Three Problems for Olson's Account of Personal Identity
Markosian (Ned)
Source: Abstracta Special Issue I – 2008 (Brazil)
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Write-up1 (as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05): Markosian - The Human Animal: Three Problems for Olson

This Paper is a review of "Markosian (Ned) - Three Problems for Olson's Account of Personal Identity", which is itself a response to "Olson (Eric) - Precis of "The Human Animal"".

Markosian starts of by paraphrasing two theses from Olson.
  1. Firstly his Characterisation of the Problem of Personal Identity, and
  2. Secondly, his proposed answer to that question.
He then sets out three problems for Olson’s account, which are identified by three thought experiments:-
  1. The Mummy
  2. The Corpse Problem
  3. The Salamander
Markosian’s conclusion is that both the Biological Approach (BV, Biological View – I will usually just say “animalism) and the Psychological Approach (PV) to the problem of Personal Identity are false, though he doesn’t know what the right answer is!



  1. Olson’s characterisation of the problem of personal identity: under what circumstances can something be numerically identical to something that is at one time a person?
  2. Olson’s proposed answer to the above question: the right kind of biological continuity.
Immediate responses to this are that Olson is only interested in humanpersons. He allows that there might be non-biological persons, whose persistence conditions (PCs) are non-biological. If we stick to human persons, then Markosian’s account is satisfactory. The important point is that we have to have a human person at some career-stage, but not at every stage to have an interesting question of personal identity. For Olson, the human person can persist without being a person, because it is an organism.



The Mummy: A man lives, is mummified, and subsequently the particles of the mummy are rearranged to form a living woman, with no psychological continuity.

Markosian thinks we can draw two conclusions from the Mummy Thought Experiment (TE):-
  1. There is a single thing that was once a man and ends up as a woman.
  2. The man and woman at the termini of the TE are different people.
He thinks (rightly) that Olson must deny that these conclusions can be simultaneously true. In fact, Olson probably ought to consider the first claim to be false but the second true. The first claim is doubtful because mummies aren’t organisms, so we have a double metamorphosis. However, as for Markosian’s second claim, while Olson denies that psychology has anything to do with personal identity claims, if the persons at the TE termini aren’t the same animal, then they aren’t the same person (in the sense of the same animal) either.

Markosian thinks this denial of joint truth is a problem for Olson, in that it implies that there is a “same person” relation other than Olson’s. In his reply2, Olson seems wiling to accept this point. But I don’t think he would agree with Markosian that he thereby mischaracterises the problem of personal identity. While he’s willing to allow a non-identity-preserving “same person” relation, he insists that if we’re talking about the logical relation for the identity of human persons, then we have only one relation – his animalist characterisation.

Markosian’s point is spoilt somewhat by his choice of TE. It’s not at all clear that we have Olson’s “same person” relation in play here, as it’s not clear that we have the “same animal” relation. However, if Markosian had chosen a different TE – something like his Salamander case, but without metamorphosis, we would have the issue he wants to raise. Ie. if we had Fred gradually changing into Jane – or something like Michael Jackson’s antics – then we might have same animal / different person. But this depends on how the “same person” relation is supposed to work. It’s not clear to me that there would be a difference of FPP here, so Baker might say that we had identity of person in this case also, so there’s no wedge between the two accounts, at least not in this TE (there are still fetus-type problems – if these are taken to be problems rather than advantages of the animalist account).



The Corpse Problem: Proponents of the psychological view (PV) have a Fetus Problem, but animalists have an analogous Corpse Problem. While the person pops into existence after the fetus (a problem for the PV) the corpse pops into existence after the animal’s demise (a problem for the animalist).

This is a bit quick. What Markosian actually says is that the supporter of the PV faces a dilemma. Since they have to deny that they were a fetus (as fetuses don’t have any psychological properties), they have a choice:-
  1. You replaced your fetus.
  2. Your fetus continued to exist and shares space, parts and matter with you.
. Markosian doesn’t like either horn, but thinks the animalist has a similar problem, as is argued in "Carter (William) - Will I Be a Dead Person?". This is the Corpse Problem, but before considering it, we must note that the CV finds no problem with the second option – cohabitation – claiming that constitution gets round this worry.

