What Are We? The Question
Olson (Eric)
Source: What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology, Chapter 1 (November 2007: Oxford University Press.)
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1.1 What are we5?
  1. This book is about a question: What are we6? That is, what are we7 metaphysically speaking? What are our most general and fundamental features? What is our most basic metaphysical nature?
  2. 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 are8 into smaller ones that are easier to grapple with.
  3. 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?
  4. 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 nothing. In fact the view that we are made entirely of matter – materialism9 – 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 are10.
  5. If we are indeed made of matter, or of anything else, we can ask what matter or other stuff we are made of. Most materialists11 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 end) and no further. But a few take us to be considerably smaller: the size of brains, for instance. I don’t know of anyone who believes that we are material things larger than our bodies – that we are made of the matter that makes up our bodies and other matter besides – though I suppose that is a possible view.
  6. 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 parts. They may disagree about whether we have temporal parts – such things as earlier halves – in addition to any spatial parts we may have, such as hands. They can even disagree about our ordinary spatial parts. Some materialists12 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 objects too tedious to describe. Other materialists13 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.
  7. 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 boundary is there?
  8. 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 active – if it can actively do something – and it is capable of change. 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 abstract, 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 objects. (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 novel.
  9. We can ask, then, whether we ourselves are concrete particulars like Mt. Rainier or abstract universals14 like Moby Dick. Could there be more than one of you? Suppose the people of Minnesota managed to make an exact replica 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 you. Would she be right? Would she be you in the same sense as the original is you, just 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 universals15?
  10. If we are concrete beings, we can ask whether we are substances – metaphysically independent beings – or whether we are rather states or aspects of something else. Think of a car with a dent in it. The dent 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 aspect of something other than yourself? Or an event or process 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?
  11. We can ask whether we persist through time. 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 by 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?
  12. This is the sort of thing I have in mind when I ask what we are16 metaphysically speaking. There are many more such questions. We can ask, for instance, what our persistence conditions17 are: what is necessary and sufficient for a past or future being to be you. We can ask which of our properties are essential 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 organisms that we sometimes call our bodies. And so on. An answer to these questions would tell us what we are18.
1.2 Some answers
  1. 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 philosophy.) 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 are19.
  2. 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 plants20, or angels, or stones. But few philosophers say that we are animals. 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 §2.1.) 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 materialists21.
  3. How could we be material things other than animals? Well, we might be parts of animals: brains, for instance. Or we might be temporal parts of animals 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 brains.
  4. 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 objects 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 are22. So another possible answer to our question is that we are material things made of the same matter as or “constituted by” our animal bodies.
  5. Hume once suggested that each of us is "a bundle23 or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement" (1978: 252). 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.
  6. A view with a long tradition has it that we are simple immaterial substances – 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 are24, or even parts of us. A related view says that each of us is a compound object made up of both an immaterial substance and a material organism.
  7. Some people seem to think that we are are something like novels or computer programs: abstract universals25 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.
  8. 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 exist. 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.
  9. None of these views offers a complete account of what we are26. 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 about what we are27. They are mutually incompatible: if we are animals then we are not parts of animals, immaterial substances, bundles28 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, bundles29 of perceptions, or what have you; and with any luck those questions will be easier to answer than the original question about our own metaphysical nature.
  10. By way of contrast, here is a view that does not answer the question of what we are30: 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 purposes.) 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 people: whether they are material or immaterial, abstract or concrete, and so on.
  11. 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 that we are essentially or most fundamentally people. And the view that we are essentially or most fundamentally people may rule out certain accounts of what we are31, such as the view that we are organisms (see §2.9). So this view may tell us something about what we are32. But it doesn’t tell us much – not, at least, until we know whether people are material or immaterial, concrete or abstract, and so on.
  12. There are many other possible accounts of what we are33, 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 are34. 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: how it might be rephrased, some complications it raises, how it differs from traditional questions of personal identity, and why it is important.
1.3 'We'
  1. 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'?
  2. Consider first its scope. 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.
  3. 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-conscious 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" person: 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.
  4. This approach is unorthodox. Most discussions of personal identity take for it granted that claims about what we are – about35 our identity over time, for instance – necessarily apply to all people (see §2.8). 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.
  5. This strikes me as dogmatic. Not only is it unwarranted. Worse, it rules out accounts of what we are36 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 organisms. This seems a poor argument for the claim that we are not organisms. Its premises were these: (1) there could be inorganic people; (2) inorganic people would not have the same metaphysical nature as people who are organisms; (3) necessarily all people have the same metaphysical nature; and (4) we are people. The most questionable of these premises seems to me to be the third. Thus, I will not assume it.
