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The Living Dead
Birth, Death, and the Moveable Bookends of Personhood
I confess I read the New York Times’ “Modern Love” feature with some regularity. I am human, and MeToo-inflected borderline-softcore written by women for women is not alien to me. But nihil alienum creates a fairly low threshold of expectation, and for this reason I was surprised when I read the contribution to this series published on November 3, by Emily Suon, a librarian, which I genuinely thought was profound.
Suon describes the difficulties that have arisen in her marriage from the fact that her husband is dead, and she complains that none of the available advice on how to stay happily married is tailored to her specific situation. All such advice presupposes, in fact, that each partner remains biologically intact for the duration of the marriage. She acknowledges that technically she is “single”, as it is impossible, in law, to be married to a dead person. And yet, in spite of this technicality, it is a great existential and incontrovertible fact about her life, as she experiences it, that she is still married to this particular dead person. Suon observes that many cultures have significant rituals for processing their ongoing relations with the living dead, while she is simply stuck, to grieve on her own, in an uncomprehending world that basically takes the administrative matter of record-keeping in offices of vital statistics as if it were founded on some settled metaphysical truth: that a person only exists from their “DOB” up to their “DOD”, and no longer.
In fact this is by no means settled. Our culture, from a comparative-anthropological point of view, is on the contrary highly anomalous in taking these two temporal limits as the moral and metaphysical bookends of personhood.
We are coming up the seventh anniversary of my grandfather-in-law’s death. Traditionally, in the Orthodox church, this occasion would be marked by a ritual that involves digging up the bones of the deceased, washing them white and clean, and then reburying them forever. In the period prior to that significant anniversary, there is ongoing exchange, both ritual and spontaneous, with the dead. Whenever food or drink is accidentally spilled from the table, it is said to be shared with the dead. The candles lit for the dead outside of churches are another effective way of initiating exchange. Food, fire, and prayer continue to pass across the boundary that death has made impermeable to ordinary speech and action.
It was only when my father died in 2016 that this deep truth of human existence hit me: there are two basic categories of people, the living and the dead, and the members of both categories are equally people. Some people are dead people, in other words.
This is something I could have figured out much earlier, if I had paid attention to the certitudes of my dreams, in which, for example, my grandfather, who died in 1987, frequently comes back to visit. You’re not supposed to be here, the family is always muttering to him and around him. It is not however that he has done something impossible, but only that he has done something unusual, and somewhat illicit — something that breaks the ordinary rules.
These ordinary rules get broken all the time however, in dreams, in folklore, in the cultural processing of biological death. I wrote a whole book on vampires, the key parts of which I have republished here, though the truth is I only did it for the money, and at the time I had not yet understood how deeply this topic resonates with my abiding philosophical and anthropological interests. Like a sensitive Austro-Hungarian clerk in some newly annexed village in the Balkans, where the inhabitants can’t stop fussing about dead husbands who keep coming back to give their widows trouble, and about the best methods for putting them down once and for all, I can’t help but be struck by the astounding wisdom of folk-superstitions. The folk are busy chattering about garlic and holy water, but what they’re really expressing is the great difficulty human society necessarily faces in finding a way to live in peace alongside the living dead.
It has long seemed to me that much of what we experience as morality, of what we designate as superstition, of what we exclude as taboo, is largely a downstream effect of administrative practices. Part of the moral salience of a human death in contrast with a dog’s death, for example, is a result of the fact that in the former case there is more paperwork to deal with, there are records to be signed off on, files to be closed, down at the vital-statistics office. The dog can generally be disposed of in any old way. When our dogs used to die in Rio Linda (there were a lot of dead dogs, for reasons I still can’t fully comprehend), we just buried them right there in the backyard, near the septic tank (I thought it was called the “sceptic tank”). No one wrote anything down. There was no expectation of record-keeping, or even of literacy, in connection with that sub-cycle of the great cycle of life and death.
That’s a point I’ve been making for a while now; I’ve probably made it before in this space. A supplementary point, it strikes me now, is that these administrative practices might best be seen as “reductions” —I mean this in the sense borrowed from gastronomy— of rituals that across the wide diversity of human cultures usually span a much greater portion of time, straddling both sides of the bookends of biological birth and death.
