Review of 'What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology' by Eric T. Olson
Baker (Lynne Rudder)
Source: Mind, 117:1120-1122, 2008
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Write-up1 (as at 04/10/2023 21:59:02): Baker - Review - Olson - What Are We?

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  1. In his invigorating new book – "Olson (Eric) - What are We? A Study of Personal Ontology" – Eric Olson investigates what we are2, metaphysically speaking. ‘By “we”,’ he says, ‘I mean you and me and the people we know — we human people3.’ (p. 85). Olson emphasizes that his inquiry is not anthropological or linguistic, but metaphysical. He asks what we most fundamentally are, not what we conceive ourselves to be5. Olson takes the metaphysical question ‘what sort of beings think our thoughts and perform our actions?’ to have priority over the linguistic question, ‘To what do our personal pronouns6 and proper names refer?’ (p. 118, p.1329).
  2. Olson canvasses a number of important accounts9 of our metaphysical nature:
    1. animalism,
    2. constitutionalism,
    3. the brain view,
    4. the view that we are temporal parts of animals,
    5. the bundle view,
    6. immaterialism,
    7. nihilism,
    along with some ‘minor views10’. After a mostly balanced presentation and critical examination of summary versions of these accounts, Olson concludes his book with a more freewheeling discussion11 of his own opinions on what we are and on theories of composition.
  3. The book is engagingly written12 in a conversational style. Olson has some vivid analogies, e.g., ‘Your hylomorphic soul is supposed to stand to you as a dent13 stands to a dented car or a knot stands to a knotted rope.’ (p. 17415) And he makes up inventive labels for the positions he discusses; to take just one among many, Olson calls Chisholm’s suggestion15 that we might be tiny physical particles ‘Lilliputian materialism’ (p. 17617)
  4. Olson’s favored view (or one of them) is animalism17, a view that he defended in "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology" (1997). Animalism is the thesis that ‘each of us is numerically identical with an animal. (pp. 24-519) ‘[O]ur having mental features of any sort [is] a temporary and contingent feature of us.’ Olson goes on to say that ‘any of us could exist at a time without having any mental properties at that time, or even the capacity to acquire them19.’ (p. 4421)
  5. The chapters on Souls and on Nihilism21 are particularly rich. Olson treats immaterialism with much greater respect22 than do most other materialist philosophers today. And he argues that nihilism (the view that we do not exist) is not easily disposed of: ‘Why should the truth be believable?’ (p. 21024) He compares nihilism with solipsism and raises the possibility that nihilism is a ‘pathological view’ — one that is psychologically impossible to accept consistently without going mad (p. 20925). The discussion is quite thought-provoking25.
  6. Olson rules out many candidate accounts of our natures by what he calls ‘the thinking-animal problem26’: ‘If there is a human animal located where you are, and it thinks just as you do, it is hard to see how you could be anything other than that animal, or how you could ever know that you are.’ (p. 21128) Olson says that the thinking-animal problem is not only ‘an argument for animalism but also a challenge for any other account of what we are.’ (p. 21129) (However, he shortly exempts nihilism and immaterialism29 from its reach. (p. 21631)) But the thinking-animal problem is a problem only if the antecedent is true31. Many non-animalist views — constitutionalism, ‘compound dualism’, the bundle view, the brain view, etc. — are not committed to the antecedent.
  7. Consider constitutionalism. Constitutionalism32 holds that we are constituted by human animals, with which we are not identical. Olson says that constitutionalists often complain that their critics do not understand the view. Complaint or not, Olson does not seem to understand constitutionalism33. His situation is like that of a philosopher with a two-valued logic in a debate with an advocate of three-valued logic. Just as the trivalent logician can hold that there are two different ways34 for a proposition to be nontrue, the constitutionalist can hold that there are two ways for a pair of objects can be nonidentical. Thus, a pair of objects can exist separately or one can constitute the other. Olson simply does not acknowledge this ‘nonbivalent’ feature of constitutionalism.