  6. 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 nothing by asking the first rather than the second.
  7. I said that in asking what we are37 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 slippery 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 animal38; when you move, a human animal39 moves; you perceive the world via a human animal’s40 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 animal41 in this way. It is, we might say, someone with a human body. Even if in the final analysis there are really no human animals42 (as for instance some idealists say), 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 animal43 and not an angel or a cow. Our question is about the fundamental nature of human people in this sense.
1.4 Rephrasing the question
  1. 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 we44? 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 'I'. 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?
  2. These two questions – What are we45? and, What do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to? – 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 organisms. The view that we don't exist – 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.
  3. 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 something, expressions that refer to something if there is anything “there” to be referred to. Anscombe (1981) 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 rains. 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 are46 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.
  4. This view seems to me to have no plausibility whatever47. Consider these apparent facts: (1) 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. (2) 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. (3) 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. (4) 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? (5) 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. 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.
  5. But no matter: 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 thirdperson personal pronouns and personal proper names refer to. No one denies that those words are referring expressions.
  6. What if I refer to more than one thing 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?
  7. 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 version 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 am48 in the "mental" sense of 'I', or what I am49 in the "bodily" sense of that word?
  8. This view – call it linguistic dualism – 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 consciousness and intelligence50, 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 body. 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 call this a reductio ad absurdum of linguistic dualism.
  9. 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 mean 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.
  10. 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 language. 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?
1.5 Must there be an answer?
  1. Let me make a few remarks about the status of the question.
  2. I take it that the question of what we are51 must have an answer, 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 thoughts, they must have some metaphysical nature or other; if nothing thinks our thoughts, then we don’t exist.
  3. What if eliminative materialism52 is true and there is no such thing as thinking? What then becomes of the question of what we are53? 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.
  4. 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 1981). It is more useful to attribute mental properties to chimpanzees than to amoebas or daisies: you are better off explaining the behavior of daisies in non-mental terms, whereas with chimpanzees psychological explanation is the only game in town. But the question of which things really have mental properties has no answer. 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 answer.
  5. 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 purposes to attribute our thoughts to beings of one kind (organisms, say), and most useful for other purposes to ascribe them to other beings (bundles54 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 accept this view about the mental.
  6. In asking what we are55 I am not asking about our conception or our understanding of ourselves – about what sort of things we take ourselves to be. This is metaphysics, not anthropology. What we ordinarily take ourselves to be may be wildly mistaken.
  7. Why suppose that we can discover what we are56, 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 are57, 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 are58. (Kant 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
  1. 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 a bit like the traditional mind-body problem, and a bit like familiar problems of personal identity. How exactly does it relate to those problems?
  2. 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 are59 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, bundles60 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 organisms. That would leave it almost entirely open which account of the mind-body problem is true: it would be compatible with behaviorism, functionalism, property dualism, various psycho-physical identity theories, and eliminative materialism61, for instance.
  3. It is especially important to distinguish the question of what we are62 from traditional questions of personal identity. Three questions have dominated discussions of personal identity since the time of Locke. One is what it takes for us, or for people in general, to persist through time: the persistence question. 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 question. 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 question.
  4. The question of what we are63 is more or less completely unrelated to the personhood question. What qualifications a thing needs in order to count as a person is one thing; what sort of thing meets those qualifications – organisms, immaterial substances, bundles64 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: 335). 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 momentary65; they might be organisms, brains, bundles66 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 this.)
  5. To know what it is to be a person is therefore not to know what we are67. Likewise, to know what we are68 is not to know what it is to be a person. Suppose we are human animals69. That does not imply that to be a person is to be a human animal – even70 assuming that we ourselves are people. It is consistent with there being gods or angels or Martians who are people but not human animals71. Nor does it imply that all human animals72 are people: it is consistent with the view that human animals73 in a persistent and irreversible vegetative state don’t count as people. An account of our metaphysical nature implies nothing at all about what it is to be a person.
  6. Nor is the evidence question the question of what we are74. One is epistemic; the other is metaphysical. One is about how we find out who is who; the other concerns our metaphysical nature. They could hardly be more different.
  7. If any familiar question about personal identity is the question of what we are75, 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 are76. It is certainly one aspect of our metaphysical nature. Knowing our persistence conditions77 would tell us something about what we are78. But it would tell us less than you might think.
  8. Consider some examples. The most popular view about our identity over time is that it consists in some sort of psychological continuity79: 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 Unger 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” clause 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.