It is significant, here, that the closest ancestor historians in the archives have to the “DOB” in vital-statistics documents, reliably recorded only since the nineteenth century, is, precisely, the church baptismal record. And this record is a transcription or a textual trace of a ritual that traditionally marked the true social birth of a person, some time after their biological birth. The textual trace would eventually crowd out the ritual altogether, and would also be recalibrated to mark the date of biological birth, with no additional marking of social birth after that. The reasons for this shift are multiple: the rise of the administrative state, most importantly, but also secularization and declining rates of infant mortality, which could not but have made biological birth an increasingly salient social fact.
The day of baptism in many cultures was also the day of name-giving, and here the onomastic logic was entirely different from ours. Names were not given in order to mark out the irreducible individuality of the newborn, but rather to absorb the newborn into a preexisting community by designating him or her with the name of one of the saints. In this respect, as I’ve often noted, traditional Christian onomastics amounts, though no one wants to put it in these terms, to a sort of “soft reincarnation”. It is not that the same individual soul reappears after having gone through a previous biological death, but rather that every time a newborn George comes into the world, for example, he is so to speak a token of the type established by St. George.
Just as the baptismal records of churches overlap partially, as historical documents, with the birth records of administrative states, so too does the celebration of birthdays, in some places, overlap with the celebration of name days. Those of us in the fully secularized West who know our birthdays but not our name days might look at our friends and loved ones from the Orthodox East, who continue to celebrate both, as dwelling in a transitional space between tradition and modernity. But modernity is as weird as anything else, when you stop to think about it. It’s weird to celebrate the day of your biological birth, rather than the day of the quasi-divine being your forebears chose to slot you under. When you celebrate your birthday, what you’re really celebrating is the total victory of the administrative state over all other possible sources of order and meaning.
Sharing a name with a saint is one way a person can partially preexist his or her biological birth. The social recognition of this pre-existence of course can only begin once the individual biological person —little George, for example— is already around, and in this respect preexistence is different from the examples of social post-existence with which we began.
I’ve started to think, anyhow, that our most recent technological revolution might entail significant changes in the way we think about the bookends of a human life, and that, indeed, the “DOB-to-DOD” conception of personhood that has been taken for granted in the modern secular West might be nearing its end. This conception may turn out to have been most suitable to an era of paper-based record-keeping, lying between the era of softly reincarnated saints and of endless candles and cakes for the recently deceased, at its one end, and the era of AI-driven personalized chatbots at its other.
Allow me to explain. Most proposals of technological “work-arounds” for the problem of mortality take for granted that the only transfer of selfhood into a digital medium that would count as successful is one that would preserve our individual consciousness on the other side of the transfer. Thus David Chalmers’s thought-experiment involving a character named “DigiDave” is explicitly a case of consciousness-uploading, and not simply a faithful digital reproduction of BioDave’s personality.1 In this and other such scenarios, contemporary philosophers generally take for granted something like a Lockean theory of personal identity.2 That is, they suppose that to be the same person from one moment to the next is to preserve the same consciousness from one moment to the next. I adopted such a theory of personal identity myself for my recent exploration of the “auto-science-fictional” potentials of self-uploading.
If I may lay my cards out now, however, the truth is I strongly suspect such a scenario of uploaded individual consciousness is a straightforward theoretical impossibility, as I am not at all convinced by arguments for the substrate-neutrality of human consciousness. One reason I don’t think my consciousness, or Dave Chalmers’s, or anyone else’s, can ever be successfully uploaded is that I don’t have any idea what would be left of my conscious self under circumstances where it’s either disembodied, or it’s embodied in a physical substrate as different from the one I’m used to as, say, an assemblage of wires and silicon. But neither am I a Lockean about personal identity, and so the fact that I don’t think consciousness can be uploaded does not entail that I do not think selfhood can be uploaded. I think these are two different issues, and in fact I think the latter issue, selfhood-uploading, is rather more interesting.
