The Remnant-Person Problem
Olson (Eric)
Source: Blatti & Snowdon - Animalism: New Essays on Persons, Animals, and Identity, 2016: Part II, Chapter 7, pp. 145-161
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

  1. Animalism1, the view that we are animals, appears to have the troubling implication that removing your brain from your head would create a “remnant person”, who would be destroyed2 when put into a new head.
  2. The problem is serious and has no really satisfying solution. But it has nothing to do with animalism3 as such, and afflicts animalism’s4 main rival in equal measure.

  1. The Transplant5 Objection
  2. A Brief Clarification
  3. Responses to the Transplant6 Objection
  4. The Remnant-Person Problem
  5. Accidentalism
  6. Scattered Animalism7
  7. The Remote-Thought Hypothesis
  8. Remnant Cerebralism
  9. Brain Eliminativism
  10. The Generality of the Problem

Editors’ Introduction8
  1. Olson devotes Chapter 7 to analysing a key objection to animalism9 and to assessing the prospects for a satisfactory animalist10 response to that objection. The objection he considers — the 'remnant persons objection', first developed by Mark Johnston ("Johnston (Mark) - 'Human Beings' Revisited: My Body is Not an Animal", 2007: 45) — is a twist on the more familiar transplant11 objection. In this case, instead of imagining your cerebrum12 being installed in the cerebrum-less13 skull of another human animal14, Johnston invites us to consider your cerebrum15 mid-transplant16: removed from your skull, but artificially sustained — in the fabled vat, say. This organ, we can assume, is not only capable of thought in general, but is psychologically just like you. Johnston calls it a 'remnant person'. Animalism17, of course, is committed to denying that this remnant person is you, since a cerebrum18 is not an animal. The official animalist19 line has it that you are the cerebrum-less20 organism left behind.
  2. But even beyond this counter-intuitive commitment, animalists21 face the further challenge of explaining the origin of a remnant person: When does it come into existence? As Olson notes, the person does not exist before the operation, since this would mean that there must have been two persons prior to the procedure: 'you, who according to animalism22 became a brainless vegetable, and the remnant person, who became a naked brain'. And yet the alternative answer — that the person came into existence when your cerebrum23 was removed from your skull — looks to be equally problematic. First of all, it seems absurd to think that a person could be created simply by cutting away sustaining human tissue. A further problem emerges once we imagine what the animalist24 must say about the fate of remnant people in transplant25 operations. When your cerebrum26 is installed in my body, I do not become you, the remnant person. According to animalism27, I am the same organism that previously lacked a cerebrum28; I was never a cerebrum29 in a vat. But this suggests that, by animalism’s30 lights, the result of the transplant31 is the destruction of the remnant person. Consequently, neither answer to the origin question appears to be open to the animalist32. Claiming that the person existed prior to the cerebrum’s33 removal commits the animalist34 to affirming the existence of multiple persons for each human animal35, while claiming that the person came into existence when the cerebrum36 was removed commits the animalist37 to the two absurdities just described.
  3. Olson devotes the remainder of his chapter to exploring several possible strategies whereby an animalist38 can avoid these absurdities while still accounting for the 'sort of thing the remnant person would be, where she could come from, what would happen to her at the end of the operation and why, and how she would relate to you and me'. He rules out the possibility that the remnant person could be you after considering three ways that an animalist39 might defend this claim —
    1. 'Accidentalism',
    2. 'Scattered animalism40', and
    3. Madden’s ("Madden (Rory) - Externalism and Brain Transplants", 2011) 'remote-thought hypothesis'
    — and finding all of them unconvincing. And Olson's objections to the proposal that the remnant person could be your cerebrum41 — what he calls 'remnant cerebralism' — are equally withering. The last strategy that Olson explores appeals to van Inwagen's ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings", 1990) answer to the special composition question in denying the existence of a remnant person. Olson calls this proposal — 'brain eliminativism' — 'drastic', but offers no further criticism, and one has the sense that, of the various strategies open to the animalist42, this is the one that Olson regards as the least unpromising, as it were.
  4. Nevertheless, Olson concedes that he can see no really satisfying animalist43 solution to the remnant-person problem, but that this constitutes reason to reject animalism44 'only if our being animals is the source of the problem'. And in the final section of the chapter, Olson argues that this is not the case, i.e. that the remnant persons problem represents a challenge to animalism45 no more than it does to nearly all of animalism46's main rivals. The one exception, Olson recognizes, is the brain view, according to which we are our brains (or, perhaps, our cerebrums)47.


See Link.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2: Footnote 8: Taken from "Blatti (Stephan) & Snowdon (Paul), Eds - Animalism: Introduction".

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