Oxford Scholarship On-Line Abstract
- This chapter explains what it means to ask what we are1. It begins by breaking the question up into smaller ones, such as what we are2 made of, what parts we have, and whether we are substances. It makes clear that the question is not about people in general, but only about us human people.
- It considers two ways of rephrasing the question:
- What do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to? and
- What sorts of beings think our thoughts and perform our actions?
- The question is distinguished from the question of personal identity over time and from the mind-body problem.
- It is then argued that thinking about personal identity without considering what we are3 leads to metaphysical trouble.
- What are we?4
- Some Answers5
- Rephrasing the question7
- Must there be an answer?8
- How the question differs from others9
- Why it matters10
Write-up11 (as at 21/09/2023 19:22:05): Olson - What Are We? The Question
Introductory Notes – mostly to self
- This page gives the full draft text of this Chapter (Chapter 1, "Olson (Eric) - What Are We? The Question"), of "Olson (Eric) - What are We? A Study of Personal Ontology", which was available online12 at Sheffield University: Eric Olson, but which now seems to have been taken down, though I had taken a copy, and possess the book13.
- The electronic version of the Chapter was paged backwards, though I have repaired it in the text below.
- I’ve taken the liberty of reformatting the text to make it easier to read on-line, and to refer back to.
- The purpose of this page is so that I can easily add a commentary to the text – given that it was available electronically – prior to producing an analysis.
- The endnotes (“In-Page Footnotes”; subscripted) are as in Olson’s text where the colouration is pink. Otherwise, they are (or will be) my own.
- Any superscripted links will be to other parts of Olson’s book.
- Links to my own Notes will be via the footnotes. To save too many unhelpful links from the main text, I’ve restricted footnotes highlighting my Notes to the first occurrence, though I may have many links from the footnotes if I’m discussing other related matters.
- It would have been interesting – once I’ve completed annotating the whole book – to see how many of my Notes have been cited within the annotations of the Book as a whole, but it seems that this functionality is not yet there14.
- I will need to update these Notes in the light of this Chapter, but I expect to leave the updates until I’ve completed the whole book.
- My ultimate intention is to extract my footnotes into a commentary and analysis, and the original text will disappear into the Note Archive as a ‘Previous Version’.
- I plan to revisit this Chapter multiple times. In the interim, some of my footnotes will be placeholders, either awaiting enlightenment or time for further research.
- A point worth noting at the start is that "Olson (Eric) - What Are We?" appears to be closely-related to this Chapter, so it’ll be worth collating my comments on the two works in due course.
- What are we?16
- Some Answers17
- Rephrasing the question19
- Must there be an answer?20
- How the question differs from others21
- Why it matters22
1.1 What are we?
- This book is about a question: What are we22? That is, what are we metaphysically speaking? What are our most general and fundamental features? What is our most basic metaphysical nature?
- My first task is to explain what this question means. Rather than attempting to define the daunting phrases ‘general and fundamental feature’ or 'basic metaphysical nature', I will try to give their meaning by example. We can break the large question of what we are into smaller ones that are easier to grapple with.
And so on. An answer to these questions would tell us what we are.
- One such smaller question is what we are made of.
- I don't mean our chemical composition … what sort of physical matter makes us up. I want to know whether we are made of matter at all. Or are we made of something other than matter? Or partly of matter and partly of something else? Come to that, are we made of anything at all? Is there any sort of stuff, material or otherwise, that makes us up?
- It may seem obvious that we are made of matter. When you look in a mirror you see something material. You don’t see anything immaterial. And don’t you see yourself in the mirror? It follows that you are a material thing: something made of matter. But that would be too quick. You might have an immaterial ingredient that doesn't show in the mirror; so casual observation suggests at most that you are made partly of matter. Even if you were entirely immaterial, so that you didn’t strictly see yourself in the mirror at all, you could still see your body there – that physical organism by means of which you perceive and act in the world. So our appearance of being material proves nothing23. In fact the view that we are made entirely of matter – materialism24 – has not been especially popular in the history of philosophy. In any case, whether we are made of matter is an important question about what we are.
- If we are indeed made of matter, or of anything else, we can ask what matter or other stuff we are made of. Most materialists say that we are made of all and only the matter that makes up our animal bodies: we extend all the way out to the surface of our skin (which is presumably where our bodies end25) and no further. But a few take us to be considerably smaller: the size of brains26, for instance. I don’t know of anyone who believes that we are material things larger than our bodies27 – that we are made of the matter that makes up our bodies and other matter besides – though I suppose that is a possible view.
- A third question is what parts we have. This is not the same as what we are made of. Philosophers who agree about what we are made of – not only about what sort of stuff, but also about what particular stuff – may still disagree about our parts28. They may disagree about whether we have temporal parts29 – such things as earlier halves – in addition to any spatial parts we may have, such as hands30. They can even disagree about our ordinary spatial parts. Some materialists say that every part of the region of space you now occupy contains a material thing of its own that is a part of you. On their view, your current parts include not only your head and your left hand (supposing that you are made of your body’s matter), but also your northern half, "all of you but your left ear", and many further arbitrary and gerrymandered objects31 too tedious to describe. Other materialists deny that we have arbitrary spatial parts. They may accept that your parts include elementary particles, but they deny that there is such a thing as all of you but your left ear. Some even say that we extend all the way out to our skin, yet have no parts at all. So knowing what we are made of does not by itself tell us what parts we have.
- These considerations raise a more general question: What makes something a part of one? What determines where our boundaries lie? If your kidneys are parts of you but not your shoes, or my kidneys, why is this so? What is it about the way those things relate to you that makes some of them parts of you but not others? If you extend all the way out to the surface of your skin and no further, what accounts for this? Why say that your boundary32 is there?
- Here is a different sort of question: Are we abstract or concrete?
- Though these terms are hard to define, it will suffice for present purposes to say that something is concrete if it can be causally active33 – if it can actively do something – and it is capable of change34. Whatever is not concrete is abstract. So the number seven is abstract, and donkeys are concrete – as are gods and Cartesian souls, if such there be. Hard though it may be to imagine how we could be abstract35, that is what a few people seem to think. They say that we are not so much like the number seven as like the novel Moby Dick. That novel is not the same as any of the paper tomes sitting on bookshelves, or even the original manuscript in the author's hand. Nor is it something made up of all of these concrete objects36. (It doesn't grow in size when more copies are printed.) It is, rather, an abstract object that all of those particular things exemplify. It is a universal: something that can have many instances. So it seems, anyway. A mountain, by contrast, is not an abstract universal but a concrete particular. Even if the people of Minnesota were by some heroic effort to build an exact replica of Mt. Rainier on the outskirts of St. Paul, their creation would be a reproduction and not the real thing. Mt. Rainier is not something of which the original and the reproduction would both be instances in the way that different copies of Moby Dick are instances of the novel37.
- We can ask, then, whether we ourselves are concrete particulars like Mt. Rainier or abstract universals38 like Moby Dick. Could there be more than one of you? Suppose the people of Minnesota managed to make an exact replica39 of you: a concrete being both physically and mentally just like the original, right down to the last atom and quirk of personality. That being would be convinced (at first anyway) that she was you40. Would she be right? Would she be you in the same sense as the original is you, just41 as every copy of Moby Dick is Moby Dick? Or would only the original be you and the other a mere reproduction, as with Mt. Rainier? For that matter, might we be abstract objects other than universals42?
- If we are concrete beings, we can ask whether we are substances43 – metaphysically independent beings – or whether we are rather states or aspects of something else. Think of a car with a dent in it. The dent44 is not a part of the car: you couldn’t take it out of the car and put it somewhere else, as you could a wheel. It seems, rather, to be a way that the car is: a state or an aspect of the car. It is not a substance: not a thing in the most robust sense. The car, by contrast, is not a way that the dent is. In fact it does not itself appear to be a state or an aspect of anything: there is nothing, it seems, that stands to the car as the car stands to the dent. It is a good candidate for being a substance. Our question, then, is whether you are like a car or like a dent. Are you a state or an aspect45 of something other than yourself? Or an event or process46 that something else is undergoing, like the car’s cooling off? Is there something – an organism or a lump of matter, perhaps – that stands to you as the car stands to the dent in it?
- We can ask whether we persist through time47.
- Do we literally continue existing for seventy years or more? Or is the sober truth that we exist only for a moment? Some say that you appear to persist only because you are instantly replaced by48 a being so much like you that no one can tell the difference – not even that being himself, for he inherits all of your mental features. Could they be right?
- This is the sort of thing I have in mind when I ask what we are metaphysically speaking.
- There are many more such questions. We can ask, for instance, what our persistence conditions49 are: what is necessary and sufficient for a past or future being to be you.
- We can ask which of our properties are essential50 to us and which are accidental, or more generally which properties it is in any sense possible for you or me to have or lack.
- We can ask how exactly we relate to those biological organisms51 that we sometimes call our bodies.
1.2 Some answers
- In understanding a question it often helps to see what would count as an answer to it; and often the answers are easier to grasp than the question itself. (Understanding the questions is the hardest thing in philosophy52.) Here, then, are some accounts of what we might be: views that would, if they were true, at least begin to tell us what we are.
