- The philosophical problem of personal identity starts with something like Descartes’ famous question — “But what then am I?” — construed as an inquiry into the most fundamental nature of creatures like us. Let us stipulate that creatures like us are most fundamentally persons. That is, ‘person’ is the name of our primary kind, meaning that creatures like us cannot persist without being persons. The problem of personal identity is to give an account of the persistence conditions1 of persons — the conditions under which creatures like us continue to exist.
- Everyone remembers that Descartes ultimately answers his famous question by saying that he is “a thing which thinks.” But earlier, Descartes stopped to “consider the thoughts which of themselves spring up in my mind…when I apply myself to the consideration of my being”; and he answered,
In the first place, then, I considered myself as having…all that system of members composed of bones and flesh as seen in a corpse which I designated by the name of body. In addition to this I considered that I was nourished, that I walked…and I referred all these actions to a soul. (Descartes, 150-151)
- So before declaring that he was most fundamentally a thinking thing, Descartes considered two other possibilities: that he is most fundamentally a bodily thing and that he is most fundamentally a thing with a soul or anima, i.e., an animal. The problem of personal identity as I will address it here is the problem of determining which of the three options considered by Descartes is the most intuitively satisfying. The question I am asking is whether creatures like us are most fundamentally
and I take it that the best available way of answering that question is by explicating the broadest and most coherent idea we have of ourselves and determining which of the three approaches best accommodates that idea.
- thinking things,
- living things, or
- bodily things;
- The ultimate answer to his famous question that Descartes endorses, that he is a thinking thing, is essentially the view that persons continue to exist just in case their consciousness, thoughts, memories, etc. continue to exist. Persons go where their cognitive contents and capacities go. This psychological approach to personal identity is the considered view of most people, including most materialist philosophers. It is supported by strong intuitions about cases that we very naturally think of as ‘body switching’ cases. An important contemporary proponent of such a materialist psychological account of persons is Lynn Baker, who defends that view in "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View".
- The penultimate answer considered by Descartes, that he was a thing with properties that he ‘refers to the soul’, is essentially the view that persons are most fundamentally animals that continue to exist just in case their metabolism, circulation, digestion, etc. continue to exist. Persons go where their life-supporting functions go. Such a biological approach to personal identity has been recently and influentially defended by Eric Olson in his "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology". Olson uses a couple of simple and effective arguments to uncover clear intuitions that conflict with the psychological account and favor the view that persons are most fundamentally living things.
- The answer that first sprang to Descartes’ mind, that he was a thing composed of flesh and bones like a corpse, is essentially the view that persons are most fundamentally corporeal things that continue to exist just in case their material bodies continue to exist. Persons go where their most basic material properties go.
- I aim to defend this bodily approach to personal identity by
- (a) defending Olson’s arguments against the psychological approach, but then
- (b) showing that if those arguments work against the psychological in favor of the biological approach, then analogous arguments are equally effectively against the biological in favor of the bodily approach.
- In the first instance I aim to reveal Olson’s biological approach to personal identity as unstable, showing that either the psychological approach is preferable or the bodily approach is. But I also hope to show that the balance of our clearest and strongest intuitions ultimately favor the bodily view that creatures like us continue to exist so long as our bodies do, regardless of whether those bodies are conscious or alive.
- Cerebral Transplants2, Permanent Vegetative States, and Fetuses3
… 1a. The Cerebral Transplant4 Case
… 1b. Permanent Vegetative States
… 1c. Fetuses5
- Fetuses6 and Human Animals7
… 2a. The Fetus8 Argument
… 2b. The Human Animal9 Argument
2c. The Constitution Objection
- A Problem with the Constitution View10
- Corpses and Human Bodies
… 4a. The Corpse Argument
… 4b. The Human Body Argument
… 4c. Olson Against the Bodily View
See Link (Defunct).
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