I’ve taken electronic chapter-copies taken from Olson's website + printed / filed with Personal Identity papers. Had been published on-line at Link. The link has been removed from this page, though the chapters are still accessible using the individual links from my "papers" database. As these chapters are on-line, I’m taking the liberty of importing them into my database / website and adding comments. I’m collating them against the book, lest there have been revisions.
Discussions of personal identity commonly ignore the question of our basic metaphysical nature: whether we are biological organisms, spatial or temporal parts of organisms, bundles of perceptions, or what have you. This book is a general study of this question. It begins by explaining what the question means and how it differs from others, such as questions of personal identity and the mind-body problem. It then examines critically the main possible accounts of our metaphysical nature. The book does not endorse any particular account but argues that the matter turns on issues in the ontology of material objects.
- If composition is universal – if any material things whatever make up something bigger – then we are temporal parts of organisms.
- If things never compose anything bigger, so that there are only mereological simples, then either we are simples – perhaps the immaterial souls of Descartes – or we do not exist at all.
- If some things compose bigger things and others do not, we are organisms.
- From the time of Locke, discussions of personal identity have often ignored the question of our basic metaphysical nature: whether we human people are biological organisms, spatial or temporal parts of organisms, bundles of perceptions, or what have you. The result of this neglect has been centuries of wild proposals and clashing intuitions.
- What Are We? is the first general study of this important question. It begins by explaining what the question means and how it differs from others, such as questions of personal identity and the mind-body problem. It then examines in some depth the main possible accounts of our metaphysical nature, detailing both their theoretical virtues and suggests a way of choosing among them.
Oxford University Press, 2007.
"Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Review of 'What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology' by Eric T. Olson"
Source: Mind, 117:1120-1122, 2008
- In his invigorating new book – "Olson (Eric) - What are We? A Study of Personal Ontology" – Eric Olson investigates what we are1, metaphysically speaking. ‘By “we”,’ he says, ‘I mean you and me and the people we know — we human people.’ (p. 8) 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 be. 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 pronouns and proper names refer?’ (p. 11, p.132).
- Olson canvasses a number of important accounts of our metaphysical nature: animalism2, constitutionalism, the brain view, the view that we are temporal parts of animals, the bundle view, immaterialism, nihilism3, along with some ‘minor views’. After a mostly balanced presentation and critical examination of summary versions of these accounts, Olson concludes his book with a more freewheeling discussion of his own opinions on what we are4 and on theories of composition.
- The book is engagingly written in a conversational style. Olson has some vivid analogies, e.g., ‘Your hylomorphic soul is supposed to stand to you as a dent stands to a dented car or a knot stands to a knotted rope.’ (p. 174) And he makes up inventive labels for the positions he discusses; to take just one among many, Olson calls Chisholm’s suggestion that we might be tiny physical particles ‘Lilliputian materialism’ (p. 176)
- Olson’s favored view (or one of them) is animalism5, a view that he defended in "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology" (1997). Animalism6 is the thesis that ‘each of us is numerically identical with an animal. (pp. 24-5) ‘[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 them.’ (p. 44)
- The chapters on Souls and on Nihilism7 are particularly rich. Olson treats immaterialism with much greater respect than do most other materialist philosophers today. And he argues that nihilism8 (the view that we do not exist) is not easily disposed of: ‘Why should the truth be believable?’ (p. 210) He compares nihilism9 with solipsism and raises the possibility that nihilism10 is a ‘pathological view’ — one that is psychologically impossible to accept consistently without going mad (p. 209). The discussion is quite thought-provoking.
- Olson rules out many candidate accounts of our natures by what he calls ‘the thinking-animal problem’: ‘If there is a human animal11 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. 211) Olson says that the thinking-animal problem is not only ‘an argument for animalism12 but also a challenge for any other account of what we are13.’ (p. 211) (However, he shortly exempts nihilism14 and immaterialism from its reach. (p. 216)) But the thinking-animal problem is a problem only if the antecedent is true. Many nonanimalist views — constitutionalism, ‘compound dualism’, the bundle view, the brain view, etc. — are not committed to the antecedent.
- Consider constitutionalism. Constitutionalism holds that we are constituted by human animals15, 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 constitutionalism. 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 ways 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.
- 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 all. (p. 24). He simply ignores a constitutionalist who argues that there are two ways of having a property — 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 game’. (p. 24)
- In his last chapter, Olson suggests that animalism16, the temporal-parts view, and nihilism17 are the only viable accounts of our metaphysical natures. (p. 214) He further argues that theories of composition and theories of what we are18 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 are19.’ (p. 232)
- Olson shows how mereological universalism (the theory of composition according to which any things however disparate have a sum) leads philosophers to fourdimensionalism. He proposes a reductio of three-dimensionalist universalism: 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 once, it follows that you are M. But you are not a persisting mass of matter; you were not composed by the Ps a month ago. So, if you are composed of particles (in that you are identical to a sum of particles), then three-dimensionalist universalism is false. So, instead of saying that you are composed of particles, some universalists are led to say that you are composed of particle-stages. In that case, you have temporal parts. (pp. 230-231) So, here we have a theory of composition (universalism) leading to a metaphysical view of what we are20 (a four-dimensional being with temporal parts).
- 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. 231)
- It’s no wonder that he cannot find a good answer: He’s asking a question that conflates constitution and composition. 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 objects (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 animal21, which in turn now is constituted by a particular sum of particles. Last month, the same sum of particles existed but did not constitute you then.
- Universalism-cum-constitutionalism does not bloat ontology beyond constitutionalism alone; sums are ontological ‘freebies’ that exist if their mereological parts exist. The important point is that constitution and composition are two different relations. 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 are22 only if what we are23 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 are24.’ (p. 232)
- Olson’s critical survey of ontological theories of our nature will be successful, I suspect, in a classroom. Focussing mainly on generic versions of views rather than on specific texts, Olson assembles familiar arguments and presents new ones. The discussions are clear and, with a few noted exceptions, even-handed. What Are We? is a readable overview of accounts of what we are25 and is filled with many stimulating arguments.
"Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Contents + References"
Source: What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology - Contents + References (November 2007: Oxford University Press.)
- The Question
1.1. What are we1?
1.2. Some Answers
1.4. Rephrasing the question
1.5. Must there be an answer?
1.6. How the question differs from others
1.7. Why it matters
2.2. What is an animal?
2.3. The thinking-animal argument3
2.4. Are there animals?
2.5. Can animals think?
2.6. Too many thinkers4
2.7. Revisionary linguistics
2.8. Animalism5 and our identity over time
2.9. Further objections
3.1. Material things constituted by animals
3.2. The clay-modelling6 puzzle
3.3. The replacement puzzle and the amputation puzzle
3.4. Thinking animals7 again
3.5. When does constitution occur?
3.6. What determines our boundaries?
4.1. The brain view
4.2. The thinking-brain problem
4.3. The brain view and our identity over time
4.4. Thinking-subject minimalism
4.5. Direct involvement
- Temporal Parts
5.1. Four-dimensional hunks of matter
5.2. Temporary intrinsics8
5.3. Lumps and statues9
5.4. The problem of modal10 incompatibility
5.5. Puzzles of personal identity
5.6. Thinking animals11 and other worries
5.7. Thinking stages
5.8. The stage view12
6.1. Bundle theories
6.2. Traditional arguments for the bundle view
6.3. Personal identity and the bundle view
6.4. Can thoughts think?
6.5. Thinking animals13 once more
6.6. Bundles of universals14
6.7. The program view
7.2. Traditional arguments for immaterialism
7.3. The paradox of increase
7.4. The cost of materialism
7.5. Objections to immaterialism
7.6. Compound dualism
7.8. Simple materialism
8.1. We do not exist
8.2. Is nihilism16 mad?
8.3. Is nihilism17 self-refuting?
8.4. Unity and simplicity
8.5. Paraphrase: the mentalistic strategy
8.6. Paraphrase: the atomistic strategy
8.7. What it would mean if we did not exist
- What Now?
9.1. Some results
9.2. Some opinions
9.3. Animalism18 and the thinking-parts problem
9.4. Animalism19 and the clay-modelling20 puzzle
9.5. Theories of composition
9.6. Composition and what we are21
9.7. Brutal composition
- "Anscombe (G.E.M.) - The First Person"
- "Ayer (A.J.) - Language, Truth and Logic"
- "Ayers (Michael R.) - Locke (Vol 2 - Ontology)"
- "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Why Constitution is Not Identity"
- "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View"
- "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Materialism with a Human Face"
- "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - On Making Things Up: Constitution and Its Critics"
- "Bennett (Karen) - Spatio-Temporal Coincidence and the Grounding Problem"
- "Blackburn (Simon) - Has Kant Refuted Parfit?"
- Franz Brentano. 1987. On the Existence of God. Dordrecht: Nijhoff. (Original work 1928.)
- "Burke (Michael) - Copper Statues and Pieces of Copper: A Challenge to the Standard Account"
- "Burke (Michael) - Dion and Theon: An Essentialist Solution to an Ancient Puzzle"
- "Burke (Michael) - Tibbles the Cat: A Modern Sophisma"
- "Burke (Michael) - Is My Head a Person?"
- "Butler (Joseph) - Of Personal Identity"
- Keith Campbell. 1990. Abstract Particulars22. Oxford: Blackwell.
- "Campbell (Scott) - The Conception of a Person as a Series of Mental Events"
- "Carnap (Rudolf) - The Logical Structure of the World / Pseudoproblems in Philosophy"
- "Carruthers (Peter) - Introducing Persons: Theories and Arguments in the Philosophy of Mind"
- "Carter (William) - How to Change Your Mind"
- "Chisholm (Roderick) - Person and Object"
- "Chisholm (Roderick) - The First Person: Essay on Reference and Intentionality"
- Roderick Chisholm. 1989. Is there a mind-body problem? In On Metaphysics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
… Partly reprinted in "Chisholm (Roderick) - Which Physical Thing Am I? An Excerpt from 'Is There a Mind-Body Problem?'"
- "Chalmers (David) & Clark (Andy) - The Extended Mind"
- "Corcoran (Kevin), Ed. - Soul, Body and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons"
- "Dennett (Daniel) - Where Am I?"
- "Dennett (Daniel) - True Believers: The Intentional Strategy and Why it Works"
- "Dennett (Daniel) - Consciousness Explained"
- "Doepke (Frederick) - Spatially Coinciding Objects"
- "Doepke (Frederick) - The Kinds of Things: A Theory of Personal Identity Based on Transcendental Argument"
- "Dorr (Cian) - Merricks on the Existence of Human Organisms"
- "Elder (Crawford) - Real Natures and Familiar Objects"
- "Foster (John) - The Immaterial Self: Defence of the Cartesian Dualist Conception of the Mind"
- "Foster (John) - A Brief Defense of the Cartesian View"
- Montgomery Furth. 1988. Substance, Form and Psyche: An Aristotelian Metaphysics. CUP.
- "Gallois (Andre) - Occasional Identity", Note23
- "Gallois (Andre) - Occasions of Identity : a Study in the Metaphysics of Persistence, Change, and Sameness"
- "Garrett (Brian) - Personal Identity and Self-consciousness"
- "Gibbard (Allan) - Contingent Identity"
- "Geach (Peter) - Reference and Generality (Selections)"
- Giles, J. 1997. No Self to be Found: The Search for Personal Identity. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
- "Grice (H. Paul) - Personal Identity"
- William Hasker. 1999. The Emergent Self. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
- "Hasker (William) - Persons as Emergent Substances"
- "Haslanger (Sally) - Persistence Through Time"
- "Hawley (Katherine) - How Things Persist"
- "Heller (Mark) - Temporal Parts of Four-Dimensional Objects"
- "Heller (Mark) - The Ontology of Physical Objects: Four-Dimensional Hunks of Matter"
- "Hershenov (David) - Do Dead Bodies Pose a Problem for Biological Approaches to Personal Identity"
- "Hestevold (H. Scott) - Conjoining"
- "Hoffman (Joshua) & Rosenkrantz (Gary) - Substance: Its Nature and Existence"
- "Horgan (Terence) - On What There Isn't"
- "Hudson (Hud) - A Materialist Metaphysics of the Human Person"
- "Hume (David), Mossner (Ernest) - A Treatise of Human Nature"
… Partly reprinted in "Hume (David) - Treatise I.IV.VI: Of Personal Identity"
- "Johnston (Mark) - Human Beings"
- "Kant (Immanuel), Kemp Smith (Norman) - Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason"
- "Kim (Jaegwon) - Lonely Souls: Causality and Substance Dualism"
- "Levey (Samuel) - Coincidence and Principles of Composition"
- "Lewis (David) - Counterpart Theory and Quantified Modal Logic".
- "Lewis (David) - Counterparts of Persons and Their Bodies".
- "Lewis (David) - Survival and Identity".
- "Lewis (David) - On the Plurality of Worlds"
- "Lewis (David) - Many, But Almost One"
- "Lewis (David) - Tensing the Copula"
- "Lewis (David) & Lewis (Stephanie) - Holes"
- "Locke (John), Nidditch (Peter) - An Essay Concerning Human Understanding"
… Partly reprinted in "Locke (John) - Of Identity and Diversity"
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Kinds of Being: Study of Individuation, Identity and the Logic of Sortal Terms" (Note24)
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Substance and Selfhood"
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Subjects of Experience"
- "Lowe (E.J.) - An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind"
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Identity, Composition, and the Simplicity of the Self"
- "Lowe (E.J.) - A Survey of Metaphysics"
- "Markosian (Ned) - Brutal Composition"
- Gareth B. Matthews. 1982. Accidental unities. In M. Schofield and M. Nussbaum, ed., Language and Logos. Cambridge University Press.
- "McMahan (Jeff) - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life"
- "McDowell (John) - Reductionism and the First Person"
- "Mellor (D.H.) - Real Time II"
- "Merricks (Trenton) - There Are No Criteria For Identity Over Time"
- "Merricks (Trenton) - How to Live Forever Without Saving Your Soul: Physicalism and Immortality"
- "Merricks (Trenton) - Objects and Persons"
- "Myro (George) - Identity and Time" (Note: See footnote 2)
- "Nagel (Thomas) - The View from Nowhere"
- "Noonan (Harold) - Personal Identity".
- "Noonan (Harold) - Animalism Versus Lockeanism: A Current Controversy"
- "Noonan (Harold) - Persons, Animals and Human Beings (2010)"
- "Nozick (Robert) - Philosophical Explanations"
- "O'Leary-Hawthorne (John) & Cover (J.A.) - A World of Universals"
- "Olson (Eric) - Composition and Coincidence".
- "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology"
- "Olson (Eric) - Relativism and Persistence"
- "Olson (Eric) - Material Coincidence and the Indiscernibility Problem"
- "Olson (Eric) - A Compound of Two Substances"
- "Olson (Eric) - What Does Functionalism Tell Us About Personal Identity"
- "Olson (Eric) - Thinking Animals and the Reference of 'I'"
- "Olson (Eric) - The Ontology of Material Objects"
- "Olson (Eric) - Was Jekyll Hyde?"
- "Olson (Eric) - An Argument for Animalism"
- "Olson (Eric) - Animalism and the Corpse Problem" (Note: See footnote 2)
- "Olson (Eric) - Is there a Bodily Criterion of Personal Identity"
- "Olson (Eric) - The Paradox of Increase"
- "Olson (Eric) - Temporal Parts and Timeless Parthood"
- "Parfit (Derek) - Lewis, Perry, and What Matters"
- "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons"
- "Perry (John) - Can the Self Divide?"
- "Perry (John), Ed. - Personal Identity"
- "Perry (John) - The Problem of Personal Identity"
- "Perry (John) - Personal Identity, Memory, and the Problem of Circularity"
- "Persson (Ingmar) - Our Identity and the Separability of Person and Organism"
- "Pike (Nelson) - Hume's Bundle Theory of the Self: A Limited Defense"
- "Puccetti (Roland) - Brain Bisection and Personal Identity"
- "Quine (W.V.) - Word & Object"
- "Quinn (Philip L.) - Tiny Selves: Chisholm on the Simplicity of the Soul"
- "Quinton (Anthony) - The Soul"
- "Quinton (Anthony) - The Nature of Things"
- "Rea (Michael), Ed. - Material Constitution - A Reader"
- "Rea (Michael) - Supervenience and Co-Location"
- "Rea (Michael) - In Defense of Mereological Universalism"
- "Rea (Michael) - Constitution and Kind Membership"
- "Reid (Thomas) - Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (I & II)"
- "Reid (Thomas) - Of Identity"
- "Robinson (Howard) - A Dualist Account of Embodiment"
- "Rosen (Gideon) & Dorr (Cian) - Composition as a Fiction"
- "Rovane (Carol) - The Bounds of Agency: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics"
- "Russell (Bertrand) - The Philosophy of Logical Atomism"
- "Russell (Bertrand) - The Analysis of Mind"
- Marya Schechtman. 1997. The brain/body problem. Philosophical Psychology 10: 149-164.
- "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Immortality and Dualism"
- "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Identity, Properties, and Causality"
- "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Personal Identity: a Materialist Account"
- Sydney Shoemaker. 1995. Personal identity. In R. Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.
- "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Self and Substance"
- "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Self, Body, and Coincidence"
- "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Functionalism and Personal Identity - a Reply"
- "Sider (Ted) - All the World's a Stage"
- "Sider (Ted) - Four-dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time"
- "Sider (Ted) - Criteria of Personal Identity and the Limits of Conceptual Analysis"
- "Snowdon (Paul) - Persons, Animals, and Ourselves"
- "Snowdon (Paul) - Some Objections to Animalism"
- "Sosa (Ernest) - Subjects Among Other Things"
- "Stalnaker (Robert) - Counterparts and Identity"
- "Stone (Jim) - Parfit and the Buddha: Why There Are No People"
- "Stone (Jim) - Why there are still no people"
- "Strawson (Peter) - Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics"
- "Swinburne (Richard) - Personal Identity: The Dualist Theory"
- "Swinburne (Richard) - The Evolution of the Soul"
- "Taylor (Richard) - Metaphysics"
- "Thomson (Judith Jarvis) - Parthood and Identity Across Time"
- "Thomson (Judith Jarvis) - People and Their Bodies"
- "Thomson (Judith Jarvis) - The Statue and the Clay"
- "Tye (Michael) - Consciousness and Persons: Unity and Identity"
- "Unger (Peter) - I Do Not Exist"
- "Unger (Peter) - Why There Are No People"
- "Unger (Peter) - The Problem of the Many"
- "Unger (Peter) - Identity, Consciousness and Value"
- "Unger (Peter) - All the Power in the World"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Possibility of Resurrection"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Philosophers and the Words 'Human Body'"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - An Essay on Free Will"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - When are Objects Parts?"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Four-Dimensional Objects"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Composition As Identity"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Materialism and the Psychological-continuity Account of Personal Identity"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Ontology, Identity and Modality: Essays in metaphysics"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - What Do We Refer to When We Say 'I'?"
- "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics"
- "Wiggins (David) - On Being in the Same Place at the Same Time"
- "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance"
- "Williams (Bernard) - Descartes - The Project of Pure Enquiry"
- "Wilson (Jack) - Biological Individuality - The identity and Persistence of Living Entities"
- "Wittgenstein (Ludwig) - Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus"
- "Yablo (Stephen) - Identity, Essence, and Indiscernibility"
- "Zimmerman (Dean) - Distinct Indiscernibles and the Bundle Theory"
- Dean Zimmerman. 1999. The compatibility of materialism and survival: The “falling elevator25” model. Faith and Philosophy 16: 194-212.
- "Zimmerman (Dean) - The Constitution of Persons by Bodies: A Critique of Lynne Rudder Baker’s Theory of Material Constitution"
- "Zimmerman (Dean) - Material People"
In-Page Footnotes ("Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Contents + References")
Footnote 22: Not purchased, but see "Campbell (Keith) - The Metaphysic of Abstract Particulars".
Footnote 23: References to Gallois and occasional identity are omitted from the book.
Footnote 24: References to this work are omitted from Olson’s book.
Footnote 25: I’ve not been able to find this (free) on-line. But see "Zimmerman (Dean) - Bodily Resurrection: The Falling Elevator Model Revisited".
"Olson (Eric) - What Are We? The Question"
Source: What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology, Chapter 1 (November 2007: Oxford University Press.)
(OO-L): This chapter explains what it means to ask what we are1. It begins by breaking the question up into smaller ones, such as what we are made of, what parts we have, and whether we are substances. It makes clear that the question is not about people in general, but only about us human people. It considers two ways of rephrasing the question: What do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to? and What sorts of beings think our thoughts and perform our actions? The question is distinguished from the question of personal identity over time and from the mind-body problem. It is then argued that thinking about personal identity without considering what we are2 leads to metaphysical trouble.
Click here for Note
- What are we3?
- Some Answers
- Rephrasing the question
- Must there be an answer?
- How the question differs from others
- Why it matters
1.1 What are we4?
1.2 Some answers
- This book is about a question: What are we5? That is, what are we6 metaphysically speaking? What are our most general and fundamental features? What is our most basic metaphysical nature?
- My first task is to explain what this question means. Rather than attempting to define the daunting phrases ‘general and fundamental feature’ or 'basic metaphysical nature', I will try to give their meaning by example. We can break the large question of what we are7 into smaller ones that are easier to grapple with.
- One such smaller question is what we are made of. I don't mean our chemical composition- -what sort of physical matter makes us up. I want to know whether we are made of matter at all. Or are we made of something other than matter? Or partly of matter and partly of something else? Come to that, are we made of anything at all? Is there any sort of stuff, material or otherwise, that makes us up?