The Corpse Problem arises because if your persistence conditions are those of an organism, and a corpse is not an organism, then you are not identical to your corpse. Markosian thinks this leaves the animalist with a trilemma:-
  1. When you die, a new object comes into existence.
  2. When you die, nothing is left, not even a corpse – corpses do not exist.
  3. You cohabit space with, and share matter with, a thing that is non-identical with you that will become your corpse.
Markosian thinks this is a problem, because he doesn’t like any of these options, but thinks that he is a physical thing, with the persistence conditions of physical things, and that a physical thing continues after death, and that physical thing – your body – is you as long as it exists. Olson rightly objects to this view – the PCs of animals aren’t at all like the PCs of lumps of matter.

Markosian thinks (rightly) that as Olson is suspicious of bodies, he’ll be suspicious of corpses too, and so will go for option 2. He thinks other animalists will go for option 1. Again, he ignores the CV whereby option 3 is not a problem. The dialectical position here, of course, is that considerations concerning the objectionabilty of (3) – cohabitation – are central to Olson’s main argument for animalism. I don’t think he needs that argument, so should accept (3).



Markosian now tries his hand at providing what he considers to be the best alternative to Olson’s view. He claims it rests on three metaphysical assumptions:-
  1. There are instantiations of properties (ie. Tropes?)
  2. Property-instantiations come in episodes – time-bounded event-alikes.
  3. It makes sense to identify time-instances of property-instantiation-episodes as belonging to the same property-instantiation-episode.
Given these assumptions, Markosian proposes the EPPI (the Episodic Characterisation of the Problem of Personal Identity). “The problem of personal identity consists of trying to provide an answer to the following question: What are the circumstances under which an instance of personhood at t1 is part of the same episode of personhood as an instance of personhood at t2?”

This is interesting. These “episodes of personhood” are episodes of time-extended tropes – time-bound particularised properties – so aren’t universals. They are properties of things – in this case a single thing - an animal-mummy-animal. And depending on what the persistence conditions of these trope-episodes are, they may or may not coincide temporally with the thing they are properties of (in this case they don’t – because Markosian claims that the termini belong to different “episodes of personhood”, and presumably there’s no “episode of personhood” during the “mummy” stage).

He also claims that it allows animalists to get round the corpse problem. Just how does this enable us to escape the sting of the corpse problem? The problem is to have too many thinking things in the pre-mortem state. However, here we have only one thing, with various properties – because a property isn’t a thing, but a property of a thing. Or, if it is a thing, it’s not a material thing.

As an aside, Markosian’s scheme would seem to offer no hope of resurrection, unless (as far as I can see) one of two possibilities obtain:-
  1. We can have intermittent objects. Maybe we can, but Markosian doesn’t consider the possibility (as he’s not discussing the possibility of resurrection). In the Mummy case, Markosian is insistent that we have the same object throughout. While I think this is incorrect, at least it’s important to be clear on what Markosian thinks. To carry this approach over to a resurrection situation, we’d have to identify the pre- and post-resurrection object. Thus we’d be committed to intermittent objects, unless there’s no temporal gap between death and resurrection.
  2. We can identity trope-episodes that are properties of different things. Maybe we can. But I don’t think this is Markosian’s view. He’s not saying we are the time-extended tropes (at least I don’t think he is, though a superficial reading with suspended incredulity might lead to this conclusion). Rather, we are organisms with the person-defining property. This might lead to interesting questions in the case of MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) were we might have overlapping episodes of personhood belonging to different persons. This would lead to multiple occupancy, but this might not be a problem – or at least not so much of one – there is no epistemological problem, as the thinking things are distinct. I need to compare3 Wiggins’s arguments for multiple occupancy with Olson’s worries on this score. Olson is worried about two objects of different sorts (ANIMAL and PERSON) coinciding, whereas Wiggins is not (if I remember correctly).
Markosian claims that the proponent of the BV can answer the question posed by the EPPI by saying that what makes for continuity of person is the right sort of biological continuity. He also claims that EPPI gets round the Mummy problem. This is because, though we have (he insists) a single thing throughout the TE, we can have separate trope-episodes. So, I’m still slightly at a loss as to just what a person is for Markosian. Is he a perdurantist4? I need to check5.

What to make of all this? I don’t know enough about Markosian’s philosophy to provide a “reasonableness check” on what he says. Are people really trope-episodes? This would deny that people are substances. Or maybe people are substances (animals) but persons aren’t – they are properties of animals. But this seems unattractive (to me) – surely we want to say that persons are animals with certain special properties, not that they are them? The EPPI seems to be talking about personalities, not persons. Or personality-tropes, as a personality sounds like a universal that can be a property of many different individuals.