None of these views offers a complete account67 of what we are. None purports, by itself, to answer all my questions. The view that we are animals, for instance, does not by itself tell us whether we have parts, or which of our properties are essential to us and which are accidental. It is even disputable whether it implies that we persist through time. For that we should need to know whether animals persist, whether they have parts, and which of their properties are essential to them and which are accidental; and here there is room for disagreement. The same goes for the other accounts. Even so, they each tell us a good deal about68 what we are. They are mutually incompatible: if we are animals then we are not parts of animals, immaterial substances, bundles of perceptions, or any of the other sorts of things we have mentioned; if we are immaterial substances then we are not animals or parts of animals; and so on. Moreover, once we know which of them is correct, questions about our metaphysical nature become questions about the metaphysical nature of animals, bundles of perceptions, or what have you; and with any luck those questions will be easier to answer69 than the original question about our own metaphysical nature.
By way of contrast, here is a view that does not answer the question of what we are: that we are people. (In this book I follow ordinary English, and depart from academic usage, in using ‘people’ as the plural of ‘person’. This is purely for stylistic purposes70.) Although in many contexts it may be a perfectly good answer to the question “What is x?” to be told that x is a person, the claim that we are people tells us nothing about our metaphysical nature. No one, no matter what her view of our metaphysical nature, thinks that we are not people. More to the point, the claim that we are people tells us nothing about the metaphysical nature of people71: whether they are material or immaterial, abstract or concrete, and so on.
Nor does it answer our question to say that we are essentially or most fundamentally people. To say that we are essentially people is to say that we could not possibly exist without being people. To say that we are most fundamentally people is to say, roughly, that we have our identity conditions by virtue of our being people, and not, say, by virtue of our being organisms or concrete objects or sentient beings. Not everyone agrees that72 we are essentially or most fundamentally people. And the view that we are essentially or most fundamentally people may rule out certain accounts73 of what we are, such as the view that we are organisms (see §2.975). So this view may tell us something about what we are. But it doesn’t tell us much – not, at least, until we know whether people are75 material or immaterial, concrete or abstract, and so on.
There are many other possible accounts of what we are, but this incomplete list ought to give some idea of what I am after. In particular, it shows what level of generality I have in mind. The bulk of this book is devoted to examining these views, and a number of others. I cannot discuss all possible views of what we are. I will try to divide my attention among them in proportion to their interest and importance. The rest of this chapter, meanwhile, is about the question itself:
- One view is that we are animals: biological organisms. It may seem as evident that we are animals as it is that we are made of matter. We are certainly not plants53, or angels, or stones. But few philosophers say that we are animals54. It may be evident that we are in some sense animals – that we have animal bodies, for instance. (We will consider the meaning of this claim in §2.156.) But our having bodies that are animals does not by itself tell us whether we are animals. Saying what sort of thing my body is would tell me what sort of thing I am if I am my body – if my body and I are one and same thing – but whether this is so is much disputed, even among materialists.
- How could we be material things other than animals? Well, we might be parts of animals: brains56, for instance.
- Or we might be temporal parts of animals57 rather than spatial parts: you might be spatially the same size as the animal we call your body but temporally shorter, in that the animal extends further into the past or the future than you do. Many views are possible about what spatial or temporal parts of animals we might be.
- These two thoughts can also be combined: we might be temporal parts of brains58.
- Some philosophers deny that we are either animals or parts of animals, but insist that we are nonetheless material things. They say that the same matter can make up two different objects59 at once. Specifically, the matter making up a typical human organism also makes up a certain non-organism. These non-organisms, they say, are what we are. So another possible answer to our question is that we are material things made of the same matter as or “constituted by60” our animal bodies.
- Hume once suggested that each of us is "a bundle61 or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement" (1978: 25262). In that case we are not material things at all. Our bodies may be made of matter, but we ourselves are made up of perceptions, or mental states and events. Our parts are not organs or cells or atoms, but memories, wishes, and dreams. We are concrete particulars, but not substances: we are like dents – or, as Hume himself suggests, like theater performances.
- A view with a long tradition has it that we are simple immaterial substances63 – simple meaning without parts. We are not made of matter, or of perceptions, or indeed of anything else. We have no mass or shape or any other physical property. Our bodies may have such properties, but they are not what we are, or even parts of us.
- A related view says that each of us is a compound object64 made up of both an immaterial substance and a material organism.
- Some people seem to think that we are are something like novels or computer programs65: abstract universals that can be embodied in flesh or stored on magnetic disks or even written down on paper. The concrete beings that walk and talk and sleep in our beds are mere instances or "hard copies" of us.
- There is even the paradoxical view that there is nothing that we are. There are no such beings as you and I. We don't exist66. Strictly speaking this book has no author. The atoms we call mine may be real enough; perhaps even the thoughts and actions we call mine exist; but those atoms and events are not parts or states of any thinking, acting being.
- How it might be rephrased77,
- Some complications it raises77,
- How it differs from traditional questions of personal identity79, and
- Why it is important80.
- Our question is what sort of things we are, most generally and fundamentally. I have tried to say what I mean by 'what sort of things'. What do I mean by 'we'?
- Consider first its scope80. By 'we' I mean you and me and the people we know – we human people. I don’t mean non-human people, if there any. So our question is not about the basic metaphysical nature of people as such, but only of ourselves.
- Why this restriction? I don’t want to consider the metaphysical nature of people in general because for all I know there might be people of different metaphysical kinds from us. Suppose for the sake of argument that we are biological organisms. That doesn’t rule out the possibility that there are also angels or gods: rational, intelligent, self-conscious beings that are wholly immaterial. Nor does it deny that there could be inorganic artefacts with the same mental features as we have. Assuming that being rational, intelligent, and self-conscious81 suffices for being a person, all of these beings – gods, inorganic machines, and we organisms – would count as people. For that matter, there are philosophers who believe that many human people acting together can compose a larger "group" or "corporate" person82: Apple Computer, Inc. might be a person in the same sense as you and I are. I see no reason to suppose that all the items on this list would have to share the same basic metaphysical nature. That is, I see no reason to suppose that there is any one metaphysical sort of thing that people in general are, or must be. Or if there is, we cannot know it until we have either ruled out the possibility of some of the items on this list – gods, thinking machines, or the like – or else shown that despite appearances people of all these sorts would share the same basic metaphysical nature. It would be easier if we didn’t have to worry about this. So I will limit the inquiry to ourselves. That will leave us with more than enough to think about.
- This approach is unorthodox. Most discussions of personal identity take for it granted that claims about what we are – about our identity over time, for instance – necessarily apply to all people (see §2.884). Insofar as they consider our metaphysical nature at all, they take it to derive from our being people, rather than from our being organisms or material objects or anything else. It follows from this assumption that we must share our most basic properties with all people, including gods and inorganic thinking machines if there could be such things.
- This strikes me as dogmatic. Not only is it unwarranted. Worse, it rules out accounts of what we are that might otherwise be attractive. It is incompatible with the view that we are organisms, for one. It is unlikely, anyway, that the basic metaphysical nature of any organism derives from its being a person. Organisms seem to have the basic metaphysical nature they have by virtue of being organisms – a nature they share with snails and trees (which I assume are not people). It is even less likely that any organisms have the same basic metaphysical nature as gods or angels or intelligent computers would have. But if there could be people whose metaphysical nature is different from that of organisms, and all people must necessarily have the same metaphysical nature, it follows that no person could be an organism. Assuming that we are people, we ourselves could not be organisms84. This seems a poor argument for the claim that we are not organisms. Its premises were these:
The most questionable of these premises seems to me to be the third85. Thus, I will not assume it.
- There could be inorganic people;
- Inorganic people would not have the same metaphysical nature as people who are organisms;
- Necessarily all people have the same metaphysical nature; and
- We are people.
- In any case, this unorthodox stance can do no harm. I am not assuming that different people could have different metaphysical natures. I am merely declining to assume that they couldn’t. If people really must all have the same metaphysical nature, then the question of what sort of things we are and the question of what sort of things people in general are will have the same answer, so we lose nothing86 by asking the first rather than the second.
- I said that in asking what we are I was asking about the basic metaphysical nature of us human people. By human people I don’t mean simply those people who are human beings – not, at least, if a human being is a kind of organism. Whether we are human beings in that sense, or indeed whether any people are, is a contentious matter: it is one of the questions we want answered, not something we can assume at the outset. (Despite its homely attraction, the phrase ‘human being’ is too slippery87 to be of much use in metaphysics.) Still, there is a sense in which you and I are undoubtedly human. Setting aside the possibility that some of us might be Martian foundlings, anyway, it is clear that each of us relates in an intimate way to an animal that is biologically human. When we see you, we see a human animal88; when you move, a human animal moves; you perceive the world via a human animal’s sense organs; and so on. That makes you human – rather than, say, bovine or angelic or divine. A human person is a person who relates to a human animal in this way. It is, we might say, someone with a human body. Even if in the final analysis there are really no human animals (as for instance some idealists say89), there must still be some real feature of the world – something about sense-impressions or whatever – that makes it true to say that when you look in a mirror you see a human animal and not an angel or a cow. Our question is about the fundamental nature of human people in this sense90.