- It may seem obvious that we are made of matter. When you look in a mirror you see something material. You don’t see anything immaterial. And don’t you see yourself in the mirror? It follows that you are a material thing: something made of matter. But that would be too quick. You might have an immaterial ingredient that doesn't show in the mirror; so casual observation suggests at most that you are made partly of matter. Even if you were entirely immaterial, so that you didn’t strictly see yourself in the mirror at all, you could still see your body there – that physical organism by means of which you perceive and act in the world. So our appearance of being material proves nothing. In fact the view that we are made entirely of matter – materialism – has not been especially popular in the history of philosophy. In any case, whether we are made of matter is an important question about what we are8.
- If we are indeed made of matter, or of anything else, we can ask what matter or other stuff we are made of. Most materialists say that we are made of all and only the matter that makes up our animal bodies: we extend all the way out to the surface of our skin (which is presumably where our bodies end) and no further. But a few take us to be considerably smaller: the size of brains, for instance. I don’t know of anyone who believes that we are material things larger than our bodies – that we are made of the matter that makes up our bodies and other matter besides – though I suppose that is a possible view.
- A third question is what parts we have. This is not the same as what we are made of. Philosophers who agree about what we are made of – not only about what sort of stuff, but also about what particular stuff – may still disagree about our parts. They may disagree about whether we have temporal parts – such things as earlier halves – in addition to any spatial parts we may have, such as hands. They can even disagree about our ordinary spatial parts. Some materialists say that every part of the region of space you now occupy contains a material thing of its own that is a part of you. On their view, your current parts include not only your head and your left hand (supposing that you are made of your body’s matter), but also your northern half, "all of you but your left ear", and many further arbitrary and gerrymandered objects too tedious to describe. Other materialists deny that we have arbitrary spatial parts. They may accept that your parts include elementary particles, but they deny that there is such a thing as all of you but your left ear. Some even say that we extend all the way out to our skin, yet have no parts at all. So knowing what we are made of does not by itself tell us what parts we have.
- These considerations raise a more general question: What makes something a part of one? What determines where our boundaries lie? If your kidneys are parts of you but not your shoes, or my kidneys, why is this so? What is it about the way those things relate to you that makes some of them parts of you but not others? If you extend all the way out to the surface of your skin and no further, what accounts for this? Why say that your boundary is there?
- Here is a different sort of question: Are we abstract or concrete? Though these terms are hard to define, it will suffice for present purposes to say that something is concrete if it can be causally active – if it can actively do something – and it is capable of change. Whatever is not concrete is abstract. So the number seven is abstract, and donkeys are concrete – as are gods and Cartesian souls, if such there be. Hard though it may be to imagine how we could be abstract, that is what a few people seem to think. They say that we are not so much like the number seven as like the novel Moby Dick. That novel is not the same as any of the paper tomes sitting on bookshelves, or even the original manuscript in the author's hand. Nor is it something made up of all of these concrete objects. (It doesn't grow in size when more copies are printed.) It is, rather, an abstract object that all of those particular things exemplify. It is a universal: something that can have many instances. So it seems, anyway. A mountain, by contrast, is not an abstract universal but a concrete particular. Even if the people of Minnesota were by some heroic effort to build an exact replica of Mt. Rainier on the outskirts of St. Paul, their creation would be a reproduction and not the real thing. Mt. Rainier is not something of which the original and the reproduction would both be instances in the way that different copies of Moby Dick are instances of the novel.
- We can ask, then, whether we ourselves are concrete particulars like Mt. Rainier or abstract universals9 like Moby Dick. Could there be more than one of you? Suppose the people of Minnesota managed to make an exact replica of you: a concrete being both physically and mentally just like the original, right down to the last atom and quirk of personality. That being would be convinced (at first anyway) that she was you. Would she be right? Would she be you in the same sense as the original is you, just as every copy of Moby Dick is Moby Dick? Or would only the original be you and the other a mere reproduction, as with Mt. Rainier? For that matter, might we be abstract objects other than universals10?
- If we are concrete beings, we can ask whether we are substances – metaphysically independent beings – or whether we are rather states or aspects of something else. Think of a car with a dent in it. The dent is not a part of the car: you couldn’t take it out of the car and put it somewhere else, as you could a wheel. It seems, rather, to be a way that the car is: a state or an aspect of the car. It is not a substance: not a thing in the most robust sense. The car, by contrast, is not a way that the dent is. In fact it does not itself appear to be a state or an aspect of anything: there is nothing, it seems, that stands to the car as the car stands to the dent. It is a good candidate for being a substance. Our question, then, is whether you are like a car or like a dent. Are you a state or an aspect of something other than yourself? Or an event or process that something else is undergoing, like the car’s cooling off? Is there something – an organism or a lump of matter, perhaps – that stands to you as the car stands to the dent in it?
- We can ask whether we persist through time. Do we literally continue existing for seventy years or more? Or is the sober truth that we exist only for a moment? Some say that you appear to persist only because you are instantly replaced by a being so much like you that no one can tell the difference – not even that being himself, for he inherits all of your mental features. Could they be right?
- This is the sort of thing I have in mind when I ask what we are11 metaphysically speaking. There are many more such questions. We can ask, for instance, what our persistence conditions12 are: what is necessary and sufficient for a past or future being to be you. We can ask which of our properties are essential to us and which are accidental, or more generally which properties it is in any sense possible for you or me to have or lack. We can ask how exactly we relate to those biological organisms that we sometimes call our bodies. And so on. An answer to these questions would tell us what we are13.
- In understanding a question it often helps to see what would count as an answer to it; and often the answers are easier to grasp than the question itself. (Understanding the questions is the hardest thing in philosophy.) Here, then, are some accounts of what we might be: views that would, if they were true, at least begin to tell us what we are14.
- One view is that we are animals: biological organisms. It may seem as evident that we are animals as it is that we are made of matter. We are certainly not plants, or angels, or stones. But few philosophers say that we are animals. It may be evident that we are in some sense animals – that we have animal bodies, for instance. (We will consider the meaning of this claim in §2.1.) But our having bodies that are animals does not by itself tell us whether we are animals. Saying what sort of thing my body is would tell me what sort of thing I am if I am my body – if my body and I are one and same thing – but whether this is so is much disputed, even among materialists.
- How could we be material things other than animals? Well, we might be parts of animals: brains, for instance. Or we might be temporal parts of animals rather than spatial parts: you might be spatially the same size as the animal we call your body but temporally shorter, in that the animal extends further into the past or the future than you do. Many views are possible about what spatial or temporal parts of animals we might be. These two thoughts can also be combined: we might be temporal parts of brains.
- Some philosophers deny that we are either animals or parts of animals, but insist that we are nonetheless material things. They say that the same matter can make up two different objects at once. Specifically, the matter making up a typical human organism also makes up a certain non-organism. These non-organisms, they say, are what we are15. So another possible answer to our question is that we are material things made of the same matter as or “constituted by” our animal bodies.
- Hume once suggested that each of us is "a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement" (1978: 252). In that case we are not material things at all. Our bodies may be made of matter, but we ourselves are made up of perceptions, or mental states and events. Our parts are not organs or cells or atoms, but memories, wishes, and dreams. We are concrete particulars, but not substances: we are like dents – or, as Hume himself suggests, like theater performances.
- A view with a long tradition has it that we are simple immaterial substances – simple meaning without parts. We are not made of matter, or of perceptions, or indeed of anything else. We have no mass or shape or any other physical property. Our bodies may have such properties, but they are not what we are16, or even parts of us. A related view says that each of us is a compound object made up of both an immaterial substance and a material organism.
- Some people seem to think that we are are something like novels or computer programs: abstract universals17 that can be embodied in flesh or stored on magnetic disks or even written down on paper. The concrete beings that walk and talk and sleep in our beds are mere instances or "hard copies" of us.
- There is even the paradoxical view that there is nothing that we are. There are no such beings as you and I. We don't exist. Strictly speaking this book has no author. The atoms we call mine may be real enough; perhaps even the thoughts and actions we call mine exist; but those atoms and events are not parts or states of any thinking, acting being.
- None of these views offers a complete account of what we are18. None purports, by itself, to answer all my questions. The view that we are animals, for instance, does not by itself tell us whether we have parts, or which of our properties are essential to us and which are accidental. It is even disputable whether it implies that we persist through time. For that we should need to know whether animals persist, whether they have parts, and which of their properties are essential to them and which are accidental; and here there is room for disagreement. The same goes for the other accounts. Even so, they each tell us a good deal about what we are19. They are mutually incompatible: if we are animals then we are not parts of animals, immaterial substances, bundles of perceptions, or any of the other sorts of things we have mentioned; if we are immaterial substances then we are not animals or parts of animals; and so on. Moreover, once we know which of them is correct, questions about our metaphysical nature become questions about the metaphysical nature of animals, bundles of perceptions, or what have you; and with any luck those questions will be easier to answer than the original question about our own metaphysical nature.
- By way of contrast, here is a view that does not answer the question of what we are20: that we are people. (In this book I follow ordinary English, and depart from academic usage, in using ‘people’ as the plural of ‘person’. This is purely for stylistic purposes.) Although in many contexts it may be a perfectly good answer to the question “What is x?” to be told that x is a person, the claim that we are people tells us nothing about our metaphysical nature. No one, no matter what her view of our metaphysical nature, thinks that we are not people. More to the point, the claim that we are people tells us nothing about the metaphysical nature of people: whether they are material or immaterial, abstract or concrete, and so on.
- Nor does it answer our question to say that we are essentially or most fundamentally people. To say that we are essentially people is to say that we could not possibly exist without being people. To say that we are most fundamentally people is to say, roughly, that we have our identity conditions by virtue of our being people, and not, say, by virtue of our being organisms or concrete objects or sentient beings. Not everyone agrees that we are essentially or most fundamentally people. And the view that we are essentially or most fundamentally people may rule out certain accounts of what we are21, such as the view that we are organisms (see §2.9). So this view may tell us something about what we are22. But it doesn’t tell us much – not, at least, until we know whether people are material or immaterial, concrete or abstract, and so on.
- There are many other possible accounts of what we are23, but this incomplete list ought to give some idea of what I am after. In particular, it shows what level of generality I have in mind. The bulk of this book is devoted to examining these views, and a number of others. I cannot discuss all possible views of what we are24. I will try to divide my attention among them in proportion to their interest and importance. The rest of this chapter, meanwhile, is about the question itself: how it might be rephrased, some complications it raises, how it differs from traditional questions of personal identity, and why it is important.
1.4 Rephrasing the question
- Our question is what sort of things we are, most generally and fundamentally. I have tried to say what I mean by 'what sort of things'. What do I mean by 'we'?
- Consider first its scope. By 'we' I mean you and me and the people we know – we human people. I don’t mean non-human people, if there any. So our question is not about the basic metaphysical nature of people as such, but only of ourselves.
- Why this restriction? I don’t want to consider the metaphysical nature of people in general because for all I know there might be people of different metaphysical kinds from us. Suppose for the sake of argument that we are biological organisms. That doesn’t rule out the possibility that there are also angels or gods: rational, intelligent, self-conscious beings that are wholly immaterial. Nor does it deny that there could be inorganic artefacts with the same mental features as we have. Assuming that being rational, intelligent, and self-conscious suffices for being a person, all of these beings – gods, inorganic machines, and we organisms – would count as people. For that matter, there are philosophers who believe that many human people acting together can compose a larger "group" or "corporate" person: Apple Computer, Inc. might be a person in the same sense as you and I are. I see no reason to suppose that all the items on this list would have to share the same basic metaphysical nature. That is, I see no reason to suppose that there is any one metaphysical sort of thing that people in general are, or must be. Or if there is, we cannot know it until we have either ruled out the possibility of some of the items on this list – gods, thinking machines, or the like – or else shown that despite appearances people of all these sorts would share the same basic metaphysical nature. It would be easier if we didn’t have to worry about this. So I will limit the inquiry to ourselves. That will leave us with more than enough to think about.
- This approach is unorthodox. Most discussions of personal identity take for it granted that claims about what we are – about25 our identity over time, for instance – necessarily apply to all people (see §2.8). Insofar as they consider our metaphysical nature at all, they take it to derive from our being people, rather than from our being organisms or material objects or anything else. It follows from this assumption that we must share our most basic properties with all people, including gods and inorganic thinking machines if there could be such things.
- This strikes me as dogmatic. Not only is it unwarranted. Worse, it rules out accounts of what we are26 that might otherwise be attractive. It is incompatible with the view that we are organisms, for one. It is unlikely, anyway, that the basic metaphysical nature of any organism derives from its being a person. Organisms seem to have the basic metaphysical nature they have by virtue of being organisms – a nature they share with snails and trees (which I assume are not people). It is even less likely that any organisms have the same basic metaphysical nature as gods or angels or intelligent computers would have. But if there could be people whose metaphysical nature is different from that of organisms, and all people must necessarily have the same metaphysical nature, it follows that no person could be an organism. Assuming that we are people, we ourselves could not be organisms. This seems a poor argument for the claim that we are not organisms. Its premises were these: (1) there could be inorganic people; (2) inorganic people would not have the same metaphysical nature as people who are organisms; (3) necessarily all people have the same metaphysical nature; and (4) we are people. The most questionable of these premises seems to me to be the third. Thus, I will not assume it.
- In any case, this unorthodox stance can do no harm. I am not assuming that different people could have different metaphysical natures. I am merely declining to assume that they couldn’t. If people really must all have the same metaphysical nature, then the question of what sort of things we are and the question of what sort of things people in general are will have the same answer, so we lose nothing by asking the first rather than the second.
- I said that in asking what we are27 I was asking about the basic metaphysical nature of us human people. By human people I don’t mean simply those people who are human beings – not, at least, if a human being is a kind of organism. Whether we are human beings in that sense, or indeed whether any people are, is a contentious matter: it is one of the questions we want answered, not something we can assume at the outset. (Despite its homely attraction, the phrase ‘human being’ is too slippery to be of much use in metaphysics.) Still, there is a sense in which you and I are undoubtedly human. Setting aside the possibility that some of us might be Martian foundlings, anyway, it is clear that each of us relates in an intimate way to an animal that is biologically human. When we see you, we see a human animal28; when you move, a human animal29 moves; you perceive the world via a human animal’s30 sense organs; and so on. That makes you human – rather than, say, bovine or angelic or divine. A human person is a person who relates to a human animal31 in this way. It is, we might say, someone with a human body. Even if in the final analysis there are really no human animals32 (as for instance some idealists say), there must still be some real feature of the world – something about sense-impressions or whatever – that makes it true to say that when you look in a mirror you see a human animal33 and not an angel or a cow. Our question is about the fundamental nature of human people in this sense.
1.5 Must there be an answer?
- So much for the intended scope of the word 'we'. Further issues about what I mean by 'we' arise if we shift from the material to the formal mode – from asking, What are we34? to asking, What does the word 'we' refer to? To avoid irrelevant worries about plural reference, we can put this by asking what a human person refers to when he or she says 'I'. I take it that I am whatever I refer to when I say 'I' – just as London is the thing we refer to when we say ‘London’. And presumably what I refer to when I say 'I' is what others refer to when they address me as 'you' or speak of me as 'he' or as 'Olson'. So anyone who finds the question, What sort of things are we? puzzling could replace it with the question, What sort things do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to?
- These two questions – What are we35? and, What do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to? – are not entirely equivalent. We sometimes use personal pronouns to refer to dogs or ships, even though none of us are dogs or ships. But they come to almost the same thing. The view that we are organisms (say) amounts, near enough, to the view that our personal pronouns, in their most typical uses at least, refer to organisms. The view that we don't exist – that there is nothing that we are – amounts to the view that our personal pronouns don't refer to anything because there is nothing there for them to refer to.
- Now this way of rephrasing the question assumes that the word 'I' and other first-person pronouns are referring expressions: expressions that purport to refer to something, expressions that refer to something if there is anything “there” to be referred to. Anscombe (1981) has denied this. According to her, the word 'I' in 'I am walking’ no more purports to refer to something that walks than the word 'it' in 'it is raining' purports to refer to something that rains. If she is right, then I am not the thing I refer to when I say 'I', for I don't refer to anything when I use that word. But it doesn't follow from this claim that I don't exist, or that there is nothing here speaking that could be referred to. So on Anscombe's view it is a mistake to ask what we are36 by asking what we refer to when we say 'I'. This suggests that it equally mistaken to ask what sort of thing I am, or what sort of things we are: that would be like asking what sort of thing it is that rains.
- This view seems to me to have no plausibility whatever37. Consider these apparent facts: (1) That I am hungry entails that something or other is hungry, just as that London is a city entails that something is a city. (That it is raining, by contrast, does not seem to entail that something is raining.) These inferences appear to be licensed by the rule of existential generalization: they have the form 'this particular thing is thus and so; therefore something is thus and so'. If so, 'I', like 'London', must be a referring expression. (2) The sentence 'I am hungry' expresses a truth just when the being who utters it is hungry. The one who utters it is the one who must be hungry in order for it to be true. The obvious explanation for this is that 'I' refers to the being who utters it. (3) If Rinka says 'I am hungry', we can report this by saying 'Rinka says that she (Rinka) is hungry'. This seems to imply that the word 'I' in Rinka's mouth refers to same thing as the name 'Rinka' refers to – that is, to Rinka. (4) On solemn occasions we say such things as 'I, Alice Margaret Buggins, hereby promise...'. What could the inserted name be doing, if not specifying which person the pronoun refers to? (5) If I am Olson and Olson is the author of this book, it follows that I am the author of this book. The most obvious explanation for the validity of this inference appeals to the principle that if x=y and y is thus and so, then x is thus and so. This assumes that 'I am Olson' is an identity sentence – one in which the identity sign is flanked by two referring expressions – in which case 'I' is a referring expression. Those who deny that 'I' is a referring expression need to account for these facts in a way that is consistent with their view. More generally, they need to explain what the word 'I' does do, if it doesn't refer to the person who utters it. I have never seen such an account.
- But no matter: even if Anscombe is right, we can still put our question by asking what sort of things Olson and Thatcher and Socrates are, or what sort of things our second- and thirdperson personal pronouns and personal proper names refer to. No one denies that those words are referring expressions.
- What if I refer to more than one thing when I say 'I' or 'Olson'? Then there would be no one thing that I am. Asking what sort of thing I am would be like asking about the nature of the planet between the earth and the sun. The question would have no straightforward answer, since it would embody the false presupposition that there is only one being asking it. So perhaps we ought rather to ask, What sort of thing or things do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to?
- It would be especially inconvenient for our inquiry if words like 'I' and 'Olson' referred in their typical uses not just to more than one thing, but to more than one kind of thing. We cannot rule this possibility out a priori. But perhaps we can dismiss one distracting version of it. Some people suggest that the personal pronouns are systematically ambiguous, and refer sometimes to one's mind and sometimes to one's body, so that in one sense of the word ‘I’ I am a mind (and not a body), and in another sense of the word I am a body (and not a mind). It follows that we cannot ask what sort of thing I am without specifying which sense of 'I' (or ‘Olson’) we mean: do we mean what I am38 in the "mental" sense of 'I', or what I am39 in the "bodily" sense of that word?
- This view – call it linguistic dualism – seems to me scarcely more plausible than the view that ‘I’ is not a referring expression. Linguistic dualists are not very clear what sort of things “one's mind” and “one's body” are supposed to be, but presumably they take the mind to be the bearer of one’s mental properties, such as consciousness and intelligence, and the body to be the bearer of one’s brute physical properties, such as height and weight. Further, the mind is supposed to have no physical properties (or at any rate none like height or weight), and the body is supposed to have no mental properties. Otherwise, why call one of them the mind and the other the body? Linguistic dualism therefore implies that in the mental tone of voice, where 'I' refers to my mind, I can say truly I am conscious, but have no height or weight – indeed I am entirely invisible and intangible. And it implies that in the bodily tone of voice, where 'I' refers to my body, I can say truly that I weigh 150 pounds, but am no more conscious or intelligent than a stone. The most I can say about my mental properties while speaking in the bodily tone of voice is that I relate in some intimate way to a conscious, intelligent being other than myself – a being that is not even a part of me, for the mind is not, on this view, a part of the body. There would be no tone of voice in which I could say that I am both visible and aware of this fact, for none of the referents of my first-person pronoun would have both the property of being visible and the property of being aware of anything. Saying that I am both visible and aware of it would be like pointing to Fred and Ginger and saying, "That person is both male and female." It is tempting to call this a reductio ad absurdum of linguistic dualism.
- Nor is there any reason, even for those who believe that “the mind” is a purely mental thing and “the body” is something purely physical, to hold such a view. It would be far better for them to say that we are purely mental things. Then there would be no sense in which we are as stupid as stones. Our being invisible “minds” need not imply that such statements as 'I am visible' are always false: in ordinary contexts this may mean not that I have the property of being visible, but that I have the property of having a body that is visible – a property that a purely mental thing can have.
- Linguistic dualism looks false. But again, I needn’t insist on it. If the word 'I' in my mouth really does refer sometimes to a thinking thing and other times to an unthinking thing, then our concern is the thinking thing. Never mind the referential role of the personal pronouns. This is an essay in metaphysics, not the philosophy of language. Our question is about the nature of the beings holding the inquiry. So we can rephrase our question in yet another way: What sort of beings think our thoughts and perform our actions?
1.6 How the question differs from others
- Let me make a few remarks about the status of the question.
- I take it that the question of what we are40 must have an answer, whether or not it is within our power to discover or even to understand it. There must be some sort of thing that we are, if we exist at all. When we say 'I' or 'you' or 'Socrates', we either refer to something or we don't. If we do, that thing (or those things) must have some general and fundamental properties or other: it must be concrete or abstract, material or immaterial, simple or composite, and so on. If we don't refer to anything, that is presumably because there are no human people to be referred to. Again, if any beings think our thoughts, they must have some metaphysical nature or other; if nothing thinks our thoughts, then we don’t exist.
- What if eliminative materialism is true and there is no such thing as thinking? What then becomes of the question of what we are41? Well, we could still ask what sort of being wrote this book, and what sort of being is now reading it. And we could ask what sort of beings our personal pronouns denote.
