Philosophy & Technology

, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 363–379

Ghosts in the Machine: Do the Dead Live on in Facebook?


    • Philosophy Group, School of HumanitiesUniversity of Hertfordshire de Havilland Campus
Special Issue

DOI: 10.1007/s13347-011-0050-7

Cite this article as:
Stokes, P. Philos. Technol. (2012) 25: 363. doi:10.1007/s13347-011-0050-7


Of the many ways in which identity is constructed and performed online, few are as strongly ‘anchored’ to existing offline relationships as in online social networks like Facebook and Myspace. These networks utilise profiles that extend our practical, psychological and even corporeal identity in ways that give them considerable phenomenal presence in the lives of spatially distant people. This raises interesting questions about the persistence of identity when these online profiles survive the deaths of the users behind them, via the practice of ‘memorialising’ social network profile pages. I situate these practices within a phenomenology of grief that accounts for the ways in which the dead can persist as moral patients, and show how online survival in this case illuminates an important difference between persons and selves within contemporary philosophy of personal identity. Ultimately, the online persistence of the dead helps bring into view a deep ontological contradiction implicit in our dealings with death: the dead both live on as objects of duty and yet completely cease to exist.


Personal identityDeathOnline social networksPersonSelfSurvival

1 Introduction

Every community has to find ways to deal with the deaths of its members, and since their advent, online communities have been no exception. From suicides streamed via webcam (Thompson 2008), to bloggers and social network users faking their deaths in apparent cases of ‘Munchausen by Internet’ (Feldman 2000; Swains 2007, 2009), from websites that send out pre-prepared emails in the event of a user's death to ensure their passwords, financial details and darkest secrets do not die with them, to fake celebrity death rumours that sweep across the internet like wildfire, online life and offline death are intersecting in ever-more interesting ways. In this paper, I consider some emerging phenomena in online memorialisation and mourning practices and the specific features of online social networks that might licence the claim that the dead somehow live on through their online presence. I situate these practices within a phenomenology of grief that accounts for the ways in which the dead can persist as moral patients (a topic of considerable controversy in analytic metaphysics). We then consider divergent intuitions concerning the survival of others and our own survival through online media, and show how this case illuminates an important difference between persons and selves within contemporary philosophy of personal identity. Ultimately, the online persistence of the dead helps bring into view a deep ontological contradiction implicit in our dealings with death: the dead both live on as objects of duty and yet completely cease to exist.

2 Anchored Identities and Mediated Presence

It's almost a cliché that how we present ourselves online is often be very different from how we are in the ‘real’ (i.e. offline) world. In fact, the situation is far more complex and nuanced than this, for not all online environments are alike. Unlike many forms of online communication, where the offline identities of the participants are unknown or unverifiable to each other, social networks such as Facebook and MySpace involve ‘nonymous’ online identities (i.e. the real names of the participants are known to other users, even if not actually used), underpinned by the extensive use of photos that represent the user's offline life visually. In the offline world, nonymous environments tend to produce ‘identity performances’ that conform more closely to social norms (Zhao et al. 2008, citing Brennan and Pettit 2004; Douglas and McGarty 2001), and this holds in online social networks as well: unlike many text-based online environments, where the lack of corporeality allows for the creation and adoption of wholly fictional(ised) identities, social networking sites mostly extend existing offline relationships, making such fictional presentations considerably harder. Social network users thus stand in relationships that are ‘anchored’ via offline friendships, institutional affiliation, mutual acquaintances and so forth (Zhao et al. 2008), which has a constraining effect on the sort of identity claims users can make.

In addition to being anchored to their existing relationships, users are also, as Sessions (2009) argues, increasingly anchored to their bodies as well. While in online environments users are ‘disembodied and electronically re-embodied through signs they choose to represent themselves’ (Pearson 2009), Sessions (2009), drawing on Hardey (2002), argues that as social networks increasingly blur boundaries between online and offline communication, they also bring into question the assumption that the internet provides an essentially incorporeal space. Online networks are still fundamentally disembodied, but corporeality is nonetheless at issue, as evidenced by the way users critique others for using deceptively flattering camera angles for their profile pictures (the infamous ‘MySpace Angles’).

Of course, even with such policing of communal norms against ‘deceptiveness,’ the identities we construct and manage in social network environments aren't wholly devoid of confabulation and distortion. Yet such distortions need to be seen in the broader context of our global identity-creating practices. Boyd (2008) argues that as all online profiles are essentially performative, with users trying to give a particular impression of themselves, all profiles are necessarily less than authentic; but if ‘authentic’ here simply means ‘free from attempts to give a particular impression of oneself’ then it's doubtful that any identity-presenting social behaviour, online or offline, could count as authentic. Nonymous online environments do involve a certain tension between the pressure to present an authentic self and the imperative to manage others' impressions of the user, as can be seen in Ellison et al.’s (2006) study of dating websites, but again the same is true offline as well: we all want to make a good impression, whatever medium we're using, but we're also restrained by the fear of being found to be deceptive in face-to-face encounters.

