Eric T. Olson: The Philosopher with No Hands
Marshall (Richard) & Olson (Eric)
Source: Marshall (Richard) - Philosophy at 3:AM: Questions and Answers with 25 Top Philosophers
Paper - Abstract

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Editor's Introduction1

  1. Eric T. Olson is the proponent of "animalism2," which argues that we are animals and that there is no metaphysical gulf between humans and the rest.
  2. He points out what this position commits him to accepting and rejecting and shows that it is a surprisingly rare position in the history of philosophy, and humankind generally.
  3. As part of this, he introduces the issue of personal identity, taking in thought experiments3 about brain transplants4 and computer-generated life and a paper he wrote entitled "Olson (Eric) - Why I Have No Hands" which is part of a discussion on "partism."
  4. He also discusses the relationship of philosophy to science and why philosophy is often neglected in contemporary culture.

  1. While this is an interview – and therefore informal – as it hails from 2012 it gives a fairly contemporary account of Olson’s views – or at least their public face.
  2. Olson is asked to justify why most philosophers deny that we are animals. Olson’s response is that:-
    • What separates us from other animals is our intelligence – and while this creates a gulf – of disputable size – it’s not a metaphysical5 gulf.
    • People thought that we could not be our bodies because they were convinced – at least up until the 1960s – that no matter – however sophisticated – could produce thought.
    • Another reason is that it seems odd to say – for example – that “Bertrand Russell’s body argued such-and-such”, so we might assume that we are not our bodies. Olson thinks this just sophistry – “a person’s body” are weasel words – but that it betrays a lot of crypto-dualism6 around in philosophy.
    • They also find it demeaning to be “nothing more than animals”.
  3. But, the real arguments against animalism7 arise from its disagreement with commonly-held ideas about our persistence-conditions.
    • Olson rehearses his usual comparison between liver and brain transplants8 – why does one preserve your identity while the other does not?
    • Why do (most) people describe a brain-transplant9 as a body-transplant10? Because a psychological-continuity account of personal identity is current philosophical orthodoxy.
    • But this rules out our being animals, as an animal is not transplanted11, just an organ12, when a brain is transplanted13.
  4. He repeats the “fetus14 argument” for the irrelevance of psychological continuity15 for “our” identity.
  5. The motivation for maintaining animalism16 in the face of pressure from the PV is Olson’s Master (or Thinking Animal)17 argument – the usual stuff about there being twice as many thinkers if we are not identical to “our” animals, and us not knowing whether we are the person or the animal, if human persons are not identical to “their” animals.
  6. What is animalism18? That the organism you see in the mirror is you. Only your “identity” in the popular sense has anything to do with psychological continuity19 – your continued existence across time does not.
  7. And what does animal identity consist in? An organism is a dynamic system and matter flows through it like water through a fountain. The organism continues to exist – despite interchange of matter – as long as its life-sustaining20 functions continue.
  8. What about “downloading consciousness” or cloning bodies?
    • Olson describes “Transhumanism21”. He points out how far off it is, practically-speaking, even if it makes sense.
    • He doubts Brain State Transfers22 are even possible, or that inorganic beings could be conscious or intelligent.
    • Copying obviously suffers from reduplication objections23. All would be deluded.
    • Also – an analogy – you can’t copy and animal by copying its mental states any more than you can copy a computer by copying a file.
    • Scanning need not destroy your mental states, in which case you’d have a prior claim to be you over any recipient. So, why is a recipient “you” in the normal case24.
  9. Computer-generated life:
    • Could computer-programming not just simulate life (like it can simulate the weather) but create it?
    • Olson thinks this to be metaphysically impossible. Such attempts do not create anything like life, which requires organisms.
    • He asks rhetorical questions – where would such a life-form be, and how big? These questions are pertinent if the so-called artificial life is a computer-program, rather than the computer itself (else we would know the answers).
    • But – while he says he’s considered such questions – he doesn’t really do so here, and gives no references25.
  10. Artificial intelligence: Olson’s objections are the same as to artificial life – in that (he says) intelligence is the possession of a being, which requires location, etc. This has nothing to do with the sophistication of the programming, so may also be a metaphysical impossibility26.
  11. "Olson (Eric) - Why I Have No Hands":
    • Olson’s objections to the existence of (arbitrary) undetached27 parts are similar to the problems he raises in his Master Argument28. It is effectively “The problem of the many29”, “Dion and Theon”30, or “Tib and Tibbles31”, so is nothing new. This is despite Olson claiming (doubtless correctly) that his paper was rejected as “frivolous” by half a dozen journals.
    • It’s important, though as a whole nexus of metaphysical issues associated with constitution and vagueness32 gets involved.
    • Olson admits that there are particles “arranged manually” but claims they don’t constitute anything larger (a hand) because – if they did – then there would be a hand-complement33 that could think, and again we’d have too many thinkers34.
    • Of course, what goes for hands goes for other parts also – including my head35.
  12. Partism:
    • Hud Hudson’s view that “a thing can have different parts in different places36”.
    • Olson explains that – according to Hudson – my hand-complement is me. Things can have different parts at different times (as does Dion37), but Hudson (it seems) says they can have different parts at different places.
    • So: The hand could be a part of both me and my hand-complement (which are the same thing) at the place where the hand is located, and not a part of either being at some other place. What appear to be two things with different parts are in some cases just one thing, made up of more than one set of parts at once.
    • Olson generalises this to the Ship of Theseus38 case – so that according to Hudson the repaired ship and the reconstructed ship are the very same ship, or at least there is only one ship with different parts in different places. The ship in the museum has, it seems, been at sea at the same time as it stayed dry.
    • Olson agrees that this is difficult to understand, yet alone believe. And, it seems, Hudson does think that they are two ships, but Olson doesn’t think he’s any principled reason for thinking so, nor an explanation of where Partism does and doesn’t apply39.
  13. Peter Van Inwagen: Olson is impressed by Van Inwagen – starting from "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings" – not by the strangeness of his views (there are no material things except elementary particles and living organisms) but by his arguments. He thinks everything is clear once Van Inwagen has finished. His critics just shroud things in mist again.
  14. Jason Stanley: likened philosophy to novel-writing40. Olson thinks this is because philosophers think of Plato as a deceased colleague (as a novelist thinks of Dickens), not as an object of study (as a historian of ideas does). He doesn’t see any greater connection, and the same point could be made by comparing philosophy with physics rather than the history of science, or pole vaulting and sports science.
  15. Philosophy and Science:
    • Science influences philosophy – eg. advances in cosmology have raised “fine tuning” arguments for the existence of God. Also (opaquely) the science of colour vision has demolished volumes of a priori philosophising .
    • But, science cannot eliminate philosophy, if only because deciding the appropriate methodology of science is a philosophical question.
  16. Is contemporary philosophy too dry and technical?
    • Olson does not think so. This compliant could be made against the great works of any period of philosophy; eg.
      "Kant (Immanuel), Kemp Smith (Norman) - Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason",
      "Hume (David), Mossner (Ernest) - A Treatise of Human Nature"
      → or, anything by Aristotle, Aquinas or Hegel.
    • Olson suspects the critics just find philosophy too hard – as it is. And no-one would expect to be able to tackle a serious work on physics – as distinct from a popularisation – without training.
    • Olson thinks that contemporary philosophy does address the questions ordinary people care about, though maybe not in Mind or Analysis.
    • He thinks academic philosophical writing may be less clear than it needs be – partly because it’s easier to get published if your writing isn’t so clear that the weak points of your arguments are plain for peer-reviewers to see!
  17. Experimental Philosophy:
    • This (says Olson) involves doing polls to check philosophical intuitions – e.g. in ethics. Relying on your own or your colleagues’ or students’ can skew the results as people’s responses depends on their background, and the way the questions are phrased or sequenced.
    • Olson isn’t interested, however, as he doesn’t rely on ordinary opinion, as this has nothing to say about the truth of those opinions. Maybe most people would support the brain transplant41 intuition. But they are probably wrong because the consequences of this belief are – to Olson – philosophically unacceptable. But he would be “interested” is a poll showed that most people didn’t support the psychological-continuity view.
    • Olson doesn’t mind going against the intuitions or ordinary folk but he does worry about going against those of his colleagues, who have as much right to hold them as he does.
    • He makes an interesting point that it’s the consequences of the intuitions that are critical in deciding the truth of the intuitions themselves, and it’s the structure of what follows from what, rather than the truth of the intuitions – that is the more solid. He gives his favourite example – if we are not animals, then it follows that the animal “you live in” cannot think, and so on. The controversy is about whether these42 consequences are acceptable.
  18. The on-line version of the interview (see 3am: Eric Olson) – in addition to the printed text – gives an account of Olson’s reasons for taking up Philosophy and lists his favourite books on metaphysics that he thinks 3:AM readers might enjoy. They are:-