1.4 Rephrasing the question
- So much for the intended scope of the word 'we'. Further issues about what I mean by 'we' arise if we shift from the material to the formal mode – from asking, What are we? to asking, What does the word 'we' refer to? To avoid irrelevant worries about plural reference, we can put this by asking what a human person refers to when he or she says 'I91'. I take it that I am whatever I refer to when I say 'I' – just as London is the thing we refer to when we say ‘London’. And presumably what I refer to when I say 'I' is what others refer to when they address me as 'you' or speak of me as 'he' or as 'Olson'. So anyone who finds the question, What sort of things are we? puzzling could replace it with the question, What sort things do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to?
- These two questions –
– are not entirely equivalent. We sometimes use personal pronouns to refer to dogs or ships, even though none of us are dogs or ships. But they come to almost the same thing. The view that we are organisms (say) amounts, near enough, to the view that our personal pronouns, in their most typical uses at least, refer to organisms92. The view that we don't exist93 – that there is nothing that we are – amounts to the view that our personal pronouns don't refer to anything because there is nothing there for them to refer to.
- What are we? and,
- What do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to?
- Now this way of rephrasing the question assumes that the word 'I' and other first-person pronouns are referring expressions: expressions that purport to refer to something94, expressions that refer to something if there is anything “there” to be referred to. Anscombe (198195) has denied this. According to her, the word 'I' in 'I am walking’ no more purports to refer to something that walks than the word 'it' in 'it is raining' purports to refer to something that rains96. If she is right, then I am not the thing I refer to when I say 'I', for I don't refer to anything when I use that word. But it doesn't follow from this claim that I don't exist, or that there is nothing here speaking that could be referred to. So on Anscombe's view it is a mistake to ask what we are by asking what we refer to when we say 'I'. This suggests that it equally mistaken to ask what sort of thing I am, or what sort of things we are: that would be like asking what sort of thing it is that rains.
- This view seems to me to have no plausibility whatever97. Consider these apparent facts98:
Those who deny that 'I' is a referring expression need to account for these facts in a way that is consistent with their view. More generally, they need to explain what the word 'I' does do, if it doesn't refer to the person who utters it. I have never seen such an account.
- That I am hungry entails that something or other is hungry, just as that London is a city entails that something is a city. (That it is raining, by contrast, does not seem to entail that something is raining.) These inferences appear to be licensed by the rule of existential generalization: they have the form 'this particular thing is thus and so; therefore something is thus and so'. If so, 'I', like 'London', must be a referring expression.
- The sentence 'I am hungry' expresses a truth just when the being who utters it is hungry. The one who utters it is the one who must be hungry in order for it to be true. The obvious explanation for this is that 'I' refers to the being who utters it.
- If Rinka says 'I am hungry', we can report this by saying 'Rinka says that she (Rinka) is hungry'. This seems to imply that the word 'I' in Rinka's mouth refers to same thing as the name 'Rinka' refers to – that is, to Rinka.
- On solemn occasions we say such things as 'I, Alice Margaret Buggins, hereby promise...'. What could the inserted name be doing, if not specifying which person the pronoun refers to?
- If I am Olson and Olson is the author of this book, it follows that I am the author of this book. The most obvious explanation for the validity of this inference appeals to the principle that if x=y and y is thus and so, then x is thus and so. This assumes that 'I am Olson' is an identity sentence – one in which the identity sign is flanked by two referring expressions – in which case 'I' is a referring expression.
- But no matter99: even if Anscombe is right, we can still put our question by asking what sort of things Olson and Thatcher and Socrates are, or what sort of things our second- and third-person personal pronouns and personal proper names refer to. No one denies that those words are referring expressions.
- What if I refer to more than one thing100 when I say 'I' or 'Olson'? Then there would be no one thing that I am. Asking what sort of thing I am would be like asking about the nature of the planet between the earth and the sun. The question would have no straightforward answer, since it would embody the false presupposition that there is only one being asking it. So perhaps we ought rather to ask, What sort of thing or things do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to?
- It would be especially inconvenient for our inquiry if words like 'I' and 'Olson' referred in their typical uses not just to more than one thing, but to more than one kind of thing. We cannot rule this possibility out a priori. But perhaps we can dismiss one distracting version101 of it. Some people suggest that the personal pronouns are systematically ambiguous, and refer sometimes to one's mind and sometimes to one's body, so that in one sense of the word ‘I’ I am a mind (and not a body), and in another sense of the word I am a body (and not a mind). It follows that we cannot ask what sort of thing I am without specifying which sense of 'I' (or ‘Olson’) we mean: do we mean What I am in the "mental" sense of 'I', or What I am in the "bodily" sense of that word?
- This view – call it linguistic dualism102 – seems to me scarcely more plausible than the view that ‘I’ is not a referring expression. Linguistic dualists are not very clear what sort of things “one's mind” and “one's body” are supposed to be, but presumably they take the mind to be the bearer of one’s mental properties, such as consciousness103 and intelligence104, and the body to be the bearer of one’s brute physical properties, such as height and weight. Further, the mind is supposed to have no physical properties (or at any rate none like height or weight), and the body is supposed to have no mental properties. Otherwise, why call one of them the mind and the other the body? Linguistic dualism therefore implies that in the mental tone of voice, where 'I' refers to my mind, I can say truly I am conscious, but have no height or weight – indeed I am entirely invisible and intangible. And it implies that in the bodily tone of voice, where 'I' refers to my body, I can say truly that I weigh 150 pounds, but am no more conscious or intelligent than a stone. The most I can say about my mental properties while speaking in the bodily tone of voice is that I relate in some intimate way to a conscious, intelligent being other than myself – a being that is not even a part of me, for the mind is not, on this view, a part of the body105. There would be no tone of voice in which I could say that I am both visible and aware of this fact, for none of the referents of my first-person pronoun would have both the property of being visible and the property of being aware of anything. Saying that I am both visible and aware of it would be like pointing to Fred and Ginger and saying, "That person is both male and female." It is tempting to call106 this a reductio ad absurdum of linguistic dualism.
- Nor is there any reason, even for those who believe that “the mind” is a purely mental thing and “the body” is something purely physical, to hold such a view. It would be far better for them to say that we are purely mental things. Then there would be no sense in which we are as stupid as stones. Our being invisible “minds” need not imply that such statements as 'I am visible' are always false: in ordinary contexts this may mean107 not that I have the property of being visible, but that I have the property of having a body that is visible – a property that a purely mental thing can have.
- Linguistic dualism looks false. But again, I needn’t insist on it. If the word 'I' in my mouth really does refer sometimes to a thinking thing and other times to an unthinking thing, then our concern is the thinking thing. Never mind the referential role of the personal pronouns. This is an essay in metaphysics, not the philosophy of language108. Our question is about the nature of the beings holding the inquiry. So we can rephrase our question in yet another way: What sort of beings think our thoughts and perform our actions?109
1.5 Must there be an answer?
- Let me make a few remarks about the status of the question.
- I take it that the question of what we are must have an answer110, whether or not it is within our power to discover or even to understand it. There must be some sort of thing that we are, if we exist at all. When we say 'I' or 'you' or 'Socrates', we either refer to something or we don't. If we do, that thing (or those things) must have some general and fundamental properties or other: it must be concrete or abstract, material or immaterial, simple or composite, and so on. If we don't refer to anything, that is presumably because there are no human people to be referred to. Again, if any beings think our thoughts111, they must have some metaphysical nature or other; if nothing thinks our thoughts, then we don’t exist.
- What if eliminative materialism112 is true and there is no such thing as thinking? What then becomes of the question of what we are? Well, we could still ask what sort of being wrote this book, and what sort of being is now reading it. And we could ask what sort of beings our personal pronouns denote.
- A more worrying possibility is that there are no hard facts about which things think. Suppose, as instrumentalists about the mental say, that it is merely useful, in explaining and predicting the behavior of certain entities, to “take up the intentional stance” towards them – that is, to ascribe to them beliefs and other mental properties (Dennett 1981113). It is more useful to attribute mental properties to chimpanzees than to amoebas or daisies: you are better off explaining the behavior of daisies114 in non-mental terms, whereas with chimpanzees psychological explanation is the only game in town115. But the question of which things really have mental properties has no answer116. There may not even be a straightforward answer to the question of what sort of things it is most useful to ascribe our mental properties to, for it may be most useful to ascribe them to one sort of thing for some purposes and to other sorts of thing for other purposes. That would suggest that our question has no answer117.
- If this really were so, then I suppose all we could say about the metaphysical nature of the beings that think our thoughts would be that it is most useful for certain purposes118 to attribute our thoughts to beings of one kind (organisms, say), and most useful for other purposes to ascribe them to other beings (bundles of perceptions, perhaps) – supposing that such beings actually exist, anyway. That would be at least a sort of answer to the question of what sort of beings think our thoughts, though a rather untidy one. It would make our inquiry considerably less interesting than it would otherwise be. But I don’t think there is any compelling reason to accept119 this view about the mental.
- In asking what we are I am not asking about our conception or our understanding of ourselves – about what sort of things we take ourselves to be120. This is metaphysics, not anthropology. What we ordinarily take ourselves to be may be wildly mistaken.