  8. As a result of presupposing ‘metaphysical bivalence,’ Olson insists that constitutionalists, since they hold that we are not identical to animals, should be taken to hold that we are not animals at all35. (p. 2437). He simply ignores a constitutionalist who argues that there are two ways of having a property37 — nonderivatively and derivatively – both of which can be clearly defined. According to the derivative/nonderivative distinction, I am an animal derivatively in virtue of being constituted by something that is an animal nonderivatively. To be an animal derivatively is still to be an animal. Rather than arguing against the derivative-nonderivative distinction, Olson dismisses the constitutionalist’s claim that we are animals derivatively (or as he transforms it into a semantic point, ‘animals in some loose sense’) as a ‘mug’s game38’. (p. 2440)
  9. In his last chapter, Olson suggests that animalism, the temporal-parts view, and nihilism are the only viable accounts of our metaphysical natures. (p. 21441) He further argues that theories of composition41 and theories of what we are are intimately connected: If we had a good theory of either, he says, we would thereby have a good theory of the other. I want to use an example of Olson’s to cast doubt on his claim that ‘a theory of composition would tell us what we are.’ (p. 23243)
  10. Olson shows43 how mereological universalism (the theory of composition according to which any things however disparate have a sum) leads philosophers to fourdimensionalism44. He proposes a reductio of three-dimensionalist universalism45: Consider ‘the particles that currently compose you.’ Those particles — call them ‘the Ps’ — existed a month ago, and assuming universalism, there’s something that the Ps compose at every moment. Call it ‘M’ (for ‘mass of matter’). Given that the Ps cannot compose two things at once46, it follows that you are M. But you are not a persisting mass of matter47; you were not composed by the Ps a month ago. So, if you are composed of particles48 (in that you are identical to a sum of particles), then three-dimensionalist universalism is false49. So, instead of saying that you are composed of particles, some universalists are led to say that you are composed of particle-stages50. In that case, you have temporal parts. (pp. 230-23152) So, here we have a theory of composition (universalism) leading to a metaphysical view of what we are (a four-dimensional being with temporal parts).
  11. Olson notes that constitutionalism offers an alternative: A constitutionalist may be a universalist and say that M constitutes you now, but didn’t a month ago. However, Olson thinks that the alternative fails. To show this, he asks the constitutionalist what he takes to be a fatal question: “Under what circumstances do particles compose something other than a mass [like M]?” (p. 23153)
  12. It’s no wonder that he cannot find a good answer: He’s asking a question that conflates constitution and composition53. Constitutionalists who are mereological universalists hold that particles always compose a sum, and nothing but a sum. Sums are mere aggregates; they are not identical to any ordinary objects54 (like chairs, trees or people). Sums may constitute objects, but they are not identical to the objects that they constitute. You now are constituted by a human animal, which in turn55 now is constituted by a particular sum of particles. Last month, the same sum of particles existed but did not constitute you then.
  13. Universalism-cum-constitutionalism does not bloat ontology beyond constitutionalism alone; sums are ontological ‘freebies’56 that exist if their mereological parts exist. The important point is that constitution and composition are two different relations57. It is a significant (though popular) misstep for metaphysicians to try to make do with composition alone. A theory of composition would tell us what we are only if what we are is identical to a mereological sum. In light of the fact that exclusive reliance on theories of composition leads to a wildly implausible metaphysics, it is a profound mistake to suppose that ‘a theory of composition would tell us what we are.’ (p. 23259)
  14. Olson’s critical survey of ontological theories of our nature will be successful, I suspect, in a classroom59. Focussing mainly on generic versions of views rather than on specific texts, Olson assembles familiar arguments and presents new ones60. The discussions are clear and, with a few noted exceptions, even-handed. "Olson (Eric) - What are We? A Study of Personal Ontology" is a readable overview of accounts of what we are and is filled with many stimulating arguments.



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 (04/10/2023 21:59:02).
  • Link to Latest Write-Up Note.
Footnote 2: Footnote 3:
  • Baker doesn’t point out the tendentiousness and ambiguity of Olson’s terminology, ‘human people’ confounds human beings with human persons.
Footnote 5: Footnote 6:
  • Olson is insistent (reasonable so) that I is a referring expression. See his discussion in §1.4.
