The Human Animal: Introduction
Olson (Eric)
Source: The Human Animal, September 1999, Introduction, pp. 3-7
Paper - Abstract

Paper SummaryNotes Citing this Paper


Olson sees 3 main issues in the recent2 philosophy of personal identity.

  1. Informative Criteria of Personal Identity.
  2. What physical continuity is required for a person to persist?
  3. What matters3 in survival?
Olson is not interested in these questions. However, …
  1. Criteria:
    • The first question is defined here by Olson in the Narrow sense – criteria for Person-A at time t1 to be the same person as Person B at t2. But this has embedded in it the assumption that persons, as such, are the sort of things that have persistence conditions. But – as Olson points out elsewhere – if there are human persons and divine, or angelic, persons then there is no single set of criteria, since human beings and gods or angels have different persistence conditions. But this may still be to confuse the “person” with its “host” and to beg the question against the claim that PERSON is a kind term (rather than a classification of individuals belonging to kinds).
    • The Wide question of personal identity is of identity criteria for individuals, that are classified as persons at various stages of their existence. So, is Individual-A at t1 (who may or may not be classified as a person at t1) is the same individual as Individual-B at time t2 (where Individual-B, etc.). But we can’t ask questions of sameness of individual (says Wiggins) unless we know what kind the individual falls under, as persistence conditions are specific to kinds rather than just things.
    • Olson states that those who claim that there are no non-trivial identity conditions for persons are dualists who thing that persons – you and I – are not material objects. Olson’s concern is with “our” identity conditions – whatever kind of things we are; and his further claim is that we are human animals4. Of course we “are” also persons – at least most of the time for most of us – but this “are” isn’t the “are” of identity but that of property-possession. The division is between those – the animalists5 – that take this view and between the personalists who say that we are (identical to) persons who have the properties (maybe occasional) of being instantiated (or constituted) by human animals6.
    • There’s a further distinction between the dualists – who think that we are (identical to) immaterial souls which “have” bodies that the materialists who deny the existence of souls but who may still not agree that we are (identical to) animals. This is a divide roughly between hardware-theorists and software-theorists. Animalists7 (and maybe others) claim that we are hardware, whereas the other camp claims (effectively) that we are software that can run on various hardware platforms.
  2. Physical Continuity:
    • Taking the second question, the question might be asked whether psychological continuity8 has to be realized in the same functioning brain, for instance. Or will any brain do, or some inorganic substitute? Can I be shifted around from one platform to another via a “Brain State Transfer” device?
    • All this presumes some variant of the psychological criterion of personal identity. At first sight, it seems important that the psychology that is preserved is numerically identical to my own, rather than just qualitatively identical, or even qualitatively similar, but read on …
  3. What Matters9:
    • We have a special attitude to our own futures as against those we have to those of others, however much we might care about them.
    • Some philosophers have denied that this special prudential concern is essentially tied to identity – ie. is essentially concern for oneself. Exceptionally, it might be proper to have this concern for someone else; or even not to have prudential concern for oneself10.
    • These special cases – where we have prudential concern for others – arise from the possibility of fission. Fission is problematical because of the logic of identity, but the “problem case” is probably undermined by 4-dimensionalism11, where I (now, and unbeknownst to me) might share my present and past stages with another hitherto co-located individual, from whom I may fission in due course. But, this seems to imply not that it is rational to feel prudential concern for someone else, but that the fission cases don’t prove what they seem to prove – a metaphysical objection. Instead it is just an epistemological objection. My present stage is shared with some other 4-D individual, but I don’t know which of the two 4-D worms I am, so it would be rational for me to be concerned with both of them, even though I can only be one of them.
    • As with all TEs, these fission cases need to be adequately described to be persuasive. An animalist12 would have no truck with psychological fission – multiple teletransportation, for instance. But maybe there could be physical fission – amoeba-like13 – of human animals14, where it wouldn’t be obvious beforehand which fission product would be me.
    • But, I suspect that such cases are best resolved grammatically. “I” refers to both co-located individuals who share their past experiences, and have identical current experiences, but will subsequently diverge. I – in in the sense of my FPP – will follow both paths, so I should be prudentially-concerned for both of them. I am in fact (pre-fission) two exactly similar co-located beings that share experiences15.
Olson’s concern is to argue that psychological continuity16 is neither necessary nor sufficient for our persistence.
  1. Necessity: this is clearly correct – though controversial. I started out as a fetus17 without any person-required psychological properties, and may end up in a PVS. Of course, this assumes that I am an animal, and not “most fundamentally” a person.
  2. Sufficiency: this is less clear. Olson wants to deny that mere psychological continuity18 is not sufficient – and I agree – because of the reduplication cases (despite 4D). But I think that if my FPP was maintained, by whatever manner, then I would have survived19.
Olson makes two basic assumptions, because these are necessary for his argument to get off the ground. They are not uncontroversial, but to argue for them would be a diversion, and he has little original to say:-
  1. There is an answer to what it is for “us20” to persist.
  2. Materialism is true. That is, we are “material objects made up entirely of material particles”. Hence
    • We are not events or processes happening to human organisms.
    • Not property instances,
    • Not abstract objects like computer programs.
    Olson claims that if any of the above were the case, then human animals21 would not themselves be intelligent or conscious, but just associated with something else that was.
Olson doesn’t intend to address ethical22 questions – so though he will argue that we were once fetuses23 and might end up as human vegetables, he’ll leave the ethical consequences of this stance for others more competent.