Still, online social networks arguably offer more strategies for attempting to manage the impressions of others than are available on structured dating sites and the like. Zhao et al. (2008) identify a continuum of strategies of self-presentation on Facebook, ranging from implicit, visual, ‘show rather than tell’ forms of performance of identity (‘Watch me and know me by my friends’) to narrated ‘about me’-style explicit descriptions. Users also engage in ‘enumerative cultural self-description’ i.e. listing their tastes and preferences in a way that defines them in a space of cultural consumption. Zhao et al. found that what the Facebook users in their study presented to the world in this way ‘were not the identities users established in the offline world, nor were they close to the identities users would construct in anonymous online environments; rather, they were the hoped-for possible identities users would like to, but have not yet been able to, establish in the offline world’ (Zhao et al. 2008: 1828). Yet that too is not as far removed from offline identity practices as we might think: practical identity, in the thick sense of a set of practical, affective and dispositional commitments with which one identifies through tacit or explicit endorsement (cf. Frankfurt 1988), will typically involve some sort of aspirational element, some normative conception of our ‘next self’ in Cavell's (2005) perfectionist terms.

To sum up: social network users create an online identity, composed of narrative and visual components, that is anchored in their offline relationships (however tenuous these connections might be), distinctively tied to their corporeality and linked to a self-conception that is reflective and aspirational. The user picks an image to represent themselves, which may or may not be a photograph of themselves, but they are also presented in multiple photos, acknowledged (‘tagged’) by themselves or other users, that represent their bodily presence in the world. They map out and make public where they are situated in a series of geographic, professional, social, political and educational networks. And through their profile, they communicate with others, both publically and privately, in ways that give their words a permanence and solidity not normally found in face-to-face communication. As Garde-Hansen claims, ‘It is a space where users can narrativise their lives as well as an archive of messages between users,’ and thus embodies ‘evidence of the production of personal identity through social interaction that takes into account the multiple pasts and presents that the user has occupied/is occupying’ (Garde-Hansen 2009:147).

A profile identity is, to be sure, a (self-)conscious construction. As Sessions (2009) notes, using Goffman's (1959) terminology, social network behaviour still largely gives (through language or gesture) a presentation of the self rather than giving out (involuntarily) such a presentation. Identities are also mediated through a technology that itself imposes limitations and distortions: for instance, degrees of interpersonal relationship are collapsed into the artificial binary ‘friend/not friend’ (Boyd 2004; Garde-Hanson 2009), and tastes and interests are similarly presented under preset categories (Zhao et al. 2008). But a profile is, in many respects, more than a mere construct: it is, as this brief survey has shown, a surprisingly good, and increasingly comprehensive, technology for articulating and enacting one's practical and corporeal identities. In interacting over Facebook, we experience a surprisingly rich form of mediated presence of the other; we engage with them in a way that carries across some modicum of who they are, both conceptually and in terms of their non-conceptual presence and ‘way of being.’ Some degree of the distinctive phenomenality1 of the other, their irreducible and largely inexpressible particularity, is successfully mediated via online social networks. Through these media, some quantum of ‘the light in the faces of others’ (Wittgenstein 1967: 40) survives the disembodiment of online communication.

3 Memorialisation and Ontological Ambiguity

But what happens when the source of that light is extinguished—when the users behind these online identities die? This has been a somewhat fraught question for social network providers. Facebook's head of security, Max Kelly, described the dilemma his company faced thus: ‘Obviously, we wanted to be able to model people's relationships on Facebook, but how do you deal with an interaction with someone who is no longer able to log on?’ (Kelly 2009). The answer to this dilemma that sites like Facebook have come up with is one that manages to leave the deceased user's online identity largely intact.

Most social network sites now allow the relatives of deceased users to choose to keep their profiles online as a memorial, allowing other users to post tributes and messages, sometimes speaking of the dead in third person, sometimes in second person. In effect, a profile site is converted into a tribute site, a space of commemoration—a sort of open-ended electronic wake. Yet in other respects the profile remains essentially the same, unless the survivors choose to alter it: the departed's photos, interests, past comments and ‘wall’ postings all remain accessible as they were. (Typically, sensitive details such as contact information are removed). Their online ‘friendship’ connections persist, and thus the model of their social relationships created while they lived are, as Kelly indicates, unchanged. In effect, the online identity created when the user was alive has become unresponsive, but it remains extant in a very similar form to before. Were it not for specific features that pick out memorialised profiles (such as ‘in loving memory’ added after their name), and the sort of messages people tend to leave on them, one could easily view such a profile and not realise the profile's creator had died.

