Metamorphosis and the Self

                                                Metamorphosis and the Self



It is not implausible to maintain that the caterpillar and the butterfly it becomes are the same organism, but it is another question whether they are the same self. The caterpillar crawls on tiny feet and munches leaves: it has the sensations and motivations that go with these activities. The butterfly has delicate wings and dines on nectar: its sensations and motivations are tailored accordingly. Are these the same conscious subject? If you don’t like attributing mental characteristics to caterpillars and butterflies, then imagine a similar type of creature stipulated to possess such traits. Suppose these creatures have personality as well as consciousness: do they have the same personality at the two stages of their life cycle? Are they the same person? Let us suppose that the psychological lives of the caterpillar and the butterfly are sufficiently different that we would not want to say that they are the same person or self. When the creature leaves its larval stage behind it also leaves its larval self behind, becoming a quite new self with its metamorphosis into a butterfly. This means that the earlier self ceases to exist, to be replaced by a new self in a body also considerably transformed (though biologically continuous). That new self will also eventually die, so that there is a double death in the life of every butterfly: the caterpillar self dies when it is replaced by the butterfly self, and then the butterfly self dies too.

            If we imagine intelligent, reflective, and cultured butterflies, there will be a question about how they understand their own life cycle. Do they grieve over the death of larval selves? Do larval selves fear their impending death? We can imagine that some of them believe that larval selves have an afterlife, maybe even a heaven and hell, while others believe that these selves simply pass out of existence (they may or may not believe that butterfly selves survive bodily death). Some may find the juvenile selves to be morally superior to the adult selves, less vain and flighty; others may find the juveniles to be more psychologically rigid than the adults. But they will all agree that reaching the chrysalis stage is tantamount to the death of the larval self. Nor do they take this death lightly: they don’t suppose that the onset of a new butterfly self somehow expunges the significance of the earlier death.

            How would their predicament affect their view of the death of an adult? When the adult butterfly is contemplating its death how does the prior death of the caterpillar self figure in its emotions? The butterfly knows that its childhood self is already dead, which was not good news for that self; but death has already been endured once, and yet life went on. You can only reach the adult self by going through the caterpillar stage, so you lose one self to gain another. True, the eventual death of the adult self is a bad thing—just like the death of the juvenile self—but it doesn’t have quite the same sting as if there had been no death before. It makes it easier to accept death if you have already been through it once (or your larval predecessor has)–if it is simply part of life. You have been there before and you can go there again.  [1] The butterfly thinks: “I have already died once, I can do it a second time”. Not that its death isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t seem as bad—its badness is more bearable.

            Compare your attitude to death if you believe that you are already dead (a self-conscious zombie). If you believe that you are already dead, you will not fear being dead again, or not as much. Likewise, if you think you have no self to be alive, then the prospect of that self ceasing to exist will not bother you too much.  [2] Death has little sting for the already dead or already non-existent. Similarly, if you have already died once and emerged from it none the worse for wear, then the prospect of dying again loses its novelty and fearsomeness. Been there, done that. You are not exactly consoled in the face of death by your earlier demise, but it is recognized as part of your overall life: the first death, though admittedly bad, wasn’t that bad, so why should the second death be? Do we grieve over caterpillars knowing that butterflies will succeed them?  If not, can’t we grieve less over the death of butterflies knowing that other butterflies will succeed them? Why should the death of a butterfly self be worse than the death of a caterpillar self? And that death wasn’t all that terrible, was it?

            Why am I speculating about the death of butterflies? Because of a possible analogy with humans: for don’t we also go through the equivalent of a self-annihilating metamorphosis? I am thinking particularly of adolescence—that time of transformation and upheaval. It is a familiar thought that a single human life might house a succession of distinct selves according to the psychological changes undergone.  [3] We say, “I am not the same person as I was thirty years ago”. Some illnesses, physical or mental, are thought to destroy the self that once was, possibly leading to the formation of a new self. Psychological trauma can make a person feel like someone else entirely. But adolescence affects everyone and the changes are plain to see: the body changes dramatically, but so does the mind. People put away childish things and embark on a new mode of living, priorities reverse, and new motivations take over. A child can transform into another psychological being entirely (from obedient angel to rebellious lout, say). Is it an exaggeration to say that a new self takes root? Given that it does, what happens to the old self? It dies. It is no more. It goes out of existence. It buys the farm. We may regret this passing, even mourn for that lost child, with its sweetness and innocence; but we recognize that it could not persist if an adult self is to take over the premises. Maybe we should grieve more than we do, but the change seems relatively seamless, the body soldiers on, and a brand new self rises up to greet the dawn. We take it in stride—as butterflies do.