Most people who suppose that consciousness would have to survive the transfer in order for the self to survive the transfer are thinking somewhat in the spirit of Woody Allen, who wrote somewhere that he doesn’t want to live on in his works, but only in his apartment. The idea is that it’s a rather small consolation, in the face of the infinite blackness of non-existence, to know that your mind is still at least being modeled in a different substrate, whether ink on paper, or representations of motion on celluloid, or in a hard-drive. Anything less than immortality with enduring consciousness can easily, from this point of view, look like immortality only in an equivocal sense.
But what the “Woody Allen theory” of the afterlife misses is the social nexus of personhood, the way we continue being persons for others whether we’re conscious of it or not. After all, the man to whom Emily Suon takes herself to be married is not someone she takes, by her own explicit avowal, to be having conscious representations at present. And I do not take the grandfather who comes to visit sometimes in dreams to be exhibiting conscious agency — yet he is my grandfather. My grandfather-in-law has no conscious representations, as far as I can determine, and yet he continues to exercise real power as a social actor, moving his family members to engage in all sorts of activities they would not think to engage in if he were not in fact a person.
Personhood, in other words, pace Locke, pace Chalmers, pace Woody Allen, seems to have a lot more to do with our social roles than with what is going on in our heads. And our social roles turn out, upon reflection, to be significantly shaped by the technologies available for their fulfillment.
I mean “technologies” in the proper sense, which is much broader than the one that is ordinarily understood today. There is no technology more powerful in structuring the world than a religious calendar, for example, with its rigid prescriptions of what you may or may not do on any given day, with its periodic reminders of which of the living dead will be requiring candles or cakes or prayers from you.
Another technology is on display in the practices of record-keeping mastered by the administrative state. With Charles Taylor, I agree that these practices not only reflect, but also significantly shape, the idea of the self that emerges in the modern world. Of course, as Taylor reflects, there is at least some sense in which a Paleolithic hunter whose mate gets gored to death by a woolly mammoth is able both to regret the loss of a fellow human being, while also feeling relief that it did not gore him instead.3 But simply acknowledging this minimal shared inheritance of a suite of cognitive abilities for marking out the boundaries between self, other, and world tells us next to nothing about how a given culture, including a Paleolithic one, will interpret the moral and metaphysical significance of those boundaries. It is prima facie implausible that they should be interpreted in the same way by a society that sustains itself in hunting woolly mammoths as by a society whose encounter with external reality is significantly mediated by a digital interface.
Thus while I mean “technology” in the sense of calendars, baptismal scrolls, and spears, I also definitely mean it in the sense of artificial intelligence, and other such technologies whose value in our society is signaled by the abbreviated form of “tech”.
Imagine that over the next decade or so personalized chatbots reach a level of sophistication that enables us, after our biological deaths, to continue occupying many of the same social roles we occupied during our biological lives. AI trained up on the data that we put out over the course of these lives —all the things we say and write, perhaps all the things we glancingly look at on our screens, perhaps all the grimaces and grins that reveal something of our inner states in response to various cues— are recorded, and processed, and churned back out through a two-dimensional avatar or a three-dimensional holographic representation of our likenesses.
To have such “simulacra” available to us might well be nothing more than a cruel trick played on the bereaved. But whether this is what it is or not has much to do with the cultural context in which the bereaved live, in particular the cultural mechanisms for processing interaction with the living dead, and the cultural values that shape the representations we have of the living dead. It is noteworthy in this connection that significantly greater taboos are holding back the development of such technologies in Europe, even as they are gaining rapid acceptance in certain parts of East Asia. In France there has been particular concern on the part of official bodies to consult with AI researchers and roboticists, such as Laurence Devillers, in order to minimize any potential social harms brought about by such practices, already happening in South Korea, as the virtual-reality “resurrection” of a deceased child for a reunion with her mother (I learned about this particular example from a talk Devillers herself gave in Paris in 2022).