- A more worrying possibility is that there are no hard facts about which things think. Suppose, as instrumentalists about the mental say, that it is merely useful, in explaining and predicting the behavior of certain entities, to “take up the intentional stance” towards them – that is, to ascribe to them beliefs and other mental properties (Dennett 1981). It is more useful to attribute mental properties to chimpanzees than to amoebas or daisies: you are better off explaining the behavior of daisies in non-mental terms, whereas with chimpanzees psychological explanation is the only game in town. But the question of which things really have mental properties has no answer. There may not even be a straightforward answer to the question of what sort of things it is most useful to ascribe our mental properties to, for it may be most useful to ascribe them to one sort of thing for some purposes and to other sorts of thing for other purposes. That would suggest that our question has no answer.
- If this really were so, then I suppose all we could say about the metaphysical nature of the beings that think our thoughts would be that it is most useful for certain purposes to attribute our thoughts to beings of one kind (organisms, say), and most useful for other purposes to ascribe them to other beings (bundles of perceptions, perhaps) – supposing that such beings actually exist, anyway. That would be at least a sort of answer to the question of what sort of beings think our thoughts, though a rather untidy one. It would make our inquiry considerably less interesting than it would otherwise be. But I don’t think there is any compelling reason to accept this view about the mental.
- In asking what we are42 I am not asking about our conception or our understanding of ourselves – about what sort of things we take ourselves to be. This is metaphysics, not anthropology. What we ordinarily take ourselves to be may be wildly mistaken.
- Why suppose that we can discover what we are43, as opposed to what we think we are? Well, why suppose that we can discover the answer to any philosophical question? All we can do is to try and see how it goes. If we seem to make progress – if many proposed answers turn out to be incoherent, or to conflict with apparently well-established facts, or to have consequences that just look plainly false, while a small number of views stand up well to interrogation – that will be a reason to think that we might be able to know what we are44, or at least to muster some rational grounds in support of a partial answer. If our best efforts turn up no strong grounds for preferring one answer over any other, by contrast, or if the more we think about the possible answers the less well we seem understand them, we may have to admit that the question is too hard for us. But there is no obvious reason to suppose at the outset that we cannot learn anything about what we are45. (Kant thought he had a reason. He thought we could not know the metaphysical nature of anything, but only how things appear to us and the conditions necessary for this appearance. If he is right, our project is doomed from the start – as is the whole of metaphysics as we know it. I hope I can be forgiven for omitting a critical discussion of Kant's philosophy from a book that is more than long enough already.)
1.7 Why it Matters
- Our question may not sound quite like any of the philosophical problems we learn about as students. But it probably won’t seem completely new either: it sounds a bit like the traditional mind-body problem, and a bit like familiar problems of personal identity. How exactly does it relate to those problems?
- Those who speak of the mind-body problem are usually thinking of questions about the basic nature of mental phenomena, such as belief and conscious experience, and how they relate to such non-mental phenomena as brain chemistry and bodily movements. Our question, by contrast, is about the nature of the subjects of mental phenomena: the beings that think or are conscious. The two topics are of course related: some accounts of what we are46 may rule out some views on the mind-body problem and vice versa. But we could know a good deal about mental phenomena and their relation to the physical while knowing little about the basic metaphysical nature of mental subjects. If all mental events turned out to be physical events in another guise, for instance, that might rule out the view that we are immaterial substances; but it would not tell us whether we are organisms, parts of organisms, bundles of perceptions, or even whether we exist at all. Likewise, knowing our basic metaphysical nature is likely to tell us little about the nature of mental phenomena. Suppose it turned out that we are temporal parts of organisms. That would leave it almost entirely open which account of the mind-body problem is true: it would be compatible with behaviorism, functionalism, property dualism, various psycho-physical identity theories, and eliminative materialism, for instance.
- It is especially important to distinguish the question of what we are47 from traditional questions of personal identity. Three questions have dominated discussions of personal identity since the time of Locke. One is what it takes for us, or for people in general, to persist through time: the persistence question. What sort of adventures is it possible, in the broadest possible sense, for you to survive, and what sort of event would necessarily bring your existence to an end? What determines which past or future being is you? A second question, not always distinguished from the first, is how we find out who is who: the evidence question. What evidence bears on the question of whether the person here now is the one who was there yesterday? How do different sorts of evidence about who is who relate to one another? A third question asks what it is to be a person, as opposed to a non-person: the personhood question.
- The question of what we are48 is more or less completely unrelated to the personhood question. What qualifications a thing needs in order to count as a person is one thing; what sort of thing meets those qualifications – organisms, immaterial substances, bundles of perceptions, or what have you – is another. Suppose for the sake of argument that something is a person if and only if it is, as Locke put it, "a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places" (1975: 335). I take this to be a paradigmatic answer to the personhood question. Yet for all it says, “thinking intelligent beings” might be material or immaterial, simple or composite, persisting or momentary49; they might be organisms, brains, bundles of thoughts, immaterial substances, or what have you. Locke’s definition doesn't answer any of the questions we want answered. It doesn't even tell us whether we exist at all – that is, whether anything satisfies the conditions for being a person. One could have a view about what it is to be a person without having any idea what sort of things we are metaphysically speaking. (Locke’s own position is rather like this.)
- To know what it is to be a person is therefore not to know what we are50. Likewise, to know what we are51 is not to know what it is to be a person. Suppose we are human animals52. That does not imply that to be a person is to be a human animal – even53 assuming that we ourselves are people. It is consistent with there being gods or angels or Martians who are people but not human animals54. Nor does it imply that all human animals55 are people: it is consistent with the view that human animals56 in a persistent and irreversible vegetative state don’t count as people. An account of our metaphysical nature implies nothing at all about what it is to be a person.
- Nor is the evidence question the question of what we are57. One is epistemic; the other is metaphysical. One is about how we find out who is who; the other concerns our metaphysical nature. They could hardly be more different.
- If any familiar question about personal identity is the question of what we are58, it is the persistence question. Some philosophers seem to think that to say what it takes for us to persist through time is to say what sort of things we are59. It is certainly one aspect of our metaphysical nature. Knowing our persistence conditions60 would tell us something about what we are61. But it would tell us less than you might think.
- Consider some examples. The most popular view about our identity over time is that it consists in some sort of psychological continuity62: you are, necessarily, that future being that in some sense inherits its mental features – personality, beliefs, memories, and so on – from you; and you are that past being whose mental features you have thus inherited. There is dispute over the precise nature of this inheritance. Some say that your mental life must be (as Unger puts it) "continuously physically realized": your brain or something like it must remain intact and capable of supporting thought and consciousness in order for you to survive. Some also add a “non-branching” clause to deal with cases where two past or future beings are psychologically continuous with you at once: they say that you are identical with a past or future being who is mentally continuous with you as you are now only if no one else is then mentally continuous with you as you are now.
- Imagine these matters settled: suppose, let us say, that our identity over time consists in non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity63. Call this the conservative psychological-continuity view. Would it tell us what we are64? Not by itself it wouldn’t. It may have implications about what we are65, such as ruling out our being immaterial substances – it is hard to see how any sort of physical continuity could be necessary or sufficient for the persistence of an immaterial substance. It may also imply that we are not organisms, for it seems possible for any organism, even a human animal66, to persist without any sort of psychological continuity67 whatever (see §2.8). The information that we are neither immaterial substances nor organisms would certainly tell us something about what we are68. But it would also leave a lot open. Moreover, the conservative view doesn’t actually say that we are not immaterial substances or organisms, and the implication might be disputed.
- So the conservative view gives at best a radically incomplete picture of what we are69. Even if we can derive some of our most general and fundamental properties from it, few of those derivations will be straightforward, and even then the picture will be fragmentary. Yet it is a paradigmatic answer to the persistence question. Saying what it takes for us to persist does not tell us what we are70.
- Other answers to the persistence question teach the same lesson. Consider what Parfit71 calls the simple view72, that our identity through time does not consist in anything other than itself, but is "simple and unanalyzable": no non-trivial conditions are both necessary and sufficient for a person existing at one time to be identical with something existing at another time. The simple view73 appears to be compatible with almost any view of what we are74. Its advocates have said that we are simple immaterial substances, compounds of a simple immaterial substance and a physical organism, organisms, things constituted by organisms, microscopic physical parts of our brains, and partless material objects physically indiscernible from organisms75.
- These examples show that we could know our persistence conditions76 and yet know little about our other properties of metaphysical interest. The converse also holds: we could know a great deal about our basic metaphysical nature without knowing our persistence conditions77. For example, Ayers, Merricks, van Inwagen, and Wiggins78 agree that we are biological organisms, and agree to a large extent about the metaphysical nature of those organisms, yet diverge widely about what it takes for us to persist.
- To say what our identity through time consists in is is only to begin to say what sort of things we are, just as describing a country’s coastline only begins to tell us about its geography. What it takes for a person to persist through time is one thing; what sort of beings have those persistence conditions79, or indeed whether any do, is another matter.
- The question of what we are80 is often neglected. It is common practice to defend an account of our persistence conditions81 at great length without saying a word about what we are82, except perhaps to rule out our being immaterial substances: Grice, Perry, Nozick, Parfit83, and Unger are notable examples84. When the matter is addressed at all, it is frequently little more than an afterthought. For example, near the end of his well-known debate with Swinburne, Shoemaker mentions that the account of our identity conditions he has been developing rules out our being organisms. He suggests instead that we are each "physically realized in” an organism and share our matter with it. But he says little about how we are to understand this, and considers no objections. It apparently seemed to him little more than an interesting corollary of his view of our identity over time (1984: 113-114; his 1999 attempts to remedy this defect). Rovane’s book on personal identity is silent about what we are85 for 200 pages before mentioning in passing, as if it were rather obvious, that a person is "a set of intentional episodes" (1998: 212). Although Rovane says a good deal about which intentional episodes go to make up a given person, she says nothing about what sort of thing a set of intentional episodes is supposed to be, and never considers the thought that we might not be sets of intentional episodes at all.
- Does it matter? Why should those concerned with traditional questions of personal identity worry about what we are86? Haven't we just seen that they are different questions? Well, they are different in that one could know the answer to any of the traditional questions without knowing what we are87 and vice versa. Yet they are also connected, in that an answer to one may constrain the range of available answers to another. In particular, accounts of what it takes for us to persist may have troublesome implications for what we are88. Those who ignore our metaphysical nature may end up with a view of our identity over time that seems attractive in itself but is incompatible with any plausible account of what we are89.
- Earlier I mentioned the conservative psychological-continuity view, that we persist by virtue of non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity90. Many would omit the qualification about continuous physical realization. They say simply that you are that future being who inherits the mental features you have now, and that past being whose mental features you have inherited. How these mental features are passed on is irrelevant, or at any rate needn't involve the continuous existence of any physical object capable of supporting thought and consciousness. Call this the liberal psychological-continuity view.
- Imagine a device that records the total psychological state of your brain ("erasing" or destroying that organ in the process) and then imposes that state, or a state with the same content, onto a new brain in another head (thereby obliterating any psychological content already present there). I take it that this device is logically possible, even though it will never be within our technological capability: if you like, imagine that the machine simply destroys both brains and makes a duplicate of the first out of the remains of the second. The liberal view seems to imply that this “brain-state-transfer procedure” would move you from one human organism to another (Shoemaker 1984: 108).
- What sort of things might you and I be if this were true? What sort of thinking being could the brain-state-transfer machine move from one animal to another? It is hard to see how it could move any material thing (van Inwagen 1997). The machine doesn’t move any matter from one head to another. So how could it move a material thing? Surely you cannot send a concrete material object as a message by telegraph. At most the machine would seem to cause one material thing to lose its mental properties and another material thing to acquire them. What it does is analogous to reading a message written on one sheet of paper, erasing it, and then writing a message with the same content on another sheet. This process of reading, erasing, and writing doesn’t move any material thing from one sheet of paper to the other. Nor, for that matter, does it move any non-material thing. No persisting, concrete object of any sort is located or “realized” first in one sheet of paper and then in another one. So it seems, anyway. Likewise, it is hard to see how the brain-state transfer machine could move anything, let alone a thinking being, from one head to another. On the face of it at least, the liberal view looks incompatible with anything we could be.
- I don’t say that the problem is insoluble: one could turn for help to the ontology of temporal parts (§5.5). But not all advocates of the liberal view would welcome this serious metaphysical commitment; and without serious metaphysics it really is insoluble.
- Nor do the problems end there. The liberal view clearly rules out our being biological organisms. Whatever the brain-state transfer machine does, it doesn't move an animal from one place to another. If you are in Paris and I am in London and the machine erases your total brain state and copies it into my head, no biological organism thereby moves from Paris to London. Rather, an animal in Paris has its brain erased or destroyed and another animal in London has its brain remodelled to resemble that of the animal in Paris. If you are an animal, you stay in Paris. But if the liberal view is true, you move to London. If it is possible for you to leave your animal behind in this way, then you are not an animal: nothing can leave itself behind. Not only are you not essentially an animal, but you are not an animal at all: nothing that is even contingently an animal could move from Paris to London via brain-state transfer. In the story there is only one animal in Paris, and it stays in Paris.
- But there is an animal that we call your body. And human animals91 with normal functioning nervous systems would seem to be able to think. Or at least they think if any material thing can think, and most friends of the liberal view believe that material things can think. So an animal thinks your thoughts. Yet according to the liberal view that animal is not you. It follows that there are two beings thinking your thoughts, you and the animal. That is one thinker too many. How could you ever know which one you are?
- For that matter, an animal that was psychologically indistinguishable from you would satisfy any ordinary definition of 'person': for instance the Lockean view that a person is an intelligent, rational, self-conscious being. (Surely there could not be intelligent, rational, self-conscious non-people.) So the liberal view implies that there are two people now thinking your thoughts, an animal and a non-animal. That is hard to swallow. In fact it is incompatible with the liberal view. Human animals92 don’t persist by virtue of psychological continuity93. If your animal body counts as a person, it follows that some people don’t persist by virtue of psychological continuity94. Yet the liberal view is ordinarily taken to assert that all people, not just you and I, must persist by virtue of psychological continuity95 (§1.3). The liberal view appears not only to have repugnant consequences, but to be inconsistent.
- Again, I don’t want to claim that these problems are insoluble. But they are problems. In fact they afflict not only the liberal psychological-continuity view but the conservative view as well, for it too appears to imply that we are not animals: no animal persists by virtue of non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity96.
- I will say more about all this in the next chapter. My point here is that these popular views about our identity over time have troubling consequences. Though some psychological continuity97 theorists have tried to address the problems, many more appear to be unaware of them. The reason, I think, is that they have not asked what we are98. They have not asked, for instance, whether their view about our identity over time is compatible with our being animals. More generally, they have not asked what sort of things we could be if their view is true. If they had, the difficulty of finding a good answer might have led them to think again.
- Why it is that so many philosophers have neglected to think about what we are99 is an interesting question. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that metaphysics was out of fashion for a long time (and is still not fully respectable in many circles). This led people to believe that they could theorize about personal identity by doing conceptual analysis. But I don’t want to speculate about history here.
- That completes my discussion of the meaning and importance of our question. Let us turn now to the answers.
In-Page Footnotes ("Olson (Eric) - What Are We? The Question")
Footnote 37: I draw here on Garrett 1998: ch. 7 and van Inwagen 2002a.
Footnote 49: How could something momentary “consider itself as itself in different times and places”? Well, a thing might consider itself as existing at different times even if it doesn’t exist at different times – just as I might consider myself rich and famous without being rich and famous.
Footnote 59: Wiggins (1980: 60) and Shoemaker (1995: 60) come close to saying this.
Footnote 75: These six views are advanced by Reid (1975), Swinburne (1984: 27), Merricks (1998), Baker (2000), Chisholm (1989: 126), and Lowe (1996: 32-44) respectively. We will consider all of them in due course.
Footnote 78: Ayers 1991: 222-225, Merricks 1998 and 2001b: 85, van Inwagen 1990: 142-158, Wiggins 1980: 160, 180.
Footnote 84: Grice 1941, Perry 1972, 1975b, Nozick 1981: ch. 1, Parfit 1984: part 3, Unger 1990. Garrett 1998 and McMahan 2002: 66-94 are further examples. A refreshing exception is Hudson 2001: 113-148. Although for reasons given in Chapter 4 I cannot accept Hudson’s account of what we are, I recommend his discussion as a model of how the issue ought to be debated.
"Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Animals"
Source: What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology, Chapter 2 (November 2007: Oxford University Press.)
(OO-L): This chapter examines animalism1, the view that we are biological organisms. It is based on the claim that human organisms think just as we do. This implies that if I am not an organism, I am one of at least two thinkers of my thoughts, making it hard to see how I could know that I am the non-animal thinker: the thinking-animal problem. Some proposed solutions are critically examined, notably Shoemaker's claim that human organisms cannot think and Noonan's account of how we might know that we are not the animals thinking our thoughts. Familiar objections to animalism2 are then reviewed, such as its implication that personal identity does not consist in psychological continuity3. It is argued that these objections are weak and that more serious worries lie elsewhere.
- What is an animal?
- The thinking-animal argument5
- Are there animals?
- Can animals think?
- Too many thinkers6
- Revisionary linguistics
- Animalism7 and our identity over time
- Further objections
2.2 What is an Animal?
- What sort of things might we be? Let us begin our study of answers to this question with the view that we are animals: biological organisms, members of the primate species Homo sapiens. This has a certain immediate attraction. We seem to be animals. When you eat or sleep9 or talk, a human animal10 eats, sleeps, or talks. When you look in a mirror, an animal looks back at you. Most ordinary people suppose that we are animals. At any rate if you ask them what we are11, and make the question clear enough to indicate that “animals” is one of the possible answers, they typically say that it is obviously the right answer. Few people would deny that we are animals. No one is going to feel immediately drawn to any of the alternative views – that we are bundles of perceptions, or immaterial substances, or non-animals made of the same matter as animals, say. Compared with those proposals, the idea that we are animals looks like plain common sense.
- But things are not so simple. As we saw earlier, the appearance that we are animals may owe merely to our relating in some intimate way to animals – to our having animal bodies, if you like – rather than to our actually being those animals. The weight of authority is overwhelmingly opposed to our being animals. Almost every major figure in the history of Western philosophy denied it, from Plato and Augustine to Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. (Aristotle and his followers are an important exception.) The view is no more popular in non-Western philosophy, and most philosophers writing about personal identity today either deny outright that we are animals or say things that are incompatible with it. We will come to the reasons for this unpopularity later.
- The view that we are animals has become known as animalism12. Because animalism13 is easily confused with similar-sounding claims, I will say something about how I understand it. Animalism14 says that each of us is numerically identical with an animal: there is a certain organism, and you and it are one and the same. This would not bear stating but for the fact that some philosophers who deny that we are identical with any animal nonetheless insist on saying that we are animals. What they mean is that we “are” animals in some loose sense: in the sense of having bodies that are animals, or of being “constituted by” animals, or the like. We are animals in something like the sense in which an actor playing Lear is a king. That is not animalism15.
- This terminological point calls for a brief comment. I wish I could persuade philosophers not to state views according to which we are non-animals by saying that we are animals. It forces us to express the view that we are really animals – that we are animals in the ordinary, straightforward sense in which we are people – with the ugly phrase ‘we are numerically identical with animals’. This is linguistically perverse: the most obvious interpretation of the sentence ‘That is an animal’ is surely that the denoted object really is an animal, and not that it relates in some way to something else that really is an animal. It is also tendentious: it makes animalism16 sound complicated and difficult when it ought to be simple and intuitive. Likewise, stating the view that we are non-animals constituted by animals (for instance) by saying ‘we are animals’ makes it sound simple and intuitive when it ought to be complicated and difficult. I, for one, refuse to play this mug’s game. When I discuss the view that we really are animals, I will state it by saying ‘we are animals’. And I will state the view that we are non-animals constituted by animals by saying ‘we are non-animals constituted by animals’. I encourage others to do the same.
- Anyway, animalism17 says that we are animals, not that people in general are; so it is compatible with the existence of people who are not animals (gods or angels, say), and of animals – even human animals18 that are not people. Animalism19 is not an account of what it is to be a person, and implies no answer to the personhood question of §1.6.
- The view that we are animals may call to mind the idea that we are identical with our bodies. What does animalism20 say about this? Is it the same as the view that we are our bodies? Does it at least entail that we are? I find these questions hard to answer. Suppose that a person's body, or at least a human person's body, must always be a sort of animal: none of us could possibly have a non-animal body. And suppose also that none of us could ever be an animal other than the animal that is his body. If these assumptions are true, then our being animals amounts to our being identical with our bodies. But are they true?
- I don’t know. Someone might doubt whether a person's body must always be an animal. It is often said that we could have partly or wholly inorganic bodies: “bionic” bodies with plastic or metal parts, say, or even entirely robotic bodies. But no biological organism could come to be partly or wholly inorganic. If you cut off an animal's limb and replace it with an inorganic prosthesis, the animal only gets smaller and has something inorganic attached to it. It doesn’t acquire prosthetic parts. If you were to replace all an organism’s parts with inorganic prostheses, it would no longer be there at all. You couldn’t point to an inorganic machine and say truly, “That machine developed in its mother’s womb.” So it seems to me, anyway. If this is right – if we could acquire inorganic bodies, but no organism could become inorganic – then replacing some or all of your parts with inorganic gadgets could give you a body that was not an organism: a body that was at most partly organic. In that case you could be identical with your body without being an animal – or else be an animal without being identical with your body. Being an animal would be something different from being your body, even if ordinarily,
3 when our bodies are wholly organic, the two conditions coincide.
- What it is right to say here depends on whether having some of your parts replaced by inorganic bits could give you a partly inorganic body (one that was not an animal), or whether it would only cause your body to shrink and become attached to those inorganic bits (as the animal would). And that depends in turn on what thing someone's body is. It depends, in other words, on what it is for a thing to be someone's body. For any objects x and y, what is necessary and sufficient for x to be y's body? What does it mean to say that a certain thing is your body, or that your body is an animal, or that someone might have a robotic body? Unless we have some idea of how to answer these questions, we shall have no way of saying whether someone might be identical with his body without being an animal or vice versa.