While some users may find the online profiles of dead people disturbing, anecdotal evidence suggests that memorialised profiles can be helpful for those in grief, by enriching their engagement with their memories of the deceased and with others who knew them. A deceased loved one's online presence becomes a repository of memories such as one might otherwise find in diaries, photos or letters (Faure 2009), and like these, memorialised profiles offer a suite of visual and textual resources to assist the memories of the survivors—not in the sense of helping someone not forget the dead, but in phenomenally enhancing the experience of remembering the dead. For one engaged in the act of remembrance, these visual and textual resources can provoke Proustian rushes of rich involuntary memory, or affirm, reinforce or correct existing memories. They thereby assist the phenomenality of the dead in persisting in the memory of the living. Moreover, insofar as they occupy a space that the now-deceased person previously used to communicate with others, memorialised profiles can give a sense of continued presence after death. The poignant comments of the sister of an Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan capture precisely this sense of persistent presence in her brother's Facebook profile: ‘It's brought him back to life a little bit, you can hear him laughing. It's something no one would have expected to happen. It's a way of immortalising him’ (McMahon 2011).

This ‘immortalisation’ element of memorialised profiles raises the curious prospect that constructed identities can survive, at least in some form, after the biological death of that identity's ‘bearer.’ As we saw above, the identity constructed in these anchored online environments is an extension and expression of the socially constructed, largely intersubjective dimensions of our everyday practical and corporeal identities, of ‘who we are in real life.’ What the Facebook profiles of the dead seem to suggest is that our social identities are not necessarily coextensive with the biological life of the individual human organism with which they are associated, and thus it is not the memory of the dead person that is being honoured and sustained through this form of memorialisation, but some dimension or extension of the dead person themselves. And this seems to cohere with a powerful set of intuitions we have regarding the ontological and moral status of the dead: that we are bound by deathbed promises after the promisee is gone, that the dead can suffer harms if their premortem interests are frustrated (something Aristotle thought it would be ‘heartless’ to deny [Nicomachean Ethics 1101a.20]), that funerals honour the dead themselves, not just console the living, and that disrespecting a corpse is a harm to the dead person, not just their survivors (cf. Gaita 2002). We even seem to take it that we have duties to remember the dead—something Kierkegaard (2004) described as the most unselfish, freest and most faithful work of love—and that these duties are not simply ‘indirect’ duties to the living but somehow duties to the dead themselves.

Yet despite heroic efforts,2 this intuition has proven difficult to ground metaphysically, and is rather easy to dismiss as mere wishful thinking. Competing metaphysical theories of personal identity fix the boundaries of life and death in different ways, and each faces difficult threshold cases. Neo-Lockean approaches, according to which personal identity over time consists in the existence of certain forms of connection or continuity between psychological states over time (such as memory, character traits and dispositions, causal connections between past intentions and present actions, etc.), have tended to predominate discussions of identity over the last 40 years. Such views may allow, at least in their ‘wide’ forms (Parfit 1984: 207) that under certain exotic conditions the self could survive the death of its bodily organism (though this claim can be challenged: cf. Johnston 2010). However, neo-Lockeans will struggle to accommodate intuitions that identity is preserved across radical psychological discontinuities, such as that between an infant and an adult, between a healthy adult human and that same human in a permanent vegetative state, between a human with severe anterograde amnesia on two given days, and so on. Animalist approaches (e.g. Olson 1997), according to which each of us essentially is an organic animal (rather than being constituted or supported by an organism), can handle such cases of psychological discontinuity but run up against the widespread intuition that a brain transplant would involve a transfer of personal identity independent of animal identity. But no metaphysical approach to personal identity, apart from the almost entirely abandoned3 immaterial substance approach, can offer a particularly good account of how selves can remain ethical patients or suffer harms after the complete and irreversible cessation of consciousness and metabolism.

Indeed, it would be remarkable if any metaphysical theory could account theoretically for the complicated phenomenology of our dealings with the dead, in which the dead appear to us with a profound ontological ambiguity. As Heidegger realised, the dead are more than merely non-existent; corpses are unalive rather than merely lifeless matter (Heidegger 1962: 282), and remain objects of our solicitous concern rather than ‘an item of equipment, environmentally ready-to-hand, about which one can be concerned.’ Hence, in perhaps every culture, corpses have a status far beyond that of mere lifeless matter (and importantly, also different to that of amputated limbs or sectioned body tissue). Outrages done to corpses strike us as an attack on the dead person, not simply an attack on a piece of inanimate matter that is bad solely because it upsets the living. And this attitude extends beyond the desecration of corpses to the defacing of gravestones and, more recently, of online memorials by internet ‘trolls.’ Moreover, we take it that remembrance, whether of a specific individual or a class of persons, like war dead or the victims of some natural disaster, is itself a duty, something we owe to the dead rather than to ourselves. ‘We ought to remember the dear departed,’ as Jeffrey Blustein puts it, not because it will benefit the living but because ‘in doing so we declare that death has not eliminated what was distinctive and valuable about them’ (Blustein 2008: 269–73, 281). Not making the effort to remember the dead dishonours not the memory of the dead person, but the dead person themselves, for the dead are not reducible to our memories of them (Blustein 2008: 255–6). Yet we harbour no illusions: the dead are gone, irrecoverably non-existent. How is this possible? How can it be that corpses, monuments and Facebook profiles embody the phenomenality of a real subject of the sort of moral duties we would typically direct towards persons, who is nonetheless ‘no more’?

