Self-Determination in Plenitude


On a plenitudinous ontology, in every filled region of spacetime, there is at least one object that’s ‘exactly then and there’; one per each modal profile that the matter in the region satisfies. One of the strongest arguments for plenitude, the “argument from anthropocentrism” (also known as the argument from arbitrariness), puts pressure on us to accept that members of different communities correctly self-identify under different subject concepts. I explore this consequence and offer an account of selves on which self-determination is both socially and individually variant; we determine our spatiotemporal boundaries, our de re modal properties, and the kind of being that we are. We do this by determining which of many candidate beings has the property of being a self.

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  1. 1.

    This is not the only proposal for rejecting this view. Below I will explain how my proposal differs from other similar ones by Braddon-Mitchell and West (2001), Braddon-Mitchell and Miller (2004), Miller (2009, 2013), Johnston (1989, 2010), Kovacs (2016) and forthcoming, and Zimmerman (2013).

  2. 2.

    Note that this ‘we’ isn’t restricted to philosophers, either.

  3. 3.

    Here is one way to characterize these by their modal profiles, based on some standard conceptions of endurance and perdurance: Endurers, by their metaphysical nature, are able to keep all of their parts from one instant to the next. Perdurers are composed of essentially instantaneous parts.

  4. 4.

    A single object cannot just have both of two contradictory modal properties; so the properties would have to be indexed to different terms. On counterpart theory, the thing can have its shape essentially in respect of one sort of counterpart relation (statue-counterparts), but non-essentially in respect of another sort of counterpart relation (soap-counterparts). If a single object has to have these modal properties, they have to be indexed to something or other.

  5. 5.

    MFP is the same as the view Bennett (2004) describes as “plenitudinous bazillion-thingism”, the view that all consistent complete modal profiles instantiated in a region belong to a distinct object there. Bennett doesn’t endorse the view but it is clear that she finds it tenable.

  6. 6.

    Olson (2010) is somewhat of an exception in that he has written (268) that the concept of a linguistic person could enform different persistence conditions in China than it does in Britain. Of course, he doesn’t think that either of these is what anything essentially is, but that we all are essentially animals. In footnote 1 I offered a short list of these conventionalist approaches. Below I will explain what differentiates the view I offer from these conventionalisms.

  7. 7.

    I will remark on Schechtman’s narrative identity view below.

  8. 8.

    Nichols and Bruno (2010) seem to show that individuals do have views about personal identity conditions. Now, most of the subjects surveyed by Nichols and Bruno turned out to harbor inconsistent ideas about personal identity. (More on this later.) When they were alerted about the inconsistency, 80% seemed to favor the psyhological continuity view, the rest (a large minority) favoring the bodily criterion. Generally, it seemed that folk have the same views regarding their own identity conditions and a third person’s. I venture to suggest that we tend to extend the identity conditions we see fit for ourselves in answering identity questions about other people. (I should note that the aim of this study wasn’t primarily to survey folk intuitions, but to investigage the framing effect, if any, on which intuitions the folk report.)

  9. 9.

    Thanks to Laurie Paul for encouraging me to think of personal identity issues vis-a-vis selves in these lines. Thanks to an anonymous referee for bringing to my attention a body of work (Braddon-Mitchell and Miller 2004; 2020; Braddon-Mitchell and West 2001) sharing this intuition.

  10. 10.

    The Nichols and Bruno (2010) survey does provide limited support for my thesis.

  11. 11.

    The current paper (minus several revisions) was presented to an audience at the Analytic Existentialism conference at Ghent University in October 2014. I became aware of the weblog entry Schwitzgebel (2015) in the winter of 2016. He describes a view he calls voluntarism about personal identity, on which persons can choose to identify (or not) with appropriate candidates in the past or in the future. While Schwitzgebel’s and my views are close allies, (1) he does not (nor does he need to) offer ontology which makes voluntarism true, (2) he does no ḍiscuss the role of the community in determining one’s identity. If Schwitzgebel’s voluntarist desideratum is to be taken up, then the sort of ontology that would perfectly do the job is the one I presently offer. I am indebted to the discussion thread of the blog entry for valuable references and for a couple of objections applicable against my view as well as Schwitzgebel’s. I cite the authors of these objections in my text.

  12. 12.

    The italicized words are names of concepts and non-italicized versions of them refer to kinds of being.

  13. 13.

    I agree with Sider that “ordinary thought contains two concepts of persisting persons, each responsible for a separate set of intuitions, neither of which is our canonical conception to the exclusion of the other” (Sider 2001a, 197).

  14. 14.