- I have never seen a good account of what makes something someone's body (see van Inwagen 1980, Olson 1997: 144-150, 2006a). I don’t know how to complete the formula ‘necessarily, x is y’s body if and only if…’. Because of this I have no idea what would happen to someone’s body if some of a human animal’s21 parts were replaced with organic prostheses; and I therefore have no idea whether someone could be his body without being an animal or vice versa. So I cannot say how animalism22 relates to the thesis that we are our bodies. More generally, I find the word ‘body’ unhelpful and frequently misleading in metaphysical discussions. (§2.5 below gives an example of the sort of confusion it can cause.) For the sake of convenience I will sometimes use the term 'x's body' to mean the human animal23 intimately connected with x: the animal we point to when we point to x, the animal that moves when x moves, the animal that x would be if x were an animal at all, and so on. This is merely a stipulation, however, and does not pretend to reflect the way other philosophers use the word 'body’.
- Here is another delicate matter. Suppose someone said, "We are animals, but not just animals. We are more than mere biological organisms." Is that compatible with animalism24? Does animalism25 say that we are nothing more than animals? That we are mere animals?
- The answer depends on whether being "not just" or "something more than" an animal is compatible with being an animal. And that in turn depends on the import of the qualifications 'not just' and 'more than'. If a journalist complains that the Cabinet is more than just the Prime Minister, she means that the Cabinet is not the Prime Minister: it has other members too. If we are more than just animals in something like that sense, then we are not animals at all; at best we may bear some intimate relation to those animals we call our bodies. That may be because we have parts that are not parts of any animal, such as immaterial souls. On the other hand, we say that Descartes was more than just a philosopher: he was also a mathematician, a Frenchman, a Roman Catholic, and much more. That is of course compatible with his being a philosopher. We could certainly be more than just animals in this sense, yet still be animals. We could be animals, but also mathematicians or Frenchmen or Roman Catholics. There is nothing "reductionistic", in the pejorative sense of the term, about animalism26. An animal can have properties other than being an animal, and which do not follow from its being an animal. At any rate there is no evident reason why not. Despite its ugly name, animalism27 does not by itself imply that our behavior is determined by a fixed, "animal" nature, or that we have only crudely biological properties, or that we are no different in any important way from other animals. We could be unique among animals, and yet be animals.
- Finally, animalism28 does not say that we are animals essentially; for all it says, our being animals might be only a contingent or perhaps even a temporary feature of us, like our being philosophers. Whether we could be animals contingently depends on whether human animals29 are animals contingently: whether it is possible for something that is in fact a human animal30 to exist without being an animal. Animalism31 implies that we have the metaphysical nature of human animals32; but what that nature amounts to is a further question (see below). My own view, and that of most philosophers, animalists33 or not, is that animals are animals essentially; but few arguments for or against our being animals turn on this claim.
2.3 The Thinking-Animal Problem
- Saying that we are animals will tell us little about what we are34 unless we have some idea of what sort of thing an animal is. I mean by 'animal' what biologists mean by it: animals are biological organisms, along with plants, bacteria, protists, and fungi. Animals are what zoologists study. Someone might say that ‘animal’ in the ordinary sense of the word means nothing more than ‘animate being’ – a thing that can move and perceive – and that whether animals in this sense are biological organisms is an open question. If that is the case, then my use of the word ‘animal’ is not the ordinary one, and I ought to have used the term ‘organism’ or ‘animal in the biological sense’ instead.
- Anyway, here is a brief sketch of what I take to be the metaphysical nature of animals. The view I will offer has controversial elements, but it is nonetheless widely held. (More detailed accounts more or less consistent with mine are found in van Inwagen 1990: §14, Hoffman and Rosenkrantz 1997: ch. 4 and Wilson 1999.)
- As I see it, animals, including human animals35, have more or less the same metaphysical nature as other biological organisms. This is not to deny that some animals may have properties of considerable metaphysical interest – rationality and consciousness, for instance – that no plant or fungus could ever have. But if we ask what organisms are made of, what parts they have, whether they are concrete of abstract, whether and under what conditions they persist through time, and the like, I believe that the answer will be more or less the same for human organisms as it is for plants and fungi. So we need an account of the metaphysical nature of organisms generally.
- I take it that organisms are concrete particulars. They are substances, and not events or states or aspects of something else. They persist through time; moreover they continue to be organisms when they persist. I will assume for the present that they do not have temporal parts, though we will revisit this assumption in chapter 5. I also assume that organisms are made up entirely of matter: they have no immaterial or non-physical parts. Descartes thought that each normal human animal36 was somehow attached to an immaterial substance that is necessary for a thing to think rationally, but not necessary for it to be alive in the biological sense. If this were true, I take it that the animal would be the material thing, and not the object made up of the material thing and the immaterial one.
- Organisms differ from other material things by having lives. By a life I mean more or less what Locke meant (1975: 330-31): a self-organizing biological event that maintains the vastly complex internal structure of an organism. The materials organisms are made up of are intrinsically unstable, and must therefore be constantly repaired and renewed, else the organism dies and its remains decay. An organism must constantly take in new particles, reconfigure and assimilate them into its living fabric, and expel those that are no longer useful to it. An organism's life enables it to persist and retain its characteristic structure despite constant material turnover.
- There may be things besides organisms that are in some sense alive: certain parts of organisms, such as arms, and things made up of several organisms, such as packs of wolves. They are not organisms because they lack lives of their own. My arm's tissues are kept alive by the vital processes of the human animal37 it is a part of: there is no self-organizing biological event of the right sort to be a life going on throughout my arm and nowhere else.
- Organisms have parts: vast numbers of them. A thing is alive in the biological sense by virtue of a vastly complex array of biochemical processes, and the particles caught up in these processes are parts of the organism. (If Aristotle thought that organisms were mereologically simple, that is presumably because he thought that matter was homogeneous and not particulate.) Owing to metabolic turnover, organisms are made up of different parts at different times.
- What are the parts of an organism? Where does an organism leave off, and its environment begin? Where an organism's boundaries lie has presumably to do with the spatial extent of its life. But just how its life determines its boundaries is not obvious. It is tempting to say that an organism is made up at a given time of just those particles that are caught up in its life – its metabolic activities – at that time. If you are an organism, you extend all the way to the surface of your skin and no further because that is the extent of your biological life. Your clothes, or a prosthetic limb, are not parts of you because damage to them is not repaired in the way that damage to your living fabric is repaired, because they are not nourished by your blood supply, because their parts are not renewed and replaced in the way that parts of your kidneys are, and so on. Neat though this view is, however, some find it too restrictive. They say that the particles in an animal's hair or in the dead heartwood of an ageing tree are parts of the organism, despite no longer being caught up in its life (Ayers 1991: 225). We needn’t settle this matter for present purposes.
- As for identity over time, I am inclined to believe that an organism persists if and only if its life continues. This has the surprising consequence that an organism ceases to exist when the event that maintains its internal structure stops and cannot be restarted – that is, when the organism dies. Whatever is left behind – the organism's lifeless remains or its corpse or what have you – is something other than the organism. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a dead organism: no organism can be alive at one time and dead at another. I believe this because I have never seen a plausible alternative account of what it takes for an organism to persist (Olson 2004: 269-271). It is not a wholly eccentric view: in addition to Aristotle (see Furth 1988: 156-157) and Locke (1975: 330-331), it has several contemporary advocates (van Inwagen 1990: 142-158, Hoffman and Rosenkrantz 1997: 159, Wilson 1999: 89-99). It is controversial, however, and nothing I say in this book turns on it. The persistence conditions38 of human animals39 will concern us again in §§2.7 and 7.7.
2.4 Are there animals?
- Why suppose that we are animals? Well, there are about six billion human animals40 walking the earth – the same as the number of human people. For each of us there is a human animal41, and for every human animal42 (pathological cases aside, perhaps) there is one of us. Those animals are very like ourselves: they sit in our chairs and wear our clothes; they do our work and read our newspapers and chat with our friends. They appear to be so like us, both physically and mentally, that it is hard to tell the difference. These apparent facts pose a formidable obstacle to anyone who would deny that we are animals: the thinking-animal problem.
- There is a human animal43 intimately related to you, which some call your body. Consider that animal’s mental properties. It would seem to have mental properties. You have mental properties, and the animal has the same brain and nervous system as you have (and the same surroundings too, if that is relevant). It went to the same schools as you did, and had the same teachers. It shows the same behavioral evidence of mentality as you do. What more could be required for a thing to have mental properties? In fact the animal seems to be mentally exactly like you: every thought or experience of yours appears to be a thought or experience on the part of the animal. How could you and the animal have different thoughts? But if the animal thinks your thoughts, then surely it is you. You could hardly be something other than the thing that thinks your thoughts.
- Consider what it would mean if you were not the animal. The animal thinks. And of course you think. (We can’t suppose that the animal thinks and you don’t think. Nor can we suppose that you don’t exist, when your animal body thinks.) So if you were not that thinking animal44, there would be two beings thinking your thoughts: there would be the thinking animal45, and there would be you, a thinking non-animal. We should each share our thoughts with an animal numerically different from us. For every thought there would be two thinkers.
- Or perhaps the animal located where you are doesn’t think, or doesn’t think in the way that you do. Something might prevent it from thinking. Someone might even suppose that it was a mistake to concede the existence of an animal sitting there in the first place: maybe there is strictly speaking no such thing as your body. In any case, there are just three alternatives to your being an animal:
… (1) there is no human animal46 where you are;
… (2) there is an animal there, but it doesn’t think in the way that you do; or
… (3) there is an animal there, and it thinks exactly as you do, but you are not it.
There is no fourth possibility. The repugnancy of these three alternatives seems to me a powerful reason to suppose that you are an animal. Let us consider them.
2.5 Can animals think?
- If you are not an animal, the reason may be that there is no animal that you or anyone else could be. How could there be no human animals47? What reason could anyone have for believing this?
- A number of general metaphysical principles are incompatible with the existence of animals. For instance, some versions of idealism entail that there are no material objects at all (so I should describe those views, anyway); and if there are no material objects, then there are no biological organisms. But let’s not discuss idealism. Another example is the principle that nothing can have different parts at different times. According to this principle, whenever something appears to exchange an old part for a new one, the truth of the matter is that the object composed of the old parts ceases to exist (or else begins to disperse) and is instantly replaced by a new object composed of the new parts. Yet organisms by their very nature constantly exchange old parts for new ones. If nothing could ever survive a change of any of its parts, then organisms are metaphysically impossible; what we think of as an organism is in in reality only a series of "masses of matter" that each take on organic form for a brief moment- -until a single particle is gained or lost – and then pass that form on to a numerically different mass.
- The principle that nothing can change its parts is both theoretically elegant and strikingly implausible (we will return to it in §§7.3-7.4). But few opponents of animalism48 deny the existence of animals. They have good reason not to: anything that would rule out the existence of animals would also rule out the existence of most of the things we might be if we were not animals. If there are no animals, then there are no beings constituted by animals, for instance, and no temporal or spatial parts of animals. And if nothing can change its parts, then persisting bundles of perceptions are no more possible than animals. If there are no animals, there will be few items remaining among the furniture of the earth that we might be.
2.6 Too many thinkers83
- The second alternative to our being animals is that the animals we call our bodies exist but don’t think in the way that we do. (Let any sort of mental activity or state count for present purposes as thinking.) There are two possibilities here: that human animals49 don’t think at all, and that they think but not as we do.
- Consider first the idea that they don’t think at all. You think, but the animal sitting there doesn't. The reason for this can only be that the animal cannot think: it would certainly be thinking now if it were able to. And if that animal cannot think now, no human animal50 can ever think, for no human animal51 is better suited for thinking that it is. Presumably no biological organism of any sort could think. The claim, then, is that animals, including human animals52, are no more sentient or intelligent than stones; in fact they are necessarily incapable of thought. It may still be that most human animals53 relate in some intimate way to thinking beings – to us – and stones do not; and it might be appropriate for certain purposes to describe this fact loosely by saying that human animals54 are more intelligent than stones. But strictly speaking human animals55 would have no mental properties whatever.
- That would be surprising. Human animals56 seem to think. Could this really be only a misleading appearance? If human animals57 and other organisms cannot think, there must surely be some impressive explanation of why they can’t – that is, some account of what prevents them from using their brains to think.
- One possible explanation is that nothing can think: there is no such thing as thinking, any more than there is such a thing as phlogiston (a chemical substance once thought to be a constituent of solid matter and released in combustion). This view is known as eliminative materialism. But no opponents of animalism58 that I know of accept it. If it were true, it could not be the case that our identity through time consists in psychological continuity59, or that we have our mental properties essentially; and that would leave little reason to suppose that we are anything other than animals (see §§2.8 and 2.9).
- Suppose eliminative materialism is false. In that case, the reason why human animals60 cannot think must presumably be that they have some property that prevents them from thinking – a property that we, who clearly can think, lack. (Or maybe they lack a property of ours that is necessary for thought.) The most obvious candidate for such a property is being material. If any material thing could ever think, surely it would be some sort of animal; so if animals cannot think, we should expect the reason to be that only an immaterial thing could think. You and I must therefore be immaterial. Of course, simply denying that any material thing could think does nothing to explain why it couldn't; but those who hold this view have said many things that would, if they were true, explain why no material thing could think. So you might expect anyone who denies that you and I are animals to deny that we are material things of any sort. But this is not so: many opponents of animalism61 claim to be materialists. They cannot explain human animals62' inability to think by appealing to the fact that animals are material.
- They might say that human animals63 cannot think because they are mere bodies, and mere bodies cannot think. It could only be some sort of joke, the idea goes, to say that Newton’s body believed in absolute space, while Leibniz’s body disagreed. Since we think, it would follow that we are not our bodies, and therefore not animals. But that wouldn't mean that we are immaterial: we might be material things other than our bodies.
- Now even if this is a reason to believe that animals cannot think, it does nothing to explain why they can’t. That a human animal64 is someone’s body and that it is somehow absurd to say that someone’s body thinks tells us nothing about why a human animal65, call it what you will, should be unable to think. It makes that claim no less surprising or easier to believe. (Compare: if Professor Hawking tells us that light cannot escape from a black hole, that is a reason to believe it, but no explanation of why it is so.)
- In any case, it is hardly an impressive argument against animal thought. I grant that there is something odd about the statement that Newton’s body believed in absolute space. But a statement can be odd without being false. Though it sounds preposterous to say that there is a liter of blood in my office, it is nevertheless true: I am in my office, and there is a liter of blood in me. The statement is odd because it suggests that blood is stored in my office in something like the way it is stored in blood banks, which really would be preposterous. The statement that Newton’s body believed in absolute space might be odd for a similar reason. For instance, the reason it sounds wrong might be that it suggests the false claim that believing in absolute space is in some sense a “bodily” property.
- In any case, the oddness of saying that Newton’s body believed in absolute space should not lead us to infer that the phrase ‘Newton’s body' denotes something of Newton’s – a certain human organism – that was unable to think. Compare the word 'body' with a closely related one: mind. It is just as odd to say that Newton’s mind was tall and thin, or indeed that it had any other size or shape, as it is to say that Newton’s body believed in absolute space. But no one would conclude from this that Newton had some mental thing with no size or shape. That would be a poor argument for substance dualism. We cannot always substitute the phrase 'Newton’s mind' for the name 'Newton' without something going wrong; but it is doubtful whether any important metaphysical conclusion follows from this. We ought to be equally wary of drawing metaphysical conclusions from the fact that we cannot always substitute the phrase 'Newton's body' for the name 'Newton' without something going wrong.
- Anyone who wants to explain why some material objects can think but animals cannot has his work cut out for him. I know of just two possible explanations worth considering. The first says that animals cannot think because they are too big. The true thinkers are brains, or perhaps parts of brains. A whole animal can be said to think only in the derivative sense of having a thinking brain as a part, much as a car is powerful in the sense of having a powerful engine as a part. Animals are stupid things inhabited by clever brains. I will take up this idea in Chapter 4.
- The second, which is far more interesting, is due to Shoemaker (1984: 92-97, 1999, 2004). He says that animals cannot think because they have the wrong identity conditions. Mental properties, he says, have characteristic causal roles. For you to be hungry, for instance, is for you to be in a state that, among other things, is typically caused by your having low blood sugar, and which tends to cause you to act in ways you believe would result in your eating something nourishing. Now your hunger is a state that tends to combine with your beliefs – not mine – to cause you, and no one else, to behave in certain ways. That is part of the nature of hunger. More generally, for you to have any mental property is at least in part for you to be in a state disposed to combine with certain of your other states to cause you, and no one else, to do certain things.
- But that, Shoemaker claims, is to say that any being whose later states or actions are caused in the appropriate way by your current mental states must be you. Now suppose your cerebrum66 is put into my head tomorrow. Then your current mental states will have their characteristic effects in the being who ends up with that organ, and not in the empty-headed thing left behind. The subject of those states – you – must therefore go along with its transplanted cerebrum67. It follows that psychological continuity68 of a sort must suffice for you to persist through time. More generally, the nature of mental properties entails that psychological continuity69 suffices for anything that has them to persist. Since no sort of psychological continuity70 suffices for any organism to persist – no human animal71 would go along with its transplanted cerebrum72 – it follows that no organism could have mental properties. The nature of mental properties makes it metaphysically impossible for animals to think. However, material things with the right identity conditions would be able to think. Shoemaker believes that human organisms typically "constitute" such things.
- It is important to see just how surprising this view is. Suppose you and I are physically just like human animals73. (Shoemaker more or less accepts this.) Then the view implies that beings with the same physical properties and surroundings can differ radically in their mental properties. In fact this happens regularly: every human person coincides with an animal physically indistinguishable from her – a perfect physical duplicate – that has no mental properties whatever. There are physically identical beings, in identical surroundings, that differ as much in their mental properties as we differ from trees. Mental properties fail to supervene74 on physical properties in even the weak sense that any two beings with the same physical properties will have the same mental properties. A thing's having the right physical properties and surroundings does not even reliably cause it to have any mental properties.
- I find Shoemaker’s argument against animal thought unpersuasive. It doesn’t seem absolutely necessary that the characteristic effects of a being’s mental states must always occur in that very being. In fact it seems that it would not be so in fission cases. Suppose your cerebrum75 is removed from your head and each half is implanted into a different empty head. Then your mental states have their characteristic effects in two different people. If the nature of mental states entails that the donor must be identical with the recipient in the “single” transplant76 case, it ought to entail that the donor must be identical with both recipients in the double transplant77. But that, as Shoemaker himself agrees, is impossible.
- There is more to say about Shoemaker’s argument, but this is not the place for it (see Olson 2002a). What if human animals78 do think, but not in the way that we do? There are two possibilities here. One is that they have different mental properties from us: for instance, they are conscious but never self-conscious. The other is that human animals79 have the same mental properties as we have, but they have them in a different way: for instance, they think only in the derivative sense of relating in a certain way to us, who think in a straightforward and non-derivative sense80. By itself, however, neither of these suggestions does anything to solve the thinking-animal problem. It would be just as surprising if human animals81 were incapable of having the sorts of thoughts that we have, or if they could not think in the sense that we do, as it would be if they could not think at all. It would demand the same sort of explanation, and the prospects for finding one would be similar. It is hard to see what opponents of animalism82 would gain by proposing such a view.
2.7 Creative linguistics
- Suppose human animals84 think in just the way that we do: every thought of yours is a thought on the part of a certain animal. How could that thinking animal85 be anything other than you? Only if you are one of at least two beings that think your thoughts. (Or maybe you and the animal think numerically different but otherwise identical thoughts. Then you are one of at least two beings thinking exactly similar thoughts.) If you think, and your animal body thinks, and it is not you, then there are two thinkers there, sitting and reading this book. Call this the cohabitation view. It is unattractive in at least three different ways.
- Most obviously, it means that there are far more thinking beings than we thought: the overcrowding problem. Defenders of the cohabitation view – and it has its defenders – typically respond by proposing linguistic hypotheses. They propose that the things we ordinarily say and believe about how many people there are do not mean or imply what they appear to mean or imply. They interpret, or reinterpret, our ordinary, non-philosophical statements and beliefs in a way that would make them consistent with the cohabitation view. When I write on the copyright form that I am the sole author of this book, for instance, I might seem to be saying that every author of this book is numerically identical with me, which according to the cohabitation view is false. But it may not be obvious that that is what I mean. Perhaps I mean only that every author of this book bears some close relation to me: that they all share their thoughts with me, say, that they exactly coincide with me. In that case the ordinary statement that I am the sole author of this book comes out true, even if strictly speaking the book has at least two authors. My wife is not in any ordinary sense a bigamist, even if she is married both to me and to this animal. At any rate it would be badly misleading to describe our relationship as a ménage à quatre.
- The general idea is that whenever two thinking beings relate to one another in the way we relate to our animal bodies, we "count them as one" for ordinary purposes (Lewis 1993). Ordinary people – people not engaged in metaphysics – have no opinion about how many numerically different thinkers there are. Why should they? What matters in real life is not the number of numerically different thinkers, but the number of non-overlapping thinkers. Human people and thinking human animals86 don’t compete for space. The world is overcrowded only in a thin, metaphysical sort of way and not in any robust quotidian sense.
- If this is right, the cohabitation view is consistent with everything we ordinarily say and believe about how many of us there are. But that does not entirely deprive the overcrowding problem of its force. Philosophers of language who know their business can take any philosophical claim, no matter how absurd, and come up with a linguistic hypothesis according to which that claim is compatible with everything we say and think when we’re not doing philosophy. If I say that I had breakfast before I had lunch today, there is no doubt something I could be taken to mean that would make my statement compatible with the unreality of time. But that would not make it any easier to believe that time is unreal – not much, anyway. For the same reason, the mere existence of the hypothesis that we “count” philosophers by a relation other than numerical identity does little to make it easier to believe that there are two numerically different philosophers sitting there and reading this now. That is because that linguistic hypothesis seems to most of us to be false.