Footnote 9: Footnote 10:
  • What are these ‘minor views’? Compounds of the other views (like ‘temporal parts of brains’)?
Footnote 11:
  • See Chapter 9: What Now?.
  • What does Baker imply by ‘freewheeling’? That the arguments are less rigorous?
Footnote 12:
  • The positive comments on style throughout this review somewhat hide – or maybe balance – Baker’s antipathy to Olson’s primary theses and arguments.
Footnote 13:
  • Olson deals with ‘dents’ briefly in the first two sections of his Introduction – in §1.1 & §1.2.
  • I discuss similar matters in my Note on Holes and Smiles.
  • I discuss Hylomorphism in my Note of that name.
  • Baker only highlights this usage for its style rather than content.
Footnote 15: Footnote 17:
  • See my Note on Animalism.
  • Olson’s contention that we survive the loss of all psychology is just common sense if we are animals, rather than – as Baker proposes – essentially persons.
  • Baker keeps her powder dry at this point, preferring to use the available space to correct Olson’s misunderstanding of her own position.
Footnote 19:
  • Presumably if the human animal is born without the possibility of developing the relevant mental capacities or – towards the end of life – has irretrievably lost them.
  • For Baker, the Person (one of us) would – according to the case – either not come into being or ceased to be.
  • I intend to revisit some of these comments once I’ve read Olson’s book!
Footnote 21:
  • See my Notes on Souls and on Nihilism.
  • Both strike me as absurd non-starters, but the Chapters will be worth reading for the light they shed on Olson’s views.
  • It’ll be interesting to determine wherein the ‘richness’ lies.
Footnote 22:
  • I can only comment on this when I’ve read the Chapter on Souls, though see my comments on Chapter 1.2.
  • For me, the key point requiring serious thought is the whole ‘Uploading’ issue so beloved of Transhumanists. For this to make sense, or for us to be ‘patterns in Information Space (as Andy Clark thinks) we’d probably need to be immaterial, though maybe we’d need to be embodied (in a computer or elsewhere) to experience anything.
Footnote 25:
  • It’d have been nice to have an indication of which thoughts might have been provoked.
  • Comments will have to await my reading of the Chapter on Nihilsm, though see my comments on Chapter 1.2.
  • I’m not sure if the view is Pathological. If it’s similar psychologically to Solipsism, it’s an irritating view that probably cannot be disproved, but can safely be ignored.
  • Does anyone actually hold this view these days – rather than people ‘in the literature’ trying to advance their careers by showing how clever they are?
Footnote 26:
  • This is where the review gets interesting, and where Baker departs from Olson.
  • See my Note on the Thinking Animal Argument.
  • Also my comments when Olson introduces the topic in Chapter 1.9.
Footnote 29:
  • Firstly, I’m not sure the page reference Baker gives is correct.
  • Also, while Nihilism will be exempted from the TA Argument (if there are no thinkers, this can’t be too many), I thought that something like the TA Argument was a standard objection to the Soul View (if souls think and animal’s brains think, there are two many thinkers).
Footnote 31:
  • I agree with Baker that there are problems with the TA argument, but I wish she’d been clearer what the ‘antecedent’ was.
  • It would appear to be compound “If there is a human animal located where you are, and it thinks just as you do … ”.
  • If so, one or both of these premises is in dispute:-
    1. ‘There is a human animal located where you are’, and
    2. ‘Human animals think’ (just like you do).
  • So, to which of these two premises – and why – do the following views object?
    1. Constitutionalism,
    2. ‘Compound dualism’ (… which is …),
    3. The bundle view,
    4. The brain view
  • I’ll add further comments here shortly … Constitutionalism (Baker’s preferred account) is dealt with immediately below.
Footnote 32:
  • See my Notes on Constitution and the Constitution View.
  • My question is just what is constituted by the animal with which it is not identical? Saying it’s the Person, individuated by a FPP just isn’t good enough.
  • We’ll come back to this in due course.
Footnote 33:
  • I agree. Baker and Olson seem to have talked past one another.
Footnote 34:
  • Non-true can be False or Unknown. See Wikipedia: Three-valued logic.