4 Extended Phenomenality and Moral Survival

I've argued elsewhere (Stokes, 2011) for an understanding of the phenomenology of grief whereby the dead persist as distinctive others, and thus as legitimate beneficiaries of moral duties and recipients of harms, to the extent that their living survivors remember them in the appropriate subjective state, one in which the deceased is remembered in the concrete specificity and alterity that made them distinct, valuable, loveable and morally compelling while they lived. The dead continue to claim us morally because through our activity of remembrance, we give them the very continued phenomenality that allows them to so claim us—circular, but not, I think, viciously so. The dead are dependent on us to give them back their independence. This is absolutely not to deny that in memory the dead live on in a radically diminished way; otherwise our very sense of radical loss would make no sense. In particular, the loss of reciprocity and communication is an essential component of what it is for this remembered person to be lost, to be forever beyond our reach. But there is still a phenomenal sense in which, for us if not for the dead themselves, their moral identity extends beyond the boundaries of their biological lives. That we struggle to ground that sense metaphysically does nothing to disenchant our sense of the dead persisting in this way.

Seen from within this phenomenology of remembrance, engaging with the online vestiges of a dead person can be understood as part of the way in which the other, as other, continues to appear to us. Online social networks provide a sort of ‘extended phenomenality’ that allows the living individual to project their identity—including, to a certain extent, their corporeality and the more intangible elements of their being in the world—allowing for mediated presence across physical distance. Here, we can see that they also provide a means for that presence to be reconstructed across time, even when the origin of the ‘signal,’ so to speak, has ceased to exist, like the light from a distant star that appears normal to us but has long since gone supernova. Continued online presence helps preserve the individual particularity of the deceased self from the corrosive effects of time and the decay of memory. They form part of the medium for what Robert Pogue Harrison (2003: x) calls the ‘secular afterlife,’ in which the dead persist in ‘graves, homes, laws, words, images, dreams, rituals, monuments, and the archives of literature, whose voices always have a posthumous character of sorts.’ They are part of our ‘mortal remains,’ but a very persistent and identity-infused part, one that expresses our personality and corporeality in some of the ways that we ourselves, just before our deaths, presented them.

Moreover, to the extent that online profiles are understood by their creators as repositories of their own memories, constructing narratives out of memory (albeit in a constrained and often fragmented and hard-to-schematise way [Garde-Hansen 2009]) they can even be regarded as supporting the persistence of not just our social and practical identities but even of our memory. Does this count as psychological continuity for neo-Lockean identity purposes? Certainly not on a narrow construal of the acceptable causal mechanisms for supporting psychological continuity; but even wide neo-Lockean views, according to which just about any mechanism for supporting psychological continuity will count, might hold that no genuinely psychological properties are preserved in this form of continuity, just records of psychological states. That would require a fairly careful elaboration of what would and would not count as a proper instance of a psychological property, something well beyond the scope of this paper. Nonetheless, a Parfitian neo-Lockean, committed to the idea that once we have all the facts about psychological and physical continuity and/or connectedness we have all the facts about the identity of the person, might hold that while living on via your Facebook profile doesn't count as an instance of survival, it's not quite as bad as ordinary death without leaving any such traces. I may not be around to experience my extended phenomenality, but leaving extended phenomenality behind might not be quite as bad as dying and not leaving that phenomenality.

There seems to be nascent support for that intuition in some emerging online practices. A website called now offers a service whereby users can upload a photograph of themselves and provide a script. The photograph is then animated and becomes an avatar for an artificial intelligence (AI) programme which uses elements in the script to engage conversationally with other users via digitised speech. The idea is, quite explicitly, to enable customers to leave a digital version of themselves that their survivors, and even as-yet-unborn descendants, will be able to interact with. Part of the user's physical appearance and personality are preserved (albeit weakly) in a way that creates a simulacrum of responsiveness. The technology is still in its infancy, but if it could be developed further it might one day yield an acceptable experiential approximation to talking with a person who you nonetheless know to be dead. In effect, we would interact with this avatar as if the dead person continued to exist, in a conversation in which the avatar's responses are largely based on the deceased's original inputs.

There may be good reasons why we are psychologically prepared to do this: our desire to hold onto the dead, of course, and, increasingly, our familiarity with the experience of electronically mediated communication. If a conversation with an AI-driven avatar could be convincing enough to be experientially indistinguishable from a video conversation, ‘talking’ to the dead could become no more remarkable than talking to a distant friend via Skype. Moreover, the idea of the dead continuing to exist in an electronic netherworld is one we may be primed by contemporary folklore to be receptive to. Commercial telegraphy and putative spiritualist communication with the dead both arose in the 1840s and were closely associated in popular consciousness, and the link between supernatural accounts of posthumous survival and electronically mediated presence has persisted through every advance in electronic communication (Sconce 2000; Davies 2007: 248). Still, I doubt most people would regard talking to an avatar, even a very sophisticated one, as amounting to their not having lost their loved one; that is, the ontological ambiguity would persist. Moreover, the AI would have to be very good indeed to avoid occasionally acting in ways that were not in keeping with the deceased person's psychological and conversational repertoire; such glitches would jarringly call attention to the artificial character of the experience and might make the avatar seem less like an extension of the dead person and more like some sort of impostor.4 Nonetheless, it seems likely that what Sconce calls the inherent quality of ‘liveness’ in electronic media might enhance the sense of persistence and ‘immortalisation’ considerably as this technology advances.

