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The Head of Derek Parfit

February 20, 2011

Last Wednesday I had the good opportunity to see the great philosopher Derek Parfit give the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s Annual Lecture at University College London.   The place was packed to the rafters with eminent philosophers.  It is hard to discern when an eminent philosopher is discreetly, internally squealing with excitement, but I was quite sure that in this lecture theatre there were dozens of eminent philosophers doing just that.  And quite rightly so: Derek Parfit’s ‘Reasons and Persons’ is a masterpiece of highly wrought rational argumentation; the erudite audience had high hopes.

When Derek Parfit entered the lecture room, you could almost taste the reverence in the silence that filled the air.   It was undeniable that, despite the fact that he had his tie tucked into his trousers (a faux pas, even for an internationally acclaimed philosopher), this man had an aura of genius.  Skipping trivialities, he launched straight into a lecture on ‘Why you are not a human’, rapidly erecting intricate edifices built of thought experiments, demolishing all that stood in opposition.

I will get right to the point.  One of the famous thought experiments employed by Derek Parfit is that of the ‘head transplant’ whereby he asks you to imagine that his head is surgically severed from his body and placed onto the beheaded body of someone else – the body of Bernard Williams, on this occasion.  Scientists have successfully performed head transplants on monkeys, rats and dogs (see monkey surgery if you’re not squeamish), although I don’t think they’ve ever made e.g. a monkey-dog or a dog-monkey.  Anyway, let’s not get side-tracked, Derek Parfit asked us: “If you took my head and put it on the body of Bernard Williams, who would you see in front of you?”  He made it more vivid by describing a hospital bed where we see his head, above a sheet, and then we pull down the sheet to reveal Bernard Williams body.  Who would this be? In the first run-through, Derek Parfit said in a very cool and assured tone: “of course, it is me.”

Now, it struck me whilst sitting in the lecture theatre that this is a question which Derek Parfit has been asking people for at least 26 years, since ‘Reasons and Persons’ was published in 1984 (the year of my birth).  He has entertained every single nuance on the head transplant scenario: x number of bodies, y numbers of heads, z different qualifications limiting the transplant to just, e.g. the cerebrum or one hemisphere of the brain.  For at least 26 years.

One can imagine Derek Parfit, at any point during these 26 years, attending a social gathering – the wedding of a second cousin, say – and introducing himself, “Hullo.  Nice to meet you. Look- if you took my head and put it on the body of Bernard Williams, who would you see in front of you?”  It is a good, imaginative question, and I have no doubt that his interlocutor would grin at this intriguing biomedical hypothetical.   Who would we see?

For 26 years.  Now, I’m not saying that Derek Parfit has done nothing else for 26 years; he has done an immense amount of philosophy, but I’m just speculating that this is perhaps his ‘party trick’, or at least a topic which he gravitates back to if ever at a conversational loose end.  It could even serve as a sort of ‘chat up line’ – but this is just a conjecture.

When it came to the time for asking questions at the Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture, someone had the audacity to challenge Parfit’s thought-experiment methodology.  One must assume that he was a professor of an empirical discipline.  He said that he was afraid his intuitions just didn’t go either way in the head transplant case.

Derek Parfit was amazed.  He guffawed, cut this other professor short, and went through the thought experiment one more time.  His headBernard Williams’ body.  Who would it be?  He marched up and down and started gesticulating wildly.  “Who would you see?” Then he pounded his chest and screeched, “It would be me! It is my head!”  An onlooker placed the sound of these ejaculations as somewhere between Yoda and The Dalai Lama.  Nevertheless, this other professor was still not convinced.

Losing his patience, Derek Parfit went through the scenario yet again.  You are at a hospital.  You see his head peeking around the bed sheets.   You know it’s his head, because he tells you all about his plans for a new book.  You have a good conversation with him.  And then, for some reason, you pull down the bed sheets only to see that it was hiding not the body of Derek Parfit – as you had presumed – but the body of Bernard Williams (not this Bernard Williams, but I think the philosophical point would be the same).

Remember: this man has been grappling with this very scenario for 26 years.  And for over 7 of these years, Bernard Williams has, sadly, been dead.

In 1992, a stranger went up to Derek Parfit to ask for the directions to Covent Garden, and Derek Parfit said: “It’s just up there and to the right, but my fellow would you please let me know your intuitions on this question.  If…”

Frustrated that the audience did not share his certainty, Derek Parfit conducted a straw poll. It is not necessary to repeat the question again here.  The results were far from decisive.  He tried to take this calmly.  He walked to the back of the lecture theatre, plunging the room into silence, his fists clenched with the conviction that it would be him that you would see.

It was at this point that Derek Parfit unveiled himself.  He stripped off his clothes in one dramatic movement, leaving him naked save a pair of blue old-fashioned briefs.  He was unveiling the true nature of his being: the head of Derek Parfit but with the body of Bernard Williams. Gasps filled the lecture theatre.   Despite the fact that by this point we should well have known what to expect, this came as a big surprise.  Squinting, I could just make out the faint outlines of stiches around the neck.

Before we even had time to deduce a single corollary, Derek Parfit conducted a second straw poll, to see what our intuitions told us now – now that we had witnessed the handiwork of Oxford’s finest surgeons.  The tables turned.   We were now unanimously with him, but a little frightened all the same.

He then pulled a cord that released a huge curtain behind him.   Here were photographs constituting what can only be described as an array of thought-provoking hybrids.  The head of Ludwig Wittgenstein on the body of Bertrand Russell; the head of Albert Einstein on the body of Michael Jordan; the head of Stephen Hawking on the body of Jeremy Beadle; the head of Jeremy Beadle on the body of Stephen Hawking; it went on.  The actual preserved body of Jeremy Bentham (which resides at UCL) had been wheeled in, only to be paired with the head of Esther Rantzen (and likewise the head of Jeremy Bentham with the body of Christian Bale).

Derek Parfit pounded his chest one more time.  “It is me!”

Postscript: I have to sincerely apologise for if Derek Parfit or any of his friends every actually read this.  I intend nothing here to be an insult; it is mere silliness.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 24, 2012 1:39 pm

    I am currently reading Derek Parfit and cried with laughter reading this. Unexpected.

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