Psychology and Personal Identity
Olson (Eric)
Source: The Human Animal, September 1999, Chapter 1, pp. 7-21
Paper - Abstract

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  1. Most philosophers agree that some sort of psychological continuity1 is necessary or sufficient for us to persist – the Psychological Approach to personal identity.
  2. Some implications of this view are sketched.
  3. The Biological Approach, by contrast, says that our identity, over time, consists in brute biological continuity.

  1. Human Vegetables and Cerebrum Transplants2
  2. The Psychological Approach
  3. The Biological Approach

  1. Human Vegetables and Cerebrum Transplants4
    • Olson wants to consider “our” identity over time, without at this stage deciding what “we” are.
    • To do this, he will consider some “puzzle cases” (ie. TEs5).
      1. The first is the “Vegetable Case” (ie. PVS6).
        • The cells in the cerebral cortex have died of anoxia. Claims:
          1. Brain cells don’t regenerate;
          2. Consciousness and thought are cortex-based, so are irretrievably lost.
          3. So “you7” are irretrievably non-cognitive.
        • However, the parts of the brain8 (thalamus, basal ganglia, cerebellum, brain-stem) that support your vegetative functions are more resistant to oxygen starvation and might survive intact.
        • Olson mentions Karen Quinlan (Link), who continued in a PVS for 10 years after9 her respirator was switched off.
        • Olson claims that the entity10 in a PVS is “a human animal11 as much like you as anything could be without having a mind”.
        • The human animal12 in a PVS is not in a coma but “is awake but unaware”; “the lights are on, but no-one’s at home”. Various reflexes remain, but there’s no behavioral responsiveness13.
        • Nor is the animal brain-dead – what Olson describes as a “ventilated corpse14” – because the brain still performs its regulative functions. The patient is alive in the sense that “oak trees and oysters15 are alive”.
        • Olson admits there is room for doubt as to whether in a PVS you have really lost all cognitive function, and that the loss is permanent – though this is the medical consensus. But this is effectively a TE, so for the sake of the argument16 we assume that both these assumptions are correct.
        • There are lots of ethical questions about what to do with individuals in a PVS, but these aren’t Olson’s concern here. Rather, he wants to know what happened to “you” in this story. He doesn’t care about lots of legal issues, or quality-of-life issues either. All he wants to know is whether “you” are still there in that pathetic state. Has your existence been brought to an end as in ordinary cases of death, or have you survived?
        • Olson considers the case where you die and are cremated, and a memorial statue is erected in your honour. Now, you are not that statue. If you had said that one day you would be that statue, you would have made a false statement in a way that is not so obviously false in the case of the PVS-individual. Whereas in the first case you have been clearly replaced by something else, has this happened in the PVS-case17?
      2. We now move on to a second TE18Cerebrum Transplants19.
        • Olson refers to “that organ” (which is most responsible for your higher cognitive functions), so is presumably thinking of both hemispheres at this stage. The supposition is that the technical wiring difficulties can be overcome20, so that “it is able to function properly inside its new head just as it once functioned inside yours”.
        • Olson assumes various things about the post-transplant21 recipient of your cerebrum22:-
          1. She is a human being23, …
          2. Psychologically more or less exactly like you,
          3. Appears24 to remember your past,
          4. Apparently25 acts on your intentions,
          5. May be physically very unlike you,
          6. Initially, her personality, tastes and affections are just like yours,
          7. She thinks26 she is you,
          8. She does not remember27 anything that happened to the person into whose head the cerebrum28 was implanted, nor does she initially29 acquire any of that person’s character.
        • What about the cerebrum30 donor? Olson correctly adduces evidence from the survival of PVS-victims, anencephalics (Link) and single-cerebrum31 excision32 to show that the donor would remain a living, but irreversibly non-cognitive, human animal33 whose biological functions continue as before.
        • In a footnote, Olson admits that cerebrum-transplants34 are science fiction, and their possibility might be questioned. However, he thinks there are no further35 difficulties than for WBTs36, and adduces the following in support of the theoretical possibility of the latter:-
          1. "Puccetti (Roland) - Brain Transplants and Personal Identity",
          2. "Snowdon (Paul) - Personal Identity and Brain Transplants" (pp. 114-7), and
          3. "Wilkes (Kathleen) - Thought Experiments", p. 37.
        • Olson asks what has become of you in the “Transplant37 Case”? He only38 considers 3 possibilities:-
          1. You are the donor, or
          2. You “go along” with your cerebrum39, or
          3. You cease40 to exist.
        • The key question Olson asks is whether one of your organs41 has been transplanted42 (as a liver might have been) leaving you in situ, or whether you have been pared down to a cerebrum43 and rehoused, the surgeon grafting the rest of the recipient’s body (and brain) onto you. Olson’s answer will no doubt appear later on44.
  2. The Psychological Approach
  3. The Biological Approach

End Notes

I made a few hand-written notes at the end of the Chapter, which are reproduced here for what little they are worth.
  1. Throughout, when Olson talks about “our” persistence, his choice is that it refers to the living human organism. This seems to make the term “person” either redundant / irrelevant or of identical reference to “human organism”.
  2. What does Olson understand by “person”?
  3. Is consciousness of “self” essential to being a person?
  4. Is Stephen Hawking (say, or a more diminished individual on a heart-lung machine & drip) a BIV160?
  5. The brain as an organ: it was certainly possible to view it so (eg. in Aristotle’s time) before its functions were understood, but no longer?
  6. It seems to me that the regulatory functions of the brain are essential to life, so if we transplant161 these – and get them to regulate another body – we have moved the animal to another body, irrespective of the mental aspects.
  7. Note different forms of Sorites162 arguments. “Paring down” atom by atom isn’t the same as gradual replacement of parts while maintaining (or gradually evolving) function.
  8. If we have a story to tell, we are in a better situation to maintain persistence.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 3: Footnote 7: Footnote 8: Footnote 9: This is correct. She was initially put on a respirator, but taken off after a court battle – presumably to die, but she lived on for the reasons Olson gives.

