The Organism View Defended
Liao (S. Matthew)
Source: The Monist, Vol. 89, No. 3, Coming into Being and Passing Away (July 2006), pp. 334-350
Paper - Abstract

Paper SummaryBooks / Papers Citing this PaperNotes Citing this PaperText Colour-Conventions

Author’s Introduction (Extracts1)

  1. What are you and I essentially? When do you and I come into and go out of existence? For example, are you numerically identical to the infant that existed some time ago? How about the embryo2 or the sperm and the egg? What kind of changes can you undergo and still persist as you? Suppose you lost a finger, are you still the entity that has lost a finger? What if you lost your brain? When do you go out of existence? Do you go out of existence if you are hit on the head and a "persistent vegetative state" results?
  2. A common response to the question of what we are3 essentially is that we are essentially organisms4. That is, we come into existence as organisms and go out of existence when we cease to be organisms. After all, if we were not organisms, who is the being sitting here in front of the computer writing this paper and who is the being reading this paper? This view, call it the Organism View, might seem obviously true especially to scientists. However, for quite some time, a number of philosophers have rejected it in favor of the Psychological5 View. The Psychological View holds that some kind of psychological continuity6 (e.g., mental contents or the base capacity for consciousness) is required for identity. This view implies, among other things, that we come into existence only when some kind of psychological state is present. An often used argument to motivate this view is the brain7 transplant8 argument.
  3. In this paper, I would like to consider McMahan's9 two cases10 against the Organism View and show that in fact, they do not undermine it. Since it is possible to devise more McMahanian-type cases, another aim of this paper is to give a more general solution to these kinds of cases. To do this, I begin with an account of the Organism View.

  1. McMahan's Challenge
  2. An Account of the Organism View
  3. The Dicephalus Case and the Modified Commissurotomy11 Case
  4. The Extreme Case, Organismic Divisions, and the Genetic Engineering Case
  5. Conclusion

  1. McMahan's Challenge
  2. An Account of the Organism View
    • Liao adopts the Life Process account of organisms30. Such processes include metabolism, growth, assimilation, responsiveness, movement and reproduction, as well as respiration, digestion, absorption, circulation, excretion, differentiation, etc.
    • Liao now gives his understanding of the Organism View31 which is that X is essentially an organism if it satisfies the following three criteria, the first of which (“a”) he takes to be clear:-
      1. X begins to exist when the capacity to regulate and coordinate metabolic and other life processes is there.
      2. X persists as long as there is what may be called "organismic continuity," which is the continuing ability to regulate and coordinate metabolic and other life processes; and
      3. X ceases32 to exist when the capacity to regulate and coordinate metabolic and other life processes is permanently gone.
    • With reference to (b), Liao explains organismic continuity, but first introduces physical continuity and functional continuity, without obviously connecting them to organismic continuity. Physical continuity: requires either the same constituent matter, or its gradual, incremental replacement. Functional continuity: requires retention of capacities. Organismic continuity: requires the same coordinating and regulating capacity of the life processes, where Liao’s – presumably positive – example is the replacement of the natural heart by an artificial one.
    • With reference to (c), Liao considers permanently gone. In a footnote33, he remarks on the epistemological and metaphysical aspects of permanence. Identity is preserved if the loss of life-function is temporary, while it is lost – and the organism considered “dead34” – if they cannot be reinstated “by any means”.
    • As an illustration, Liao considers the life-path of a bacterium. Its life commences on completion of binary fission35, and continues in the face of some exchange of material with its environment until it either dies or divides36.
    • Liao now considers the accuracy of the application of the Organism View to us. It is uncontroversial that this view (that they are essentially organisms) applies to living things “up to” non-conscious37 animals.
  3. The Dicephalus Case and the Modified Commissurotomy38 Case
  4. The Extreme Case, Organismic Divisions, and the Genetic Engineering Case
  5. Conclusion


Hard copy in "Various - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 09 (L)".

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Basically, the first one and a half and the last of six paragraphs of the section McMahan's Challenge.

Footnote 4:
  1. So, Liao’s stance – the Organism View (OV) is that we are essentially organisms. This is Liao’s answer to the question “What are we?”.
  2. Liao lists the following books and papers as references for the OV:-
  3. I’m not sure whether the OV is the same as Animalism. Verbally, it is; yet Liao’s intuitions on some of the key TEs are not the same as Olson’s.
  4. Olson famously denies that psychology has anything to do with our identity, so we “don’t go where our cerebrums go”. Liao seems to consider “brains” – which support the life-process – as being the essential us, so we go where our brains go. He seems committed to the view that we are essentially brains. I agree that the brain is not “just another organ”, so may incline towards Liao as against Olson. But Liao only considers a few cases.
Footnote 5:
  1. This is not my (or Liao’s) favoured position, so I won’t remark on it extensively.
  2. Liao’s quoted authorities for this view are:-
  3. Liao does not consider Lynne Rudder Baker and her Constitution View, despite the fact that there is a paper by Baker in this very symposium ("Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Everyday Concepts as a Guide to Reality").
Footnote 7: Footnote 9: Taken from "McMahan (Jeff) - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life".

Footnote 10: The other being hemispheric commissurotomy.

Footnote 16: He doesn’t explain why, but – I suppose – if “identity is not what matters”, then we won’t care who is (identical to) whom, so the TE loses its force; but then so would McMahan’s alternatives.

Footnote 18: Footnote 23: Footnote 24: Footnote 26: See, for example, "Puccetti (Roland) - The Case For Mental Duality: Evidence From Split-Brain Data and Other Considerations".

Footnote 28: Or, maybe, the limiting case of a single highly schizoid person.

Footnote 29: This claim can also be doubted. If we are talking about us, and are adopting a PV, then a very different psychological experience from what we, in general, have may make the TE irrelevant.

Footnote 30: I suspect this is fair enough, though I note that "Feldman (Fred) - Life-Functional Theories of Life" finds many difficulties with the Life-Process account of life.

Footnote 31: This seems a little muddled, in that the View is that we are essentially organisms, while the text says something about what it is to be essentially an organism.

Footnote 32: So, presumably, neither corpses nor those on (permanent) life-support are organisms.

Footnote 33: We are referred to:- . Footnote 35: Fission of human blastocycts is considered in "Shoemaker (David) - Embryos, Souls, and the Fourth Dimension", where the perdurantist view that the pre-fission entity continues to exist is supported.

Footnote 36: Division is more positive than death, but is still (taken as) a “ceasing to exist” as, it is said, the pre-fission bacterium suffers a “permanent organismic discontinuity”.

Footnote 37: In a footnote, he points out that "Unger (Peter) - The Survival of the Sentient", and probably other holders of the PV, apply the brain-transplant intuition to all conscious animals.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - July 2018. Please address any comments on this page to File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page