Review of 'Persons: Human and Divine'
Olson (Eric)
Source: Mind, 2008
Paper - Abstract

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Review of "Van Inwagen (Peter) & Zimmerman (Dean) - Persons: Human and Divine"; Link (Defunct).

Write-up1 (as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05): Olson - Review of 'Persons: Human and Divine'

This is mostly a place-holder2. It is a review of "Olson (Eric) - Review of 'Persons: Human and Divine'".

Olson gives more attention to some papers than to others. He mentions three of them, which sound like those most akin to his own concerns, without comment, namely:-

1. "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and the Natural Order"
2. "Hudson (Hud) - I am Not an Animal!"
3. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - A Materialist Ontology of the Human Person"

His reason is that “they discuss materialist accounts of human people that they have developed elsewhere”. Maybe he was bored with their thoughts on such matters. Maybe I should take this as reason for not reading them – though they are the reason I bought the book, though also for the general reason of wanting to know what Christian philosophers thought of persons. It is depressing to find most of them plumping for dualism or idealism.

Olson also merely mentions:-

4. "Quinn (Philip L.) - On the Intrinsic Value of Human Persons"

… which certainly sounds central to Baker’s concerns, and so – maybe – to Olson’s own, if only on the rebound.

He finds the following three papers “openly reactionary”, with reasoning he cannot follow, namely:-

5. "Adams (Robert Merrihew) - Idealism Vindicated"
6. "Plantinga (Alvin) - Materialism and Christian Belief"
7. "Swinburne (Richard) - From Mental/Physical Identity to Substance Dualism"

I don’t care about defences of idealism, though I suppose I ought to care about what Plantinga and Swinburne have to say, but I don’t.

Then, he finds others “frankly bizarre”, namely:-

8. "Robinson (Howard) - The Self and Time"
9. "Hart (W.D.) & Yagisawa (Takashi) - Ghosts are Chilly"
10. "Forrest (Peter) - The Tree of Life: Agency and Immortality in a Metaphysics Inspired by Quantum Theory"

The paper by Forrest sounds intriguing but, as described by Olson, rather silly. Forrest takes a multiverse approach to quantum events, so that while in one universe, we die, in the other we don’t. So, if you remain alive as long as one branch does, you never really die. But surely, the branch that leads to eternal life is life in an increasingly moribund state, which doesn’t sound like much fun. And is it true that of the quantum choices on offer far down this path, one would always lead to life, rather than different deaths? This is a physical multiverse, not the logical “modal realism of possible worlds” of David Lewis.

He then perks up a bit, noting a couple of useful papers on dualism, the first of which patches up Descartes’ arguments:-

11. "Hawthorne (John) - Cartesian Dualism"
12. "Wong (Hong Yu) - Cartesian Psychophysics"

The second may be worth reading as it deals with Jaegwon Kim’s “Pairing Problem” – that is, the problem of just what ties a particular soul to a particular body. Olson’s enthusiasm seems to rest on the fact that Wong thinks the problem really hard! Olson doesn’t give a reference for Kim, but it is "Kim (Jaegwon) - Lonely Souls: Causality and Substance Dualism". I found an MA-Thesis paper "Vaught (Jimmy Ray) - Kim’s Pairing Problem and the Viability of Substance Dualism", which may or may not be rubbish.

We’re about half-way through the review at this stage, when Olson gets interested – though not in the essays I’d have expected. The ones he gets excited about have to do with elements of Christian doctrine. Maybe it’s “amusement” rather than intrinsic importance that he has in mind. As he says, “These essays offer the elevating spectacle of watching a first-rate mind operating in a tight spot”. These papers are:-

13. "Leftow (Brian) - Modes without Modalism"
14. "Merricks (Trenton) - The Word Made Flesh: Dualism, Physicalism, and the Incarnation"
15. "Rea (Michael) - The Metaphysics of Original Sin"

Olson points out that any explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity risks falling into one of two heresies – tri-theism or modalism. The later seems to have been Charles Welch’s view – that there is one divine being with three different roles or offices (Olson, I think mistakenly, says “one divine person” – does modalism deny that there are three persons, or just seek to explain how?).

According to Olson, Leftow suggests God has three separate mental lives, but Olson can’t see how this differs from modalism. From a quick look, Leftow seems to adopt a Lockean approach to personal identity, and also to accept both temporary and contingent identity, both of which are logical heresies.

Merricks’ attempt seems more interesting. If we are immaterial substances, that “have” a body, then in the incarnation God acquired a body in the same way. But this is problematical in that what makes this body God’s body? What makes my body mine (on a dualist account) is that I can directly move and feel it. Yet God can do this with every body, so this won’t work. Dualism won’t do, and so we are left with materialism – where having a body is simply being a body (or, rather, an animal, Olson would say). So, in the incarnation, God became a material thing. How is this possible? Can an immaterial thing become a material thing, and remain the same thing? This is a mystery, but this is true of all accounts of the incarnation, says Merricks, so human materialism is the best option. Olson finds it hard to weigh one mystery against another.

We end with a relatively long discussion of Rea’s views on Original Sin. According to Olson, Rea has it that we are born with a corruption that harks back to Adam and which makes it inevitable that we will sin. Further, we are guilty of being in this condition. I need to re-read "Barr (James) - The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality" on all this. Olson considers this an “outrageous claim”, and Rea is sensitive to it – the suggestion that we are guilty of something we could do nothing about, but were born with. I wonder whether we should rather say that we need saving because of our propensity to sin (because we are sinners) but that our guilt relates to our actual sins. In that way doesn’t the problem of unmerited guilt go away? Rea firstly rejects the view that we all sinned “in Adam”. Olson describes Rea’s actual approach as “a proposal of monumental subtlety”. According to Rea, original sin is a “backtracking” condition, one people are in because of what they do later, and is a “compelling condition” in that it makes it inevitable that the sufferer will act that way. Olson accepts that there can be examples of both such conditions, but not of a single condition that is both backtracking and compelling. That would require backward causation, “hocus pocus” which Rea doesn’t intend to invoke. Even so, Olson recommends the essay to those “seeking instruction on this dreary topic”.

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.

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