The Nature of People
Olson (Eric)
Source: Luper - The Cambridge Companion to Life and Death, 2014, Chapter 2
Paper - Abstract

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Editor’s Introduction1

  1. In this chapter, Eric Olson, considers what it is to be one of us. We must answer this question if we are to know when our existence begins, when it ends, and what it entails. Many issues hang in the balance. For example, if our persistence conditions2 include psychological continuity3, it is much easier to justify the collection of organs from donors.
  2. Olson defends animalism4, the view that you and I are organisms - specifically, human beings. The toughest challenge to animalism5 is the contention that we would go with our brains if these were moved into fresh brainless bodies. A human being can be kept alive, at least for a time, after its liver is removed, and the same goes for its brain. If its liver or brain is moved, the human being stays behind. So if you are a human being, you stay behind when your brain is moved elsewhere.
  3. By contrast, if you go with your brain, you are not a human being, and animalism6 is false. But if you aren't a human being what are you?
  4. According to Olson, theorists who claim that we go with our brains have not given us a satisfactory answer to this question, and their view makes it hard to avoid the strange metaphysical contention that being alive is incompatible with the capacity for thought.

Author’s Introduction7 (“Two Questions”)

What is a person? The question can mean two different things.
  1. The personhood question: to be a person, as opposed to a nonperson – a someone and not merely a something. You and I are people (or persons); stones are not. Whether a chimpanzee is a person is disputed. What is this property – personhood – that we’ve got and stones haven’t got, and which there is dispute about whether chimpanzees have? (The) answers specify a sort of role or job. We call something a person because it fills or has the potential to fill that role. The personhood question asks what the person-role is and how a thing has to relate to it in order to be a person.
  2. The question of personal ontology: to ask what a person is can also be to ask what sort of thing fills that role. Suppose Locke was right in saying that to be a person is to be intelligent and self-conscious. What sort of beings are intelligent and self-conscious? What are we8 – readers and authors of this book? What are our other fundamental properties, beyond those that make us people? And how do those other properties relate to our special mental properties? To put the question in the formal mode, what do we refer to when we say ‘I’?

  1. Two Questions
  2. Animalism9 and its Discontents
  3. Mind-Life Dualism
  4. The Brain View
  5. The Remnant-Person Problem
  6. Double-Brained Organisms
  7. Thinking-Subject Minimalism
  8. The Brain View and Personal Identity
  9. The Functioning-Brain View
  10. Substance Dualism Again
  11. Conclusion

Author’s Conclusion
  1. The attractions of the brain view are superficial. It may seem to avoid the main objection to animalism10 – its surprising implications for personal identity over time – while avoiding the problem of too many thinkers11. But it rests on the perilous metaphysical principle that nothing can think if it has parts not directly involved in its thinking. And its implications for personal identity are at least as counterintuitive as those of animalism12. Attempts to amend the view so as to avoid those implications merely raise a new version of the too-many-thinkers13 problem, and end in a form of substance dualism.
  2. If we have to be substance dualists, we might as well be Cartesians and say that we are immaterial beings whose nature is entirely psychological. That would at least tell us why human animals14 and other biological organisms are unable to think: because they are material things. It may not be easy to say why thinking is incompatible with being material. But it can’t be any worse than explaining why thinking is compatible with being material but incompatible with being biologically alive. And if it is possible for an organism to think, it will be hard to avoid concluding that we are animals.


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Taken from "Luper (Steven) - The Cambridge Companion to Life and Death: Introduction".

Footnote 7: Re-ordered and excerpted.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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