    Compare with Pluralians and their bligers, in van Inwagen (1990, 104).

  15. 15.

    For the moment I am ignoring that “the person” doesn’t determinately refer, and for similar reasons, probably “the c-person” doesn’t, either. (Based on how they persist when not hugging, c-persons are either c-personsB or c-personsP.).

  16. 16.

    I imagine the Contacti-using community a bit differently than Hirsch did. I envisage this as an example where practical lives are shaped in terms of the c-person concept.

  17. 17.

    See Sider’s discussion of ‘contact’ and reference-magnetism in (2001b, 184).

  18. 18.

    There is, of course, the question “If Muslim and Christian scholars are in disagreement over “She began to exist at t” where t is the 40th day after conception in some case, are they having a verbal dispute about different kinds of beings, or are they in substantive disagreement over when a certain being began to exist?” For any given discussion, either is epistemically possible as far as the contours of this view is concerned, but for example’s sake I have opted to characterize them as employing different subject concepts, (i.e., referring to different kinds of being). Different disputes will have different characterizations true of them.

  19. 19.

    In Olson (2015), Olson leaves room for different kinds of persons having different persistence conditions, but the kinds of persons he has in mind are non-human persons such as angels and God. Presumably alien persons would make it to this list. Modal differences between different human persons is explored at length in Johnston (1989, 2010) and also in Zimmerman (2013). According to Braddon-Mitchell and Miller (2004, 2020), Miller (2009) and Braddon-Mitchell and West (2001), which kinds of facts drive someone’s persistence through time can differ from case to case.

  20. 20.

    Subject-concepts apply to many (even if they are somehow completely determinate), and self-concepts apply to one (if they are completely determinate). The indeterminacies in the concept person are settled by its members’ self-concepts, which apply only to them. (Of course a particular person could overreach and believe (possibly falsely) that other persons have, or should better have, similar self-concepts as they do. Regardless of whether they are right or wrong, what’s crucial by the lights of this account is that one person’s thoughts cannot ground another’s self-concept. My Christian community might baptise me as a baby, and believe, even correctly, that I will one day be risen with them in the afterlife. But only if I also accept this as my self-concept can the risen person be me.).

  21. 21.

    Steven Novella, “Body Identity Integrity Disorder”, Neurologica Blog,, last access date: 1 March 2015.

  22. 22.

    We should turn to psychology and social psychology for an understanding of what makes an idea count as deeply-rooted.

  23. 23.

    Kovacs (2016) defends the idea that people with BIID are neither mistaken nor irrational to consider a certain limb not a part of themselves. He defends this in the context of a view about our parts that I am extremely sympathetic to. When a person with BIID thinks “I have three limbs,” the complement of her unwanted limb is the referent of their I-thoughts. On this much I agree with David, but going further, I am offering a treatment of our essences, based on different commitments on the nature of persistence and de re modality.

  24. 24.

    I say “to some extent”, because the view is consistent with there being some general truths that apply to all selves. For example, Being a thinking being and thinking of itself reflexively at one time or another might be necessary for being a self. If so, there isn’t a successfully applied self-concept that considers this property an accidental one. In this paper I won’t explore whether there are other restrictions on being a self.

  25. 25.

    At the start of the paper I characterized modal profiles excluding hyper-intensionality. If we remove that simplification, we can say the following: “You also get to call, for some properties, whether they would be essential to you if you, per impossible, had them. For example, I cannot lack a body, but if, per impossible, I lacked a body, I would essentially lack a body”.

  26. 26.

    As Schechtman (2002: 97–99) points out, there is ample precedent in the mainstream analytical philosophy literature for bringing in identity in the social sciences sense to factor into numerical identity, by way of filling out the details of the psychological criterion. Not all identity facts (in the social science sense) are about essence, of course. I might hold that a property I have is very important and yet not think that it is essential to me. E.g being an abuse survivor, or being raised in a certain geographical region. Let’s say that these are our crucial accidents. My view doesn’t directly entail anything about our crucial accidents.

  27. 27.

    Mandik (2015) lays out circumstances (based on a 1997 novel, Diaspora, by Greg Egan) where whether one accepts to be “uploaded” in order to circumvent an oncoming disaster would depend on their metaphysical view regarding one’s identity conditions.

  28. 28.

    Better: quasi-memories, throughout this paragraph (Shoemaker 1970).

  29. 29.

    This also shows that a worry raised in a comment by Kathleen Wallace in Schwitzgebel (2015) is unfounded: the voluntarist account is not just another type of pscyhological account.

  30. 30.