- In any case, the troubles for the cohabitation view go beyond mere overcrowding. The view makes it hard to see how we could ever know that we were not animals. If there really are two beings, a person and an animal, now thinking your thoughts, you ought to wonder which one you are. You may think you're the person – the one that isn't an animal. But since the animal thinks exactly as you do, it ought to think that it is a person. It will have the very same grounds for thinking that it is a person and not an animal as you have for believing that you are. Yet it is mistaken. If you were the animal and not the person, you would still think you were the person. So for all you know, you are the one making the mistake. Even if you are a person and not an animal, it is hard to see how you could ever have any reason to believe that you are87. Call this the epistemic problem.
- The cohabitation view is unattractive in a third way as well. If your animal thinks just as you do, it ought to count as a person. It satisfies every ordinary definition of 'person': it is, for instance, "a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places," as Locke put it. But no one supposes that your animal body is a person numerically different from you – that we each share our thoughts with another person. If nothing else, that would contradict the popular claim that people – all people – have properties incompatible with those of animals (see §2.7 below). It would also mean that some human people are animals, even if others are not. And if human animals88 are not only psychologically indistinguishable from ourselves but are also people in their own right, it is even more difficult to see how anyone could have any reason to believe that she was not one of the animal people.
- If ordinary human animals89 are not people, on the other hand, despite having the same mental properties as people, all familiar accounts of what it is to be a person are too permissive. There could be non-people whose inner life was entirely indistinguishable from ours; indeed, there would be at least one such non-person for every genuine person. That would deprive personhood of any psychological or moral significance. For that matter, it would make it a real epistemic possibility that we are not people. I can verify easily enough that I am rational, self-conscious, and so on; but how could I assure myself that I have that extra feature required for personhood that rational human animals90 lack? Call this problem – that our animal bodies would be people different from ourselves – the personhood problem.
2.8 Animalism103 and our identity over time
- Some say that the epistemic problem has a linguistic solution (Noonan 1998, forthcoming). They make two surprising claims. First, they say, not just any rational, self-conscious being, or more generally any being with our mental capacities, is a person. To count as a person, a thing must have not only the appropriate mental qualities, but something else as well: it must persist by virtue of psychological continuity91, or have those mental qualities essentially, or the like. Call this extra feature F. That beings must have F in order to fall within the extension of the word ‘person’ is supposed to be a contingent fact about how we use that word. Human animals92 lack F, and therefore do not qualify as people, despite being psychologically indistinguishable from ourselves. That is the first claim. The second is that the word 'I' and other personal pronouns, at least in their most typical uses, refer only to people: that's why we call them personal pronouns. A being that says 'I' in normal circumstances refers thereby to the person who says it. This too is supposed to be a contingent fact about how we use language.
- These two claims, together with the cohabitation view, yield the startling conclusion that first-person utterances (and presumably first-person thoughts as well) do not always refer to the beings that utter or think them. In particular, when your animal body says 'I', it doesn't refer to itself, as it isn't a person. But presumably you have F; so you are a person, and when you say or think 'I', you do refer to yourself. Since your animal body says and thinks just what you say and think, its first-person utterances and thoughts therefore refer to you – the person who produces them – rather than to itself. If it says, "I am hungry," it means not that it iself is hungry, but that you are. More to the point, if the animal says or thinks, "I am a person and not an animal," it does not say falsely that it is a person and not an animal, but truly that you are. So neither you nor the animal is mistaken about which thing it is.
- Call this linguistic hypothesis – that personal pronouns refer only to people and that people by definition have F – personal-pronoun revisionism. How would it solve the epistemic problem? Suppose there are two beings thinking your thoughts: an animal, and also a nonanimal with psychological persistence conditions93 – a psychological continuer for short. Better, suppose that you know this. Suppose further that having psychological persistence conditions94 is the extra person-making feature F. Now imagine wondering which of the beings thinking your thoughts you are, the animal or the psychological continuer. How could you work out the answer to this question?
- Well, as a competent speaker of English you would know at least implicitly (1) that each occurrence of the word 'I' refers only to the person who utters it. You would also know, or be able to work out, (2) that something counts as a person only if it is a psychological continuer, which according to pronoun revisionism is true by definition. And of course you know (3) that you are whatever you refer to when you say 'I'. These are supposed to be linguistic and conceptual facts that we can know a priori. Given that a psychological continuer thinks your thoughts, it follows from these claims (4) that you are a person and a psychological continuer. If you know that animals are not psychological continuers, you can infer from this that you are not an animal – even if you share your thoughts with an animal psychologically indistinguishable from you. You can therefore know that you are a psychological continuer and not an animal. You can know which of the beings thinking your thoughts you are. That would solve the epistemic problem.
- There is much to be said about this proposal (I discuss it at greater length in Olson 2002b; see also Zimmerman 2003: 502-503). I will make just one comment. We are supposing that the human animals95 that walk and talk and sleep in our beds have the full range of human attitudes and emotions, and are psychologically indistinguishable from ourselves96. (We discussed the view that human animals97 are psychologically different from ourselves in the previous section.) Now consider your understanding of the word ‘person’. In particular, think of the sense of the word that informs your use of the personal pronouns. What features must a being have in order for you to call it a person in that ordinary sense? What must it have in order to be a someone rather than a something, a he or a she rather than an it? If something were psychologically indistinguishable from yourself, or from one of your close friends, would you refuse to call it a person or a someone until you were told whether it persists by virtue of psychological continuity98? That seems to be no part of what we ordinarily mean by ‘person’. If human animals99 really are psychologically just like ourselves, they will count as people in any ordinary sense of the word. It couldn’t turn out that half of the rational, self-conscious, human-sized beings that we know and love and interact with in daily life are not people. Human animals100 may fail to satisfy some specialized philosophical sense of ‘person’, owing to their having the wrong persistence conditions101 or on some other trivial grounds. But they are surely people in the sense of the word that informs our ordinary use of the personal pronouns.
- Maybe it isn’t always clear to us what we mean by our words. Some ordinary words may mean something very different from what they seem to mean. Perhaps we cannot dismiss personal-pronoun revisionism as absurd. But it is hardly part of an attractive alternative to animalism102.
- Those who say that we are not animals will probably want to argue either that human animals104 cannot think in the way that we can, or that we can somehow know that we are not the human animals105 that share our thoughts. Neither prospect looks promising. That, to my mind, is the principal case for our being animals. What is the case against it?
- Historically, the main reason for denying that we are animals is hostility to materialism. The conviction that no material thing, no matter how complex, could ever think in the way that we do is clearly incompatible with our being animals. But few philosophers set much store by it nowadays. The main contemporary objection to animalism106 has to do with our identity over time, the most popular account of which is that we persist by virtue of some sort of psychological continuity107. That rules out our being animals, for no sort of psychological continuity108 is either necessary or sufficient for a human organism to persist.
- To see that it isn’t necessary, consider the fact that each human animal109 starts out as an embryo110 incapable of any sort of mental activity. There is no psychological continuity111 of any sort between an adult human animal112 and the embryo113 it once was: the adult animal’s mental properties cannot derive in any way from those of the embryo114, for the embryo115 had none. The embryo116 is the adult human organism, yet there is no psychological continuity117 between the embryo118 as it started out and the full-grown animal as it is today. A human animal119 can therefore persist without any psychological continuity120 whatever. Or consider what would happen if you were to lapse into a persistent and irreversible vegetative state. The result of this would be a human organism that was clearly alive, in the biological sense in which an oyster is alive: it would breathe spontaneously, digest its food, fight infection, heal wounds, and so on. It would presumably be the very human organism that was once able-bodied: no one supposes that a human animal121 that lapses into a persistent vegetative state122 thereby ceases to exist and is replaced by a new animal. But the animal would no longer be capable of any mental activity. Again, a human animal123 can persist despite complete psychological discontinuity. If any sort of psychological continuity124 is necessary for you to persist, then your animal body existed before you did, and it could outlive you. But nothing existed before it itself existed, and nothing can outlive itself. It follows that you are not that animal.
- Now the claim that psychological continuity125 is necessary for us to persist may sound unattractive. Those who have actually suffered the misfortune of having a loved one lapse into a persistent vegetative state126 do not often believe that that person has literally ceased to exist, and that the living thing lying on the hospital bed is a numerically different being. (They may say that their loved one’s life no longer has any value, or that he ought to be allowed to die; but that is another matter.) Nor does this attitude appear to rest on the mistaken belief that there is some sort of psychological continuity127 in these cases. And when we see an ultrasound picture of a 12-week-old foetus128, most of us are inclined believe that we are seeing something which, if all goes well, will come to be a full-fledged human person, even though it now has no mental properties. (This is something that most parties to debates over the morality of abortion129 agree on.) We don’t ordinarily suppose that the foetus130 cannot itself become a person, but can only give rise to a person numerically different from itself.
- In fact animalism131 appears to be compatible with everything we believe about our persistence in real-life situations. In every actual case, the number of people we think there are is the same as the number of rational human animals132. Every actual case in which we take someone to survive or perish is a case where a human animal133 survives or perishes. Or at least this is so if we leave aside religious beliefs – our being animals may be incompatible with our being resurrected or reincarnated (though some leading philosophers of religion disagree: see van Inwagen 1978, Zimmerman 1999, Merricks 2001a).
- But animalism134 conflicts with things we are inclined to say about science-fiction stories. This appears to show a deep and widespread conviction that some sort of psychological continuity135 is sufficient for us to persist.
- Imagine that your cerebrum136 is put into another head. The being who gets that organ, and he alone, will be psychologically continuous with you on any account of what psychological continuity137 is: he will have, for the most part anyway, your memories, beliefs, and other mental contents and capacities; he will have your “first-person perspective”; he will take himself to be you; all these mental properties will have been continuously physically realized throughout the process; and there are no troublesome rival claimants. If any psychological facts suffice for you to persist, that being would be you: you would go along with your transplanted cerebrum138. And many people are convinced that you would indeed go along with your transplanted cerebrum139.
- What about your animal body? Would it go along with its cerebrum140? Would the surgeons pare that animal down to a lump of yellowish-pink tissue, move it across the room, then supply it with a new head, trunk, and other parts? Surely not. A detached cerebrum141 is no more an organism than a detached arm is an organism: if the animal went along with the cerebrum142, it would have to cease being an animal for a time and then become an animal once more when the transplant143 is complete. More importantly, think of the empty-headed thing left behind when your cerebrum144 is removed. It is an animal. If the surgeons are careful to leave the lower brain intact, it may even remain alive. It seems to be the very animal that your cerebrum145 was a part of before the operation. The empty-headed being into which your cerebrum146 is to be implanted is also a living human organism. And putting your cerebrum147 into its head surely doesn’t destroy that organism and replace it with a new one.
- So there appear to be two human animals148 in the transplant149 story. One of them loses its cerebrum150 and gets an empty head. That organ is then fitted into the empty cranium of the other animal, which is thereby made whole again. The surgeons move an organ from one animal to another, just as they might do with a liver. No animal moves from one head to another. Even though there is full psychological continuity151 between the cerebrum152 donor and the recipient, they are not the same animal. Thus, no sort of psychological continuity153 suffices for a human animal154 to persist through time. One human animal155 could be psychologically continuous in the fullest possible sense with another human animal156.
- The conviction that you would go along with your transplanted cerebrum157 is therefore incompatible with your being an animal. Your animal body would stay behind if your cerebrum were transplanted158. If you would go along with your transplanted cerebrum159, then you and that animal could go your separate ways. And of course a thing and itself can never go their separate ways. It follows that you are not that animal, or indeed any other animal. Not only are you not essentially an animal. You are not an animal at all, even contingently: nothing that is even contingently an animal would move to a different head in a cerebrum transplant160.
- So the principal case against animalism161 is this: If we were animals, we should have the persistence conditions162 of animals, conditions which have nothing to do with psychological facts. Psychology would be completely irrelevant to our identity over time. Cerebrum transplants163 would be no different, metaphysically, from liver transplants164: you could donate your cerebrum165 to someone else, just as you could donate your liver. But that is absurd. Psychology clearly is relevant to personal identity. You would go along with your transplanted cerebrum166; you wouldn’t stay behind with an empty head. Therefore we are not animals.
- Taken in isolation, the transplant167 argument may look strong. Why deny that we should go along with our transplanted cerebrums168? Isn’t it obvious that that is what would happen? But we have seen how this “transplant169 conviction” could be wrong: it would be wrong if we were animals. Would it really be so surprising if it were wrong? To my mind, it would be surprising if it were right. That would mean either that human animals170 cannot think, or that you are one of two beings thinking your thoughts, and one of those beings would not go along with its transplanted cerebrum171. That would be surprising.
- In any case, there are other reasons to doubt the transplant172 conviction. For one thing, the sort of psychological continuity173 that would hold between you and the recipient of your cerebrum174 could hold between you and two future beings. If your cerebrum175 were divided and each half implanted into a different head, at least one of the resulting beings would be mistaken in thinking that she was you, for the simple reason that one thing (you) cannot be numerically identical with two things176. Someone can be fully psychologically continuous with you and yet not be you: psychological continuity177 is not sufficient for us to persist. That undermines the judgment that the one mentally continuous with you in the original transplant178 story would be you. If the claim that anyone psychologically continuous with you must be you fails to hold in fission cases, it might fail to hold in cerebrum transplants179 too.
- For another, the transplant180 conviction gets much of its support from a questionable assumption about our practical attitudes – "what matters181 in identity", as the jargon has it. Imagine that your cerebrum182 is about to be transplanted183 into my head. The empty-headed being left behind will then get a new cerebrum184. The hospital has only enough morphine for one of the two resulting people; the other will suffer unbearable pain. If we asked you before the operation who should get the morphine, how would you choose? (Imagine that your motives are entirely selfish.) Most people say that you would have a strong reason to give the morphine to the one who ends up with your cerebrum185. You would have less reason, if any, to give it to the other person. This may lead us to infer that you would be the one who ends up with your cerebrum186.
- But this inference is questionable. Many philosophers doubt whether your selfish interest in the welfare of the person who gets your cerebrum187 must derive from the fact that he or she is you. In the double-transplant188 case, they say, you would have a selfish reason to care about the welfare of both offshoots. Better, you would have the same reason to care about the fission offshoots as you would have to care about the one who got your whole cerebrum189. Yet neither of the fission offshoots would be you. In that case the concern you would have for the person who got your cerebrum190 in the single transplant191 case would not support the claim that he or she would be you, thus depriving the transplant192 conviction of what appears to be its principal support193.
- If the transplant194 conviction is false, why did anyone ever accept it? Well, someone’s being psychologically continuous with you is strong evidence for her being you. Conclusive evidence, in fact: no one is ever psychologically continuous with anyone other than herself in real life. That makes it easy to suppose that the one who gets your cerebrum195 in the transplant196 case would be you, even if, because we are animals, it isn’t so.
- Here is another reason why someone might find the transplant197 argument a conclusive refutation of animalism198. Suppose there are, in addition to human animals199, thinking non-organisms that would go along with their transplanted cerebrums200, or more generally beings that persist by virtue of some sort of psychological continuity201. And suppose that such a being thinks your thoughts. Then there would be two beings that are otherwise equally good candidates for being you, except that one has the sort of persistence conditions202 we believe you to have and the other (the animal) doesn’t. Would it not be perverse, in that case, to suppose that you are the second being? That would make animalism203 look plainly wrong. I believe that many advocates of the transplant204 argument do assume that certain non-animals think our thoughts. Few of them give any reason to accept that metaphysical claim, however, and some such reason is surely needed. We will consider some reasons for it in Chapters 3 and 5. But even if assuming that human animals205 coincide with thinking non-animals would make the transplant206 argument an irresistible attack on animalism207, it would not make it a strong argument for any positive view about what we are208. That is because of the thinking-animal problem: the difficulty of knowing that we are anything other than the animals thinking our thoughts.
2.9 Further Objections
- We have seen that animalism209 conflicts with traditional thinking about our identity over time. Here are some further objections.
- First, animalism210 seems to imply that you and I are only temporarily and contingently people. At least this is so on most proposed accounts of what it is to be a person. Every human animal211 was once an embryo212 with no mental properties. If being a person implies having certain mental properties – rationality and self-consciousness213 or the like – then each human animal214 was once a non-person. Even if a thing need only have the capacity to acquire the relevant mental properties in order to count as a person, so that unthinking embryos215 might be people, human animals216 in a persistent vegetative state217 will not count as people, and any human animal218 could end up in such a state.
- I don’t want to argue about what it is to be a person. (I don’t find it an interesting question.) The important fact is that our being animals would make our having mental features of any sort a temporary and contingent condition of us – even if it is our normal or proper condition. It would mean that any of us could exist at a time without having any mental properties whatever at that time, or even the capacity to acquire them. What is more, any of us could have existed without having any mental properties at any time: any of us could have died six weeks after conception. Your being able to think or experience would be no more essential to you than your being a philosopher. It would not, so to speak, be part of your being.
- Second, animalism219 appears to entail that there are no persistence conditions220 for people as such: no persistence conditions221 that necessarily apply to all people and only to people. The persistence conditions222 of human animals223 presumably derive from their being animals, or organisms. That makes their persistence conditions224 no different from those of oysters, which are not people by anyone’s lights. If so, then our being animals implies that we have the same persistence conditions225 as some non-people. Animalism226 is also consistent with there being people whose persistence conditions227 are different from ours: inorganic people such as gods or angels, for instance. If there could be such beings, it would not be necessary that all people have the same persistence conditions228. People’s persistence conditions229, and for that matter their metaphysical nature in general, would derive not from their being people, but from their being animals, or immaterial substances, or whatever metaphysical sort of person they are. Person would not be a kind that determines the identity conditions of its members.
- Some philosophers see in these implications a grave objection to animalism230 (Baker 2001: 218-20). They find it absurd to suppose I might be a person only temporarily and contingently. We might as well say that the moon is only temporarily and contingently a material object. This thought appears to be incompatible with our being animals.
- The claim that there are no persistence conditions231 for people as such is said to conflict with the very idea of personal identity (Baker 2001: 124). To think about personal identity, the objection goes, is to inquire into the identity conditions of people as such – identity conditions that things have by virtue of being people. That, they say, is why we call it personal identity. If there are no such conditions, as animalism232 seems to imply, then there is no such thing as personal identity – an implication that is also taken to be absurd.
- I suppose these objections have some force. That you and I are people essentially is an attractive claim. But it doesn’t seem obvious. If we take seriously the idea that a person could be an organism, and we accept that organisms have mental properties only contingently, and we take being a person at a time to entail having mental properties at that time, then we can understand well enough how someone might be a person only contingently. And if nothing else, the thinking-animal problem shows that our being organisms is a claim that we must take seriously.
- That we must have our persistence conditions233 by virtue of being people, so that there must be persistence conditions234 for people as such, is another interesting conjecture. Here is how I see it. You and I have many important properties. We are people. We are also (let us suppose) material, composed of parts, biologically alive, sentient, and awake. For that matter, we might also be philosophers, Hindus, women, or Ukrainians. What principle dictates that our being people must determine our identity conditions, rather than any of these other properties? None that I know of. It may be plausible on the face of it; but its incompatibility with our being animals looks like an excellent reason to doubt it.
- One further objection to animalism235 is that it implies the wrong account of what determines how many of us there are at any one time (Lowe 1996: 31) – a topic sometimes called "synchronic identity". If we are animals, then the number of human people at any time will always be equal to the number of human animals236 that have whatever it takes to be a person at that time. And what determines the number of animals is presumably a matter of brute biology. Perhaps it is determined by the number of biological lives in the sense sketched in §2.2. But many philosophers, beginning with Locke, have assumed that the number of people or thinking beings at any given time is determined not by brute biology but by psychological facts: facts about mental unity and disunity.
- My mental states are unified in the sense of being disposed to interact with one another, and not with any others, in an especially direct way. For instance, my desire to get a train to London will tend to combine with my belief that this train goes to London to cause me to board it. My desires don't interact with your beliefs in this way to produce action. That, the idea goes, is what makes it the case that my desires and my beliefs are the states of a single person, whereas my desires and your beliefs are not. More generally, mental states belong to the same person or thinking being just when they relate to one another in this way (Shoemaker 1984: 94- 97). So the number of people, or thinking beings generally, is necessarily equal to the number of unified systems of mental states. Call this the psychological individuation237 principle.
- This principle looks incompatible with animalism238. It seems possible for an animal to have disunified mental states – supposing that an animal can think at all, anyway. It may even be possible for an animal to have a mental life that is no more unified than yours is with mine: perhaps a single human animal239 could be the home of two unified mental systems. This might happen in an extreme case of multiple personality – not in any actual case, but in a case that we could imagine by extrapolating from actual cases. The psychological individuation240 principle implies that such an animal would be the home of two people.
- This doesn't yet show that the psychological individuation241 principle conflicts with animalism242. Animalism243 doesn't say that all people are animals. Why couldn't we normal human beings be animals, while people with extreme split personality are something else? But that would be an uncomfortable view. What sort of things would the people in those unusual cases be? They must be something. Perhaps they would be bundles of mental states, or parts of brains. But if an animal with split personality could house two or more such non-animal people, we should expect your animal (which I take to be normal and mentally unified) to house one non-animal person. And if there is a non-animal person within you, it will be hard to maintain that you are the animal. How could you ever know which person you are? Animalism244 at least strongly suggests that for every animal there can be at most one human person, no matter how disunified that animal's mental states might be; and that appears to be incompatible with the psychological individuation245 principle.
- As I see it, the psychological individuation246 principle is yet another debatable conjecture (Olson 2003). In §6.4 I will argue that it is incompatible with our being material things of any sort, and is best combined with the view that we are bundles of mental states.
