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

Paper SummaryBooks / Papers Citing this PaperNotes Citing this PaperText Colour-Conventions

Oxford Scholarship Online

  1. Most philosophers agree that some sort of psychological continuity 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 Transplants
  2. The Psychological Approach
  3. The Biological Approach

  1. Human Vegetables and Cerebrum Transplants
    • 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. TEs2).
      1. The first is the “Vegetable Case” (ie. PVS3).
        • 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 “you4” are irretrievably non-cognitive.
        • However, the parts of the brain5 (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 after6 her respirator was switched off.
        • Olson claims that the entity7 in a PVS is “a human animal as much like you as anything could be without having a mind”.
        • The human animal 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 responsiveness8.
        • Nor is the animal brain-dead – what Olson describes as a “ventilated corpse9” – because the brain still performs its regulative functions. The patient is alive in the sense that “oak trees and oysters10 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 argument11 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-case12?
      2. We now move on to a second TE13Cerebrum Transplants14.
        • 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 overcome15, 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-transplant recipient of your cerebrum:-
          1. She is a human being16, …
          2. Psychologically more or less exactly like you,
          3. Appears17 to remember your past,
          4. Apparently18 acts on your intentions,
          5. May be physically very unlike you,
          6. Initially, her personality, tastes and affections are just like yours,
          7. She thinks19 she is you,
          8. She does not remember20 anything that happened to the person into whose head the cerebrum was implanted, nor does she initially21 acquire any of that person’s character.
        • What about the cerebrum donor? Olson correctly adduces evidence from the survival of PVS-victims, anencephalics (Link) and single-cerebrum excision22 to show that the donor would remain a living, but irreversibly non-cognitive, human animal whose biological functions continue as before.
        • In a footnote, Olson admits that cerebrum-transplants are science fiction, and their possibility might be questioned. However, he thinks there are no further23 difficulties than for WBTs, 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 “Transplant Case”? He only24 considers 3 possibilities:-
          1. You are the donor, or
          2. You “go along” with your cerebrum, or
          3. You cease25 to exist.
        • The key question Olson asks is whether one of your organs26 has been transplanted (as a liver might have been) leaving you in situ, or whether you have been pared down to a cerebrum and rehoused, the surgeon grafting the rest of the recipient’s body (and brain) onto you. Olson’s answer will no doubt appear later on27.
  2. The Psychological Approach
    • Olson sees two sorts of considerations that might answer questions of personal identity raised by the puzzle cases:-
      1. Phychological continuity, and
      2. Biological continuity
    • He gives the usual arguments that you are psychologically continuous with the cerebrum recipient, but not the PVS-victim, or the cerebrum donor.
    • But you are biologically-related to the PVS-victim, and to the cerebrum donor, who each preserve your biological life28.
    • We are referred to Chapter 2 ("Olson (Eric) - Why We Need Not Accept the Psychological Approach"), Section II (“Whole-Brain Transplants”), for why a WBT is entirely different to a CT. In the case of a CT, the recipient does not receive your life-sustaining functions, but “just an organ29”. From the biological perspective, transplanting a cerebrum is no different to transplanting a kidney, or any other organ you could live without.
    • Olson claims there is no biological continuity between you and the cerebrum recipient, but this seems to me to go too far30.
    • Olson thinks these two sorts of continuity have not received equal attention, with the case defaulting to the PV. Biology is deemed irrelevant, with nothing continuing in either the PVS case or on the donor-side of the transplant case being you. Olson cites "Lockwood (Michael) - When Does a Life Begin?", p. 11, as describing this view as “scientifically-educated common sense”.
    • However, a footnote gives other equally-scientifically-educated dissenting views. "Ayers (Michael R.) - Locke on Living Things", p. 224, claims not only that you could survive the destruction of your mind but that you would continue to exist as a corpse31. Olson also cites "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Philosophers and the Words 'Human Body'", p. 295.
    • So, most philosophers adopt the Psychological Approach, whereby one survives if one’s mind does. Olson quotes "Johnston (Mark) - Human Beings", p. 77 to the effect that it’s a conceptual truth32 that a person cannot be outlived by what was once his mind.
    • Olson seems to agree that the TEs show that biological and psychological continuity can come apart33.
    • While biological continuity is usually good evidence34 for one’s survival, it is not what that survival consists in, according to …
    • The Psychological Approach35, which claims that some “interesting” connections between psychological states are both necessary and sufficient for my persistence. Roughly speaking, any past or future being that has my mind36 is me.
    • The traditional problem of PID is – on the assumption that the PV is correct – just which version of it is the right one. What are these psychological connections? Olson will go on to consider versions that give priority to mental contents37, and those that focus on mental capacities38 before considering whether any physical continuity39 is also considered necessary.
    • Mental Contents:
    • Mental Capacities:
      • Those who support this view point out that even if all memories and other mental contents are wiped out, there might still be psychological continuity based on mental capacities – your (now contentless) mind has not been destroyed.
      • Olson quotes "Unger (Peter) - Identity, Consciousness and Value", p. 11647, though it looks to me as though this is not the focus48 of Unger’s claim. However, he thinks various others share this view49.
      • Olson thinks – correctly in my view – that this distinction between contents and capacities may be a red herring, in that without any content, all my capacities might vanish.
    • Physical Continuity:
      • Advocates of the PV differ on whether any material50 continuity is required:-
        1. Some insist that you survive only if (enough of) your cerebrum survives so as to support conscious, rational thought51.
        2. Others only require some physical structure spatio-temporally continuous with your cerebrum as the realizer of your mental capacities.
      • Alternatively, consider a brain zap alloyed to the transfer of information – in an “unspecified but reliable way” – to a remote recipient brain52. Some philosophers think that person, who thinks she’s you and (quasi-)remembers your experiences is you, even though there’s no material continuity and a period mid-transfer when your mental contents and capacities were nowhere physically realized in a functioning organ of thought53. Supporters of the material continuity requirement would deny this.
      • Olson considers two reduplication objections, which he thinks show that psychological continuity is insufficient for survival54:-
        1. The brain-state transfer can be repeated into multiple recipient brains, which the material-continuity view would say are you – but they can’t all be55.
        2. Even if the cerebrum is transplanted, we could transplant each one into a different brain, with duplication again. This case is considered inn "Olson (Eric) - Why We Need Not Accept the Psychological Approach", Section 3 (“Fission and Hemispherectomy”).
    • Reduplication objections encourage supporters of the PV to add a Uniqueness Condition56.
    • Thus, the PV represents a wide spectrum of opinions that agree that some sort of mental continuity is necessary for our persistence, with some rider like uniqueness or material continuity to provide sufficiency57.
    • When Olson subsequently refers to the PV, he’ll not specify which of these variants he has in mind58. The reader is asked to substitute his preferred version.
  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 BIV90?
  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 transplant 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 Sorites91 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 1: Footnote 4: Footnote 5: Footnote 6: 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 7: Footnote 8: 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 9: Footnote 10: 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 11: 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 12: Footnote 13: This may be a simpler case – for the animalist – than the WBT.

