Big-Tent Metaphysics
Baker (Lynne Rudder)
Source: Abstracta Special Issue I – 2008 (Brazil)
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Write-up1 (as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05): Baker - The Human Animal: Big-Tent Metaphysics

This paper is a review of "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Big-Tent Metaphysics", which is itself a response to "Olson (Eric) - Precis of "The Human Animal"". Baker’s paper strikes me as rather an exasperated swipe. Reviewing Baker’s and Olson’s disagreements – as distinct from their positive accounts of their own work – fills me with weariness, as they don’t seem to seriously engage with one another. After some introductory remarks – even including some points of agreement – the sections of Baker’s paper are:-
  1. What is Big Tent Metaphysics?
  2. What Would Olson Say? (About BTM)
  3. Olson’s Conception of a Human Life
  4. Being the Same Person
  5. A Word about Constitution
It looks as though Baker ran out of time, as she doesn’t in fact expatiate on Constitution in this paper, though she does in her final response ("Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Response to Eric Olson").

Baker’s points of agreement are:-
  1. Psychological continuity is insufficient for our persistence, but this does not imply acceptance of the Biological Approach (Animalism) or agreement that psychology is irrelevant to our persistence. Her reason is that in that case mentality would make no ontological difference.
  2. She agrees that we are fully animals, with no non-organic part like an immaterial soul. She just denies that we are merely animals – there’s more to us ontologically than this. We are “most fundamentally” persons.
Baker’s “ontological” beef is curious. Firstly, mentality occurs at many levels, and I have always thought that the real saltation is between sentient and insentient creatures, and that taking self-awareness as the critical step is just human parochialism (as is the assumption that it is exclusive to humans). Also, Olson surely agrees that it is ontologically significant that there are individuals with first person perspectives (FPPs), and maybe even species whose typical members have FPPs, but it is the individuals or the species that are ontologically significant, not the FPPs themselves.

Baker uses Human Being as a synonym for Human Person. This may waste a term. It raises the question of whether someone in a PVS is a Human Animal, but not a Human Being (since she is not then a person; on this Olson and Baker seem to be agreed). This is counter-intuitive. I’d prefer to use the term Human Being as synonymous with, though less prejudicial than, Human Animal though, if I remember correctly, "Johnston (Mark) - Human Beings" manages to prise the terms apart. I need to check2.

Baker admits that it is the brains (and vocal cords!) of certain animals that have developed to the extent that these beings can think of themselves from a first person perspective.

On vocal cords: this needs spelling out. Language is important, but whether there was a language of thought (LoT) before spoken language, or spoken language preceded the ability to think isn’t something that can be decided without careful research and argument. As I consider that lots of non-human animals can think, despite having no language, I tend to put the LoT first – in which case vocal chords might not be so important. But, we might fall into Wittgenstein’s objections to private languages. Maybe3 I should read "Ayer (A.J.) - Can There Be A Private Language?"

Baker claims that we are constituted by animals but are most fundamentally persons, and that the sine qua no of personhood – the possession of a FPP – is not shared by any other species. This is a contentious point, but may not be central to the main issue. If Baker is consistent, then if any other animal possesses a FPP, then it is most fundamentally a person too.

A point that occurs to me about the ontological significance of FPPs is that maybe a FPP is culturally acquired, can be taught or is such that one can be (self-) trained to reject. Buddhists and Parfits seem to want to escape from a sense of self. Maybe chimpanzees raised with human children, or taught sign language, get something of a sense of self. Baker would say that an ontological novelty arises or disappears following such events or processes. This seems to be a strange way of describing what is really the development or rejection of a capacity to adopt a certain perspective.

Also, surely this FPP isn’t all or nothing. A young child develops a sense of self, and how are we to know whether or not there are gradations as there (presumably) are with sentience. Just as, we imagine, Socrates is more sentient than the oyster, so has an adult a more developed FPP than a child or a chimp. And so, maybe, does an intellectual than the intellectually challenged.