- I believe that the most serious worries for animalism247 are very different from those we have considered here. We will come to them in Chapter 9248. In the meantime let us turn to the other views of what we are249.
In-Page Footnotes ("Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Animals")
Footnote 12: Advocates of animalism include Carter (1989), Ayers (1990: 283-285), Snowdon (1990), van Inwagen (1990), Hoffman and Rosenkrantz (1997), and Merricks (2001a, 2001b). See also Olson 1997a and 2002a.
Footnote 80: Baker combines these proposals (2000: 12-18, 68n., and 2002: 42). She says that human animals have thoughts requiring a “first-person perspective” only in the derivative sense of constituting non-animals (ourselves) that have them non-derivatively, while the opposite is the case for other thoughts: human animals have them non-derivatively and we have them derivatively.
Footnote 87: Someone might think that this problem arises only on an "internalist" epistemology. If you are the person and not the animal, the idea would go, then your belief that that is what you are is guaranteed to be true, and so is reliably formed, and so counts as knowledge. I don't think any serious epistemologist would endorse this reasoning. Suppose I come to believe, in an insane delusion, that I am Napoleon. And suppose I am in fact Napoleon reincarnated. Finally, suppose that who I am has no influence on who, in my demented state, I believe myself to be. Then my belief is guaranteed to be true; yet it has no epistemic virtue whatever, and certainly doesn’t count as knowledge.
Footnote 96: Could a being that cannot refer to itself in the first person be self-conscious? Well, pronoun revisionists agree that human animals have first-person thoughts just like our own. All that prevents them from referring to themselves in the first person, the idea goes, is the contingent linguistic fact that we (and they) use the personal pronouns to refer only to psychological continuers. We could change the way we talk, so that our personal pronouns referred only to beings with animal persistence conditions. If we did that, we should be unable to refer to ourselves in the first person, though our mental lives would otherwise remain unchanged. Would that deprive us of our capacity for self-consciousness? Not in any important sense, surely. Someone might point out, however, that according to pronoun revisionism a human animal could not “think of itself as itself”, and would therefore fail to satisfy Locke’s definition of ‘person’.
Footnote 156: Although I am not sure whether I have understood them, Wiggins (1980: 160-163) and McDowell (1997: 237) seem to disagree with me about this. For more on this matter see Olson 1997a: 109-119, and §7.7 below.
Footnote 176: Advocates of the temporal-parts view have a way of denying this claim: see §5.7.
Footnote 193: I say more about this in Olson 1997a: 52-70. Whether any of these claims about what matters in identity are true is another matter.
Footnote 248: For more objections to animalism see Baker 2001: 12-18 and 122-124, Snowdon 2003, Olson 2004, and Hershenov 2005.
"Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Constitution"
Source: What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology, Chapter 3 (November 2007: Oxford University Press.)
(OO-L): This chapter is about the view that we are material things constituted by organisms; this view is advocated by Baker, Shoemaker, and others. Each of us is made of the same matter as an organism, but our persistence conditions1 or essential properties preclude our being organisms ourselves. This goes together with the general view that qualitatively different objects can be made of the same matter at once: constitutionalism. Constitutionalism is supported by arguments involving the persistence of artifacts. It is argued, however, that the view faces the thinking-animal problem, that it rules out any principled account of when one thing constitutes another, that it cannot explain why our boundaries lie where they do, and that it conflicts with a popular claim about synchronic identity.
- Material things constituted by animals
- The clay-modelling2 puzzle
- The replacement puzzle and the amputation puzzle
- Thinking animals3 again
- When does constitution occur?
- What determines our boundaries?
3.1 Material things constituted by animals
3.2 The clay-modelling42 puzzle
- It is easy to suppose that we have properties incompatible with those of animals: that we are essentially capable of thinking, say, or that what it takes for us to persist is different from what it takes for an animal to persist. These claims rule out our being animals. Yet we appear to be material things. Not only that, but each of us appears to be made of just the same matter as a certain animal. We are no larger or smaller than our animal bodies, and are located just where they are.
- The idea that we are not animals, but are nevertheless material things made of the same matter as our animal bodies and located in the same place, may sound strange. We can increase the tension by noting the apparent truism that no two material things can be in exactly the same place at once. If we know anything about material things, we know that they compete for space and exclude one another. So we find ourselves drawn to each of four inconsistent claims:
… (1) we are material things;
… (2) each of us has the same location as an animal (which is also a material thing);
… (3) we are not animals; and
… (4) two material things can never be in the same place at once.
- What to do? Those who think that we are partly or wholly immaterial deny the first claim. Those who think that we are temporal parts of animals deny the second: they say that our animal bodies are not located precisely where we are, but occupy larger spatio-temporal regions. We will come to these views in due course. Animalists4 deny the third claim. But some deny the fourth: they say that two material things can be in the same place. Not just any two material things, of course: you will never get a dog and a cat into the same place. Material things can be in the same place only if they are made of the same matter. That, the thought goes, is the truth behind the idea that material things compete for space.
- The claim, then, is that two or more things can be made entirely of the same matter at the same time. For technical reasons it will be useful to recast this idea is slightly different terms5. Let us say that some things, the xs, compose something y if and only if each of the xs is a part of y, no two of the xs share a part, and every part of y shares a part with at least one of the xs6. So when a child builds a castle of Lego bricks, the castle is composed of those bricks. If each brick is itself composed of atoms, then the castle is also composed of atoms, for a part of a part of something is itself a part of that thing. So our suggestion is that the same things can compose two different objects. In other words, different material objects can coincide materially, where x coincides materially with y if and only if x and y are material objects and some things, the zs, compose x and also compose y. Applied to ourselves, the idea is that we coincide materially with animals, even though we are not animals ourselves. One can be made of the same matter as one’s animal body while having properties that no animal could have.
- If the relation between you and your animal body is not identity but material coincidence, we should expect to find more examples of material coincidence without identity; and indeed those who hold this view take it to be ubiquitous. The particles that compose a clay statue7, they say, also compose a lump of clay; yet the lump and the statue8 are numerically different because the lump will ordinarily have existed before the statue9 did (before it was statue-shaped)10, and because squashing it would destroy the statue11 but not the lump. The blocks that compose the child's castle might also compose a material object called an “aggregate” of blocks, which predated and will outlive the castle. If we replaced one of the castle’s blocks, the castle would come to coincide with a different aggregate. Owing to metabolic turnover, an organism coincides with a different mass of matter or aggregate of atoms every fraction of a second. And so on.
- In each of these examples, our proposal says, numerically different objects not only coincide materially, but also differ in important qualitative respects – where by 'qualitative' I mean any property that doesn't specify the identity of its bearer (being Stan Getz would be a non-qualitative property). The objects differ in kind: one is a statue12 and not a lump, the other is a lump and not a statue13; one is a person and not an animal, the other is an animal and not a person. They differ in their modal14 properties: statues15 are essentially statue-shaped16, but statue-shaped17 lumps are only contingently statue-shaped18; people are essentially able to think, but the animals coinciding with them think at best only contingently. They have different persistence conditions19: statues20 and people can survive things that lumps and organisms cannot, and vice versa. There is no point in saying that coinciding objects are numerically different but qualitatively identical – that we are animals that coincide with other animals exactly like us, say. The attraction in saying that statues21 are not lumps or that we are not human animals22 is that statues23 and people have properties that lumps and human animals24 lack. These are not merely historical properties: a statue25 and its coinciding lump are supposed to differ not only in that the lump existed before the statue26 did. They are supposed to differ while they coincide: for instance, while they coincide the lump but not the statue27 is capable of surviving squashing. A statue28 and its coinciding lump, or a person and her animal body, would differ qualitatively even if they coincided throughout their entire careers.
- The view that qualitatively different things can coincide materially is called the metaphysic of constitution or constitutionalism. The name alludes to the fact that whenever two things coincide materially, one of them is supposed to “constitute” the other. Few of those who speak of constitution bother to say what they mean by it, and those who do say different things29. But most agree that constitution is necessarily asymmetric and irreflexive: two things cannot constitute each other, and nothing can constitute itself. (Material coincidence, by contrast, is an equivalence relation.) And when constitutionalists take two things to coincide materially, they usually agree about which constitutes which: people are constituted by their bodies, for instance, which in turn are constituted by masses of matter, and not vice versa. (Do not confuse constitution with composition. Constitution by definition relates one thing to one thing, whereas many things can jointly compose something.)
- Constitutionalism is a principle about material things in general, and not about ourselves in particular. It doesn’t say what you and I coincide with, or even whether we coincide with anything. For all it says we might be animals coinciding with masses of matter (Thomson 1997), or material objects that do not coincide with anything else, or even immaterial things. Most constitutionalists, though, say that we are non-animals coinciding materially with human animals30. Or at least this is the usual situation. Although we are all non-animals, they say, we may not all coincide with animals. Perhaps some of us coincide with a thing made up of a human animal31 and a plastic knee. Someone who had a cerebrum transplant32 might coincide with different animals at different times, and briefly coincide with a naked cerebrum33. Perhaps, by gradual replacement of parts, someone might one day come to coincide with a wholly inorganic machine. If we are lucky, we might be constituted in the next world by something glorious and indestructible but not in any recognizable sense biological. In this regard, say the constitutionalists, we are like statues34, which by careful replacement of parts can coincide with different lumps of matter at different times. Coinciding with a particular human animal35 is supposed to be only a contingent and perhaps a temporary feature of us. But most constitutionalists say that we must always coincide with some material thing other than ourselves, be it animal, machine, or what have you: we could not become immaterial.
- Most constitutionalists say that we have certain mental properties essentially, or that some sort of psychological continuity36 is necessary for us to persist through time. It follows that we come into being later than our animal bodies do: you appeared when a human animal37 reached a certain point in its development – perhaps when it acquired those mental features that distinguish people from non-people. Depending on what those features are, this could happen at any time between the appearance of the first mental properties five or six months after fertilization and the onset of full self-consciousness38 a year or two after birth. And you ordinarily cease to exist when your animal body ceases to support the relevant mental features, as it would if it lapsed into a persistent vegetative state39. Here again we are like clay statues40, which constitutionalists say come into being when a lump of clay is modelled in a certain way, and perish, outlived by the lump, when squashed.
- I will call the view that you and I are non-animals coinciding with animals – as opposed to constitutionalism in general – the constitution view41.
3.3 The replacement puzzle and the amputation puzzle
- Whether the constitution view43 is right depends largely on the truth of constitutionalism in general. If constitutionalism is false, so is the constitution view44. If constitutionalism is true, on the other hand, and if we are material things, it will be hard not to accept the constitution view45.
- Suppose constitutionalism is true. Then statue-shaped46 lumps of clay in the right circumstances constitute things that are essentially statue-shaped47: statues48. Likewise, lumps of matter in the appropriate organic configuration constitute things that are essentially living: organisms. These are supposed to be paradigm cases of constitution. Now it doesn’t strictly follow from this that human animals49 in the right state and the right circumstances constitute things that are essentially able to think. It could be that statue-shaped50 lumps constitute things that are essentially statue-shaped51 but human animals52 never constitute things that are essentially thinkers. But that would be surprising. We should expect there to be an explanation for this important difference. The most likely explanation, it seems, would be that no material thing of any sort could think, essentially or otherwise: thinking beings are immaterial, and are not constituted by anything. (Remember, constitutionalism in general does not imply that we are material things.) The claim that thinkers are material, but don’t stand to human animals53 as clay statues54 stand to lumps of clay, sounds rather unprincipled.
- If human animals55 of the right sort constitute essential thinkers, it is but a short step to the constitution view56. Those essential thinkers would not themselves be animals, for no animal is essentially able to think. And it would be hard to find any reason to suppose that we were the animals and not the essential thinkers. On the contrary, the apparently widespread and deeply held conviction that we are essentially able to think will be a reason to suppose that we are things constituted by animals.
- So the truth of constitutionalism in general would provide a fairly strong case for our being non-animals constituted by animals. (Someone might say that we are constituted by brains or other parts of animals, rather than by whole animals. I see this as a near variant of the constitution view57, and most of what I will say about the view that we are constituted by animals applies equally to the view that we are constituted by brains.) The constitution view58 and constitutionalism in general are likely to stand or fall together. In effect, then, any argument for constitutionalism is an argument for the constitution view59. If we can find any case where qualitatively different objects coincide materially, that will be a reason to suppose that we are constituted by animals (or perhaps by brains). And there are plenty of arguments for constitutionalism.
- Consider first the clay-modelling60 puzzle61. Take a lump of clay62 of nondescript shape and knead it into the form of, let us say, Margaret Thatcher. (Iron might be a more appropriate material in this case, but clay suits our purposes better.) Then squash the lump and model it into a cube. We seem to have here a material object – a lump or mass or portion of clay – that is first shapeless, then Thatcher-shaped, then cubical. There also seems to be, for a time, a statue63 of Thatcher. During that time the lump and the statue64 coincide materially. Yet we wouldn't say that the statue65 starts out shapeless and ends up cubical. We wouldn't say, "See that statue66? It was nothing but a shapeless lump this morning. Tomorrow it will be a cube." The statue67 doesn't seem to start out as a non-statue68, become a statue69 for a while, and then revert to being a non-statue70. It doesn’t merely cease to exist as a statue71 when we squash it. It seems to go out of existence altogether.
- It is easy enough to make this into an argument for constitutionalism. The story invites us to accept these claims:
… 1. There is a lump of clay that is first shapeless, then Thatcher-shaped, then cubical.
… 2. There is a statue72 that is never shapeless or cubical.
… 3. The statue73 coincides materially, while it exists, with the lump.
1 and 2 imply that there are two different clay objects in the story. They have to be two because they exist at different times, and because one is shapeless for a time and the other is never shapeless. It follows, given 3, that two different things can coincide materially.
- Now this is not yet constitutionalism – not quite. Constitutionalism says that different things can not only coincide materially, but also differ qualitatively while they coincide. If the statue74 and the lump were qualitatively exactly alike while they coincided – if both were statues75 and both were lumps, and they shared all the same dispositions, essential properties, and so on – then the clay-modelling76 puzzle would support only the claim that you and I coincide materially with human animals77 numerically different from us. That is not yet the constitution view78, since it doesn’t imply that we in any way qualitatively different from those animals.
- To make the clay-modelling puzzle into an argument for constitutionalism we need to establish that the statue79 and the lump in the story differ qualitatively while they coincide. But that is just what the story suggests. According to the story it is no accident that the lump persists throughout the various changes of shape while the statue80 does not. If we took a thousand shapeless pieces of clay and kneaded each of them first into the shape of Thatcher and then into a cube, it would always be the lump – the thing that was first shapeless – that survived the loss of its human shape and became cubical. The statue81 – the thing that comes into being when the lump becomes Thatcher-shaped – would always perish when it loses that shape. That is because lumps have the capacity to survive those changes and statues82 lack it: lumps, but not statues83, have the modal84 property possibly surviving radical changes of shape. If that is right, then the lump and the statue85 in our story have different qualitative properties while they coexist. In fact they would differ in this way even if they were to coincide throughout their careers. So the story suggests a fourth claim as well:
… 4. The lump has a qualitative property, while it coincides with the statue86, that the statue87 then lacks.
Grant this, and constitutionalism follows.
- There is no easy way to avoid this conclusion. If constitutionalism is false, one of the four claims must be false; yet they all seem to be true.
- We have already considered affirming the first three claims while denying the fourth – the view that the lump predates and outlives the statue88 but is qualitatively identical with it while they coincide. It is unsurprising that no one holds that view.
- A more likely way out would be to accept the first claim but deny the second: to say that there is a lump that changes it shape twice, but there is no statue89 that is always Thatcher-shaped. The only large clay object in the story is the lump, which simply happens to be temporarily Thatcher-shaped. No new material object comes into being when we knead the lump into that shape, and none ceases to be when we squash it. No two things coincide materially. Call this suggestion lumpism.
- Another possibility is that the second claim might be true and the first false: there is, if you like, a statue90 but no lump. Perhaps, when we knead the clay into the shape of the former Prime Minister, a new object, a statue91, comes into being, and perishes when we squash it. But no clay object persists through these changes: nothing is first shapeless, then Thatcher-shaped, then cubical. (What about the clay? Isn’t it first shapeless, then Thatcher-shaped, then cubical? Maybe so; but that doesn’t obviously imply that any material object changes its shape. Perhaps the expression ‘the clay’ refers not in the singular to any one thing, but in the plural to a lot of particles92 – particles that never compose anything that can survive radical changes of shape. That is, perhaps the clay is merely a lot of particles and not a large composite object.) Call the view that 1 is false and 2 is true statuism.
- The trouble with these proposals is that they are hard to generalize (Olson 1996). Though they may sound attractive in the case of the statue and the clay93, they are implausible in other cases.
- Take lumpism, the idea that statues94 are merely statue-shaped95 lumps. If there are such things as lumps of clay, there ought to be such things as lumps of flesh and bone as well. Why should clay particles stuck together compose lumps, but not flesh particles stuck together? But although it may sound attractive to say that clay statues96 are just special lumps of clay, it is not plausible to say that living things are just special lumps of flesh.
- Lumps of flesh ought to be able to survive crushing if lumps of clay can. So the lump composed of the flesh particles of a dog ought to be able to survive the same sorts of radical changes of shape as a lump of clay can survive. But the dog cannot survive that. If something analogous to squashing the statue97 and making the clay into a cube were to happen to the dog, the dog would not merely change its shape. It wouldn’t just cease to be a dog, and come to be a cubical piece of meat. Surely the dog would cease to be altogether. Or consider that dogs can survive wholesale changes of parts, owing to metabolic turnover. Lumps of flesh cannot survive this: if you take away half a lump’s particles and replace them with new ones – even if you do it gradually – you end up with a numerically different lump from the one you began with. So say those who believe in lumps, anyway. If there are such things as lumps of flesh, the lump now coinciding with a dog is not the one that coincided with it a year ago. A dog is not a lump of flesh. If there is only a lump of flesh in the dog story, in the way that according to lumpism there is only a lump of clay in the statue98 story, then there are really no dogs or other organisms at all: what appears to be a persisting organism is reality a series of numerically different lumps, each taking on organic form only briefly.
- Those who would avoid constitutionalism by saying that statues99 are just lumps are likely to end up concluding that all material things are lumps – things that can survive radical changes of shape but cannot be composed of different particles at different times. They will arrive at a general “lump ontology”. Because most familiar material objects – organisms, artefacts, and ourselves as well, if we are material – are not lumps, the lump ontology implies that there are no such things. That may not be a reductio ad absurdum of the lump ontology, but it shows how tough-minded you have to be to accept it. Lumpism offers no easy way round the clay-modelling argument.
- Now consider statuism, the idea that the only Thatcher-shaped object in the story is the statue100, which has that shape throughout its career. What's wrong with that? Well, if clay particles arranged in the shape of Thatcher compose a clay statue101, we should expect the organic particles that compose Thatcher herself to compose something analogous to a statue102 – not a statue103, exactly, but something of the same metaphysical sort as a statue104, with the same persistence conditions105: a "statue-type106 object". (If you believe that Thatcher is immaterial, consider her animal body.) What principled reason could there be to suppose that clay particles arranged in the shape of Thatcher compose a statue-type107 object but flesh particles arranged in that way do not?
- But Thatcher can survive things that no statue-type108 object could survive. She grew in size enormously in the course of her development. She could become a good deal smaller as well. She could survive the loss of her arms and legs. Given enough life-support machinery she could probably even survive as a severed head. No one thinks that a clay statue109 could have that sort of history. Thatcher herself is therefore no statue-type110 object. If the only Thatcher-sized material thing in the story is a statue-type111 object, then there is no such thing as Thatcher. Or if Thatcher really is a statue-type112 object, her history and persistence conditions113 are radically different from anything anyone ever thought. Those who would avoid constitutionalism by saying that lumps are really statue-type114 objects are likely to end up with something at least as repugnant as the lump ontology.
- You might find my attempts to generalize lumpism and statuism too crude. Maybe the claymodelling115 story is disanalogous to the stories of dogs and prime ministers that I have tried to compare it with. Perhaps clay particles arranged in human or in canine form compose lumps of clay, but organic particles arranged in human or canine form don’t compose lumps of anything. Or maybe clay particles arranged statuewise116 compose clay statues117 but organic particles arranged in human form do not compose fleshy statue-type118 objects. That might enable us to resist the clay-modelling argument and avoid constitutionalism without going to such loony extremes as the lump ontology. The trouble with these suggestions is that they sound unprincipled. One would like to think that there was some reason why clay particles arranged in human form compose lumps or statue-type119 objects while organic particles arranged in that way do not. Claims like these ought to fit into some broader and more systematic picture of the ontology of material objects. Otherwise we ought to worry that they are more wishful thinking than reliable insight. And it is hard to come up with such a picture120.
- A more radical response to the clay-modelling puzzle is to reject both 1 and 2: there are neither lumps of clay nor clay statues121. Of course, there is something there that sculptors work and has aesthetic value. Perhaps there are clay particles. Sculptors arrange some of these particles in special ways, with certain intentions and in special circumstances. We describe this situation loosely by saying such things as, “She has made a clay statue122 of Margaret Thatcher.” But really there are no clay objects, but only particles. Clay particles never compose anything: there is nothing that has many clay particles as parts and every part of which overlaps at least one of those particles. There is never any larger thing for clay particles to be parts of. The clay particles in our story start out stuck together in a nondescript fashion, then get arranged in a way that we describe as Thatcher-shaped, and end up arranged cubically. But nothing in the story is literally Thatcher-shaped or cubical. This would enable us to describe the clay-modelling case without committing ourselves to constitutionalism. We might call this proposal the sparse ontology.
