Precis of 'The Human Animal'
Olson (Eric)
Source: Abstracta Special Issue I – 2008 (Brazil)
Paper - Abstract

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Write-up1 (as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05): Olson - The Human Animal (Precis)

Olson’s paper isn’t a formal précis of "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology" as such, but picks out a few themes that Olson thinks are most important. See the following Terminological Disclaimer2 related to what I have to say below.

He thinks that historically the whole question of personal identity has been wrongly put. It assumes without argument that we are Persons, and so expresses the “same person” relation as between persons, rather than simply between individuals who at some time in their existence are persons. So, the question has been assumed to be concerning persons A and B at two times, and trying to determine what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for them to be the same person (A = B). Olson thinks (rightly) that this prejudices the case against Animalists and others who don’t think that persons qua person are substances, and that consequently the question should rather be whether a person at time x is the same individual at time y, whether or not that individual then qualifies as a person. Otherwise, the question whether I was ever a fetus, or might ever end up in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) cannot even arise.

Olson doesn’t use the term “substance” – so, as the disclaimer3 allows, I might be distorting his thought, but it seems to me that this is the root of his disagreement with certain other philosophers (in particular Baker, though I’m not sure whether she uses this concept either). Olson thinks there is one substance present – the Human Animal, which at certain times in its existence has the property of being a person (where – to qualify as a person – the possession if not exercise of certain psychological capacities is needed). He doesn’t consider a person to be a separate substance that can exist independently of the human animal. Other philosophers think that several substances are co-located where a human person is, and Olson finds this objectionable for metaphysical and epistemological reasons, as we will see below. I need to determine Baker’s view on this – does she think of the Person and the Animal as separate substances, one constituted by the other? Substance dualists are rare these days – though see "Van Inwagen (Peter) & Zimmerman (Dean) - Persons: Human and Divine", reviewed by Olson in "Olson (Eric) - Review of 'Persons: Human and Divine'".

It’s interesting that Olson in fact says that assuming that we are persons means that I could not have been an embryo (rather than, as usual, a fetus). Elsewhere, I think, Olson denies that I was ever a zygote (a fertilised ovum) – because a zygote isn’t an animal, in that it can’t maintain itself in any sense (obviously, early-term fetuses aren’t “viable” either, but with the aid of a functioning placenta do carry out a lot of animal functions).

It seems that before I can work out my persistence conditions, I have to decide what sort of thing I am – but is this a principled decision? Olson claims that this is an open question, but not one that should be answered in the way the question is asked. I’m not sure he hasn’t done just this, but I may be being unfair. I need to read his new book – "Olson (Eric) - What are We?" – where he looks at this most fundamental question in more detail.

Olson asks whether the persistence conditions of all persons are the same? Do Gods, angels and intelligent computers all have the same persistence conditions as human persons. Olson allows that they might, but still claims that this factor shouldn’t be built into how the question is asked. I’m not sure what this means. I was surprised by this admission – in "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology", if I remember correctly, Olson thinks it obvious that they don’t, and consequently that there’s no such thing as the persistence conditions of persons as such. That he is less confident now steps, presumably, from his reduced confidence in being able to answer what we are. We need to decide whether a “person” (qua person) is the sort of thing that has persistence conditions at all. I’m not sure how this decision is to be made; is the answer a matter of fact or a matter of conceptual analysis? Baker thinks persons are ontologically significant – in that they are a separate kind without which the world would be ontologically impoverished. Presumably for her the persistence conditions of persons – for which a necessary and sufficient condition for persistence is the maintenance of the same first person perspective (FPP) – is a fact, though how FPPs are individuated is somewhat mysterious.

Anyway, Olson thinks that the question should be what it takes for us to persist simpliciter, not what it takes for us to persist as persons.

Olson gives a brief synopsis of the Thinking Animal argument for Animalism – what Zimmerman (in "Zimmerman (Dean) - Problems for Animalism") calls his Master Argument – split between the metaphysical “two many minds” objection and the epistemological “how would I know which I was” objection. As usual, Olson fails to even consider Baker’s Constitution View.

This argument – that the human animal thinks, and because there is only one thinker present, therefore I am (identical to) that animal, leads to the claim that what it takes for me to persist is what it takes for an animal to persist.

It seems to me, though that it might still make sense to ask the “same person qua person” question, and Markosian4 raises this as an issue. We might just be talking about personalities in that case, but maybe there is a third situation – where enough of the brain has been transplanted to move the “first person perspective”, but the animal has been left behind. I might want to describe such cases as those of fission and fusion of animals.

Olson consequently claims that psychology is irrelevant to our persistence conditions – neither necessary nor sufficient. Not necessary because we start off as embryos and may end up in a PVS. Not sufficient because of our intuitions on brain transplants. In fact, Olson talks of cerebrum transplants, which is not the same thing as a whole brain transplant, nor a head transplant.

It occurs to me that the term “persistent vegetative state” may hark back to the Aristotelian tri-partite soul – where plants just have nutrition and reproduction, animals have goal-direction, and human beings have rationality. So, should an individual in a PVS – or an embryo – be considered an animal or a plant? This might be central to the case for Animalism. At least it might make the pill easier to swallow if Animalists could consistently deny that I was ever an embryo or could ever been in individual in a PVS – though the religious right might get even more annoyed.

We are only temporarily and contingently people – at least if a person needs to have present certain psychological capacities (Olson says “mental properties”) to qualify as such.

Olson tried to give a positive account of what it takes for a human animal to persist, along the lines of Locke and Aristotle – like other animals, it is what it takes for our biological lives to continue. I need to re-read "Wilson (Jack) - Biological Individuality - The identity and Persistence of Living Entities" concerning the persistence conditions of animals.


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Footnote 1:
  • This is the write-up as it was when this Abstract was last output, with text as at the timestamp indicated (18/12/2010 19:58:05).
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