Footnote 10: Footnote 13: This seems to be the definition of (at least the VS part of) a PVS; note the sharp contrast between PVS and brain-death.

Footnote 14: Footnote 15: Oysters are animals, while oak trees are vegetables. A person in a PVS cannot display any goal-directed behavior in the sense that (even) oysters can. So, can they be said to be displaying animalian characteristics?

Footnote 16: But we’re (going to be) interested in what we are (maybe not in this chapter) so we can’t assume too much that is counter-factual.

Footnote 17: Footnote 18: This may be a simpler case – for the animalist – than the WBT.

Footnote 20: Footnote 24: She does “recall” your past, but “memory” – as distinct from “quasi-memory” – assumes the identity of the recaller with the individual whose experiences are recalled.

Footnote 25: I’m not sure of Olson’s grammar here, as to whether the “apparently” caries through. Maybe it’s just that intentions are private to the intender, deduced from the actions.

Footnote 26: Footnote 27: Footnote 29: Footnote 32: Not the same as a lobotomy (Link).

Footnote 35: Footnote 38: Footnote 40: This is hard to believe – on any account of PID – because:- Footnote 41: Footnote 44: Check that it does, and amend this footnote!

Footnote 48: So, Olson points out that this biological continuity is more intimate than that which you would bear to your corpse.

Footnote 51: Footnote 55: Footnote 57: So, I might add, does Fred Feldman, though not Olson himself.

Footnote 58: Footnote 60: Footnote 61: This is an example of the distinction between epistemological and metaphysical questions.

Footnote 62: I usually refer to this as the PV.

Footnote 63: Footnote 64: Footnote 65: I don’t have a Note on this either!

Footnote 68: Is he therefore saying that the relation isn’t symmetric? Does it matter?

Footnote 71: Footnote 72: Olson draws no distinction between continuity and connectedness.

Footnote 73: Footnote 74: See Korsakoff's Syndrome, etc.

Footnote 75: Perry contrasts a “brain zap” – where memories are totally removed – with “amnesia” in which they are present, but inaccessible.

Footnote 77: Footnote 78: Indeed, he says Unger “qualifies it” in pp. 147-52, ie. in "Unger (Peter) - A Physically Based Approach To Our Survival".

Footnote 79: Footnote 80: Olson (like many) oscillates between “material” and “physical”. There’s a technical distinction between the two concepts, but not so as to cause a problem in the present context.

Footnote 82: Footnote 84: Footnote 85: This is important – your mental contents (and maybe your mental capacities) might be physically preserved – as Olson suggests – in a big book and posted rather than being transmitted telegraphically.

Footnote 87: Is this just sloppiness? Survival may or may not be equivalent to persistence. See Parfit.

Footnote 88: In the absence of a Perdurantist account of persistence.

Footnote 91: Olson doesn’t here mention the Closest Continuer theory.

Footnote 92: Olson doesn’t quite put matters like that.

Footnote 93: This statement shows that the book is intended as a positive statement of Animalism, rather than a refutation of the PV.

Footnote 95: I have a footnote questioning whether this strictly makes Olson not an animalist. I need to check the strict usage of this term.

Footnote 96: Olson irritatingly uses the term “people” rather than the accepted term of art “persons”. I will use “persons”.

Footnote 98: Footnote 102: Footnote 114: Footnote 115: Footnote 119: Footnote 122: This reads oddly. Rather, it’s like an organ donation – eg. of a kidney to a sibling.

Footnote 123: Footnote 124: Shouldn’t this be “kidneys”, though removing toxins from the blood is one of the many functions of the liver?

Footnote 126: These memories are your memories, but only apparent memories for the recipient of your cerebrum if that person isn’t you.

Footnote 142: Footnote 145: Footnote 147: Footnote 148: I have my doubts about van Inwagen in this regard.

Footnote 149: See the discussion on Corpses.

Footnote 150: I have the right edition, and this is the start of the section on Personal Identity in Chapter 20 (“Mind and Body”).

Footnote 151: This would be just the last two pages of the Chapter, so the pagination may be wrong.

Footnote 152: The Section on “Disembodied Survival”.

Footnote 153: I have the second edition from 1998 and the pagination is different.

Footnote 154: Footnote 155: I don’t know what this caveat is supposed to mean.

Footnote 158: Several things here:-
  1. I agree that Wiggins’s work is “difficult”, and wonder whether Olson has him right.
  2. Saying that human animals – as distinct from human persons – “perish” when lapsing into a PVS seems clearly incorrect.
  3. It looks to me as though Wiggins is taking the person as the substance term, a person being a phase sortal of a human animal. In contrast Olson – as do I – takes the animal as the substance, so I am identical to the animal, but have the property of being a person for stages of my existence.
  4. Wiggins updated his views in "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance Renewed", 2001, after Olson was writing.
  5. He had earlier (1996) clarified his views in an interchange - "Snowdon (Paul) - Persons and Personal Identity" & "Wiggins (David) - Reply to Snowdon (Persons and Personal Identity)" - recorded in "Lovibond (Sabina) & Williams (S.G.) - Identity, Truth & Value: Essays for David Wiggins", though Olson makes no mention of this.
Footnote 159:

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