We can also imagine that a sufficiently powerful AI could continue to update my Facebook profile on my behalf after my death: writing the sorts of messages I would have written, sharing the sorts of links I would have shared, tending to my Farmville crops with the same obsessive zeal—in short, continuing to ‘perform’ my premortem identity and inscribe my preferences and dispositions into the online space much as I would have done in life. Not all of my premortem interests could be carried out through such a mechanism, but at least some of them could; certainly, more than could be carried out if I remained alive but slipped into a permanent vegetative state without having such an AI in place.

5 Survival, Anticipation and Perspective

However, if asked whether such a form of online posthumous persistence would be somewhat as good as surviving death, we might instead reply that it's not even meaningfully comparable to survival. We do try to leave effective traces of our agency in the world after we die—we write wills, for instance—and we have some interests that are not contingent on our living to see them carried out and which can therefore be frustrated even after our deaths. All things being equal, we'd prefer to live in a world where our premortem wishes were carried out postmortem than a world where they weren't. But the carrying out of those wishes, even if it does represent some extension of our agency beyond our death, doesn't seem to satisfy even part of what we're looking for in our own survival. When it comes to our own survival, the intuitive bar for satisfaction is set rather high—or as Woody Allen put it: ‘I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.’

Thought experiments built around the transfer of psychological properties from their normal organic base to an electronic one are familiar enough in neo-Lockean identity discussions (cf. Dainton 2008). We therefore need to ask: under what circumstances would living on in some discarnate electronic format satisfy what we're looking for in personal survival? Some, such as Christine Overall, deny that it ever could:

Preservation within a computer, whatever else it may offer to the vanity of self-memorialisation through the conservation of past experiences, does not appear to constitute immortality in the sense of unending life. Containment within a computer hardly provides the kinds of opportunities for ongoing human experience and activity that are associated with being a person. (Overall 2003: 168–9)

Yet even contemporary defenders of the intelligibility of electronic survival, like Dainton, require phenomenal experience to continue for survival to be said to have occurred. It is not enough that I be psychologically continuous with some future person, where ‘person’ picks out, in neo-Lockean fashion, some appropriately interrelated bundle of psychological properties; for me to regard this as an instance of me surviving, it's necessary, though far from sufficient, that there be something it will be like to be that future bundle. If there is nothing it is like to be some future person, there is no future experience that one can anticipate having—and anticipating having ongoing experiences seems to be an irreducible part of what matters to us in personal survival (cf. Martin 1998: 50–52). Neo-Lockeans expend great energy trying to overcome the ‘Bridge Problem,’ the question of how numerically identical selves can persist across periods of dreamless sleep or coma, but none of them would regard a situation where I slip into an irreversible coma as counting as survival, even if the underlying physical bases of my psychological life were preserved in the same way as they would be in nightly dreamless sleep. Epicurus may have been wrong to say our fear of death is irrational because we cannot experience non-existence, but there's still something right in his implication that any survival we could value or disvalue would have to be experiencable.

But didn't we say above that while living on via Facebook might not count as being as good as ordinary survival, it might not be as bad as death either? Here, we need to distinguish two different properties: being not-quite-as-bad-as-death and being not-quite-as-bad-as-death-plus-c, where c is one or more consequences that might flow from my death. Making a will and thus having my wishes carried out after my death is better (for me) than dying and not having my wishes carried out: given a choice between the posthumous fulfilment of my desire to have my worldly goods given to the Orphanage for Adorable Kittens that I've devoted all my energies to, or having those wishes ignored and my estate going to my only living relative who happens to be CEO of United Kitten Poison Ltd., the former is clearly better for me. But that does not mean that the badness of my death is ameliorated for me in any way. Dying with an effective will is not-quite-as-bad-as-death-plus-dying-intestate, but it not not-quite-as-bad-as-death, neither for me nor for my survivors. (‘She lives on in the effects of her probate’ certainly seems unlikely to give much comfort to the grieving).

In the same way, living on through my Facebook profile might be better for me than dying and having my Facebook profile shut down—maybe I want people to continue to be able to see my interminable albums of holiday snaps—but it's not not-quite-as-bad-as-death.5 The inability to anticipate having the experiences of any future person mean that for me, nothing about this situation involves any sort of survival that I would care about. There is no future experiencing subject for me to identify with. But the comfort afforded by memorialised social network pages to the bereaved suggests that in some fractional way, having this persistent online identity makes the death of the loved one just ever-so-slightly-not-as-bad-as-[the loved one's]-death. There's a crucial asymmetry here: while living on via my Facebook profile does not count as me-surviving for me, for others it may assist in what counts as me-surviving to at least some small degree.6 I can persist as a particular person and legitimate moral patient in the memory of my survivors in ways that I've suggested are more than merely metaphorical, and do engender a genuine ontological ambiguity, yet I cannot persist for myself in that way.