My prediction is that as the technologies improve, the taboos will weaken, for better or worse. If this were only relevant to our affective lives, I wouldn’t have much to say about it. But I think it’s also going to have legal and administrative consequences, in the middle term, and in the long term these are going to reshape our understanding of the metaphysics of personhood. Against Chalmers, my prediction is that developments in AI might well turn out to obviate the “consciousness condition” that we have long, but not always, seen as a sine qua non of personal identity.
Imagine that you are an expert investor, and you have for years trained an AI to follow your investment decisions, and to learn to invest “like you”. You have a choice in your will as to what to do with your money when you die, and you specify that you would like your customized investment AI to continue making investments in the same way you would have made them. It’s your automated estate manager, sort of, but it’s also acting in the world as you. Depending on the values of the culture that enables this action, the AI may come to be socially represented as a partial survival of you.
This is a fairly realistic prediction — something like it may be happening already. But from here we can move to a slightly more far-fetched, but clearly parallel scenario, from the financial to the political. Imagine you have trained an AI to follow your deliberations closely in matters of electoral politics, to the extent that it is able reliably to vote “like you” in any future election. Imagine a grass-roots political movement begins, and a certain segment of the population begins to demand an extension of universal suffrage, beyond the DOD limit, to include the living dead. Why should a terminally ill 95-year-old biologically living person have the right to vote? We suppose this is because he has an interest, and a sort of stake, in the future well-being of society, whether he is around to appreciate this or not. But why then does that stake cease to exist in the period between biological death and the next round of elections? This is an arbitrary limit, and if technology can facilitate it, perhaps the next great horizon of politics will be the fight for universal suffrage for the deceased.
Beyond the affective dimensions of marriage, there are of course also the legal ones, in particular having to do with inheritance. Here too, as with finance and politics, it seems natural that new technology will significantly redefine the social category of widowhood.
Because it is our actual world in which these new technologies are emerging, and our actual world is fundamentally an unjust and unequal one, the most likely scenario is that these transformations will turn out to be most beneficial for those who can pay for them. Perhaps a generation from now there will be a small class of elites who are able to buy posthumous voting rights. Far from making our society more just and equal, the technological possibilities opening up towards new forms of postmortem personhood are more likely to become new vectors of inequality.
But in any case enduring agency beyond the DOD bookend is a fairly common thing in human society, and it only made sense to suppress it, or to refuse to acknowledge it, within the context of a particular technological regime of modern state administration. This regime left many people unsatisfied, and they kept fulfilling their obligations to the living dead anyway, and kept right on receiving visits from them. It left Emily Suon confused, when her husband died, and she nonetheless continued to experience his agential presence in her life. It long kept members of traditional cultures in conflict with the modern state, as the latter insisted that the lives of the deceased had been fully “tied off” from an administrative point of view, while the former kept insisting on sneaking back into the graveyards and digging up the bones of their loved ones for another round of exchange across the permeable boundary death throws up between us.
It’s just a basic social fact: dead people are people too. New technologies are probably going to make the way we process this fact increasingly weird, relative to what we took to be the default position in the West, circa 1987, when the first of my grandparents joined the living dead. But the truth is it was always weird, it could be no other way, and the bookending of the metaphysical person by the DOB and the DOD was only one way among many that human culture over its long history has sought to process this weirdness.
That’s just what culture always does: it looks for ways to contain the uncontainable.
See David Chalmers, “The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 17 (2010).
See John Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), chapter 27, section 9. “This being premised, to find wherein personal identity consists, we must consider what person stands for; which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it.”
See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press (1989). “We can probably be confident that on one level human beings of all times and places have shared a very similar sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. In those days when a paleolithic hunting group was closing in on a mammoth, when the plan went awry and the beast was lunging towards hunter A, something similar to the thought ‘Now I’m for it’ crossed A’s mind. And when at the last moment, the terrifying animal lurched to the left and crushed B instead, a sense of relief mingled with grief for poor B was what A experienced. In other words, the members of the group must have had very much the same sense that we would in their place: here is one person, and there is another, and which one survives/flourishes depends on which person/body is run over by that mammoth.”
The image is of a skeleton carrying wine jugs, a mosaic from Pompeii, circa 50 CE (National Archeological Museum of Naples).
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