    It is possible for one to self-identify differently than the larger community one is a part of. Almost always, though, there is at least a sub-culture whose subject concept the individual adopts as their genus. Then that person keeps “translating” what people say to them. Federico can receive pastoral care at a Catholic church if he translates all that the priest says into terms applicable to human animals.

  31. 31.

    Since we mostly fail to settle exactly which being in the plenitude we are, do definite descriptions that are intended to refer to us or describe us fail? (Thanks an audience member for this objection.) When we utter “The person wearing a red hat” where only one red hat is worn, of the many coinciding wearers of that hat, the expression refers to the one self.

  32. 32.

    As Roman Altshuler notes (Schwitzgebel 2015), if a subject has no theoretical interest in the question, nor any pressing practical interest, they may not ever make these arbitrations. As noted in Miller (2013, 94–95) and Zimmerman (2013, 129), the impending or actual loss of the property might just be the thing that makes them consider the question. It is important, therefore, for this type of view to accommodate the cases where people are not self-determined in every way they can be. Plenitude ontologies provide the requisite backdrop against which we can make sense of such indeterminacy.

  33. 33.

    This view is completely orthogonal to debates or puzzles regarding free will and determinism. While my arbitrations determine whether I have my brain essentially, what, if anything, determines my arbitrations, is outside the scope of this paper.

  34. 34.

    Cf. Johnston (1989), who favors the survival-granting conception to win over the more fragile conception. Zimmerman (127) also has it that the same person can have both of the properties would have been destroyed if they lost F at t1 and would have survived if they lost F at t2. Whereas I explicate this as having F-at-t1 essentially and F-at-t2 accidentally Zimmerman’s proteanism seems to allow the person to have F essentially at t1 and accidentally at t2.

  35. 35.

    We cannot say that later Rachel is a distinct self who began to exist after the earthquake, because later Rachel has not disowned her years before the earthquake.

  36. 36.

    Kurtsal Steen 2010 I argue that the ubiquitous coincidence that occurs in the endurantist plenitude doesn’t deserve to be the deal-breaker it is often made out to be. Also see Bennett 2004 for a similar point.

  37. 37.

    Schechtman compares her view to another similar view by Raymond Martin, which emphasizes forward-directed sympathy with an anticipated future self. She writes, “It is thus not whether I give weight to the desires and feelings of an anticipated future that is fundamentally at issue [in survival], but rather whether the future person will give weight to mine—whether the passions and desires I have now will be represented in a future life.” (2002: 107) Without some sort of plenitudinous ontology we indeed have to make a choice: are boundaries of selves determined according to the choices of the earlier subjects or according to the choices of the later ones? A plenitudinous ontology allows both subjects to be their own selves, each one right about herself.

  38. 38.

    I have benefited from discussions with Laurie Paul about this issue. But any mistakes here should be attributed only to me.

  39. 39.

    Can two coinciding subjects with the same spatiotemporal boundaries each be a separate self? Simultaneous attributions of the necessity of F and accidentality of F in the same material body might happen after hemispheric division. There is also this possible scenario: just as I am about to lose F, which I take to be essential, an assasin shoots me/us. If there had been no shooting, I would still have met my demise because of losing F. Had there been no shooting, my F-less continuer who has coincided with me all along would have persisted as someone who had F-before-t essentially. (Thanks to Andrew Cortens for this example.) My view is equipped to allow there to be two selves that coincide for the entire lives of both of them.

  40. 40.

    There may be things besides selves, such as uninhabited ecosystems, that have non-derivative moral interests, but I’m assuming that none of the beings I overlap with qualify for moral patienthood on those other grounds.

  41. 41.

    Johnston, Braddon-Mitchell, Miller, West or Kovacs do not seem to allow beliefs such as ‘I am essentially a runner’ to do this type of work.


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I am grateful to Alexis Burgess, Marilie Coetsee, Andrew Cortens, Stephen Crowley, Martin Glazier, Nurbay Irmak, Brian Kierland, Dan Korman, Laurie Paul, Daniel Rubio, Eric Schliesser, Jack Woods, Dean Zimmerman; colloquium or conference participants at Boise State University; University of Delaware; Allegheny College; Rutgers University Philosophy of Religion Reading Group; APA Eastern Division Meeting 2017; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Transformative Experience Reading Group; Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics and Science Studies Workshop 6; Conference on Analytic Existentialism at Ghent University; and above all, Mark Steen.


Bogazici University Scientific Research Projects has funded my research for this paper (Project Code: 6660- 12B02P2).

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Kurtsal, I. Self-Determination in Plenitude. Erkenn (2021).

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