That said, Baker seems to bundle all non-human animals together, and not to care about the gradation of ability between species. "Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf" has a lot to say about this sort of prejudice. There would seem to be a lot of ontological novelties along the way, and it’s pure prejudice to single out one as more significant than the rest. This is despite our allegedly unique “ability to deliberate about possible courses of action, to decide how we want to live, etc.”

Baker disagrees that our PCs are those of animals, claiming that we could continue to exist without being animals. She considers the TE whereby my lower brain is replaced by a prosthetic device, and then various parts of my body replaced by inorganic parts. Then I would no longer have a carbon-based body, so would not be an animal, but would continue to exist. She claims that to deny this is “totally ad hoc”, and that she – the cyborg – would take Olson to court (to prove that she was who she said she was; though quite how she would do this is not clear – claims are not proofs).

Considering these points:-
  1. Metamorphosis: Neither Baker nor Olson suppose this to be possible. For Baker, the continuant is a person, which was initially constituted by an animal and is subsequently constituted by a cyborg. Olson would probably say that the animal ceased to exist, and that a new entity with my FPP came into existence. I probably have to accept metamorphosis if I think that I persist as the cyborg, unless I either deny that the TE is possible, or insist that the cyborg is an animal “maximally mutilated”.
  2. Cerebrum Transplants: Baker and Olson have opposite intuitions about what to say in the case of the Cerebrum Transplant. Both agree that the animal stays put. For Olson, a mere organ has been transplanted. For Baker, that organ is so important – since, for the sake of the argument, it supports my FPP – that the person moves. I want to have it both ways – that I am an animal and that I go where my FPP goes. I probably have to attack the TE – that for the FPP to move, so much of the animal has to move that what is left behind is not the animal, but most of the animal’s body. For animalists, do animals have bodies? Olson denies that they are bodies – because they are organisms. We can definitely pare down an organism by lopping off bits – so the question is whether that minimal part of me that supports my FPP is still an organism (contingently).
  3. My View: The contingency of my view isn’t necessarily a drawback. After all, I might (a priori) have been all sorts of things, though, a posteriori, given that I am in fact an animal, I am essentially an animal.
Baker sums up the difference between her position and Olson’s as follows:-
  • On Olson’s Animalist view, there is a particular animal x such that I am identical to x, and x has the property of being a person now. I am an animal essentially, and a person contingently. On Olson’s view, whether or not I am a person is irrelevant to whether or not I exist.
  • On her constitution view, there is a particular person x, such that I am identical to x, and x is constituted by a particular animal now. I am a person essentially, and an animal contingently. On her view, I could not ever exist without being a person.

What is Big Tent Metaphysics?

This section just seems like a rant. Baker accuses Olson’s (and most philosophers’) metaphysics of not being big enough – and that it should include matters of value as well as existence. This does seem to be taking the reaction away from Logical Positivism – in which metaphysics was bunk – too far. She seems to be staunchly realist as far as matters of value are concerned, and so metaphysics ought to have an opinion on the matter. To me, I can’t see any gain in bundling together metaphysics with ethics and aesthetics, but I agree that there has to be a metaphysics of value.

She says that “According to Big-Tent Metaphysics, there exist many different kinds of things; each kind of thing has a nature, and the nature of any kind of thing includes what distinguishes that kind from other kinds and what is most significant and most distinctive about that kind.” Most of this is unexceptionable, and Olson would agree, except with the reference to significance. For, nothing is significant in and of itself. Significance is a relation between one thing and another. One thing is significant for another. So, our FPPs are very significant to us – as the speed of a wolf is significant to it – but the wolf doesn’t care anything about our FPPs, and not merely because it has no concept of a FPP (if it doesn’t). I’m influenced by "Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf" here.

And again, “What something most fundamentally is should ground what is most significant about it.” But, from what perspective? I happen to think (as I keep saying) that sentience is the great ontological novelty. What is most significant about animals is that they are sentient – though the degree of sentience varies greatly – is the sentience of an oyster really that of Socrates?