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: In "Marshall (Richard) - Philosophy at 3:AM: Introduction".

Footnote 5: So, Olson just brushes aside Baker’s claim – eg. in "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Big-Tent Metaphysics" - that it is a metaphysical gulf, but read on ….

Footnote 6: As David Papineau says in "Papineau (David) - The Importance of Philosophical Intuition", if we have doubts about the “explanatory gap” concerning consciousness, then we’re not really materialists at heart.

Footnote 12: Footnote 14: He actually says “embryo”, which is controversial because of twinning possibilities.

Footnote 20: This is another problem with WBTs for animalists.

Footnote 24: Footnote 25: I have an unread paper – "Olson (Eric) - Computer-Generated Life" – that seems to fit the bill perfectly.

Footnote 26: Again, Olson gives no attention here to the possibility that the computer itself might be intelligent. Does he elsewhere?

Footnote 27: See also, on various sides of the debateFootnote 29: See Footnote 32: This shows that there must be something wrong with Olson’s Master Argument as, if sound, it implies that nothing exists other than simples – or that – unbeknownst to us – there is (at a time) some unique collection of particles that constitutes a human animal.

Footnote 33: Is there any mileage in claiming that, while hands exist, hand-complements don’t? Olson asks, but doesn’t answer, this question.

Footnote 35: Olson says that a “variant of the argument” applies to this case – it’s evidently different to the Thinking Animal (Master) argument, because the head-complement doesn’t do any thinking. Does this relate to "Mackie (David) - Going Topless"? Probably not, as this relates to brain transplants.

Footnote 36: This is Marshall’s definition, but it can’t be right, can it? Doesn’t anything that has parts have them in different places? This is spelled out later.

Footnote 39: Well, Partism sounds incoherent from this account, but presumably it’s best to read "Hudson (Hud) - A Materialist Metaphysics of the Human Person" (and probably "Hudson (Hud) - The Metaphysics of Hyperspace" as well) before deciding.

Footnote 40: Presumably in "Marshall (Richard) & Stanley (Jason) - Jason Stanley: Philosophy as the Great Naivete", though I missed it!

Footnote 42: Well, not quite. It’s whether the “too many thinkers” issue is a real one anyway, or whether it can be resolved linguistically (or otherwise).

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