The Salamander: Ned is a (male) human person who gradually morphs into salamander called Sally while remaining conscious. Subsequently, Sally morphs back into a human female person, Lucy, different from Ned in every important way.

Markosian thinks this TE represents a problem for both the BV and Psychological approach.

There are a number of important points about the TE, which may or may not cast doubt on its validity:-
  1. “Remaining conscious throughout”: why is this important? Surely the consciousness of a salamander is very different from that of a fully-functional human person.
  2. “very slow metamorphosis”: just why is the “slowness” important? To provide an analogy with the career of a single object over time which changes its properties? Time is needed for their consolidation? Is any consolidation really possible at the human / salamander boundary? Are we exposed to sorites paradoxes?
  3. “Differing in every important way”: however much Ned and Lucy differ, it is as nothing compared with how either of them differ from Sally (the salamander). Just what is an “important” difference – important to whom? This comes up in Baker’s alleged “important” ontological differences.

So, why is this a problem for the BV? Markosian thinks those holding the BV are committed to saying that Ned and Lucy are the same person, whereas Markosian thinks they are obviously not. I’m not sure (from the BV perspective) that this is much of an advance on the Mummy problem. At least there is biological continuity, but it’s of the wrong sort. The salamander is not a human animal, so there’s no reason to think that Ned and Lucy are the same human animal any more than I am Caesar if made from Caesar’s atoms.

And why is it a problem for the PV? Because there is psychological continuity. But is there? Markosian tries to stipulate that there is, but can there really be psychological continuity between a human being and a salamander? Of some sort, but not of the FPP-preserving sort that Baker would require – after all, the salamander (presumably) has no FPP. And, we are to presume, though this is unclear despite the stipulation that Ned and Lucy are as different as could be, Ned and Lucy don’t share the same FPP, so aren’t the same person for Baker. So, while there may be a problems for the standard PV, there isn’t one for the CV or the BV – not unless they accept the possibility of intermittent objects and identify Ned and Lucy contrary to their own requirements.

Markosian thinks that proponents of either the BV or the PV have problems with the Salamander, because there is both biological and psychological continuity – but proponents of either view insist that the continuity has to be of the right sort, and why should they agree that this TE provides the right sort – it doesn’t appear to, though maybe others might (eg. if we just missed out the salamander step, and had Ned morph directly into Lucy. Why did he not adopt this ploy? If he had, I presume the responses would have been:-
  • Baker (CV): would probably deny that Ned and Lucy have the same FPP; still the wrong sort of psychological continuity.
  • PV: don’t know; too many varieties
  • Olson (BV): As Olson cares naught for psychological factors in matters of identity, he would admit that (indeed, claim that) Ned and Lucy are the same person, provided the morphing convinced him that they are the same human animal. He might admit that they are not the same person in some sense, provided “same person” isn’t an identity-preserving relation.
Markosian now makes 4 claims, all of which he takes to be true. I consider them all false!
  1. The thing that is Ned persists throughout the story.
  2. Ned survives the events of the story.
  3. This is a story about a thing that begins its career as a person, that later becomes a salamander, and that eventually comes to be a person again.
  4. Both Sally and Lucy really are identical to Ned.
While Markosian thinks all these claims true, and is happy to call the relationships between Ned, Sally and Lucy “object identity” or even “organism identity”, he doesn’t want to call it “personal identity” (PI). He thinks there must be some other relation that is worth calling PI that does not relate Ned to Sally or Ned to Lucy.

There are several things that could be said of all this:-
  1. Markosian seems perilously close to the heresy of relative identity.
  2. As noted above, the wrong sort of continuity (whether biological or psychological) is involved in the Salamander TE, so none of the above 4 claims need be accepted.
  3. Identity claims need to latch on to the SORT to which the persistent is claimed to belong. Since this (and the Mummy) example involve change of sort, there is no identity between the termini.
  4. The only possible continuant is “mass of matter” – but no organism – which continually exchanges matter with its environment – can be though of as a mass of matter. The mass of matter that was (in some sense of “constituted”, at some arbitrary point in time) Ned would be highly dispersed by the time Lucy came on the scene, so Lucy cannot be claimed to be identical to Ned in that sense.
  5. Olson agrees that there is some non-identity-preserving relation called “personal identity” involved here (or in other less odd cases). He just denies that it has anything to do with “identity”.
Markosian’s conclusion from the Salamander example is that both the BV and PV are false, though he doesn’t know what the right view of Personal Identity is. It is not clear to me why he doesn’t invoke his “episodes of personhood” account as a possible solution.


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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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