Dualism, Panpsychism, and the Bioethical Status of Brainless Embryos
Hershenov (David) & Taylor (Adam P.)
Source: Ethics, Medicine and Public Health. Special Issue on Personal Identity and Bioethics. Forthcoming.
Paper - Abstract

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Authors’ Introduction

  1. We draw upon David Chalmers (3) and Galen Strawson’s (19) defense of the pervasiveness of experience and wed it to Peter Unger’s (21) immaterialist solution to the Problem of the Thinking Many. The idea is that the soul’s thoughts depend upon physical composites that though, pace panpsychism, are themselves are unable to think, still contribute to a thinking soul whenever they exist. And they will exist wherever a living organism is found. We think the result is more plausible than either dualism or panpsychism taken by themselves, both of which we still hope to show are more compelling than most will initially think.
  2. Despite dualism and panpsychism having some illustrious historical and contemporary defenders, bioethicists have paid little attention to such philosophies of mind. While a soul is commonly thought to bestow considerable value upon its possessor, it would seem that dualists can’t inject any such status into the debates about abortion1 and embryonic2 stem cell research because the embryo3 is taken to be mindless since it lacks a functioning cerebrum4. However, if our account of dualism with its panpsychic-inspired account of the pervasiveness of thought is plausible, then it will mean that bioethicists have to admit that there could be ensouled and (minimally) thinking embryos5 from the earliest moments of the embryo’s6 life. The implications of dualism for abortion7 and embryonic8 stem cell research can’t be ignored as they have in the past with the claim that whatever the merits of dualism, a soul theory is irrelevant to the bioethics of destroying embryos9 for the first five months after conception for they are mindless and thus not ensouled.
  3. If panpsychism is even considered by bioethicists, it is thought to be an ethical Pandora’s Box for if being an experiencer is a sufficient condition for moral status, then not only will the brainless human embryo10 have it but so will countless other nonhuman brainless organisms. But this worry is unwarranted. We will show why many minimal minds are not morally significant for they lack the appropriate potential to develop into highly valued minds that is morally relevant. We will discuss why bioethicists should recognize the potential of brainless human organisms to bestow a moral status upon them that is lacking in non-human organisms and will show how to distinguish morally significant potential from morally irrelevant potential.
  4. We will proceed by first stating an argument in favor of dualism. We agree with Unger that the most compelling argument for dualism follows from the considerable troubles that can be advanced against materialism on the basis of the metaphysical Problem of the Thinking Many. Our conception of ourselves, our self-knowledge, our freedom, and our bioethics would appear in great trouble if there were overlapping thinkers, each composed of a good part of the brain that belongs to the others. The absurdity of such an abundance of thinkers enough reason to doubt that materialism is true. In addition to the absurdity of countless thinkers, a consequence is that we will lack what Unger believes is the power to be a genuine chooser. Philosophers sympathic to libertarian free will are likely to be bothered by the threat to genuine choosing that Unger diagnoses. And even those who are not bothered, perhaps because they are of a compatibilist stripe, will likely count it as a strike against materialism that it brings with it the absurdity of uncompensated suffering at levels they never earlier expected.
  5. We then defend dualism against its two major criticisms: the neurological dependence of thought and the problem of interactionism. Next, we explore the appeal of panpsychism’s critique of consciousness as emergent. We borrow a transformed version of that idea that has the result that there are far more experiences than recognized by the typical materialist or dualist. We then conclude with why this is not morally problematic. Once the morally relevant sense of potential is recognized, an abundance of minimally minded organisms is no more morally problematic than the fact that typical materialists allow that some insects may have minimal minds.
  6. Incidentally, the final part of our paper on potentiality should be of interest as well to both those dye-in-the-wool-panpsychics who are unmoved by our marriage of their view with dualism and those orthodox materialist readers who are uninterested in making use of any aspect of panpsychism or dualism. So unreconstructed panpsychics can still help themselves to our moral conclusions about the moral significance of the potential of some minimal minds to become sophisticated minds. Likewise, even those readers who don’t take panpsychism or dualism or their combination seriously, may still find compelling our arguments about the morally relevant type of potential.


For the full text, see Hershenovs - Dualism, Panpsychism, and the Bioethical Status of Brainless Embryos.

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