  • Incidentally, this is an analogy, so needs to be checked for relevance.
  • The idea is that – as Baker says – there are two ways of being non-identical: separate existence and one being constitute by the other.
  • This is fairly clear with Statue and Clay, but less so with Person and Animal.
  • But the idea of denying bivalence seems fair and useful enough.
Footnote 35:
  • This is the key point. Olson insists that you are either identical to an animal or you are not an animal at all. Yet everyone – including most philosophers – say that we ‘are’ animals in one sense or another.
  • The problem for the CV – as against other non-animalist systems – is that the others can point to what other thing they propose ‘we’ are. This isn’t really possible for those holding the CV. Of course, Baker doesn’t think this is a problem, for reasons upcoming.
Footnote 37:
  • See my Note on Properties.
  • I think Baker’s ideas of having properties nonderivatively and derivatively is worth considering, and that Olson should take the view seriously.
Footnote 38:
  • I agree with Baker that this pejorative terminology is reprehensible.
Footnote 41:
  • Baker will go on to accuse Olson of confusing Composition and Constitution.
  • I think she is right – composition – Mereology – is entirely different from constitution in Baker’s sense of the term.
  • I don’t have a Note on Composition per se (only on Mereology). Maybe I should – or create one on the difference between Composition and Constitution?
  • Olson is worried by Composition because of his TA Argument. This is why he denies the DAUP (Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts) – see "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts".
Footnote 43:
  • Does Baker think that Olson’s argument is sound?
  • And – while we are about it – does Baker accept mereological universalism? What does ‘accepting’ this doctrine involve?
Footnote 44:
  • See my Notes on Perdurantism and Exdurantism.
  • I think the connection between 4D and mereological universalism supposed by Olson is confused, as Baker usefully explains.
Footnote 45:
  • This is a bad argument, as Baker goes on to explain.
Footnote 46:
  • Is this a tenet of mereological universalism? That a ‘thing’ just is the contents of a region of space(-time)? This is composition (set-theoretical), not constitution.
  • Also – in saying ‘you are M’ – according to whom?
Footnote 47:
  • Indeed, for the reasons Baker goes on to give. That is, if a mass of matter is defined by the particles it contains. But then, doesn’t this mean that no ‘mass of matter’ persists from one moment to the next. Is this true metaphysically, or useful linguistically?
  • Do mountains persist? Does the ‘lump’ persist in the famous ‘statue and the clay’ TE?
Footnote 48:
  • According to whose theory? No view of PID says this, does it? Animalism says that you are an Organism, which exchanges particles with its environment.
Footnote 49:
  • That’s if we want to say things persist – in a ‘strict and philosophical’ sense.
Footnote 50:
  • This needs a bit of spelling out, but these would be the stages that compose you at any one time. The space-time worms of the particles while they composed (part of) you.
Footnote 53:
  • I get the impression that Olson doesn’t really ‘get’ what Constitution is.
Footnote 54:
  • This is an important point. In the absence of 4D, none of these objects would persist.
Footnote 55:
  • So, there is ‘constitution all the way down’.
  • For Baker, the unifying principle to individuate a Person is that person’s FPP. What’s the unifying principle for an animal? What makes one bunch of particles M2 at T2 constitute the same animal as another bunch, M1, at the prior time T1? Maybe this is a problem for any theory of the persistence of organisms?
Footnote 56:
  • This is a good point. These sums don’t compose anything other than the sums themselves. They may temporarily coincide with something we care about (or ‘nature’ cares about).
Footnote 57:
  • This is important. However, composition is clearly defined, but not everyone understands – or thinks coherent – constitution.
Footnote 59:
  • This is rather a put-down!
  • A problem with the book is that it deals at – maybe – a superficial level with topics that Olson had often dealt with elsewhere in more detail. Maybe he deals with some of them in greater detail later.
  • I get the impression, though, that it’s supposed to be – up to a level – comprehensive and to address options that Olson had previously ignored.
Footnote 60:
  • Which arguments are new? New to Olson, Baker or philosophers generally? At least some of them are ‘stimulating’!

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