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Shelly Kagan on the Nature of Persons

7 May 2009 (updated 27 March 2020)

In this lecture, Shelly Kagan talks about life and death, as well as persons, in black-and-white terms. However, are there degrees of life and death? Are there degrees of consciousness? Are there degrees of identity?

He also talks about the death process in linear terms. He seems to suggest that a person gradually breaks down at a linear rate; and, at a certain point, the person dies. However, could the break down be exponential, and thereby provide only an approximation of black-and-white death in our unaided human observation?

Finally, Shelly focuses on dualism and physicalism. He associates dualism with immaterialism and physicalism with materialism. In doing so, he overlooks the idea of substrate independence, which is neither dualism nor physicalism, as he describes them.

For example, could we be entirely material, having minds that are dependent on physical substrates generally, yet not dependent on any particular physical substrate? Could our minds be physical degrees of abstraction, like an atom is a physical degree of abstraction? And how distributed might a substrate-independent person be across even its environment and other persons?

Shelly is setting up his lectures with definitions of life and persons that are too black-and-white.

Here are my thoughts on Shelly’s first lecture.

Here are my thoughts on Shelly’s third lecture.

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