- Why suppose that we can discover what we are, as opposed to what we think we are? Well, why suppose that we can discover the answer to any philosophical question? All we can do is to try and see how it goes. If we seem to make progress – if many proposed answers turn out to be incoherent, or to conflict with apparently well-established facts, or to have consequences that just look plainly false, while a small number of views stand up well to interrogation – that will be a reason to think that we might be able to know what we are, or at least to muster some rational grounds in support of a partial answer. If our best efforts turn up no strong grounds for preferring one answer over any other, by contrast, or if the more we think about the possible answers the less well we seem understand them, we may have to admit that the question is too hard for us. But there is no obvious reason to suppose at the outset that we cannot learn anything about what we are. (Kant121 thought he had a reason. He thought we could not know the metaphysical nature of anything, but only how things appear to us and the conditions necessary for this appearance. If he is right, our project is doomed from the start – as is the whole of metaphysics as we know it. I hope I can be forgiven for omitting a critical discussion of Kant's philosophy from a book that is more than long enough already.)
1.6 How the question differs from others
- Our question may not sound quite like any of the philosophical problems we learn about as students. But it probably won’t seem completely new either: it sounds:-
How exactly does it relate to those problems?
- A bit like the traditional mind-body problem, and
- A bit like familiar problems of personal identity.
- Those who speak of the mind-body problem are usually thinking of questions about the basic nature of mental phenomena, such as belief and conscious experience, and how they relate to such non-mental phenomena as brain chemistry and bodily movements. Our question, by contrast, is about the nature of the subjects of mental phenomena: the beings that think or are conscious. The two topics are of course related: some accounts of what we are may rule out some views on the mind-body problem and vice versa. But we could know a good deal about mental phenomena and their relation to the physical while knowing little about the basic metaphysical nature of mental subjects. If all mental events turned out to be physical events in another guise, for instance, that might rule out the view that we are immaterial substances; but it would not tell us whether we are organisms, parts of organisms, bundles of perceptions, or even whether we exist at all. Likewise, knowing our basic metaphysical nature is likely to tell us little about the nature of mental phenomena. Suppose it turned out that we are temporal parts of organisms122. That would leave it almost entirely open which account of the mind-body problem is true: it would be compatible with123 behaviorism, functionalism, property dualism, various psycho-physical identity theories, and eliminative materialism, for instance.
- It is especially important to distinguish the question of what we are from traditional questions of personal identity. Three questions have dominated discussions of personal identity since the time of Locke124.
- One is what it takes for us, or for people in general, to persist through time: the persistence question125. What sort of adventures is it possible, in the broadest possible sense, for you to survive, and what sort of event would necessarily bring your existence to an end? What determines which past or future being is you?
- A second question, not always distinguished from the first, is how we find out who is who: the evidence question126. What evidence bears on the question of whether the person here now is the one who was there yesterday? How do different sorts of evidence about who is who relate to one another?
- A third question asks what it is to be a person, as opposed to a non-person: the personhood question127.
- The question of what we are is more or less completely unrelated to the personhood question. What qualifications128 a thing needs in order to count as a person is one thing; what sort of thing meets129 those qualifications – organisms, immaterial substances, bundles of perceptions, or what have you – is another. Suppose for the sake of argument that something is a person if and only if it is, as Locke put it, "a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places" (1975: 335130). I take this to be a paradigmatic answer to the personhood question. Yet for all it says, “thinking intelligent beings” might be material or immaterial, simple or composite, persisting or momentary131; they might be organisms, brains, bundles of thoughts, immaterial substances, or what have you. Locke’s definition doesn't answer any of the questions we want answered. It doesn't even tell us whether we exist at all – that is, whether anything satisfies the conditions for being a person. One could have a view about what it is to be a person without having any idea what sort of things we are metaphysically speaking. (Locke’s own position is rather like this132.)
- To know what it is to be a person is therefore not to know what we are. Likewise, to know what we are is not to know what it is to be a person. Suppose we are human animals. That does not imply that to be a person is to be a human animal – even assuming that we ourselves are people. It is consistent with there being gods or angels or Martians who are people but not human animals133. Nor does it imply that all human animals are people: it is consistent with the view that human animals in a persistent and irreversible vegetative state134 don’t count as people135. An account of our metaphysical nature implies nothing at all about what it is to be a person.
- Nor is the evidence question the question of what we are. One is epistemic; the other is metaphysical. One is about how we find out who is who136; the other concerns our metaphysical nature. They could hardly be more different.
- If any familiar question about personal identity is the question of what we are, it is the persistence question. Some philosophers seem to think that to say what it takes for us to persist through time is to say what sort of things we are137. It is certainly one aspect of our metaphysical nature. Knowing our persistence conditions would tell us something about what we are. But it would tell us less than you might think.
- Consider some examples. The most popular view about our identity over time is that it consists in some sort of psychological continuity138: you are, necessarily, that future being that in some sense inherits its mental features – personality, beliefs, memories, and so on – from you; and you are that past being whose mental features you have thus inherited. There is dispute over the precise nature of this inheritance.
- Some say that your mental life must be (as Unger139 puts it) "continuously physically realized": your brain or something like it must remain intact and capable of supporting thought and consciousness in order for you to survive.
- Some also add a “non-branching” clause140 to deal with cases where two past or future beings are psychologically continuous with you at once: they say that you are identical with a past or future being who is mentally continuous with you as you are now only if no one else is then mentally continuous with you as you are now.
- Imagine these matters settled: suppose, let us say, that our identity over time consists in non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity. Call this the conservative psychological-continuity view141. Would it tell us what we are? Not by itself it wouldn’t. It may have implications about what we are, such as ruling out our being immaterial substances – it is hard to see how any sort of physical continuity142 could be necessary or sufficient for the persistence of an immaterial substance. It may also imply that we are not organisms, for it seems possible for any organism, even a human animal, to persist without any sort of psychological continuity whatever (see §2.8). The information that we are neither immaterial substances nor organisms would certainly tell us something about what we are. But it would also leave a lot open. Moreover, the conservative view doesn’t actually say that we are not immaterial substances or organisms, and the implication might be disputed143.
- So the conservative view gives at best a radically incomplete picture of what we are. Even if we can derive some of our most general and fundamental properties from it, few of those derivations will be straightforward, and even then the picture will be fragmentary. Yet it is a paradigmatic answer to the persistence question. Saying what it takes for us to persist does not tell us what we are.
- Other answers to the persistence question teach the same lesson. Consider what Parfit144 calls the simple view145, that our identity through time does not consist in anything other than itself, but is "simple and unanalyzable": no non-trivial conditions are both necessary and sufficient for a person existing at one time to be identical with something existing at another time. The simple view appears to be compatible with almost any view of what we are. Its advocates146 have said that we are:-
- Simple immaterial substances,
- Compounds of a simple immaterial substance and a physical organism,
- Things constituted by organisms,
- Microscopic physical parts of our brains, and
- Partless material objects physically indiscernible from organisms.
- These examples show that we could know our persistence conditions and yet know little about our other properties of metaphysical interest. The converse also holds: we could know a great deal about our basic metaphysical nature without knowing our persistence conditions. For example, Ayers, Merricks, van Inwagen, and Wiggins147 agree that we are biological organisms, and agree to a large extent about the metaphysical nature of those organisms, yet diverge widely148 about what it takes for us149 to persist.
- To say what our identity through time consists in is is only to begin to say what sort of things we are, just as describing a country’s coastline only begins to tell us about its geography. What it takes for a person to persist through time is one thing; what sort of beings have those persistence conditions, or indeed whether any do, is another matter.
1.7 Why it Matters
- The question of what we are is often neglected. It is common practice to defend an account of our persistence conditions at great length without saying a word about what we are, except perhaps to rule out our being immaterial substances: Grice, Perry, Nozick, Parfit, and Unger are notable examples150. When the matter is addressed at all, it is frequently little more than an afterthought. For example, near the end of his well-known debate with Swinburne, Shoemaker mentions that the account of our identity conditions he has been developing rules out our being organisms. He suggests instead that we are each "physically realized in” an organism and share our matter with it. But he says little about how we are to understand this, and considers no objections. It apparently seemed to him little more than an interesting corollary of his view of our identity over time (1984: 113-114; his 1999151 attempts to remedy this defect). Rovane’s book on personal identity is silent about what we are for 200 pages before mentioning in passing, as if it were rather obvious, that a person is "a set of intentional episodes" (1998: 212152). Although Rovane says a good deal about which intentional episodes go to make up a given person, she says nothing about what sort of thing a set of intentional episodes is supposed to be, and never considers the thought that we might not be sets of intentional episodes at all.
- Does it matter153? Why should those concerned with traditional questions of personal identity worry about what we are? Haven't we just seen that they are different questions? Well, they are different in that one could know the answer to any of the traditional questions without knowing what we are and vice versa. Yet they are also connected, in that an answer to one may constrain the range of available answers to another. In particular, accounts of what it takes for us to persist may have troublesome implications for what we are. Those who ignore our metaphysical nature may end up with a view of our identity over time that seems attractive in itself but is incompatible with any plausible account154 of what we are.
- Earlier I mentioned the conservative psychological-continuity view, that we persist by virtue of non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity. Many would omit the qualification about continuous physical realization. They say simply that you are that future being who inherits the mental features you have now, and that past being whose mental features you have inherited. How these mental features are passed on is irrelevant, or at any rate needn't involve the continuous existence of any physical object capable of supporting thought and consciousness. Call this the liberal psychological-continuity view155.
- Imagine a device that records the total psychological state of your brain ("erasing" or destroying that organ in the process) and then imposes that state, or a state with the same content, onto a new brain in another head (thereby obliterating any psychological content already present there). I take it that this device is logically possible, even though it will never be within our technological capability: if you like, imagine that the machine simply destroys both brains and makes a duplicate156 of the first out of the remains of the second. The liberal view seems to imply that this “brain-state-transfer157 procedure” would move you from one human organism to another (Shoemaker 1984158: 108).