It seems, then, that we've gone in two contradictory directions: on the one hand I've argued that the dead live on as genuine moral patients in the memory of the living, and that memorialised social network profiles offer unique resources for assisting and enriching that form of persistence. The possibility of our online identities being ‘operated,’ so to speak, by sufficiently sophisticated AI makes this seem all the more plausible. On the other hand, I've argued that such a way of ‘surviving’ death is, when I consider my own death, no form of survival at all. Yet personal identity has traditionally been regarded as a form of numerical identity, and numerical identity does not admit of degrees: either a is identical with b or it isn't. Seen from this perspective—the perspective of (nonreductive) mainstream metaphysical accounts of personal identity—there is a determinate fact of the matter about whether someone survives or not. This forecloses the possibility that a given person could survive from one perspective (i.e. that of their loved ones) but not from another perspective (i.e. their own). So what's going on here? Why should it be the case that everyone else can survive their death but I can't survive mine?

6 Selves and Persons

What the asymmetry described above points to is, I suggest, a fissure that has been increasingly described in the literature on personal identity in recent years7: a split between the person or human being, understood as an entity with various forms of physical, psychological, organic, social and historical identity and persistence conditions, and the self, understood as the locus of self-reference built into self-experience. Understanding how these two registers of identity interact, and how they should interact, remains one of the most pressing tasks for personal identity theory. Moreover, the asymmetry also points to crucial perspectival differences between these different forms of identity, differences that significantly complicate the ways in which we think about personal identity.

In Marya Schechtman's (2007: 171) formulation, a person is ‘someone with the capacity for moral responsibility, prudential interest, relations of compensation and related person-specific activities.’ Persons are essentially diachronic: they have careers that are extended across time, and in some formulations (e.g. MacIntyre 1984; Carr 1986; Schechtman 1996; Rudd 2005; Davenport 2012), they are essentially narrative in constitution. Importantly, the diachronic extensions of narrative persons are not necessarily coextensive with the life of the organism. Ricoeur (1992: 160) notes a sense in which our conceptions and even births are more properly events in the lives of our parents than of our own lives, and one could further argue that certain events, such as the completion of a project someone dedicated their life to but did not live to see finished, are properly events in their life-narrative. Conversely, the obituaries of celebrities are often written well before their deaths—both Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor outlived the writers of their respective New York Times obituaries by several years8—suggesting that personal narratives can actually be completed well before metabolic function ceases. (These last cases actually suggest a possible disjunction between narrative identity and the identity of persons, but discussion of this point would take us too far afield).

Even if we don't accept the narrative claim, it seems clear that persons are, in large part, intersubjectively and socially constituted. Persons are characteristically re-identified by their bodies (Schechtman 1996: 67), but the identity conditions of bodies are themselves somewhat conventional and thus social, and the need for such reidentification only arises in intersubjective contexts: police line-ups, high school reunions, and so on. Beyond that, our practical identities, from our name and family through our friendships, occupations, history, nationalities, responsibilities and moral liabilities, are all formed within the context of a social and intersubjective world. I only am who I am qua person, to a very large extent, because of the histories and projects of others. Thus the narrativist MacIntyre can insist that ‘we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives’ and thus of our own selves (MacIntyre 1984: 213). My practical identity—the identity on the basis of which I work for future goals, make and keep promises, carry out or reject responsibilities, accept punishments, and so forth—is thus in very large measure a public identity. It's also an identity that can apparently withstand quite significant changes across time; although being somewhat multidimensional, it will also have limit cases that will seem to constitute person-survival in one dimension but not another. The social and psychological person may cease to exist in advanced cases of Alzheimer's disease, for instance, but not the biological or legal person.

One could try—as a great many have—to pick out a single one of these dimensions as furnishing the identity conditions for persons per se. If the favoured set of identity conditions fails to hold, then the person ceases to exist, whatever other facts may still obtain. Various forms of neo-Lockeanism, Animalism, Closest Continuer theory and so forth have all pointed to one set of facts as constituting persons across time. All these attempts necessarily involve at least some reduction from our characteristically multidimensional experience of persons (both of ourselves and those of others). In the present context, however, we don't need to make that reduction, because as we'll see shortly, what we're interested here is the way in which the self relates to the person, a relation that needn't be committed ahead of time to any metaphysical account of what persons are.

What, then, of the identities found in online social networks? The ‘Patrick Stokes’ that exists on Facebook is essentially intersubjective: he exists partly in, and is largely shaped by, its interactions with others. Facebook-Stokes is explicitly located within a nexus of friendship, family, educational and employment relationships—a social network, no less—and his actions are all inherently public. Facebook-Stokes’ identity is also anchored in the life of offline-Stokes in the ways discussed above. He maps, extends and feeds into offline relationships, and is thereby restricted in the sort of identity performances he can make. If Facebook-Stokes attempts to pass off a picture of a muscle-bound Adonis as himself, or boasts about jamming with Pink Floyd out the front of Buckingham Palace last night, other users will (rightly, alas) cry foul.

