standard methodology in the philosophy of personal identity. The cases used, however, are rather fantastic: fission, teleportation, fusion, and so on. Why should we think that what is essentially a fantastic story can aid us in delivering knowledge about the fundamental questions of personal identity? One might point to the success of thought experiments in science to support the use of the methodology in philosophy. However, there have been serious challenges to the suggestion that thought experiments used in personal identity can fit this model. On the basis of this critique, some philosophers have suggested giving up on this method altogether. I suggest a different option. In my dissertation I bring insights about what and how we learn from the imagined fantastic scenarios found in literary fictions and in bioethics to bear on our understanding of the use of thought experiments in discussions of personal identity. I argue that by employing these insights we can identify a legitimate role for fantastic cases in allowing us to unearth constraints on the intelligibility of lives we can envision ourselves to inhabit. Such cases thus provide important information about the general conditions under which persons can continue to exist. This calls for a change in our understanding of the function and the results of thought experiments, but this is a welcome and fruitful change.