- What sort of things might you and I be if this were true? What sort of thinking being159 could the brain-state-transfer machine move from one animal to another160?
On the face of it at least, the liberal view looks incompatible with anything we could be.
- It is hard to see how it could move any material thing (van Inwagen 1997161). The machine doesn’t move any matter162 from one head to another. So how could it move a material thing?
- Surely you cannot send a concrete material object as a message163 by telegraph.
- At most the machine would seem to cause one material thing to lose its mental properties and another material thing164 to acquire them.
- What it does is analogous to reading a message written on one sheet of paper, erasing it, and then writing a message with the same content on another sheet. This process of reading, erasing, and writing doesn’t move any material thing165 from one sheet of paper to the other.
- Nor, for that matter, does it move any non-material thing166.
- No persisting, concrete object of any sort is located or “realized167” first in one sheet of paper and then in another one. So it seems, anyway.
- Likewise168, it is hard to see how the brain-state transfer machine could move anything, let alone a thinking being, from one head to another.
- I don’t say that the problem is insoluble: one could turn for help to the ontology of temporal parts169 (§5.5171). But not all advocates of the liberal view would welcome this serious metaphysical commitment171; and without serious metaphysics it really is insoluble172.
- Nor do the problems end there. The liberal view clearly rules out our being biological organisms. Whatever the brain-state transfer machine does, it doesn't move an animal from one place to another. If you are in Paris and I am in London and the machine erases your total brain state and copies it into my head, no biological organism thereby moves from Paris to London. Rather173, an animal in Paris has its brain erased or destroyed and another animal in London has its brain remodelled to resemble that of the animal in Paris. If you are an animal, you stay in Paris. But if the liberal view is true, you move to London. If it is possible for you to leave your animal behind in this way, then174 you are not an animal: nothing can leave itself behind. Not only are you not essentially an animal, but you are not an animal at all: nothing that is even contingently an animal175 could move from Paris to London via brain-state transfer. In the story there is only one animal in Paris, and it stays in Paris.
- But there is an animal that we call your body176. And human animals with normal functioning nervous systems would seem to be able to think. Or at least they think if any material thing can think, and most friends of the liberal view believe that material things can think. So an animal thinks your thoughts. Yet according to the liberal view that animal is not you. It follows that there are two beings thinking your thoughts177, you and the animal. That is one thinker too many. How could you ever know178 which one you are?
- For that matter, an animal that was psychologically indistinguishable from you would satisfy any ordinary definition of 'person'179: for instance the Lockean view that a person is an intelligent, rational, self-conscious being. (Surely there could not be intelligent, rational, self-conscious non-people180.) So the liberal view implies that there are two people now thinking your thoughts, an animal and a non-animal. That is hard to swallow. In fact it is incompatible with the liberal view. Human animals don’t persist by virtue of psychological continuity. If your animal body counts as a person, it follows that some people don’t persist by virtue of psychological continuity. Yet the liberal view is ordinarily taken to assert that all people, not just you and I, must persist by virtue of psychological continuity (§1.3182). The liberal view appears not only to have repugnant consequences182, but to be inconsistent183.
- Again, I don’t want to claim that these problems are insoluble. But they are problems. In fact they afflict not only the liberal psychological-continuity view but the conservative view as well, for it too appears to imply that we are not animals: no animal persists by virtue of184 non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity.
- I will say more about all this in the next chapter186. My point here is that these popular views about our identity over time have troubling consequences. Though some psychological continuity theorists have tried to address the problems, many more appear to be unaware of them. The reason, I think, is that they have not asked what we are. They have not asked, for instance, whether their view about our identity over time is compatible with186 our being animals. More generally, they have not asked what sort of things we could be if their view is true. If they had, the difficulty of finding a good answer might have led them to think again.
- Why it is that so many philosophers have neglected to think about what we are is an interesting question. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that metaphysics was out of fashion187 for a long time (and is still not fully respectable in many circles). This led people to believe that they could theorize about personal identity by doing conceptual analysis. But I don’t want to speculate about history here.
- That completes my discussion of the meaning and importance of our question. Let us turn now to the answers.
- This is the write-up as it was when this Abstract was last output, with text as at the timestamp indicated (21/09/2023 19:22:05).
- Link to Latest Write-Up Note.
- I can’t remember when this was. The pdfs of a few Chapters – including this one – are dated May 2007 and the pdf of the book is dated 11th November 2007 – so in the year the book was published. I think they must have been available for some considerable time thereafter, but I can’t be certain.
Footnote 14: Footnote 22:
- Purchased on 18th November 2007, so soon after publication.
- See my Note on this question: What Are We?.
- I shan’t repeat the link each time this expression recurs.
Footnote 24: Footnote 25:
- While the above – rather annoying – observations are correct, I would like to argue that our being material should be the default position that dissenting views need to argue against. It’s ‘obvious’ – indeed, by looking in the mirror – that we are material beings; also, that we are human animals. Any philosopher who claims that these obvious facts are only apparent needs to provide arguments. It’s not really up to the materialist to do so.
- That said, Olson denies certain ‘obvious’ facts – that he has hands, or that he goes where his brain goes. But he does provide arguments.
- All-in-all, I think the whole question is one of inference to the best explanation: what philosophical position does the best at accommodating all the facts, intuitions and problem cases, and has the best counter-arguments to contrary intuitions and positions.
- This is complicated – as Olson will doubtless point out in due course.
- The upper layer of our skin consists of dead cells. Are these still part of us. The same goes for hair.
- See my Note on Brains.
- This will be covered in detail later in this Chapter, and in Chapter 4.
- I don’t think philosophers who hold the view ‘we are our brains’ really believe this, but believe that ‘we go with our brains’ and that ‘we would survive as our brains’.
- My current view is that a human brain is a ‘maximally mutilated human animal’, along the lines of ‘I would survive if I lost an arm and if I lost a …’.
Footnote 28: Footnote 29:
- See my Note on Bodies.
- This raises the question whether we can become Cyborgs. See "Clark (Andy) - Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence".
- While ‘we’ – as a kind – might not be larger than our bodies, individuals might become so. I need to be on the look-out for whether Olson makes this distinction.
- Two things immediately come to mind:-
- Transplants: are recently transplanted organs part of our bodies, or do they only become so once they have been assimilated.
- What about prosthetics, that are never assimilated? Even this is an ambiguous usage of ‘assimilation’. Prosthetics would seem not to become part of our bodies, but they are become ‘accommodated’ by (or ‘integrated’ with) our brains as though they were. Take varifocal spectacles, for example. When initially work, the field of vision appears to wobble around as the head moves. But eventually, this sensation goes away, so our brains have been rewired to take the variable focal length into account.
- Whether externals that we rely on – our websites or libraries – are part of ‘us’ is doubtful, though they might be important to our Narrative Identity.
- See Andy Clark and "Clark (Andy) - Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence".
Footnote 30: Footnote 31:
- See my Note on Perdurantism and related Notes.
- Olson covers this topic later in this Chapter, as well as in Chapter 5.
- This is a special case of mereological universalism, which posits the existence of even more gerrymandered objects. Any region of spacetime is said to contain an object – its contents – irrespective of whether the region is topologically connected or not. Something like the combination of my nose and the Eifel Tower is a favourite example. Presumably this allows for parts as separately-existing objects, as these are also the contents of regions of spacetime.
- Olson – along with Peter Van Inwagen – denies the DAUP. See "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts".
- Olson is suspicious of ‘bodies’ and prefers to talk about ‘organisms’ on the grounds that there is a principled account of what forms part of them. We’ll cover this later.
- See my Note on Causality.
- I don’t like this definition. Don’t ideas have causal force? And books?
Footnote 35: Footnote 36:
- See my Note on Change.
- Again, can’t abstract things change. Books go through several editions. Are these not editions of the same book?
- This could get complicated, and is a matter of dispute between Nominalists and Realists. Is a species something over and above its members?
- Again, this is difficult. What is an ‘instance’. Each copy of Maby Dick – at least if printed rather than electronic – is a concrete particular. It is more than the information it contains. It has dog-ears, coffee stains, annotations … that are not part of the abstract object that is the novel.
- See my Note on Universals, which is – or will be – relevant to the Notes above.
- See my Note on Replication.
- The use of this terminology is tendentious, of course, as it implies that the replica is not you.
- She would, but she’d find out – from external cues – that she wasn’t you. Initially, because there’s a better candidate for being you. But even if not, on theoretical grounds.
- See my Note on Closest Continuers.
- All this is discussed in my Note on Teletransportation.
Footnote 42: Footnote 43: Footnote 44:
- I don’t think this analogy is correct, as stated above.
- See my Note on Holes & Smiles, which is the same sort of thing – especially ‘smiles’.
- Spinoza would think so, as there’s only one substance in his metaphysics – Deus sive natura – of which anything else is a mode, but I doubt there are many Spinozists these days.
- But, those who think we are computer programs – and maybe holders of the Constitution View – may be committed to some such idea.
Footnote 47: Footnote 48:
- Our lives are events or processes (that may individuate Organisms, though I’m not convinced).