- Some philosophers have trouble understanding the sparse ontology. What is the difference, they ask, between things' being lumped together and their composing a lump? Given that some clay particles cohere together and don't cohere with any other clay particles, how can it be a further question whether there is a lump of clay there? We might as well say that there are many people gathered in the street but there is no crowd, or that there is a left shoe and a matching right shoe but no pair of shoes. How could that be a serious view? It is hard to know how to respond to this.
- Consider the claim that any objects whatever, no matter what they are like in themselves or how they are arranged, always compose something. That is, for any things at all, there is something that has all those things as parts, and all the parts of which share a part with one or more of those things – something numerically different from any of those parts, unless there is just one of them. Call this compositional universalism. Those who don’t understand the sparse ontology appear to be assuming this principle. In fact they seem to think that it cannot intelligibly be doubted or denied: it is true solely by virtue of the meanings of the words used to state it, and in such an obvious way that anyone who understands the words ‘thing’, 'compose', and 'something' must see, on reflection, that it is true. Their view is apparently that it is a logical principle, like the principle of non-contradiction. Given that there are such things as your left leg, St Paul's Cathedral, and the planet Mars, anyone who fails to see that there is also an enormous disconnected material thing composed of those three objects is simply confused.
- That is not how it seems to me. I find it eminently doubtful whether there is anything made up of your left leg, St Paul's Cathedral, and the planet Mars. It is not only doubtful whether those three things compose a “genuine object” or a thing with natural boundaries or anything of the sort that we have reason to pay any mind to. It is doubtful whether they compose anything at all. Universalism looks to me like a substantive metaphysical principle. It is not at all like the principle of non-contradiction. It is more like the claim that God exists. It might be true, and then again it might not be. But if we can meaningfully ask whether just any things compose a larger thing, how could it be meaningless to ask whether clay particles lumped together compose anything?
- This is not going to satisfy those who have tried hard and failed to understand the sparse ontology. I can refer them to other sources (for instance van Inwagen 1990: 6-12 and 1994; Merricks 2001: 12-28). And we will see in chapter 9 that what we say about composition has important implications for what we are123.
- Even if we can understand the claim that there are no lumps or statues124, though, we may find it hard to believe. The result of kneading some clay into the shape of Thatcher certainly appears to be a medium-sized clay object. At any rate it takes some doing to get people to take seriously the idea that there might be nothing there but particles. The proposal also raises difficult theoretical questions. For instance, if the particles in our story don't compose a lump of clay or anything else, when do particles compose something? What would it take for particles to compose something, if not their being lumped together? More to the point, if clay particles arranged in the form of a human being never compose anything, why suppose that organic particles arranged in human form compose something? Surely there is no ontologically significant distinction between clay particles and organic particles. If there are no lumps or statues125, how could there be any people – unless people are immaterial? We will return to these matters in §9.5.
- Other opponents of constitutionalism accept that the statue126 and lump exist and have different careers, but deny that they coincide materially. Despite appearances, they say, there are no smaller things that compose both the lump and the statue127. The lump has temporal parts that do not overlap with any parts of the statue128, such as the cubical part of it located later than its statue-shaped129 part. If a statue130 and a lump were to have all the same parts, including temporal parts – if the god of the philosophers were to create a clay statue131 out of nothing and then annihilate it without changing its shape, for instance – they would be one and the same. This proposal at least provides a systematic way of avoiding material coincidence. However, it requires the contentious assumption that statues132 and lumps, and presumably all persisting objects, including ourselves, are made up of temporal parts. We will return to it in Chapter 5.
3.4 Thinking animals145 again
- The clay-modelling133 puzzle is just one of many considerations about the ontology of material objects that support constitutionalism. Here are two more.
- The replacement puzzle, like the clay-modelling134 puzzle, suggests that each ordinary material object coincides materially with something of a different sort (Thomson 1998). Suppose we break off an arm of our clay statue135 and burn it in a very hot fire, then replace it with a new arm made of different clay. Then the argument is this: There is a clay statue136 that persists throughout the story, and has first one arm and then another. There is also a statue-shaped137 lump of clay coinciding with the statue138 before the replacement, and another statue-shaped139 lump of clay coinciding with it afterwards. I say another lump because the original lump doesn’t get smaller when we destroy part of it, as the statue140 does, and then regain its original size when a new part is provided. No; the lump ceases to exist when the arm is destroyed. And when the new arm is attached, a new lump comes into being. Or perhaps a previously disconnected lump – one existing in two detached pieces – comes to be a connected lump – one that is all in one piece. Either way, the new lump is not the old one. Since the statue141 coincides first with one lump and then with another, it cannot be identical with either lump. More generally, every clay statue142 has a property that no lump of clay has, namely the capacity to have different clay parts, or to be made of different clay, at different times. It follows that no clay statue143 is identical with any lump of clay – not even a clay statue144 that never has any of its parts replaced. Once more we have qualitatively different material objects coinciding materially. The alternatives to this conclusion are similar to those in the clay-modelling puzzle.
- Then there is the ancient amputation puzzle. Consider an ordinary human organism, Peter. Presumably there is such a thing as Peter's left hand. And if there is such a thing as his left hand, there ought to be such a thing as his "left-hand complement" as well: something composed of all of Peter's particles save those that compose his left hand. Call it Pete. Pete and Peter are not the same thing: Peter is bigger. Pete would seem to be one of Peter's parts. Now imagine that Peter loses his left hand. Better, let the hand be entirely destroyed. This is surely something that Peter could survive. Suppose he does. Then he gets smaller by a hand. But what about Pete? What happens to it when Peter loses his hand? If the loss is clean and quick, Pete need not be directly affected. Only its surroundings would change. So it seems that both Peter and Pete would exist after the amputation. How would they then relate to one another? It seems that they would coincide materially: the very atoms that compose Peter would compose Pete as well. But they cannot be the same thing, for they were different things before they coincided. If these assumptions are all correct, then this is another case of material coincidence (Thomson 1987). (It will be a genuine case of constitution only if Peter and Pete differ qualitatively while coinciding; but those who accept the rest of the story are unlikely to deny this.) Again, there is no easy way of avoiding the constitutionalist conclusion. We will return to the amputation puzzle in §§7.3-7.4.
- The constitution view146 promises to combine the apparent fact that we are living material things with the conviction that we have identity conditions or essential properties different from those of human animals147. It claims to have all the virtues of animalism148 with none of its vices. And it is part of a package that appears to solve a number of vexing metaphysical puzzles. This might make the constitution view149 sound like a gift from the gods.
- But it is too good to be true. For one thing, the constitution view150 shares some of the objections levelled against animalism151. In §2.9 we saw that animalism152 was incompatible with the widely held claim that facts about mental unity determine how many of us there are at any one time. I will argue in §6.4 that the constitution view153 is also incompatible with that claim. (We will consider another objection to both animalism154 and the constitution view155 in §9.3.)
- The constitution view156 has troubles of its own as well. The most obvious is the thinking animal157 problem. The constitution view158 says that we are not identical with our animal bodies. As we saw in §2.3, this implies that one of three things must be the case: there are no human animals159 at all, or human animals160 cannot think in the way that we do, or each of us shares all our thoughts with another being. Which of these unsavory consequences should friends of the constitution view161 accept?
- They cannot deny that there are human animals162. That such an animal constitutes you is part of their view. Someone might deny that there are animals and say that we coincide with lumps of flesh or masses of matter instead. (Though this is not strictly a version of the constitution view163 as I have characterized it, it is a close relative.) In that case there would be no thinking animal164 problem; but there would still be a thinking-lump problem. It might perhaps be easier to explain why a lump of flesh in human form could never think than to explain why a human animal165 couldn’t. But even so, advocates of this view face the considerable challenge of explaining why there are no human animals166 in a way that is compatible with their view of what we are167. Why might there be no human animals168? It might be because there are no material things at all: the physical world is an illusion. Or maybe there are no composite material things, but only elementary particles (§8.5). Or it might be because nothing can have different parts at different times (§§7.3-7.4). None of these claims are compatible with anything like the constitution view169. Any grounds for denying the existence of animals are likely to grounds for denying the existence of any sort of “constituted” material things that we could be.
- So according to the constitution view170 there are human animals171 coinciding materially with us. What if those animals think in the way that we do? Then there are two beings thinking your thoughts, you and the animal. And that is too many. We saw the problems this raises in §2.6. The human animals172 coinciding with us ought to count as people. Human people would then come in two kinds: animal people and the non-animal people they constitute. That makes it hard to see how we could know whether we are the non-animal people or the animal people that constitute them.
- Baker seems to think that these problems dissolve once we see that the animal constitutes the person (2000: 169-179, 191-204; 2002: 42). If we state the constitution view173 correctly, she claims, the question of how we know we are not our animal bodies does not arise. She says that I am an animal as well as a person, and that the animal constituting me – call it A – is a person as well as an animal. But A and I are animals and people in different senses. I am an animal only derivatively, she says, insofar as an animal constitutes me. A, however, is an animal non-derivatively: it is an animal independently of its constituting or being constituted by anything. Contrariwise, A is a person only insofar as it constitutes a person, whereas I am a person non-derivatively, independently of any constitution relations I enter into. How does that help? In particular, how does it enable me to know that I am not A? Well, I can know that I am a person, Baker says, because I can think first-person thoughts, and only a person can think first-person thoughts (that is her definition of 'person'). Yet A is also a person. How do I know which person I am? Baker says that although I am a person, and A is a person, and we are numerically different, we are not two people. Whenever one thing constitutes another, she says, they are one thing. And because there are not two people there, it makes no sense to ask which one I am.
- I don’t know what Baker means when she says that that A and I, though numerically different, are one person. But whatever it means, I do not see how it could help me to know that I am not A. There is A, Baker says, and there is the person A constitutes – Olson – and they are numerically different. So I ought to be able to ask whether I identical with Olson or with A. If I am identical with Olson and not with A, as Baker claims, how can it be impossible to ask whether I am Olson or A? And if I can ask whether I am Olson or A, I can also ask what grounds I have for accepting one answer to this question rather than another – just the problem Baker’s account was supposed to do away with.
- Friends of the constitution view174 will want to solve the thinking-animal problem by denying that human animals175 can think, or that they can think in the way that we think176. But as we saw in §2.5, this is a hard thing for a materialist to maintain: if you say that some material things can think, you will find it hard to argue that biological organisms cannot. It is especially hard to argue that physically indistinguishable things in the same surroundings – and according to the constitution view177 you and I are indistinguishable in this way from our animal bodies – can nonetheless differ radically in their mental capacities. There appears to be no difference between you and your animal body that could account for any psychological difference.
- Someone might say that what prevents human animals178 from thinking is not any defect in their physical structure or surroundings or history, but that they belong to the wrong metaphysical kind. The kind might be biological organism: perhaps human animals179 cannot think because they are organisms. We, by contrast, are able to think because we are not organisms (as well as having the right microstructure, surroundings, history, and so on).
- Why should a thing’s being a biological organism prevent it from thinking (or from thinking in the way that we think)? Maybe organisms can’t think because they have the wrong persistence conditions180. We considered this rather unlikely view in §2.5. Even if it were true, though, it would not yet explain why we can think and human animals181 can’t. That is because it doesn’t explain why we are not animals ourselves. Of course, it is part of the constitution view182 that we are not animals. But even if we coincide materially with animals numerically different from ourselves, the question remains: what makes us non-animals? We are physically identical with human animals183. We have the same developmental and evolutionary history as those animals have (we weren’t cooked up in the lab by mad scientists). How could things like that – beings that no biologist could ever distinguish from animals – not be animals?
- Perhaps we are not animals because we lack the identity conditions of organisms: maybe our identity over time, but not that of organisms, consists in some sort of psychological continuity184. But this raises a further question: what could give us different identity conditions from those of human animals185? How could material things with the same physical properties (or at any rate the same microstructure) in the same surroundings differ in the sort of thing they can survive? What is it about human animals186 that enables them to survive in a persistent vegetative state187 (for instance), when we – beings otherwise exactly like them – cannot survive it?
- I have asked why we can think but the animals coinciding with us cannot, what makes us non-organisms despite being physically indiscernible from organisms, and what could give us different identity conditions from the animals coinciding with us. We might also ask what could make one object a statue188 and another object, physically indiscernible from it and with the same surroundings, a mere statue-shaped189 lump. These are all instances of a more general question, which we might call the indiscernibility problem: how can putting the same parts together in the same way in the same circumstances give you qualitatively different wholes? If the same atoms can compose two things at once, what could make those two things qualitatively different? What could give them different mental properties, or different persistence conditions190, or different modal191 properties? If atoms really could compose more than one object at once – if numerically different objects could coincide materially – should we not expect those objects to be qualitatively identical?
- Constitutionalists evidently do not expect this. They are not surprised that two objects that are otherwise indiscernible should differ systematically in their mental or modal192 properties. Why not? Presumably it is because they take these differences to be primitive or brute: not explainable in terms of other differences. There is no saying why you would go along with your transplanted cerebrum193 and your animal body would not, or why you can think but the animal can’t, beause there is no other difference between you and the animal that could explain it. A human animal’s194 inability to think is a primitive and basic feature of it. It just can’t, and that’s all there is to be said. Asking why a human animal195 cannot think is like asking why an electron is negatively charged: there is no more basic level of properties underlying it, in terms of which it could be explained. Or maybe animals cannot think because they have the wrong persistence conditions196 to think (as Shoemaker argues), and their persistence conditions197 are brute. Each pair of coinciding objects must have some brute difference that explains the other differences between them.
- Constitutionalists will point out that things must have some brute properties or other: a thing cannot have every property it has by virtue of its having some other property. So why shouldn’t a thing’s persistence conditions198 and mental properties be brute?
- Not many philosophers would agree that mental properties are brute. That would mean that there is no explanation of why some beings are conscious or intelligent and others aren’t. At any rate there would be no explanation in many cases. It may be that having a certain sort of brain is necessary for being intelligent or conscious. But only some of the beings with that sort of brain would be intelligent and conscious, and there would be no saying why those beings with that sort of brain that are intelligent and conscious are intelligent or conscious, and why those that are not intelligent of conscious are not. No amount of information about a being’s brain structure, history, or surroundings would suffice to explain why it is conscious or intelligent. It would not even suffice to explain why a thing is likely to be conscious or intelligent, in the way that someone’s being dealt three aces explains why she is likely to win the poker game. This would make mental properties inherently mysterious.
- Constitutionalists may want to say that things’ mental properties are not primitive, but only their modal199 properties – their persistence conditions200, for instance, and other essential properties – and use the difference in the modal201 properties of coinciding objects to explain their other differences. But it will not be easy to say how the modal202 properties of human animals203 prevent them from having mental properties.
- And there seems to be something fishy in the claim that things’ modal204 properties are primitive and independent of their non-modal205 properties. Suppose someone said that every person located in the northern hemisphere coincides materially with a being that is essentially in the northern hemisphere: an “essential northerner”. (Perhaps Antipodeans coincide with essential southerners; perhaps not.) If you were to cross the equator from the north, the essential northerner coinciding with you would necessarily perish. Now it might occur to someone to ask why that being cannot cross the equator. You can cross the equator. And your essential northerner is otherwise just like you. What stops him from crossing? This seems to me to be a legitimate question – a question we should expect to have an answer. But if the modal206 properties that coinciding objects don’t share are primitive, as constitutionalists are apparently committed to saying, it is not a legitimate question. That your essential northerner cannot exist outside the northern hemisphere would be a brute property of him, not explainable in terms of his having any other properties. Why can’t he get across the equator? He just can’t. Not even God could say why. That strikes me as an absurd thing to say.
- Constitutionalists may say that it is absurd because essential northerners are absurd: it is absurd to suppose that any material object is essentially located in the northern hemisphere. And the existence of such things in no way follows from the claim that human animals207 coincide with beings that are essentially able to think in a certain way. That is fair enough – but then we shall want to know why human animals208 coincide with essential thinkers but not with essential northerners. What’s the difference between the two cases? What makes one absurd and the other respectable? This is the topic of the next section209.
3.5 When does constitution occur?
3.6 What determines our boundaries?
- Let me mention two further worries about the constitution view210. They may appear trifling compared with the thinking-animal problem. But many philosophers say that there is no such problem, or that it can be solved, or that it is troubling but outweighed by the constitution view211's advantages; so these further worries may be important. In any case they are interesting in their own right.
- The first has to do with when one thing constitutes another. Constitutionalists say that certain qualitative properties have the following feature: necessarily, when an object acquires one of them, a new object comes into being which coincides materially with the first and has that property essentially. So when a sculptor models a lump of clay into the shape of Thatcher, the lump comes to coincide with a new object – a statue212 – that has that shape essentially. The lump could have any shape you like, but the statue213 – that particular statue214 – could not exist without having that shape. (Perhaps it is only an approximate shape.) Or again: when in the course of its development a human organism acquires certain a mental property (the capacity for self-awareness or for first-person thought or what you), it comes to coincide with a new being- -a person – that has that property essentially. Because most constitutionalists say that in these cases the original object constitutes the new object, we might call them constitution-inducing properties.
- There is a complication. Constitutionalists deny that constituting objects always share the properties of the things they constitute. For instance, human organisms that come to constitute people never become self-aware themselves (or at least not in the way that the people are self-aware); otherwise human animals215 and human people would hardly be worth distinguishing. Rather, the organism comes to constitute a being having the capacity for self-awareness essentially when it acquires some other property: perhaps a property, the having of which suffices for a thing to be self-aware if it belongs to the right kind or has the right identity conditions or the like. This other property might be the neural substrate of self-awareness, or the conjunction of the right neural substrate and appropriate surroundings216. And of course some properties that constituted objects are said to have essentially are properties that nothing could acquire: having certain persistence conditions217, for instance. (Nothing can start out having one set of persistence conditions218 and later exchange them for a new set, incompatible with the first.) If a thing's acquiring a property P suffices for it to come to constitute a new object that has a property Q essentially, let us say that P and Q are constitutional correlates. So a property P is constitution-inducing if and only if, necessarily, whenever an object acquires P, it comes to coincide with a new object that has a constitutional correlate of P essentially. (This allows that a property might be a constitutional correlate of itself.)
- A general question now arises: What properties are constitution-inducing? What properties are such that when a thing acquires one of them, it comes to constitute a new object that has that property or a constitutional correlate of it essentially? In other words, under what circumstances does constitution occur? What alterations in a previously existing material thing call a new material thing into being? I take it that this question must have an answer. At any rate it must have an answer if constitutionalism is true.
- I am not asking for a definition of constitution – an account of what it would be for one thing to constitute another. That would not tell us when constitution occurs. Suppose we agree that, by definition, x constitutes y if and only if x and y coincide materially and it is possible for y to cease to exist while x endures and retains the same parts, but not possible for x to cease to exist while y endures with the same parts. Clearly we could still disagree about when these conditions obtain: you might take many properties to be constitution-inducing while I say that few are, or none. We could be like people who agree about what absolute moral rights would be but disagree about which such rights there are.
- There are three broad sorts of answers to this question. One is that no properties are constitution-inducing: that’s what opponents of constitutionalism say. Another is that all properties are constitution-inducing: any alteration to any material object, no matter how trivial, necessarily results in its coming to constitute a new object that has the property thereby acquired, or a constitutional correlate of it, essentially. Third, it may be that some properties are constitution-inducing and others are not.
- Call the claim that all properties are constitution-inducing the generous view219. It has the important advantage of being principled. If some properties are constitution-inducing and others aren’t, it seems fair to ask why the ones that are are, and why the others aren’t – just as if some people are rich and others aren’t, we can ask why the rich ones are rich and the others aren’t. The generous view can tell us why a given property is constitution-inducing: because all properties are necessarily constitution-inducing.
- But the generous view is hard to believe. For one thing, every persisting material object has properties that change continuously: at every moment you acquire, among other things, a new shape and a new distance from the moon. So the generous view implies that you come to constitute a new being at every moment. During the time it takes you to blink your eyes, you pass through an uncountable infinity of shapes, and each of those minute alterations brings forth a new being, coinciding with you, that has that shape essentially.
- Now this sort of ontological extravagance is not unique to the generous view: the ontology of temporal parts has a similar consequence. But the generous view is infinitely more extravagant than the ontology of temporal parts. Suppose you stand up, thereby coming to constitute a being, S, that is essentially standing. And suppose that as you are in the process of standing up, you also begin to frown, thereby coming to constitute a being, F, that is essentially frowning. Are S and F the same object, or different? (Suppose, if you like, that S and F go out of existence at the same time.) Do the things that have their posture essentially also have their facial expression essentially? We could ask the same questions about a thing’s mass, age, distance from the moon, pH, net electric charge, and so on. Any material object acquires a vast number of new properties at any moment: perhaps an infinite number. How many new objects does it thereby come to constitute? And how are the properties a thing acquires (or their constitutional correlates) distributed essentially across the objects it then comes to constitute?
- As far as I can see, the only principled way of answering this question is to be generous once more (Bennett 1984: 354): when you stand and frown at once, you coincide with a being that essentially stands and contingently frowns, with a second being that contingently stands and essentially frowns, and with a third being that essentially stands and essentially frowns. More generally, for every non-empty subset of the set of qualitative properties you have at a given time, there is a being coinciding with you that has the members of that subset (or constitutional correlates of them) essentially and has the other properties you have at that time (or constitutional correlates of them) contingently. So if the number of properties you have at a given moment is n, the number of material things you coincide with at that moment will be a bit less than 2n. That’s a lot.
- Worse yet, suppose you begin to think about Vienna. The generous view implies that you thereby come to constitute a being different from yourself that thinks about Vienna essentially (you don’t think about Vienna essentially). It follows that whenever you think about Vienna, you are one of at least two beings thinking about Vienna (far more than two if the suggestion of the previous paragraph is right; but never mind that). You ought to wonder which one you are: are you the one who was absorbed with things other than Vienna a moment ago, or the one that thinks about Vienna throughout the whole of its brief career? How could you ever know? This problem arises even if constitutionalists can explain why the animals that constitute us are unable to think in the way that we do: it has nothing to do with the mental properties of animals.
