Thinking Parts
Madden (Rory)
Source: Blatti & Snowdon - Animalism: New Essays on Persons, Animals, and Identity, 2016: Part II, Chapter 9, pp. 180-207
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

  1. Undetached proper parts of human organisms generate a sceptical threat to the naïve thesis that we have human form.
  2. This paper introduces some new ways of dealing with the sceptical threat.

Author’s Introduction
  1. Empirical enquiry into the natural world can throw up results that seem to cast doubt on elements of our naive image of our place in the world. Sophisticated contemporary physics is a source of results of this general sort. But philosophers have sometimes seen our naive conception of things threatened by rather more modest empirical findings. Hume, for example, took it that knowledge of the occurrence of simple perceptual illusions was a sufficient basis on which to refute the naive realist view that in perception we are directly acquainted with external objects. Naive realism about perception has also been criticized on the basis of another empirical commonplace, that proximal stimulation of one's nervous system can bring about sensory experience indistinguishable from the perception of distal external objects.
  2. In this chapter I want to investigate the question of whether a modest empirical truth about the relationship between experience and the central nervous system should cast doubt upon another element of our naive image of our place in the world.

  1. Introduction
    • 1.1. The Naïve Thesis
    • 1.2. A Sceptical Threat to the Naïve Thesis
    • 1.3. The Plan
  2. Epistemic Solutions
    • 2.1. An Evidential Externalist Strategy
    • 2.2 Linguistic and Thought Theoretic Strategies
    • 2.3 Self-Acquaintance and Self-Monitoring
  3. Psychological Solutions
    • 3.1. Spatial Parts and Causal Parts
    • 3.2 Maximality and Functional Parts
    • 3.3. Natural Function and the Mind
  4. Remnant Persons
    • 4.1. The Dilemma for Animalists1
    • 4.2. Creation and Exposure
    • 4.3. Continued Participation
  5. Conclusion

Editors’ Introduction2
  1. In Chapter 9, Rory Madden’s very rich contribution starts from a recently devised problem for what he calls the naive thesis, which is the idea that we are things which have a human shape, and that the things within that shape are our parts. This is summarized in the words that we are humanoids. As he points out, this thesis is not the same as animalism3, since it is possible to hold that we are constituted by the animal where we are, even though we are not identical to that animal, but we would then share the animal's shape. Clearly, though, animalists4 are committed to the naive thesis. The problem in its initial formulation is epistemological. It relies on a number of assumptions and so takes some time to formulate properly, even in summary form.
  2. It starts from the naturalistically inspired thesis that the parts of us that are responsible for generating consciousness and thought are just a small part of us. Most of us would say that these parts, which Madden calls our T-parts, are more or less the same as the brain. To this can be added the idea that just as our T-parts are what enable us to have a viewpoint, our T-parts are also parts of other entities, whose existence we seem to recognize. Thus my T-part is also part of my head, and of my upper body, etc. Now, it would seem that if I have a viewpoint in virtue of the processes in the T-parts that I contain, then anybody who contains those same T-parts thereby also acquires a viewpoint, indeed the same viewpoint. So this means that my head has a point of view, as does my upper body, as does anything that overlaps with my T-parts. If that is right, then our knowledge that we are humanoids is threatened. The reason is, roughly, that it is not implausible to say that it is a condition on a ground for a belief to count as knowledge-generating that it will not generate errors in most subjects who form beliefs on its basis. However, most of my overlappers will form the false belief that they are humanoid on the basis of the experiences which lead me to think I am humanoid. Given this epistemological principle, it would seem to follow that I do not know that I am humanoid. In which case it also seems to follow that I do not know that I am an animal. Madden remarks that he agrees with Olson in thinking that this is a far more troublesome problem for animalism5 than the familiar traditional anti-animalist arguments.
  3. In Madden's engagement with this argument a rich and very interesting range of responses are developed and explored. What stands out is that the argument relies on a fair number of diverse assumptions, allowing a wide range of potential replies. One response he mentions is what he calls 'eliminativism', the view that there are no such things as undetached parts of us. If there are no overlappers then the problem vanishes. Some philosophers affirm this negative ontological claim. Madden's response is not to affirm categorically the existence of overlappers, but to suggest, surely plausibly, that it is hard to feel confident that there are no such things as my head or my hands or my fingers. Indeed, such a response is almost as paradoxical as the original sceptical conclusion. We are to save the idea that we know we are humanoid by being sceptical that there are such things as heads, knees, and toes.
  4. Conceding then that there might be overlappers, there is the rough distinction, introduced by Olson and followed by Madden, between potential solutions that query the epistemological assumptions and those that reject the psychological assumptions relied on in the argument.
    1. The first epistemological response he sets out is to deny that the fact that my overlappers on the basis of the same grounds as I have will go wrong and so discredit the idea that I have knowledge about my shape and parts. The suggestion is that it is not at all obvious that I and my overlappers are basing our convictions on what should be thought of as the same grounds. Madden calls this move 'evidential-externalism'. Madden’s view is that more needs to be said if this response is to look persuasive, but he does not rule some such addition out.
    2. Madden then develops what he calls a thought-theoretic response. The proposal to be explored starts from the idea that to entertain thoughts about oneself one needs to be acquainted with oneself, which involves having genuine channels of information about oneself. What Madden then explores is the thought that this requires mechanisms that have the natural function of supplying such information. If something like this is true then there is a reason to disallow that the so-called overlappers have acquaintance with themselves, since it would be very implausible to claim that there are mechanisms in our bodies with such a natural function.
    3. The third potential response that Madden articulates (in Section 9.3) proposes that the elucidation of what a mental subject is — that is to say, being a thing with a point of view and consciousness — involves the idea that the grounds of consciousness within it must have the proper natural function of interceding between the inputs and the outputs of the things itself. To this can be added the suggestion that the neural structures within humans have that function for the human, and not for the overlappers. The consequence would be that the overlappers are not in fact minded, even though they contain within themselves structures that ground consciousness. Madden carefully explores this proposal and suggests ways of developing it.
  5. Finally, Madden engages with the remnant persons problem as proposed by Mark Johnston and Derek Parfit. He points out that this objection is not the same as the main one he is considering. His response to this consists in giving counterexamples to the basic assumption in the way that problem is set up, which is that shrinking an entity cannot create a new thing of the same sort as you started with. Madden’s example comes from biology.
  6. This summary leaves out most of the fascinating details of Madden’s discussion. His chapter does raise many questions. One is whether the general idea of function plays the roles in our understanding of knowledge and of having a mind that his response to the main sceptical argument requires. Another important question is whether there might be other responses than the ones Madden explores. Overall, Madden's discussion encourages animalists6 in their suspicion that the sceptical argument rests on too many assumptions to be genuinely convincing.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2: Taken from "Blatti (Stephan) & Snowdon (Paul), Eds - Animalism: Introduction".

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
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