- There’s a general metaphysical choice whether to prioritise substances over processes: see my Note on Process Metaphysics.
- Is this the idea behind Exdurantism?
- Also, does this relate to the Logic of Identity, and the supposed distinction between ‘loose and popular’ and ‘strict and philosophical’ forms thereof?
- See my Note on Persistence Criteria.
- Clearly, our persistence conditions are intimately related to what we are, and what events that we intuit that we can survive guides our beliefs as to what we are.
- See my Notes on Properties and Modality.
- Most philosophers – and most people – seem to think that having a mind with an adequate – and continuous – psychology is an essential property of a person. They may be right, but the assumption is that we are essentially persons, which Olson and other Animalists deny.
- See my Note on Organisms.
- The animalist contention is that we are identical to – rather than merely constituted by, or in possession of – the biological organisms ‘we call our bodies’.
- This is a very important point. Once the question is properly understood and clearly formulated, the answer may pop out. Much philosophical hot air is wasted in disputes where the question is unclear, or where the disputants are addressing different questions.
- I might say, though, that it’s the ‘formulating’ of the (right) question that’s ‘the hardest thing in philosophy’.
Footnote 54: Footnote 56:
- See my Note on Plants, not that this is very relevant in the context.
- As previously mentioned, this will be covered in Chapter 4, so there’s no need to discuss the matter here.
- Olson discusses Temporal Parts in Chapter 5, probably in Sections 5.6-7.
- The suggestion will be that we should combine elements of animalism with the psychological view and say that we are those stages of human animals during which we qualify as persons.
- This leads to all sorts of problems – including intermittent existence.
- My view is that being a person is an honorific assigned to the human animal (and maybe others) and best dealt with via Phase Sortals.
Footnote 59: Footnote 60: Footnote 61:
- This just highlights the tension between the two views and the desperate measures sometimes adopted to reconcile them in the ‘having cake and eating it’ sense.
Footnote 62: Footnote 63: Footnote 64: Footnote 65:
- See my Note on Bundle Theories.
- Olson treats of these theories extensively in Chapter 6, so my comments can wait until then.
Footnote 66: Footnote 67:
- This was mentioned by me above, but the first time by Olson.
- From a quick scan, it seems he covers this in detail in his Chapter 6 on Bundles
(Bundles – The Program View
- This view is of great contemporary relevance, but my comments will have to await Olson’s treatment of the topic in due course.
- Well, the bald statement – say – that we are (identical to) human animals doesn’t answer all Olson’s questions, but a fully fleshed-out account ought to, I’d have thought. Elaborations and clarifications are required to argue for this position as against its rivals.
- Surely, Olson ought to say that the positions ‘purport to tell us’, though I dare say a lot can be learnt from considering positions that are incorrect, as most – if not all – of them must be.
- Yes – this was Olson’s original strategy, and it is sensible. But it is somewhat circular, though maybe virtuously so. Lots of the detail has to be touched on in defending the overarching thesis.
- I don’t believe this for a minute, and it’s the most annoying aspect of Olson’s programme. This usage is tendentious and an example of NewSpeak.
- ‘Person’ is a term of art, invented to prise apart the concepts of human beings and appropriately qualified psychological and moral beings. Olson thinks this is a mistake, which is fair enough, but he shouldn’t adjust the philosophical language so we can’t talk about it.
- It’s also not even common usage. When we ask ‘how many people are in the room’ we basically mean ‘how many human beings are in the room’, or – as ‘human being’ is also a term of art – how many members of the species Homo Sapiens are in the room. If there are a few great apes or AIs in the room, these may be persons, but they will be not people. And if some infants or severely mentally incapacitated people are in the room, some philosophers might consider them people but not persons. The tension arises when we consider that all people – but not all persons – have legal protection – which is maybe the reverse of what it ought to be.
- So, Olson is right in saying that saying that we are people tells us nothing, but saying that we are (essentially, identical to ..) persons does. It claims – maybe falsely – that we cannot exist unless we are persons, so we persons may come into existence later and depart the scene earlier than mere people. This is a substantive philosophical position with potentially huge moral implications (it already does with respect to Abortion and may yet do with respect to ‘end of life’ issues when the practicalities so demand.
- This is more complicated than Olson – or maybe I – think.
- it seems to me that Olson – in confusing people with persons – has confused himself.
- The claim that we are persons says that we have the metaphysical nature of persons – whatever these might be. Now, how that person is ‘realised’ will vary from persons to person. Human persons are ‘realised’ by their human animals, and this tells us a lot more about them than their ‘just’ being persons.
- I used to think that Person wasn’t a Natural Kind term, because different kinds of person had different persistence conditions. But I now think this is a confusion. While aliens qua aliens might have different persistence conditions to angels qua angels (should either exist) their persistence conditions – qua persons – would be the same (presumably based on psychological connectivity and connectedness).
- Olson has difficulty taking the Constitution View seriously; I suspect for reasons associated by this self-inflicted confusion.
- What has this got to do with the matter? Not everyone – even those qualified to have an informed opinion – agrees that we are essentially human animals but that doesn’t mean that we can dismiss the position out of hand.
- It sure would, depending what is meant by ‘people’, but any substantive philosophical position rules out others.
Footnote 77: Footnote 80:
- Well, we’ll never know this as the term ‘Person’ doesn’t refer to whatever instantiates them.
- I agree with what Olson has to say in this section, despite terminological reservations about people and persons.
- It is sensible to restrict our discussions to people like us. Other sorts of Person should only be introduced ‘for the sake of the argument’ rather than being a primary focus.
- So, while it is important to consider whether intelligent computers or AIs are – or might one day become – persons, it is outside the scope of the question of what we are. ‘We’ refers to Human Animals – if we are such – or Human Persons, if that’s what we are (and so on).
- It is within the scope of my Thesis, however, to consider wider issues.
- See (again) my Note on Persons for what qualifies an individual for being a Person. Olson’s list is a good start, though it doesn’t mention Forensic aspects.
- I’m glad that Corporate Persons are out of scope. In my view, this legal notion is an extension of the term that makes no real sense, other than picking up on ‘person’ being a Forensic Concept. Lawyer like companies to be persons so they can be morally – and hence legally – accountable.
- Well, this argument is valid, but not sound because – as it happens – we are not most fundamentally persons but are organisms. But we might have been persons.
- This argument is difficult because the use of terms is a bit shifty.
- The difficulty – to my mind – stems from what we are referring to when we talk of ‘persons’. If we’re talking of what constitutes them, then obviously, they have different metaphysical natures. But I don’t think most philosophers – even those who accept a psychological view but don’t explicitly accept the constitution view – are referring to the person’s ‘infrastructure’ but the persons themselves.
- So, the premise I’d reject is the fourth. We are not essentially persons, because we can exist without being persons.
- I found this paragraph difficult to understand, for some reason. But what Olson means is that – because his discussion is restricted to us – any answers to the wider question of the natures of persons in general is irrelevant in this context.
Footnote 88: Footnote 89:
- See, again, my Note on Human Beings.
- Olson doesn’t elaborate on the slipperiness of the term.
- Is it just down to Mark Johnston?
- Do they really? Surely not. I suspect what they say is that there are human animals, but that human animals only exist in a mind of some sort.
- Take The Matrix: both Agent Smith and Neo exist in the Matrix, but only Neo exists in the real world. For an idealist, there is no real world.
Footnote 91: Footnote 92:
- I didn’t find that this paragraph added or clarified anything, so I may not have understood it.
Footnote 93: Footnote 94:
- Olson has stated that we’ve moved on to the ’formal mode’. By this, he means language and grammatical usage.
- We’re about to consider questions raised in the middle of the last century – in particular by Wittgenstein and his followers – suggesting that ‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’ ("Wittgenstein (Ludwig) - Philosophical Investigations" (1953) pt. 1, sect. 109)
- Olson doesn’t seem to acknowledge that linguistic usage can be philosophically misleading, and that the muddles that arise can depend on the language in which the muddles are expressed (what options there are for expressing the various thoughts in different natural languages).
- Some languages have neuter personal pronouns to refer to inanimate objects; others have grammatical genders that apply even to inanimate objects. Nothing philosophically interesting can be deduced from this, other that in some languages personal pronouns don’t – in general – refer to organisms.
- Earlier, Bertrand Russell had hoped to circumvent such problems by creating a fully logical language (references required!).
- This is all very slippery. As noted, Olson – and van Inwagen – reject the DAUP, so don’t believe in the existence of ‘hands’. Yet, I doubt this would stop them saying they have a tennis racket in their right hand (if so) even though they may not even agree that tennis rackets exist, only ‘atoms arranged tennis-racket-wise’.
- Oslon discusses such matters in Chapter 2.7: Revisionary Linguistics.
- See "Anscombe (G.E.M.) - The First Person".
- This is a fairly long, and doubtless difficult, paper that would need to be read carefully to see if Olson’s points from it are valid.
- I’ve found an electronic version exported to my Kindle, so I’ll be able to read it while walking Bertie! It’s important reading material for my Note on I, so is worth the attention. However, it’s too difficult just to be skimmed to get the gist.
- From a quick look, it’s addressing Descartes’ use of ‘I’ in the Cogito and is unlikely to be saying anything as absurd as Olson suggests.
- It is true that – in saying ‘it is raining’ – we are simply referring to a state of affairs, yet even so there are clouds that are sending down rain. And an atmosphere that is ‘muggy’.