BTM just seems to be STM with significance attached. All agree with Baker that “a metaphysics of Fs should tell us the nature of Fs”, and probably that it deals with “what is distinctive or unique about Fs” – though this is already perspectival, depending as it does on whatever else the metaphysician concerned knows. But few would agree with her insistence on significance. “What we consider to be real should not be independent of what we consider to be important. Else, why bother with metaphysics?” Well, all sorts of academic disciplines study things that their students don’t consider to be important in any cosmic sense – though they may subsequently turn out to be useful to those with a need for that particular area of knowledge; pure mathematics, for instance.


What Would Olson Say?

Baker thinks that Olson doesn’t share her view, and wants to keep what’s significant about us out of metaphysics thinking it of only practical concern. She thinks him indifferent to what’s ontologically distinctive about us.

But surely this is a misunderstanding. Surely Olson allows that out FPP is one of our mist significant properties. All he says, is that we can literally live without it, even if we can’t do without it.

Baker wants to show this by discussing what Olson means by “same person as”. Does Olson actually use this expression? Since he allows that I can exist without being a person, it ought to be “same individual as”. Yet he’s not talking about just any individual. “Individuals” as such don’t have persistence conditions. He needs a label to stick on the individual he’s talking about – and because that individual at the point in time we usually start the story of personal identity is in point of fact a person – he uses the expression “same person as”, probably as equivalent to “same human animal as”. However we label the individual seems to prejudge or assume the answer to the question “what are we”, which Olson claims to want to avoid. The way he uses “same person as” (if he does) which denying that psychological criteria have anything to do with our persistence conditions makes it sound (to those wanting to misunderstand him) as though he thinks a FPP unimportant to persons. Yet an FPP is definitive of what it is to be a person – it is just that a FPP is a property of an animal (and maybe other things), and not separable therefrom.


Olson’s Conception of a Human Life

Baker says that Olson thinks that we are fundamentally organisms, and so misses what is unique about us. But surely Olson distinguishes between organisms – we are not any old organism, but an organism with (typically) remarkable properties.

Baker says that what’s unique about us is our FPP – not shared with other animals. Again, wouldn’t Olson agree? Being an animal doesn’t show what’s distinctive about any animal. It’s membership of a particular species (and being a fully functional exemplar thereof) that does this. All agree that the loss of a FPP is a catastrophe for the individual concerned: but (Olson claims, and I agree) the individual survives this loss – it just doesn’t have what matters to it in survival – it might as well be dead. Note- contra Parfit and (in a sense) Baker – we can’t have what matters without surviving. If the animal dies, we cease to be, even though some numerically distinct individual might carry on our projects or think of itself as us.

Barker quotes Olson as asserting that “psychology is completely irrelevant to our identity”. Baker’s objections to this seem to trade on an ambiguity of “identity”. Often then is taken in a psychological sense of what really matters to us – who we “really are”. But Olson means it in the logical sense, of what is essential to our persistence conditions.

She also quotes him as saying “just as” one could exist without being a professor, so one can exist without being a person. This analogy – the “just as” – could be taken as implying that personhood is no more important than a job or hobby. This is just why matters of value are not relevant here – Olson is not evaluating the depravation of personhood, only discussing the ontological and logical consequences of its loss. Olson is rightly saying that values are irrelevant to logic. Baker disputes this, but only by rhetoric.