Yet despite this anchoring to my offline life and even to my corporeality, Facebook-Stokes can, it seems, bear my practical identity, to a degree, after my biological death. The profile constructed online allows people to continue to interact (albeit in a thinner and non-reciprocal way) with ‘me’ after my death. The phenomenality associated with our practical and social identity is preserved in ways that allow others to continue to regard us as objects of moral duties, principally the duty of remembrance. Remembrance is largely a duty of preservation, a duty to, in Blustein's phrase, ‘rescue from insignificance’ a person whose particularity and unique value threatens to disappear from the world following their biological demise. Persisting electronic presence seems to be a powerful tool for effecting such a rescue.

But many features of my practical identity do cease to function after my death. I might still be thought of as responsible for my earthly deeds, both good and bad, but my Facebook profile can't take that 6-week Pacific cruise I previously booked, nor go to prison for embezzling the funds that I used to pay for it. It's here that the experiential factors that come into play in anticipating survival connect with the identity of the person qua concatenation of physical, practical and social identity. I can only be punished (effectively) if there is something it will be like for me to be punished; it's no punishment to me if, after my death, some random person is made to suffer imprisonment. (Similar remarks apply, mutatis mutandis, to reward and compensation). The me that comes into play here, however, is quite different to the person so construed.

The me at issue here is what, following Schechtman and Strawson, we can call the self as opposed to the human being or person, and which we might also, following a corresponding distinction in the phenomenological-cognitive science literature, call the minimal as opposed to the autobiographical or narrative self (cf. Damasio 2000; Zahavi 2005). These selves are the subject figured in each moment of experience, the entity that I take to be having this experience right now. This self relates to a given person in deeply intimate ways: it feels embarrassment for what this person has done, it anticipates experiencing the events that will befall that person, and it appropriates the person's past and future with (lesser or greater degrees of) egocentric concern and what Schechtman (2003) has called ‘empathic access.’ Importantly, as experiences of affective alienation from our remembered pasts and anticipated futures appear to demonstrate, this appropriation of the person on the part of the self is neither automatic nor necessary, and there seem to be various ways in which self and person can come apart.

7 Selves and Survival

The identity of persons can be scalar in one or more of its dimensions, which is why it makes sense to say things like ‘she's changed so much she's no longer the same person’ while continuing to insist she pay her old parking fines. And accordingly, the persistence and survival of persons can be a correspondingly scalar affair: more or less psychological or physical continuity and/or connectedness may persist, more or less of the agent's intentions and projects may continue; and we can imagine science–fiction scenarios in which bodily function is progressively taken over by non-organic matter, leading to diminished bodily continuity. This leads reductionists like Parfit to conclude that personal identity is not all-or-nothing, but simply a matter of the degree to which identity-constituting states of affairs continue to hold at a given time. Beyond these facts of degree, there's no deeper answer to the question ‘Will that be me?’

But when it comes to self rather than person, the question ‘Will that be me?’ incorrigibly presents itself as all-or-nothing. When I take a ‘sideways-on’ view of a set of diachronically connected psychological states, for instance, I can assent to the Parfitian idea that under certain conditions there may be no, or no more-than-merely-conventional, fact of the matter about whether I survive or not. In Wiggins' (1967) perennially discussed fission example, would I survive if I split into two psychologically exactly similar but numerically distinct people? Intellectually, if I view my pre- and post-fission stages ‘sideways-on,’ I can assent to the idea that there simply is no deep fact of the matter here about whether fission is a form of personal survival or just a very elaborate way to die. There are just facts about degrees of psychological connectedness across time, nothing more. Assenting to this view would entail that I ask no further questions about the co-identity of the pre- and post-fission persons. But (and with all the usual caveats about how much we can learn from wildly improbable thought experiments), if I was told I was seriously going to be split in two tomorrow, creating two persons each of whom was psychologically continuous with me as I am now, could I stop asking questions like ‘Am I going to survive this? Will one or both of those fission products be me? What will become of me?’ even if I assented to the conclusion that there are no deep facts of the matter about survival? The question is one that it seems we cannot stop asking (Rudd 2005: 415). At least with regards to survival, our egocentric concern appears to track an all-or-nothing conception of identity.

This all-or-nothing concern for survival only appears from a ‘front-on’ perspective—that is, a perspective on the future from here and now—and its object of concern is the self, the present locus of experience, rather than the diachronically extended person. Some of the ways in which we fear death help bring this into focus. From a sideways-on perspective, I might be able to consider certain forms of psychological and bodily continuity, such as (in Parfit's [1984: 200–01] well-worn example) being vaporised a split second before a perfect physical and psychological replica of me is assembled on Mars, as being functionally equivalent to or as good as ordinary personal survival. From a here-and-now, front-on perspective, however, I became concerned for the survival of my self, the experiencing subject figured in my present experiences, and I would worry that teleportation might actually be a form of death (followed, horrifyingly, by an imposter walking around on Mars pretending to be me).