  9. Imagine these matters settled: suppose, let us say, that our identity over time consists in non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity80. Call this the conservative psychological-continuity view. Would it tell us what we are81? Not by itself it wouldn’t. It may have implications about what we are82, such as ruling out our being immaterial substances – it is hard to see how any sort of physical continuity83 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 animal84, to persist without any sort of psychological continuity85 whatever (see §2.8). The information that we are neither immaterial substances nor organisms would certainly tell us something about what we are86. 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 disputed.
  10. So the conservative view gives at best a radically incomplete picture of what we are87. 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 are88.
  11. Other answers to the persistence question teach the same lesson. Consider what Parfit89 calls the simple view90, 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 view91 appears to be compatible with almost any view of what we are92. Its advocates have said that we are simple immaterial substances, compounds of a simple immaterial substance and a physical organism, organisms, things constituted by organisms, microscopic physical parts of our brains, and partless material objects physically indiscernible from organisms93.
  12. These examples show that we could know our persistence conditions94 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 conditions95. For example, Ayers, Merricks, van Inwagen, and Wiggins96 agree that we are biological organisms, and agree to a large extent about the metaphysical nature of those organisms, yet diverge widely about what it takes for us to persist.
  13. 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 conditions97, or indeed whether any do, is another matter.
1.7 Why it Matters
  1. The question of what we are98 is often neglected. It is common practice to defend an account of our persistence conditions99 at great length without saying a word about what we are100, except perhaps to rule out our being immaterial substances: Grice, Perry, Nozick, Parfit101, and Unger are notable examples102. 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 1999 attempts to remedy this defect). Rovane’s book on personal identity is silent about what we are103 for 200 pages before mentioning in passing, as if it were rather obvious, that a person is "a set of intentional episodes" (1998: 212). 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.
  2. Does it matter? Why should those concerned with traditional questions of personal identity worry about what we are104? 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 are105 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 are106. 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 account of what we are107.
  3. Earlier I mentioned the conservative psychological-continuity view, that we persist by virtue of non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity108. 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 view.
  4. 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 duplicate109 of the first out of the remains of the second. The liberal view seems to imply that this “brain-state-transfer procedure” would move you from one human organism to another (Shoemaker 1984: 108).
  5. What sort of things might you and I be if this were true? What sort of thinking being could the brain-state-transfer machine move from one animal to another? It is hard to see how it could move any material thing (van Inwagen 1997). The machine doesn’t move any matter from one head to another. So how could it move a material thing? Surely you cannot send a concrete material object as a message by telegraph. At most the machine would seem to cause one material thing to lose its mental properties and another material thing 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 thing from one sheet of paper to the other. Nor, for that matter, does it move any non-material thing. No persisting, concrete object of any sort is located or “realized” first in one sheet of paper and then in another one. So it seems, anyway. Likewise, it is hard to see how the brain-state transfer machine could move anything, let alone a thinking being, from one head to another. On the face of it at least, the liberal view looks incompatible with anything we could be.
  6. I don’t say that the problem is insoluble: one could turn for help to the ontology of temporal parts (§5.5). But not all advocates of the liberal view would welcome this serious metaphysical commitment; and without serious metaphysics it really is insoluble.
  7. 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. Rather, 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, then 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 animal 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.
  8. But there is an animal that we call your body. And human animals110 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 thoughts, you and the animal. That is one thinker too many. How could you ever know which one you are?
  9. For that matter, an animal that was psychologically indistinguishable from you would satisfy any ordinary definition of 'person': 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-people.) 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 animals111 don’t persist by virtue of psychological continuity112. If your animal body counts as a person, it follows that some people don’t persist by virtue of psychological continuity113. Yet the liberal view is ordinarily taken to assert that all people, not just you and I, must persist by virtue of psychological continuity114 (§1.3). The liberal view appears not only to have repugnant consequences, but to be inconsistent.
  10. 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 of non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity115.
  11. I will say more about all this in the next chapter. My point here is that these popular views about our identity over time have troubling consequences. Though some psychological continuity116 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 are117. They have not asked, for instance, whether their view about our identity over time is compatible with 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.
  12. Why it is that so many philosophers have neglected to think about what we are118 is an interesting question. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that metaphysics was out of fashion 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.
  13. That completes my discussion of the meaning and importance of our question. Let us turn now to the answers.


Printout filed in "Olson (Eric) - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 13 (Olson)".

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 47:
  • I draw here on Garrett 1998: ch. 7 and van Inwagen 2002a.
Footnote 65:
  • 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.
Footnote 76:
  • Wiggins (1980: 60) and Shoemaker (1995: 60) come close to saying this.
Footnote 93:
  • 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.
Footnote 96:
  • Ayers 1991: 222-225, Merricks 1998 and 2001b: 85, van Inwagen 1990: 142-158, Wiggins 1980: 160, 180.
Footnote 102:
  • 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.

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