Baker notes that Olson claims that what makes us persist is the same biological life as other animals. Baker says this understanding of life that is common to all organisms is both too broad and too narrow to understand human life.
  • Too broad because it doesn’t take into account what’s distinctive about human life.
  • Too narrow because it defines human life wholly in terms of biology.
Baker rightly notes that the word “life” is central here. She thinks that different kinds of thing have different kinds of life.
  • Animals have biological life, while
  • Persons have personal life.
This raises lots of questions about just what “life” is.
  • I wonder how central this is to the debate. I think it’s just re-stating the problem, maybe not helpfully. Biological life is fairly well understood now that the magical, vitalist aspects of it have been pared away. It’s a bit vague at the edges. Just when does death occur, and of what? We certainly need to distinguish the death of the organism from the death of its cells, and from the death of its organs.
  • We cannot understand life without understanding death. Is something dead when it ceases to function properly, or when it ceases to function at all?
  • The battle-lines between those who adopt a broadly physicalist approach to human identity, and those who adopt a psychological approach, are confused by the concept of “brain death”. I presume that (but can’t remember4 whether) Olson has any truck with such notions. For him, the brain is one of the organisms’s organs, so if the organism’s biological functions continue, it remains alive. Again, this notion is muddied by the concept of “life support”. We’d tend to say that a fully conscious human being on “life support” is alive, but (some of us) want to say that one in a PVS is dead – though Olson does not. I suspect that the whole concept of “brain death” is a muddle brought about by not wanting to “kill” something; “switching off” something that is already dead is much more palatable. It’d be better to admit that something that was once a human person is one no longer, has nothing that matters to it, and – in all probability – never will. It is wasting resources – both physical and psychological – and has an opportunity cost that vastly exceeds any likely gain; so, the wasteful process should be terminated. This sounds Nazi, so no-one wants to say it.
  • Just what is a “personal life”? It seems to be the career of a FPP. Baker doesn’t (as far as I remember5) take seriously the problem of individuating FPPs. It seems to me that the notion of an FPP is in greater need of clarification than that of constitution, on which Baker has expended such great pains. Just what makes an FPP my FPP? Could my FPP suddenly change into someone else’s – eg. as a result of sudden brain damage leading to a radical personality change – if the world, the past and my expectations suddenly looked different to me, would the FPP have changed so that, strictly speaking – by Baker’s lights – I no longer existed?
  • Baker has it that non-biological things are alive, which sounds a bit counter-intuitive. They seem to exist (though lots of philosophers would deny this), and have careers, but are they strictly-speaking alive? And does it matter (in this context)?
  • Both Baker and Olson agree that there is only one life in the picture here – it’s just that for Baker it appears that there are two, though she denies this, saying that the personal life is constituted (temporarily) by the biological life. This is more than just an argument about words. For Olson, there is just a biological life, that for periods of its duration has personal aspects. For Baker, there really are two lives, because (statedly) the two lives are not co-terminous and (unstatedly) the personal life is portable – the life that (in some way unexplained) supports (or maybe is) the FPP can hop from one infrastructure to another. Presumably, though, it cannot exist on its own – it needs some body, whether physical or spiritual, whose life constitutes it. I’m not sure what the case is with persons that are essentially spirits.
  • I need to step back6 a bit from all this and consider Baker’s ontological claims. We have FPPs, lives, persons, careers, constituted at various times by other things. Just how does all this hand together?
  • Baker has it that there is one integrated life, of which the biological aspects are only part. She has it that “in a strict and philosophical sense” “your life includes your successes … as well as your high cholesterol”. Does anyone doubt this? Baker has things round the wrong way. Successes and such-like are just special aspects of various special biological lives. But these lives continue on regardless of these special aspects that (for human animal lives) are their normal concomitants.
  • I don’t know whether there’s any allusion to the substance of Butler and Reid’s (confused; references required7; probably "Butler (Joseph) - Of Personal Identity", "Reid (Thomas) - Of Identity" or "Reid (Thomas) - Of Mr. Locke's Account of Our Personal Identity") notions of “strict and philosophical” identity and some other sort, falsely so called; probably just a rhetorical flourish.
Baker has two important footnotes:-
  • Nonhuman persons, if there are any, may have personal lives with no biological aspect at all: again, this way of putting things puts cart before horse. Such non-human, non-biological persons will have the persistence conditions of whatever it is that has the FPP. If a robot has the capacity for a FPP for only portions of its existence, then it will be a person during those portions, but it will continue to exist whether it is a person or not. What cannot happen is that a FPP hops from a human person to a robot person. The way to describe this case is that the robot has a qualitatively similar FPP to the human.
  • Since organisms constitute persons, and not vice versa, persons are of a higher primary kind than organisms. Hence, it is not the case that a personal life is an aspect of biological life, except perhaps derivatively: this is the key argument – but it depends on persons being a primary kind in the first place. Of course individuals who are persons fall under a variety of primary kinds – at least potentially – namely human being, angel, God, robot, and so on. But their primary kind is not person. I’m not sure how this issue is to be resolved other than by shouting louder – which is what Baker and Olson seem to be doing. A primary kind needs to have persistence conditions: the above “constituting” primary kinds all have different persistence conditions. Baker claims that the PC of persons is “sameness of FPP”, but this is mightily obscure because, it would seem, reduplication arguments imply that “it seems to me that I have the same FPP” s inadequate evidence – and what else do we have? This is, of course, just what physicalists have been saying all along.