Olson has makes three further assumptions – in rejecting three controversial doctrines – justification for which is reserved until the final Chapter24 for review:-
  1. Nihilism25 (“Are There Any People?”): Olson assumes there are “people” (the plural of “person”), glossed as “rational, conscious beings”, and that they literally persist26 through time.
  2. Relative Identity: Olson insists on the traditional understanding of identity. So it is either true, false or indefinite whether “a being” is the same being as “another” a week later. But what Olson denies is that such a being can be the same animal, but not the same person (say) – at least unless either term is (say) an honorific like “president”, and office that can be held by numerically different individuals.
  3. Temporal Parts: Olson explicitly rejects 4-dimensionalism of any sort.
    • He thinks that we are enduring concrete substances27 that are wholly present at different times.
    • While your career may be extended in time, you yourself are not.
    • He seems to think that having temporal parts would make us like events.
    • He states that most philosophers reject 4D (as well as nihilism28 and relative identity, much less controversial rejections).
    • He claims that if this (or either of the other two claims) is true, then there are no non-semantic29 problems of personal identity.
Olson finishes with some terminology and some distinctions.
  1. Organism: is used in its standard biological sense.
  2. Human animal30: is synonymous (for Olson) with “human organism”, and means “member of the biological species Homo sapiens”. It is NOT31 synonymous (for Olson) with the term “Human Body”.
  3. People:
    • For Olson is just the plural of “person”. He says he has no philosophical axe to grind here, and has rejected the use of “persons” for purely stylistic reasons. We are allowed to read “persons” passim for “people” if we so wish.
    • However, friends32 have tried to persuade him that “people” is the plural of “human being”, and that appropriate aliens might be persons but not people, whereas human vegetables would be people but not persons.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: In these Notes, I’ve not been especially careful to distinguish Olson’s points from my own, nor even Olson’s points here from those he makes elsewhere. See also the general disclaimer (Click here for Note).

Footnote 2: He says “in the last 25 years”, prior to 1997.

Footnote 10: Presumably in cases of extreme dementia, or PVS.

Footnote 11: Olson rejects this, but will discuss it in the last Chapter. See later.

Footnote 13: Better than half-brain transplant, in the case where an animalist denies that a brain is a maximally-mutilated human animal, but claims that it is just an organ.

Footnote 15: This is a new idea of mine – is it coherent?

Footnote 19: Footnote 20: Footnote 22: This remark appears under the head of “what matters”, but while Parfit does have major ethical concerns, is this central to his use of the term “what matters”?

Footnote 24: See "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal: Alternatives".

Footnote 26: Footnote 27: So, we are animals, which fall under substance sortals; we are also, most of the time, persons, which fall under a phase sortal.

Footnote 29: Footnote 31: I agree with Olson’s terminology on (1) and (2) above, and agree that organisms and bodies have different persistence criteria, so are non-identical and should not be confused.

Footnote 32:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - July 2018. Please address any comments on this page to File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page