Mark Johnston (2010) argues that the horror of the thought of death is not that the biological and social person will no longer be at the centre of this ‘arena of presence,’ but that the arena of presence, the perspectival field of the self, will itself no longer exist. We aren't so much horrified by the thought that the person we are will no longer be in the world, doing what it now does; we're horrified by the thought that the experiencing subject we now are will no longer exist. From this, Johnston concludes that ‘Self identity, the identity that guarantees the continuation of one's immediately available arena of presence over time, is more basic in its importance than personal identity, the identity over time of the public person who happens now to be at the centre of one's arena of presence’ (Johnston 2010: 163). This, according to Johnston, should actually be a source of comfort, for the self figured in this fear of annihilation is a ‘merely intentional object,’ like an object that is merely hallucinated, and ‘the identity of merely intentional objects is not an objective matter, and so not an important matter.’ Such selves are mere ‘pseudo-substance sortals,’ not the sort of thing that could be re-identified at different times, for instance (2010: 165). So there is no self, or at least no self ontologically robust enough to be worth caring about, that could survive death. Yet as we've seen, egocentric concern is curiously resistant to metaphysical disillusionment. Being told that there's no fact of the matter here, or at least no deep or ontologically significant facts, won't stop me worrying about it. Whether this is a symptom of a sort of metaphysical hypochondria or (as I suspect) a deep and ineliminable fact about the phenomenology of self-experience is a question I leave aside here. For present purposes, what matters is that our intuitions about survival seem to embody an all-or-nothing conception of identity even after we've acknowledged that person identity can come in degrees.

8 Conclusion

What this necessarily truncated discussion of selves, persons and survival gives us is an answer to the question raised above by our consideration of the phenomenology of posthumous online lives: why can everyone else survive their death but I can't? The answer is that persons can, in some dimensions of their identity, survive their deaths in ways that selves cannot. Selves are rooted in first-personal, present-tense experience in ways that are quite different to persons, and this allows persons to persist in circumstances where the associated self has dropped out of existence. So while from my perspective the people I've lost to death survive in some tragically reduced and ontologically ambiguous form, from their own perspective they do not survive their death at all—because their death is precisely the loss of the self that constitutes their own perspective. One can only survive one's death second- or third-personally, so from a first-personal perspective, no one else is any better off than me.

This is not to say that there are two objects with different persistence conditions, the self and the person, and that persons have wider diachronic extensions than selves. In an important sense, selves have no diachronic extension: they're always a feature of the present moment, albeit one that then appropriates the person's past or future. When I look at the Facebook profile of a dead friend, their person persists in the form of their extended phenomenality, in an essentially timeless way: they existed before they died and, in this much thinner but still phenomenally significant form, they'll continue to exist tomorrow. When I consider my own survival however, I find that I cannot identify in the necessary sense with the identity figured in my Facebook profile such that I could regard its continued existence as constituting the survival of the self I experience myself as being here and now.

The online space offers many opportunities to become someone else, to maintain anonymity or create a new identity unrelated to one's embodied existence. Online social networks, by contrast, represent a technology for articulating, expressing and expanding the agential and phenomenal reach of our anchored, socially recognised, intersubjective identity. These online identities do not, I think, represent a truly new form of identity, but they do extend our existing identities in compelling ways, and considerably enhance our posthumous phenomenality in the minds of others. So in an important sense, they genuinely do help the dead dwell among the living a little longer than they perhaps might have done. Yet they do so in a way that actually makes the separation between our first-personal extinction and our third-personal persistence all the more poignant.9


My use of ‘phenomenality’ here owes a debt to Jeremy Allen's (2011) discussion of our treatment of the dead.


For an invaluable conspectus of the debate over posthumous harms and associated issues, see Fischer (1993)


Though see, e.g. Swinburne (1986)


I am grateful to an anonymous referee for this point.


One question that confronts survivors is whether the deceased would want their profile to be memorialised or not. Anecdotally, it appears that these sorts of issues are increasingly being worked into estate planning, so that the survivors have specific instructions as to how the deceased wanted their ‘digital legacy’ managed after their death.


Of course in another sense, the richly phenomenal memory of a loved one makes that person's loss seem all the more poignant and painful. Preserving the other in memory is, paradoxically, part of understanding the true depth of what has been lost.


Cf. Strawson (2009), Schechtman (2007), Johnston (2010). I discuss this split in Stokes (2008, 2010).


The Bob Hope example was raised in discussion during a postgraduate seminar I gave at the University of Melbourne in 2003; I'm embarrassed to say I can't recall who raised it, but I remain grateful for it nonetheless.


This paper has been made possible by a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship funded by the European Commission. I am grateful to attendees at the ‘Personal Identity After the Information Revolution’ workshop at the University of Hertfordshire for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper.


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© Springer-Verlag 2011