Footnote 15: Footnote 17: 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 18: 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 19: Footnote 20: Footnote 21: Footnote 22: Not the same as a lobotomy (Link).

Footnote 23: Footnote 24: Footnote 25: This is hard to believe – on any account of PID – because:- Footnote 26: Footnote 27: Check that it does, and amend this footnote!

Footnote 28: So, Olson points out that this biological continuity is more intimate than that which you would bear to your corpse.

Footnote 29: Footnote 30: Footnote 31: So, I might add, does Fred Feldman, though not Olson himself.

Footnote 32: Footnote 33: Footnote 34: This is an example of the distinction between epistemological and metaphysical questions.

Footnote 35: I usually refer to this as the PV.

Footnote 36: Footnote 37: Footnote 38: I don’t have a Note on this either!

Footnote 40: Is he therefore saying that the relation isn’t symmetric? Does it matter?

Footnote 42: Footnote 43: Olson draws no distinction between continuity and connectedness.

Footnote 44: Footnote 45: See Korsakoff's Syndrome, etc.

Footnote 46: Perry contrasts a “brain zap” – where memories are totally removed – with “amnesia” in which they are present, but inaccessible.

Footnote 47: Footnote 48: Indeed, he says Unger “qualifies it” in pp. 147-52, ie. in "Unger (Peter) - A Physically Based Approach To Our Survival".

Footnote 49: Footnote 50: 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 51: Footnote 52: Footnote 53: 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 54: Is this just sloppiness? Survival may or may not be equivalent to persistence. See Parfit.

Footnote 55: In the absence of a Perdurantist account of persistence.

Footnote 56: Olson doesn’t here mention the Closest Continuer theory.

Footnote 57: Olson doesn’t quite put matters like that.

Footnote 58: This statement shows that the book is intended as a positive statement of Animalism, rather than a refutation of the PV.

Footnote 59: I have a footnote questioning whether this strictly makes Olson not an animalist. I need to check the strict usage of this term.

Footnote 60: Olson irritatingly uses the term “people” rather than the accepted term of art “persons”. I will use “persons”.

Footnote 61: Footnote 65: Footnote 68: Footnote 69: Footnote 70: Footnote 71: This reads oddly. Rather, it’s like an organ donation – eg. of a kidney to a sibling.

Footnote 72: Footnote 73: Shouldn’t this be “kidneys”, though removing toxins from the blood is one of the many functions of the liver?

Footnote 74: These memories are your memories, but only apparent memories for the recipient of your cerebrum if that person isn’t you.

Footnote 77: Footnote 78: Footnote 79: Footnote 80: I have my doubts about van Inwagen in this regard.

Footnote 81: See the discussion on Corpses.

Footnote 82: I have the right edition, and this is the start of the section on Personal Identity in Chapter 20 (“Mind and Body”).

Footnote 83: This would be just the last two pages of the Chapter, so the pagination may be wrong.

Footnote 84: The Section on “Disembodied Survival”.

Footnote 85: I have the second edition from 1998 and the pagination is different.

Footnote 86: Footnote 87: I don’t know what this caveat is supposed to mean.

Footnote 88: 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 89:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - April 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