Being the Same Person

Baker makes a series of claims about her own and Olson’s views that need comment one by one:-
  • Baker says that Olson explicitly divorces practical and moral concerns about persons from the identity of persons: As Baker points out, Olson adopts a Parfitian line, according to which we can be rationally practically concerned with the futures of beings with whom we are non-identical, just psychologically continuous.
  • Yet, according to Baker, What is significant about us … (is) … tied to being a person, indeed to psychological continuity: yes, indeed. But, as Olson says, matters of significance and matters of logic can go different ways.
  • Baker says that According to Olson, there is nothing metaphysically important about being a person … because … Being the same person... is not a metaphysical relation: I don’t think the consequent follows from the premise. Persons are only substances in the sense that the individual that has the FPP is a substance. The FPP is a metaphysically important property, but it is not something that has persistence conditions.
My responses above are a bit woolly and require further attention8.

Baker is kind enough to acknowledge that Olson does not accept relative identity, even though he appears to do so. The appearance of logical heresy arises because Olson appears not to be univocal in using the relation “the same F”. For, when F = “Animal”, “the same” is a logical relation, whereas when F = “Person” it is a merely practical relation involving some sort of psychological continuity. Baker has something of a case here, and I doubt that Olson should allow the existence of the “same person” relation other than as shorthand for “same X”, where X is a substance term, and the individual X is a person at at least one of the termini of whatever period is under consideration.

Baker points out that Olson is concerned to deny the transplant intuition – that I’m identical to the future being that is psychologically continuous with me. However, Baker should acknowledge that this intuition must sometimes be misleading. The reduplication cases provide examples where I cannot be identical to the person with whom I am psychologically continuous because others share this relation, and one thing cannot be identical to multiple things. Baker (I think) just claims that there is a fact of the matter as to who is identical to whom in such cases – it’s whoever has the same FPP – but I couldn’t find any principled reason for this (this point arises in the objections to “closest continuer” theories). If psychological continuity is going to drive identity claims, then these cases where apparent psychological continuity misleads have to be explained in detail, not just brushed to one side. In the case of cerebrum transplants, duplicates may seem hard to come by – though the idempotent single-cerebrum transplants would provide a difficult case if cerebrum transplants preserve FPPs at all. Presumably, Baker would say that in the idempotent-cerebrum case we had engineered two qualitatively identical but numerically distinct FPPs – but in that case it seems that we’ve engineered two things out of one – if there had originally been one FPP supported by two hemispheres. It all gets rather complicated.