- I draw here on Garrett 1998: ch. 7 and van Inwagen 2002a.
I agree that – if ‘I’ is not a referring expression, then asking ‘what am I’ would make little sense (but then – asking what I’ve got in my hand if hands – strictly-speaking – don’t exist seems to make perfect sense.
I’m not sure how far down this rabbit-hole I need to go, but I will need to read the above two references one day and will find out then whether they take issue with Anscombe.
I suspect that Anscombe is arguing against the existence of Selves or Cartesian Egos rather than against our existence as such. Footnote 98:
- "Garrett (Brian) - Personal Identity and Self-consciousness" ("Garrett (Brian) - Wittgenstein on 'I'"), and
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - What Do We Refer to When We Say 'I'?".
- I agree with Olson in all this. I just doubt that Anscombe & Wittgenstein really mean what Olson and company think they mean.
- Indeed – is the above worth wasting any time on?
Footnote 101: Footnote 102:
- This is Olson limbering up for the Constitution View, which he accuses of positing multiple occupancy (which holders of that view deny).
- So, ‘I’ would refer both to the human animal and to the person constituted by it.
Footnote 103: Footnote 104: Footnote 105:
- So, this view is distinct from substance dualism, which is taken seriously and receives extensive treatment in Chapter 7:Souls.
- Is Olson a mind-brain identity theorist?
- The brain is part of the body, but saying the mind is part of the body sounds odd, or at the very least tendentious.
- That said, I’m not sure I believe in the existence of ‘minds’. What are they supposed to be?
- This is all a bit quick and – as Olson admits – dismissive.
- So, language is not straightforward and transparent. Why is Olson happy in this context but not in others?
- Indeed. So why this rather superficial diversion?
- Yes, that’s a good way of clarifying what the question ‘What are We’ is about.
- If this wasn’t philosophy, this would be taken as read. If we asked ‘what are dogs’ (or chimpanzees) it would be a biological question.
- So, it’s really only a philosophical question that has arisen because of a long history of giving speculative – and wrong – answers.
- Contemporary interest derives from three areas:-
- Those still holding to – and wanting to justify – historical non-Animalist positions,
- Puzzle cases and Thought-Experiments.
- The hopes of Transhumanists.
- While Olson thinks psychological matters are irrelevant to our persistence, our ‘thoughts’ are important to him because the Thinking Animal Argument is essential (for him) in proving that we are animals in the first place.
- See my Note on Physicalism.
- I don’t think that eliminative materialism denies that thinking goes on, only that it is carried out by brains rather than immaterial minds.
- I should cover this in the above Note, which doesn’t currently mention eliminative materialism. Even my Note on Mind doesn’t cover it, though there’s an Aeon video on the topic referenced.
- See "Dennett (Daniel) - True Believers: The Intentional Strategy and Why it Works".
- Dennett doesn’t think that thermostats actually have intentions, only that we do will to act towards them as though they do – in their restricted range of action; the reason being that human beings have designed them that way.
- The same stance is sensible for animate creatures – because evolution has ‘designed them’ that way.
- Whether other animals have minds is a difficult question, as Olson notes.
- There’s a recent fad at attribute minds to Plants, but I’m not convinced.
- Even so, we can still adopt the intentional stance towards them (to explain why daisies turn their faces towards the sun, and so on).
- Despite the attempts of behaviourists to operate as though this was not the case.
- Why so? Is this for metaphysical or epistemological reasons? Is it down to vagueness, borderline cases and so on. Or is it that we don’t even know if we have mental properties?
- Why so? Has the question ‘What are We?’ really got anything to do with minds?
- Is this a pragmatist view (of sorts) or is it a Hybrid View?
- That is, is Olson saying we might just adopt a stance – in an anti-realist way – depending on the circumstances, as though we were thus and so, or is he saying that we might be different things in different circumstances?
- I note in passing that I don’t have a Note on either Realism or Anti-Realism.
- Maybe so, but it’s a bit early in the discussion for this to be anything other than an Intuition.
- This is an important point, though such ideas will be touched on passim in arguing against contrary positions. So:-
- This is not folk-psychology, nor
- The history of ideas (in this area), nor
- A report of the results of an exercise in Experimental Philosophy.
- Olson is really trying to find out what we are, not what people at various times and places have thought – or think – we are.
- See my Note on Kant.
- While Kant thought we only had access to the phenomena (things as they appear to us) rather than the noumena (things in themselves) and that things appear to us the way they do because that’s how our minds work, we can still investigate the phenomena, and some theories of the phenomena will be better than others. Also, the phenomena are all that matter to us.
- I seem to remember that there are arguments that even if we are brains in vats, we still have knowledge within our constraints. The same might be true if we are SIMs or live in The Matrix.
- This is a position close to – but distinct from – animalism; it’s almost a hybrid view, trying to take the best bits from animalism and the psychological view.
- However, it’s not Olson’s view, but is posited for the sake of the argument.
- It’s also not my view. While I would argue that human persons are ‘temporal parts of (human) organisms’ – in the phase sortal sense – that’s not that we are: we are human animals (I agree with Olson on this, though maybe not for his reasons entirely) and are only persons for part of our lives.
Footnote 124: Footnote 125:
- No doubt; I’ve not really thought this through as it’s not hugely relevant. The point is that the mind-body problem is mostly orthogonal to what we are.
- See (again) my Note on Persistence.
- As will always be the case with Olson, ‘us, or for people in general’ reads oddly, as though the ‘we’ are some sort of elite. Of course, he means ‘persons in general’, which includes non-human persons.
- As noted elsewhere, it is possible that persons- qua persons – all have the same (psychological) persistence conditions.
- Thinking about this again, though, the sort of ‘adventures’ different kinds of person can encounter differ according to kind. Presumably angels don’t have brains, so we can’t ask whether they could survive a brain transplant. But – I might ask – is a brain transplant – for those beings that have brains – something that happens to the person or to that person’s body? Presumably that depends on how we think of the person – whether as a substance in its own right or as a quality of another substance. We might get different answers depending on how the question is framed, and what our background assumptions are.
- More on this in due course.
- This distinction of metaphysical from epistemological questions is very important.
- I just note here that the evidence of the individual – for instance in reduplication situations – is not reliable (or so I would claim).
- See my Note on Person.
- The key point is whether ‘person’ is an honorific (like ‘professor’) that an individual can earn or lose or whether it is a substance term. Also, whether persons form a natural kind.
- Olson seems to assume – contrary to many philosophers – that ‘person’ is not a substance term.
- More on this when we consider Locke’s view below.
Footnote 130: Footnote 131:
- This is where things get complicated.
- It’s simple when we consider – say – whether a chimpanzee meets the qualifications. We draw up a (maybe somewhat arbitrary) list, and it either satisfies them or it doesn’t. Often, you’ll find the list gerrymandered to ensure that chimpanzees don’t qualify: if it looks like they might, then an extra caveat is added to the list of qualifications. In the ‘qualification’ sense, we’re stipulating rather than discovering anything.
- Where things get interesting is when philosophers consider what adventures a person – however ‘hosted’ – can survive. They get really interesting when post-mortem survival is considered.
Is Olson suggesting that any neo-Lockean holds this somewhat absurd view? Footnote 132:
- How could something momentary “consider itself as itself in different times and places”? Well, a thing might consider itself as existing at different times even if it doesn’t exist at different times – just as I might consider myself rich and famous without being rich and famous.
- Again, see my Note on Locke.
- Locke was interested in giving an account of personhood that would allow for the resurrection of the very same Individual (I use this term so as not to beg any questions). But, he didn’t want to rely on the existence of Souls.
- Famously, he drew a distinction between the person and the ‘man’ – the human being.
- He also – equally famously – allowed that a rational parrot would be a person.
- He had a ‘resurrection trial run’ in his ‘prince and the cobbler’ Thought Experiment.
- While Locke affects not to care which Substance the person is, presumably he thinks it is one? It’s the person that persists, after all. I presume he thought we were probably Souls.
- For the Constitution View, which Olson so hates, the persisting element is the First Person Perspective, though quite what this is – metaphysically- rather than phenomenologically-speaking – is somewhat obscure.
- The persistence conditions of the person – on these accounts – just are not those of the person’s ‘host’. I’m not sure such views are coherent, but Olson doesn’t seem to engage with them properly.
Footnote 134: Footnote 135:
- This is not news. Reference Locke’s rational parrot. But it’s true, for all that.
- This illustrates the irritating nature of Olson’s terminological reductionism.
- People in a PVS naturally count as ‘people’ but not – on some accounts – as ‘persons’.
- As previously remarked, this point is well made. I have no issues with it.
- Wiggins (1980: 60) and Shoemaker (1995: 60) come close to saying this.
However much Wiggins and Shoemaker claim that persistence and ontology are closely connected, I doubt they – any more than Olson – say that our persistence conditions settle what we are. Rather – as Olson points out – they set constraints and rule out certain options. Footnote 138: Footnote 139: Footnote 140: Footnote 141:
- "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance" ("Wiggins (David) - Outline of a Theory of Individuation (S&S)").
→ but, why not "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance Renewed" ("Wiggins (David) - Outline of a Theory of Individuation")?