            Let us accept that our childhood selves do indeed die (if you can’t accept that, then imagine a species where we stipulate it to be so). My question is how that fact should affect our attitudes towards death. We can also frame the question by supposing that a single human life contains many personal deaths—childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and old age (or even that we die every time we go to sleep). We are not already (finally) dead, but we have already died. But to focus the issue just consider the death of the childhood self—a death we have all been through (I vaguely remember bidding adieu to my childhood self during adolescence and feeling some sadness at his departure). If we let this fact sink in, will it affect our attitude to our later death? I think it will. I have already died once—my first self went the way of all mortal things. That is sad, but life went on; it wasn’t the end of the world (though it was the end of his world). Suppose that at the age of 13 children went into a genetically programmed coma, only to emerge three months later with new bodies and new minds—with different things onthese bodies and minds. Suppose the psychological changes were drastic enough to make us say that these are new persons, tenuously related to the old ones (maybe different parts of the brain are involved pre- and post-coma). We might feel some sadness at the departure of the previous person, but we have to accept it as part of our natural life cycle. We may have rituals surrounding it, softening the blow, reconciling us to the facts of life. Would we then not have a different attitude to later adult death? The coma involved an organically driven loss of consciousness and personality that everyone experiences at age 13: this is the actual death of the juvenile self. But this death, though real enough, is viewed as a rite of passage, nothing to get too worked up about, nothing to despair over.

Then what is so terrible about our final death (though that first death was also final for the self undergoing it)? True, we will no more ever experience the wonderful things of life—but the same is true of the dead juvenile self: she will never again experience the wonderful things of life either. It’s easier to live with future death if you have already died in your life once before. New selves will arrive to replace you, as you replaced your erstwhile childhood self: that’s just the way nature works. No doubt death is tragic for all the selves concerned, but there is tragedy and tragedy. You already died once and it wasn’t the end of the world; some good came of it—the mature you. True, the self that called itself “I” did not make it—a new self came to utter “I” using the same mouth. But that death wasn’t as bad as we are inclined to think when we contemplate death; so maybe we should calm down about our later death too. Maybe we should temper the hysteria.

            There might be a similar death towards the end of life. What if there was a genetically programmed depletion of the self at age 60 that made us say that the previous self was no more? That would no doubt be bad, but not allthat bad. Wouldn’t this make the final biological death a little more bearable? Not because the last self has little intrinsic value but because it will be the third death in a line of previous deaths. Death would not be that one-off catastrophic event that fills us with cold dread, but a predictable alteration in human psychology—the phasing out of selves when they reach their expiration date. They are all real deaths, terminations of a self, and so exact their proper measure of fear and grief; but none is intrinsically worse than any of the others, since all involve the cessation of a self. If you reply that the final death has no natural replacement, as the previous deaths do, then consider that another self can come along to replace my final self—say, the self of my child. These are all brand new selves, stepping into the shoes of other departed selves—just like the caterpillar and the butterfly. No one is returning from death, so every death counts: but they all count equally—and some don’t seem all that appalling. So maybe we can dial it back a bit, this dread of death. It’s bad, yes, undeniably bad: but it’s not super-bad–not weeping-and-wailing bad, not can’t-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning bad. Maybe indeed the end of that sweet innocent self at age 13 is more to be lamented than the end of that crabby old codger self at age of 80.

            Selves come and go more easily than bodies, with less in the way of injury or illness; they depend on psychology not physiology. The end of a self is not the end of a body—though the end of a body is the end of a self (under current technology). Maybe selves are even more perishable than we generally realize, lasting no more than a decade or so, depending upon contingency. A human life contains not just a single permanent self from womb to tomb but a succession of distinct temporary selves. The living body itself has no intrinsic value—there is no tragedy in terminating a living body that doesn’t house a person—but the value of selves might be less than we customarily suppose, if they come and go so frequently and naturally. Maybe the death of selves isn’t quite as horrifying as we tend to suppose.  We can never be reconciled to death, certainly, but perhaps we can learn to face it more coolly.         


  [1] Strictly, of course, you have not been through it, since you are not identical to the larval self that preceded you. But you are both part of the same life cycle and are clearly closely related.

  [2] This is a simple statement of the Buddhist view of death and the self: there is no substantial self to be the subject of death, so no such self is lost at the point of bodily extinction. Derek Parfit holds the same kind of view, as he notes.

  [3] It might be helpful to distinguish two notions of the self that we operate with: first, there is the notion of a subject of consciousness; second, there is the notion of sameness of person where that requires some coincidence of psychological traits. The first is not logically sufficient for the second, since the bare subject of consciousness could change dramatically in its associated psychology (it might just be the brain). I am discussing here the second notion, which brings in character and personality as well as memory, intelligence, desires, ambitions, etc. If I change too much psychologically, I cease to be the same self in the second sense; but the individual subject of consciousness might be the same throughout (that single continuous brain organ or the “transcendental ego”).

2 replies
  1. Elena
    Elena says:

    Your words were comforting – I was looking for posts that discussed the topic of metamorphosis, and have been recently fearing death which was not exactly tied to this search, but in your post I found answers to both. Thank you.


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