As Baker unpicks all this, we get three important premises (presumably accurately alleged against Olson) that are factual or quasi-factual:-
  1. The inheritor of my cerebrum is a different animal.
  2. The recipient of my cerebrum is the person I should care about.
  3. The person responsible for my actions is the person psychologically continuous with me.
What to say about all this?
  1. Premise (1) is certainly accepted by Olson, but I’m not sure he should accept it. It looks to me as though the original animal fissioned, and that the recipient of the cerebrum is a fusion of two animals. As such, it might not be clear what the situation is with respect to identity claims. Additionally, moral considerations arise because of the importance of the organ that was transplanted. The moral considerations resulting from fission + fusion involving lesser organs are less considerable – while moral considerations do arise (as in the case of partitioning a healthy individual to save the lives of a large number of dying but unconnected individuals, which is usually taken to be a counter-example to consequentialism) – they are not relevant to this case, I don’t think.
  2. A number of things to say here:-
    • Premise (2) depends on how the TE is set up. If a single cerebrum has been transferred – and we suppose idempotency – then I, the donor, am psychologically continuous (at least temporarily) with two individuals, though logically identical to only one – the donor. The recipient is either very muddled (as the possessor of two inconsistent hemispheres) or deluded into thinking he is me. I need only be concerned with this individual in the sense of being sympathetic to his plight. He has not inherited my moral accountabilities – he just thinks he has. However, if I have had both cerebra transferred then the situation depends again on what has happened. If I (the donor) have no cerebra, then presumably I won’t be capable of having concern for anyone. The difficult case is where I’ve received the cerebra that initially belonged to some other individual. The question is how to describe this case. We’ve already pre-judged the situation in Olson’s favour by saying that “I” have donated / received the cerebra – and it is difficult to say anything without begging questions is cases such as this.
    • What should we say in this situation – does Olson really claim that the animal that has donated all its cognitive capacities to another should have concern for the animal that receives them? This does seem counter-intuitive. It is also logically separate from the third claim. As far as I can see, claim (2) is just plain false, and I can’t see why Olson should support it.
  3. Two things:-
    • Olson notes that premise (3) is inconsistent with the usual claim that one is only responsible for one’s own actions. This is why Baker thinks he is in serious difficulties. I think this “usual claim” is false. I can be responsible for the actions of individuals that are not themselves morally accountable but which I put in situations where they can have morally relevant effects. For example if I knowingly allow my psychologically-deranged teenage son to be used as a babysitter, or take my uncontrollable and easily-provoked pit-bull on the tube, I am accountable for their actions even though I didn’t perform them personally. I assume all agree that such individuals can “act”, and that it’s not just that I’m responsible for some lesser moral failing such as negligence (though morally it would depend on my intentions). However, even if these examples are admitted, their relevance to the cerebrum transfer case is far from obvious. Maybe there’s another analogy – that of a take-over – where a company incurs all the debts and responsibilities of the company taken over. The individuals running the new company (if not originally connected to the company taken over) are not personally accountable, but the new company is. This might tie in with the description of the cerebrum transfer as a “fission + fusion” situation.
    • Olson allows the “usual excuses”. But, what are these? If they include the rejection of false memories, we may end up arguing in a circle here.
In response to (3), Baker points out that it’s a fundamental principle of ethics that I’m only responsible for my own deeds. Parfit? But Baker in any case rejects the Transplant Intuition – because psychological continuity does not suffice for identity. WHY? I’VE LOST THE PLOT HERE. I’d have thought that if we have the right sort of psychological continuity (maintenance of the FPP), this does suffice for identity of person, for that’s what individuates a person for Baker in the first place.

What she doesn’t want is the divorce of identity from moral responsibility, which is why she advocates Big-Tent Metaphysics.

Baker notes that we do sometimes use “same person” in a sense that does not imply identity – as in “he’s not the same person he used to be” – where there has been a radical change of personality or affiliation. But, she claims, there’s also the “strict and philosophical” sense of “person” that does imply identity – as in “personal identity”. She quotes Olson from p. 64 and p. 69 of "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology": “… whenever it is natural and pragmatically justified to treat someone as if he were a certain person, then he is that person” and “to anyone but a metaphysician it is more important than the truth about who is numerically identical with whom.” Baker’s response is that if this is so, then this “small-tent” metaphysics is hardly worth doing. I need to check up on just what Olson’s saying. He seems to be giving too much away, but this still doesn’t justify mixing up metaphysics with ethics.


A Word about Constitution

Baker ran out of time, so just referred us to "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View", and to "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - The Metaphysics of Everyday Life: An Essay in Practical Realism". Baker “concludes” – thought this doesn’t follow from what’s gone before – with an appreciation – no doubt through gritted teeth – of what Olson has done to make Animalism more respectable.


In-Page Footnotes

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).
  • Link to Latest Write-Up Note.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2017



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