Psychology and Personal Identity
Olson (Eric)
Source: The Human Animal, September 1999, Chapter 1, pp. 7-21
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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 (Wikipedia: Karen Ann Quinlan), who continued in a PVS9 for 10 years after10 her respirator was switched off.
        • Olson claims that the entity11 in a PVS12 is “a human animal13 as much like you as anything could be without having a mind”.
        • The human animal14 in a PVS15 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 responsiveness16.
        • Nor is the animal brain-dead – what Olson describes as a “ventilated corpse17” – because the brain still performs its regulative functions. The patient is alive in the sense that “oak trees and oysters18 are alive”.
        • Olson admits there is room for doubt as to whether in a PVS19 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 argument20 we assume that both these assumptions are correct.
        • There are lots of ethical questions about what to do with individuals in a PVS21, 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 statue22 is erected in your honour. Now, you are not that statue23. If you had said that one day you would be that statue24, you would have made a false statement in a way that is not so obviously false in the case of the PVS-individual25. Whereas in the first case you have been clearly replaced by something else, has this happened in the PVS-case26?
      2. We now move on to a second TE27Cerebrum Transplants28.
        • 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 overcome29, 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-transplant30 recipient of your cerebrum31:-
          1. She is a human being32, …
          2. Psychologically more or less exactly like you,
          3. Appears33 to remember your past,
          4. Apparently34 acts on your intentions,
          5. May be physically very unlike you,
          6. Initially, her personality, tastes and affections are just like yours,
          7. She thinks35 she is you,
          8. She does not remember36 anything that happened to the person into whose head the cerebrum37 was implanted, nor does she initially38 acquire any of that person’s character.
        • What about the cerebrum39 donor? Olson correctly adduces evidence from the survival of PVS-victims40, anencephalics (Wikipedia: Anencephaly) and single-cerebrum41 excision42 to show that the donor would remain a living, but irreversibly non-cognitive, human animal43 whose biological functions continue as before.
        • In a footnote, Olson admits that cerebrum-transplants44 are science fiction, and their possibility might be questioned. However, he thinks there are no further45 difficulties than for WBTs46, 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 “Transplant47 Case”? He only48 considers 3 possibilities:-
          1. You are the donor, or
          2. You “go along” with your cerebrum49, or
          3. You cease50 to exist.
        • The key question Olson asks is whether one of your organs51 has been transplanted52 (as a liver might have been) leaving you in situ, or whether you have been pared down to a cerebrum53 and rehoused, the surgeon grafting the rest of the recipient’s body (and brain) onto you. Olson’s answer will no doubt appear later on54.
  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 BIV216?
  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 transplant217 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 Sorites218 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 10: 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 11: Footnote 16: 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 17: Footnote 18: 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 20: 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 26: Footnote 27: This may be a simpler case – for the animalist – than the WBT.

Footnote 29: Footnote 33: 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 34: 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 35: Footnote 36: Footnote 38: Footnote 42: Not the same as a lobotomy (Wikipedia: Lobotomy).

Footnote 45: Footnote 48: Footnote 50: This is hard to believe – on any account of PID – because:- Footnote 51: Footnote 54: Check that it does, and amend this footnote!

Footnote 60: So, Olson points out that this biological continuity is more intimate than that which you would bear to your corpse.

Footnote 63: Footnote 67: Footnote 71: So, I might add, does Fred Feldman, though not Olson himself.

Footnote 72: Footnote 74: Footnote 75: This is an example of the distinction between epistemological and metaphysical questions.

Footnote 76: I usually refer to this as the PV.

Footnote 77: Footnote 79: Footnote 80: I don’t have a Note on this either!

Footnote 83: Is he therefore saying that the relation isn’t symmetric? Does it matter?

Footnote 87: Footnote 90: Olson draws no distinction between continuity and connectedness.

Footnote 92: Footnote 93: See Wikipedia: Korsakoff's Syndrome, etc.

Footnote 94: Perry contrasts a “brain zap” – where memories are totally removed – with “amnesia” in which they are present, but inaccessible.

Footnote 96: Footnote 97: Indeed, he says Unger “qualifies it” in pp. 147-52, ie. in "Unger (Peter) - A Physically Based Approach To Our Survival".

Footnote 98: Footnote 101: 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 103: Footnote 105: Footnote 106: 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 109: Is this just sloppiness? Survival may or may not be equivalent to persistence. See Parfit.

Footnote 110: In the absence of a Perdurantist account of persistence.

Footnote 116: Olson doesn’t here mention the Closest Continuer theory.

Footnote 118: Olson doesn’t quite put matters like that.

Footnote 120: This statement shows that the book is intended as a positive statement of Animalism, rather than a refutation of the PV.

Footnote 124: I have a footnote questioning whether this strictly makes Olson not an animalist. I need to check the strict usage of this term.

Footnote 125: Olson irritatingly uses the term “people” rather than the accepted term of art “persons”. I will use “persons”.

Footnote 127: Footnote 131: Footnote 147: Footnote 148: Footnote 153: Footnote 156: This reads oddly. Rather, it’s like an organ donation – eg. of a kidney to a sibling.

Footnote 157: Footnote 158: Shouldn’t this be “kidneys”, though removing toxins from the blood is one of the many functions of the liver?

Footnote 160: These memories are your memories, but only apparent memories for the recipient of your cerebrum if that person isn’t you.

Footnote 188: Footnote 194: Footnote 196: Footnote 197: I have my doubts about van Inwagen in this regard.

Footnote 199: See the discussion on Corpses.

Footnote 201: I have the right edition, and this is the start of the section on Personal Identity in Chapter 20 (“Mind and Body”).

Footnote 202: This would be just the last two pages of the Chapter, so the pagination may be wrong.

Footnote 203: The Section on “Disembodied Survival”.

Footnote 204: I have the second edition from 1998 and the pagination is different.

Footnote 205: Footnote 207: I don’t know what this caveat is supposed to mean.

Footnote 212: 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 214:

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