- I obtained "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Personal Identity" from Cambridge Core. It’s HTML, so not possible to determine the page, but it wouldn’t be p.60. This page no. is in Olson’s published book, but it may be a repetition of the Wiggins page no.
Footnote 142: Footnote 143:
- Hereafter – unhelpfully – the Conservative View.
- Presumably ‘conservative’ because of the ‘continuously physically realized’ clause?
- I agree with Olson that it’s difficult to see how we could be immaterial substances if there’s a ‘continuous realisation in a brain’ clause. But the best option for securing ‘non-branching’ conditions is for us to be Souls, so why bother mentioning brains?
- See my Note on Parfit, though is he really an advocate of the ‘simple view’. He advocates the ‘no further fact’ view, but is that the same thing?
- See my Note on the Simple View.
- The above Note has references to a whole book on the subject, published in 2012 – ie. 5 years after this book, containing a paper by Olson.
- These six views are advanced by Reid (1975), Swinburne (1984: 27), Merricks (1998), Baker (2000), Chisholm (1989: 126), and Lowe (1996: 32-44) respectively. We will consider all of them in due course.
- "Reid (Thomas) - Of Identity",
- "Swinburne (Richard) - Personal Identity: The Dualist Theory",
- "Merricks (Trenton) - There Are No Criteria For Identity Over Time",
- "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View",
- "Chisholm (Roderick) - Which Physical Thing Am I? An Excerpt from 'Is There a Mind-Body Problem?'",
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Subjects of Experience"
- Ayers 1991: 222-225, Merricks 1998 and 2001b: 85, van Inwagen 1990: 142-158, Wiggins 1980: 160, 180.
- "Ayers (Michael R.) - Locke (Vol 2 - Ontology)",
- "Merricks (Trenton) - There Are No Criteria For Identity Over Time",
- "Merricks (Trenton) - Objects and Persons",
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings",
- "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance"
Footnote 149: Footnote 150:
- I’ll need to tease out the differences between them in due course, as they are all Animalists of various stripes.
- Grice 1941, Perry 1972, 1975b, Nozick 1981: ch. 1, Parfit 1984: part 3, Unger 1990. Garrett 1998 and McMahan 2002: 66-94 are further examples. A refreshing exception is Hudson 2001: 113-148. Although for reasons given in Chapter 4 I cannot accept Hudson’s account of what we are, I recommend his discussion as a model of how the issue ought to be debated.
There’s a lot of reading in this list! Not worth reading just to check that they don’t discuss what we are. However, I need to read works such as these – and others cited in this section – for other reasons, so will read them in due course if I’ve not already done so. Footnote 151: Footnote 152: Footnote 153:
- "Grice (H. Paul) - Personal Identity",
- "Perry (John) - Can the Self Divide?",
- "Perry (John) - The Problem of Personal Identity",
- "Nozick (Robert) - Philosophical Explanations", "Nozick (Robert) - The Identity of the Self: Introduction", Etc.
- "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons",
- "Unger (Peter) - Identity, Consciousness and Value",
- "Garrett (Brian) - Personal Identity and Self-consciousness"
- "McMahan (Jeff) - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life", "McMahan (Jeff) - Identity"
- "Hudson (Hud) - A Materialist Metaphysics of the Human Person"
- Note that this ‘does it matter?’ question has nothing to do with Parfit’s ‘What matters in survival’ question.
- Olson’s question is why it matters to us what we are metaphysically; Parfit’s concerns why we care about survival.
- I agree, unless ‘person’ is a substance-term in its own right, in which case that is what we are.
Footnote 156: Footnote 157: Footnote 158: Footnote 159:
- So, the difference between the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ variants of the PV is that the latter – but not the former – demands continuous physical realisation of the psychology.
- This is purely terminological (though the distinctions are important), but I’d place the ‘Soul View’ in the ‘conservative camp’ as there is a (purported) infrastructure than continuously realises the psychology.
- The following argument is so important that I’ve split it up so that the various assertions and intuitions are segregated out for individual comment.
- The question is ‘what sort of thinking being’ could be moved in this way.
Footnote 161: Footnote 162:
- So, how are we consider the ‘thinking being’? If it is itself an animal, then (as Olson argues) it doesn’t make sense to say it has moved (except – just maybe – we posit temporal parts, as Olson suggests at the end of the Section).
- But, if it’s not an animal, but only constituted by one, it might move.
- Even if it did move matter, it’d depend on what matter and how the matter was moved.
- In certain variants of Teletransportation, matter rather than information is beamed across; even then, it’s doubtful that the individual is transferred.
- What might work is a brain transplant, though Olson doesn’t accept this either.
- Intuitively this doesn’t seem possible.
- If the object were broken into its constituent atoms and reassembled at the other end, it would have been totally destroyed in the process.
- Worse still if only information is sent and new atoms are repurposed.
- Yet – it seems – most philosophers intuit that Teletransportation is a form of travel rather than death.
- My intuition also, but it depends on the mind being a property of a physical thing, though this is our assumption here.
- While this analogy is probably correct, I didn’t find it enlightening.
- It’s true that it’s not the ink that’s transferred but the information it signifies.
- Maybe Olson is just trying to clarify what’s happening in a Brain-State Transfer.
- It ‘sends’ Information, but doesn’t exactly ‘move’ it.
- Can non-material things be moved? Do they have locations?
- I wonder whether this is another case of Olson not taking constitution views seriously.
- What is the candidate for being a ‘concrete object’ in this case?
- It’s a message – but not the information therein, but the ink thereof.
- Clearly, the ink isn’t transferred.
- But – maybe – a constitutionalist would claim that the message was first constitute by the ink on one sheet and then by the ink on another.
- Now – if it’s claimed that the message is ‘essentially ink’ – then the message has moved and was in each case physically instantiated. But the ink hasn’t moved.
Footnote 169: Footnote 171:
- Well, it doesn’t move the matter, but does move the form as the Hylomorphists might say.
- This isn’t really a proper response. However, it’s true that we shouldn’t accept some outlandish metaphysical system – or one with enormous ramifications or implications for all else we hold dear – just to fix a spandrel in one area of philosophy (like reduplication problems).
- What’s the ‘it’ – precisely – that’s insoluble?
- I agree entirely with this description. Does anyone doubt it? As far as animals are concerned, that is.
- This logic is absolutely fine. Holders of the ‘Liberal View’ just don’t accept that we are animals (probably for these very reasons).
Footnote 176: Footnote 177:
- This is where things get difficult again. According to the CV, it is metaphysically possible for your FPP to migrate from one animal to the other. These are different animals, but neither ‘is’ you – they only constitute you.
- Also, one or other of them might not have constituted you, so you might not have ‘been’ that animal.
- This is a pre-run of Olson’s Thinking Animal (TA) Argument. This is covered elsewhere in the book, so I’m not sure why he introduces it here. Presumably he thinks of it as a knock-down argument, so raises it as a stick to beat thoughtless philosophers with towards the end of this Section.
- I’ll deal with all this in due course, in response to the following Sections:-
- It seems to be in Olson’s armoury against all competitors to Animalism, other than the Soul View and Nihilism. It even causes a potential problem for Animalism itself.
- This is the epistemological consequence of the TA argument, the primary thrust of which is metaphysical. I’ve never been too worried by it.
- This is true – and the reason this is not widely enthusiastically accepted is most likely down to a downplaying of our ‘animal natures’. Lynn Rudder Baker goes to town on this, if I remember correctly, and accuses Animalists of not Taking Persons Seriously. She sees and ontological step-change happening when the FPP comes into existence, so humans differ from other animals not just in degree. I don’t agree with this, of course.
- It may mean what’s intended by ‘Self-Conscious’. If this means ‘phenomenal consciousness – of self and everything else’ then fine; otherwise, the conditions for personhood listed by Olson can be strengthened a little. Basically, we want to exclude AIs that phenomenal Zombies, but have some conception of themselves as Selves.
- What are these? That I don’t know which thinking thing I am?
- So, the logic behind this claim of inconsistency is that human animals are persons; animals can survive total loss of psychology; so there are some persons that can survive total loss of psychology, contra the liberal claim.
- Now, the liberal will reply that – after the human animal has lost all psychology, it is no longer a person. So, it’s not a person that loses all psychology. So, the liberal can have his cake and eat it.
- Back to constitution and / or phase sortals again.
- This is true because – as Olson has oft pointed out (to much consternation) ‘psychology is irrelevant to our survival’ (or words to that effect), given that it is irrelevant to the survival of animals, and we are animals.
- It’s difficult to know the degree to which Darwinism and ‘the Descent of Man’ has – until recently – really convinced the philosophical community that ‘we are animals’ and also that animals are much more sophisticated than ‘brute beasts’. After all, the accepted wisdom after Descartes was that they were mere machines. Humanity wouldn’t have treated animals the way they did – and do – if it realised their capacity to suffer.
- Indeed – the Logical Positivists used the term ‘metaphysical’ as a general term of abuse.
- I agree that speculative metaphysical system-building needed reigning in, but nothing could be more important than seeking answers to fundamental metaphysical questions where they can be addressed with scientific insight as it develops.
- The latter point needs to be stressed even today if only to discredit some impossible thought-experiments. Taking account of ‘what we are’ needs to accommodate us as we actually ‘work’ rather than blindly assuming that brains can be transplanted or zapped with only a little technical development without needing to understand how information is stored in them and how it affects their physical structure.
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