- It is not surprising that most constitutionalists want to say that only some properties are constitution-inducing. But which ones? You might think that all and only intrinsic properties are constitution-inducing. But this is hardly better than the generous view. Many mental properties appear to be intrinsic; so it would seem to follow that when you come to be conscious after a night asleep220, you come to coincide with a being that is essentially conscious. What’s more, some constitutionalists say that constitution-inducing properties can be extrinsic (Baker 1997).
- Baker proposes that a thing x constitutes something y just when “y has whole classes of causal properties that x would not have had if x had not constituted anything221”. If we use an anvil as a doorstop, she says, it holds open the door merely by virtue of properties it would have even if it didn’t constitute anything. It acquires no new classes of causal properties. A person, by contrast, has many properties that a mere organism would not have if it didn’t constitute a person, such as the capacity to think about the future. That, she says, explains why certain organisms constitute essential people, but anvils never constitute essential doorstops.
- Baker concedes that this is not a satisfactory account of when constitution occurs, but she thinks it is a helpful guide. As far as I can see it is no help at all. Does the human organism now sitting in your chair constitute something? According to Baker’s proposal it does if there is something now coinciding with it that has certain causal properties that the animal wouldn’t now have if it didn’t constitute anything. Well, what causal properties would the animal now have if it didn’t constitute anything? One answer is that it would have precisely the causal properties that you now have, including your mental properties. Another is that the animal would lack many of the mental properties you now have unless it constituted something that had certain mental properties essentially. How can we decide between these two answers? Only, it seems, by finding out whether the animal constitutes something. Those who think it doesn’t will take the animal to have all the causal properties that you have; those who think the animal constitutes an essential thinker will take it to lack some of your causal properties. But whether the animal constitutes something is just what we wanted to find out. Those who have no idea when constitution occurs will be none the wiser for all Baker’s proposal tells them. The same goes for other putative cases of constitution.
- You might think that Baker’s proposal gives at least a necessary condition for constitution, even if it is no good as a sufficient condition. That is, even if it tells us nothing about when constitution does occur, it might tell us something about when it doesn’t – ruling out the generous view that all properties are constitution-inducing, if nothing else. It might imply that an anvil doesn’t come to constitute an essential doorstop when we use it to prop open a door, because it thereby acquires no new classes of causal properties.
- But I cannot see that it helps even here. Whether the anvil constitutes an essential doorstop depends on what causal properties the anvil would have if it didn’t constitute anything. Baker says that an anvil used as a doorstop has the same causal properties whether it constitutes anything or not. But why suppose that? Someone might think that putting an anvil in front of an open door necessarily causes it to constitute an essential doorstop, and infer from this that if the anvil didn’t constitute anything it wouldn’t keep the door open. Baker’s proposal would give her no reason to change her mind. Those who deny that anvils ever constitute essential doorstops will find Baker’s proposal equally consistent with their own view. Those who have no idea whether this is a case of constitution and want to find out will get no help from Baker’s proposal.
- Of course, it might be silly to suppose that putting an anvil in front of a door would cause it to constitute an essential doorstop, with causal powers that the anvil lacks. But then some philosophers find it silly to suppose that the normal development of a human organism causes it to constitute an essential thinker, with causal powers that the organism lacks. Baker’s proposal does nothing to help resolve these disputes. If essential doorstops are silly and essential thinkers are not, we should like to know why this is so, and Baker’s proposal doesn’t say. It implies nothing at all about when constitution occurs.
- I have never seen a serious answer to the question of which properties are constitution-inducing, apart from ‘all’ and ‘none’. Does it matter? Every philosophical claim raises questions that no one knows how to answer. Is this a problem for constitutionalism, or merely an interesting topic for further research?
- I think it is a problem. For one thing, if we have no idea what properties, in general, are constitution-inducing and no idea how to find out, it ought to undermine our confidence in the claim that any particular property is constitution-inducing – all the more so given that constitutionalists disagree widely among themselves about these matters. That would cast doubt on constitutionalism generally, and on the constitution view222 of ourselves in particular.
- More seriously, it is hard to combine the constitution view223 with any acceptable answer to this question. Most friends of the constitution view224 say that a human animal225 comes to constitute a person when it acquires a certain mental capacity (or its constitutional correlate). Suppose it is the capacity for first-person thought: when an animal acquires it, it comes to constitute a person that has that capacity essentially. This has the implausible consequence that we were never foetuses226, and that human beings in a persistent vegetative state227 are not, and do not constitute, the people by whose names we continue to call them. But never mind that. A human animal228 acquires all sorts of mental capacities (or their constitutional correlates) in the course of its development from a foetus229 into an adult. For instance, it acquires the capacity to have bodily sensations. It also acquires the capacity to have beliefs and desires, the capacity to think about the future, the capacity to do arithmetic, and many more. Friends of the constitution view230 say that just one of these capacities is constitution-inducing. (Otherwise each of us would coincide with a different thinking being for each constitution-inducing mental capacity.) They say that a being can acquire the capacity to have sensations without thereby coming to constitute anything that has that capacity essentially, but no being can acquire the capacity to think in the first person without coming to constitute anything that has that capacity essentially. What is it about first-person thought that makes it, alone among mental properties, constitution-inducing?
- If there is to be any answer to this question, it will involve the claim that the capacity to think in the first person is somehow uniquely special among mental capacities. But there doesn’t seem to be anything uniquely special about it. Constitutionalists may point out that the capacity for first-person thought is a prerequisite for a wide variety of other mental capacities, such as the capacity to plan for the future. But many other mental capacities are equally special: the capacity to think at all, for instance, is a prerequisite for an even wider variety of mental capacities. The claim that the capacity for first-person thought, but no other mental property, is constitution-inducing seems arbitrary and unprincipled. It isn’t just that we don’t know what makes it constitution-inducing, but that no such account seems possible.
- Well, maybe it isn’t the capacity for first-person thought that is constitution-inducing, but rather the capacity to think at all. (This seems to be Shoemaker’s view.) That might sound less arbitrary. But is it? We have all sorts of capacities, some mental and some not. Why should that one in particular be constitution-inducing? Why not the capacity for sense-experience? Or the capacity to move? Or the capacity to breathe? I cannot see any way of answering these questions. As far as I can see, the constitution view231 is inconsistent with any principled account of what properties are constitution-inducing – short of the generous view, anyway.
- Someone might wonder whether there has to be any principled account of what properties are constitution-inducing. There must be some answer to that question if constitutionalism is true, but why suppose that the answer must be intellectually satisfying and not simply arbitrary? Could it not be that the capacity for first-person thought is constitution-inducing and no other capacity is and there is no reason why? Well, maybe. But if the facts about which properties are constitution-inducing are arbitrary, it is hard to see how anyone could ever know them.
- Here is the second worry. The constitution view232 says that I coincide materially with a certain animal. Its parts are my parts and my parts are its. We share our spatial boundaries. This may be only contingently true – maybe I could come to coincide with something partly or wholly inorganic – but it is the usual situation. Why should this be so? Why is my boundary the boundary of this animal? What makes all and only the animal’s parts my parts? What is it about my feet, for instance, that makes them, but not my shoes, or your feet, parts of me?
- I am not asking for a causal or historical explanation of how my boundaries came to lie where they do, in the way that we might ask how Texas came to be a part of the United States. Never mind history. I want to know what it is about the way I relate to my feet now that makes them parts of me now. This is analogous to asking what current geopolitical facts make it the case that Texas is a part of the US, rather than, say, a part of Mexico or an independent state. We could not understand how historical events affect a thing's current boundaries unless we understood what sort of facts fix things' boundaries in the first place233.
- I take it that this question must have an answer. Our boundaries may be indefinite – there may be things that are neither definitely parts of me nor definitely not parts of me – but even so we must have boundaries. And where they lie is no accident. According to the constitution view234, they ordinarily coincide precisely with those of a particular animal; and moreover in normal circumstances they continue to coincide with those of a human animal235 for the whole of our lives. This fact deserves an explanation.
- If we were animals, what fixes our boundaries would be whatever fixes the boundaries of an animal. And we know what that is: an animal extends as far as its biological life extends (more or less: see §2.2). My feet are parts of this organism because they are caught up in its life; my shoes are not parts of it because they are not caught up in its life: they don’t respond in the right way to the organism’s metabolic activities. If I am not an animal, though, the mere fact that something is a part of this animal cannot make it a part of me. Nor can the fact that something is caught up in a certain animal’s life, by itself, make it a part of me.
- What might determine where our boundaries lie if the constitution view236 were true? It is not easy to say. Locke suggested that we extend spatially as far as our "consciousness" extends. Those particles, he said, that are "vitally united to this same thinking conscious self, so that we feel when they are touch'd, and are affected by, and conscious of good or harm that happens to them, are a part of our selves" (1975: 336). The idea is that my feet are parts of me because I can feel them, or more generally because changes in them have an immediate effect on the nature of my experience. Of course, I cannot feel any particular atom, and no single atom is such that changes in it has an immediate effect on my experience, yet on Locke’s proposal many atoms are parts of me. But an atom can be a part of a larger thing that I can feel, and any part of a part of me is itself a part of me. So we could say that our parts are those things that we can feel in this way, and the parts of those things. Most friends of the constitution view237 think that psychological facts fix our temporal boundaries – when we begin and end. This may lead them to think for similar reasons that psychological facts fix our spatial boundaries as well, just as Locke’s proposal has it.
- But a moment’s reflection shows that this will not do. It implies that a limb that was completely numb would not be a part of you. An accident that left you numb and paralyzed from the neck down would literally reduce you to a head (or to something constituted by a head). An event that left you entirely numb, depriving you of all sensory input, would leave you with no parts at all. Since you could not exist without having any parts (even yourself, your “improper” part), this means that you could not survive in such a state, even for a moment. I take that to be absurd. For that matter, Locke’s proposal implies that even in ordinary circumstances our boundaries are not the boundaries of a human animal238. The reason is that you can't feel the whole of your animal body. You can't feel the blood flowing through your aorta, for instance. On Locke's proposal, neither your blood cells nor the atoms composing them are
24 parts of you: you are smaller than a human animal239. It follows that no animal constitutes you. So Locke’s proposal is actually incompatible with the constitution view240. Locke’s proposal may seem like a straw man. There is probably a better account of what determines our boundaries that is compatible with the constitution view241. But I have no idea what it might be.
- You may suspect that there is really no problem here. It follows from most definitions of constitution that whenever one thing constitutes another, the two things share their boundaries and their parts (or at any rate there are things that compose each of them). Thus, given that we are constituted by human animals242, as the constitution view243 says, our boundaries will be the boundaries of those animals. Those people who come to be constituted by things other than organisms will share their boundaries with whatever it is that constitutes them then. Friends of the constitution view244 might therefore seem to have a perfectly good account of what determines our boundaries: they are the boundaries of whatever it is that constitutes us.
- Our being constituted by animals would indeed imply that our boundaries are those of our animal bodies. But rather than answering the question of what determines our boundaries, this proposal merely relocates it. The question is now what makes it the case that animals constitute us. Why not things a bit larger or smaller than animals? Granted, it seems to be human animals245 that constitute us if anything does, and not something bigger or smaller. But that appearance is nothing more than the fact that we appear to extend all the way out to our skin and no further. It does nothing to explain why we are constituted by things that extend all the way out to our skin and no further, rather than by things with a greater or lesser extent. This is a question that friends of the constitution view246 need to answer. At any rate they are committed to its having an answer. And it will be no easier for them to answer than the original question of what determines our boundaries.
- This problem might not seem unique to the constitution view247. Maybe it is a good question why animals constitute us rather than bigger or smaller things. But don’t other accounts of what we are248 face a similar question? Take animalism249. What could make it the case that we are animals, rather than things bigger or smaller than animals? Don’t animalists250 need to answer this question? And won’t their answer suit the constitution view251 equally well? Suppose animalists252 can say why it is that we are animals and not bigger or smaller things. Wouldn’t that also explain why it is that we are constituted by animals and not by bigger or smaller things, if indeed that is the case?
- It is true that both animalists253 and constitutionalists face similar questions about what makes it the case that we are animals and constitutionalists about what makes it the case that animals constitute us. We will consider how animalists254 might answer their question in §9.3. But the constitutionalists’ question will be harder to answer than the animalists’255 question. There are two things animalists256 can say about why we should be animals rather than bigger or smaller things: they can deny that those bigger and smaller things can think; or they can deny that such things exist. (A third option would be to accept that such things exist and can think, and appeal to the “personal-pronoun revisionism” discussed in §2.6 to account for our ability to know that we are not those bigger or smaller things. I take it that neither animalists257 nor constitutionalists will be happy with this.)
- What might prevent something bigger or smaller than a human animal258 from thinking? If anything, we should expect it to be the fact that it is not an organism. That only an organism could think is sometimes said to belong to the very idea of thinking (see §4.2). But whatever merits this may have as an explanation of why you are an animal rather than something bigger or smaller than an animal, it cannot explain why you are constituted by an animal rather than by something larger or smaller than an animal. In fact it is incompatible with the constitution view259, which says that non-organisms do think.
- The second possible reason for supposing that we are animals rather than things larger or smaller than animals is that there simply are no such larger or smaller things. The only material thing that is even a candidate for thinking your thoughts – the only one that includes the neural machinery that makes your thought possible – is the animal. You are not your left-hand complement, for instance, because there is no such thing; those of your particles not located in your left hand do not compose anything. There are fewer material objects in the world than some philosophers have supposed. The animal is the only thing there that could be you.
- Of course, if there is nothing bigger or smaller than the animal that could be you, there is also nothing bigger or smaller than the animal that could constitute you; so this story would also serve the constitutionalist as an account of what determines our boundaries. But no constitutionalist would touch it. Even if this sort of sparse ontology of material objects is consistent with the letter of constitutionalism, it goes completely against its spirit. One of constitutionalism’s main attractions is that it provides a supply of material things rich enough to make true almost any metaphysical view about material things. Are you inclined to think that clay statues260 and lumps of clay, organisms and masses of matter, and people and organisms all exist, yet are numerically different, owing to their different essential properties? Constitutionalism will give you those objects. It is designed precisely to squeeze more things than you would have thought possible into the same place. It is an ontological shoehorn, the metaphysical equivalent of high-rise building. Once we start economizing with material objects, and especially if we have to economize on such a scale as to deny the existence of any parts of human beings big enough to include brains, constitutionalism loses its appeal.
- We can illustrate this conflict by recalling the metaphysical puzzles about material objects that we considered earlier in this chapter. A sparse ontology of material objects can solve those puzzles by denying the existence of one or more of the entities whose apparent coincidence was puzzling – the statue261, the lump, the person’s hand complement, and so on. That solution has a high intuitive cost: the sparse ontology is hard to believe. (See §§7.4 and 9.5 for more on the sparse ontology.) Constitutionalism was supposed to solve those problems without that cost. It has a cost of its own, of course: something must be done about the thinking-animal problem, not to mention the problem of when constitution occurs; but you might still prefer it to the sparse ontology. If constitutionalism requires a sparse ontology as well, this benefit is lost: there is no point in paying twice for the same thing, especially if the price is high. That would be a good reason to consider accepting the sparse ontology without constitutionalism.
- So advocates of the constitution view262 cannot say what animalists263 say about what determines our boundaries. They need to give another answer; or at least they are committed to there being another answer. But again, I have no idea what answer they could give. This seems to be a serious problem.
In-Page Footnotes ("Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Constitution")
Footnote 5: The technical reason is this: “Four-dimensionalists” say that two things can be made of the same matter at once, but they don’t mean it in the sense that is relevant here. They mean only that two material things can share a temporal part. They deny that two things can coincide materially in the sense defined below. We will return to this point in §§5.3 and 7.4.
Footnote 6: The term ‘the xs’ is a plural variable, standing to the singular variable ‘x’ as the plural name ‘the Marx Brothers’ stands to the singular name ‘Groucho’, and as the plural pronoun ‘they’ stands to the singular pronoun ‘it’. Here I follow van Inwagen 1990a: 22-27. It might be better to define the phrase ‘the xs compose y at a time t’ rather than ‘the xs compose y’, as the claim we are exploring is that things can compose two different objects at the same time. I have not done this because four-dimensionalists agree that atoms (say) can compose two different objects at the same time in the sense that the thing the temporal parts of those atoms located at that time compose can be a temporal part of two different objects that diverge elsewhere in spacetime. This sort of “coincidence”, which consists only in sharing temporal parts, is not the idea that concerns us in this chapter.
Footnote 29: Compare Doepke 1982 and 1996: ch. 7, Thomson 1998: 157, Baker 2000: 27-46 and 2001: 163, and Lowe 2002: 73. I say more about constitution in §7.6.
Footnote 41: Advocates of the constitution view include Johnston (1987), Sosa (1987), Doepke (1996: ch. 9), Shoemaker (1999), and Baker (2001, 2002, 2003).
Footnote 61: The earliest occurrence of this sort of argument that I am aware of is Wiggins 1968, though his example is different.
Footnote 92: Zimmerman (2003) argues against this proposal. But he is no constitutionalist; he endorses the “lump ontology” mentioned below.
Footnote 120: Hoffman and Rosenkranz (1997: 87-88, 99-100) may have such a reason; see §9.5. Burke (1994, 1996) denies 1 and accepts 2; I say a bit about his view in §7.4.
Footnote 176: This seems to be Baker’s view: human animals, she says, can think first-person thoughts only derivatively, whereas we can think them strictly speaking. So human animals and human people differ psychologically. But she does not explain why human animals cannot think in the way that people can. Zimmerman 2002 is an illuminating discussion of Baker by a philosopher with more patience than I.
Footnote 209: For more on the indiscernibility problem see Burke 1992, Levey 1997, Rea 1997b, Baker 2000: 27-58 and 167-90, Olson 2001a, and Bennett 2004.
Footnote 216: I assume here that properties are abundant: that for more or less any description of a thing, there is a property that something has if and only if it satisfies that description. I therefore beg the indulgence of those who think that properties are sparse – that there are only “natural” properties, or only those properties that figure in ultimate basic physics, for instance. They may want to imagine my ‘property’ replaced by ‘description’ or ‘condition’. I don’t think anything in my discussion turns on this point.
Footnote 219: It may be the view of Yablo (1987). Matthews (1982) thinks Aristotle held something like it. Bennett (2004: 354-359) argues that constitutionalists must accept it.
Footnote 221: 2000: 41. For another proposal along similar lines, see Doepke 1996: ch. 8. Unlike Baker’s proposal, Doepke’s appears to have real implications about when constitution occurs. What those implications are, however, is unclear to me. His proposal deserves further development.
Footnote 233: I speak indiscriminately here of what determines my boundaries and of what makes something a part of me. For the reasons noted in §1.1, these are not the same question, but the difference is not important here.
"Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Brains"
Source: What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology, Chapter 4 (November 2007: Oxford University Press.)
(OO-L): This chapter considers the view that we are literally brains. It argues that the view is best supported by the claim that brains are the primary subjects of mental properties, giving a “thinking-brain problem” analogous to the thinking-animal problem that supports animalism1. The brain view is shown to have implausible consequences about our identity through time, and to presuppose that something is a part of a thinking being if and only if it is directly involved in that being's mental processes. It is then argued that the notion of direct involvement is too interest-relative to give this principle any useful content, and that the principle is in any case unfounded.
- The brain view
- The thinking-brain problem
- The brain view and our identity over time
- Thinking-subject minimalism
- Direct involvement
4.1 The brain view
4.2 The thinking-brain problem
- If we are neither animals nor material things constituted by animals, we might be parts of animals. This chapter is devoted to the view that we are spatial parts of animals; the next asks whether we are temporal parts. The only spatial parts of animals that I can think of any reason to suppose we might be are brains, or something like brains – parts of brains or perhaps entire central nervous systems. Call the view that we are something like brains the brain view.
- The brain view says that we are identical with brains, not that we “are” brains in some looser sense. It is not the view that our brains are important to our being in a way that none of our other parts are. Nor is it that our brains constitute us, or that we are temporal parts of brains (views I will briefly discuss in §4.3). The brain view is that we are literally brains. So it implies that you are about four inches tall and weigh less than three pounds. You are located entirely within your cranium and made up mostly of soft, yellowish-pink tissue. In normal circumstances we never strictly see ourselves or each other. This might sound like something out of a comic book. Some readers, I’m sure, are already thinking of jokes. Is it really a serious view?
- One could defend the brain view by pointing out that even if you are a brain, it may still be true to say, in ordinary circumstances, that you are five or six feet tall, that you weigh more or less what the scales say when you step on them, and that you see yourself when you look in a mirror. These things might be true because your animal body has those properties. A brain can be six feet tall in the sense of having a six-foot-tall body. And that sense may be all we mean when we say, in ordinary contexts, that some of us are six feet tall. If so, the ordinary belief that some of us are six feet tall is perfectly compatible with the brain view. Those who believe that we are immaterial and have no physical properties at all have been saying this sort of thing for centuries: an immaterial thing can “be six feet tall” in the same sense as a brain can.
- Whether linguistic hypotheses of this sort make the brain view any easier to believe is debatable. It may only combine an absurd view about what we are2 with an implausible view about what we mean. When we say that Haroun is six feet tall, we don’t seem to mean merely that he relates in a certain way to something or other that has the property of being six feet tall. We seem to mean that Haroun himself has that property. And there doesn’t seem to be any sense in which Haroun is four inches tall.
- In any case, the brain view is the sort of thing that only a philosopher would think of, and only at the end of a long chain of argument. That may be why it is hard to find anyone who seriously advocates it3. But even if no one thinks that we are brains, the view raises important issues that bear on other accounts of what we are4. So we cannot avoid discussing it.
- Why suppose that we are brains? Well, it would support the conviction that you could survive the loss of your fingers, legs, abdominal organs, and so on, but not the loss of your brain – that you could be pared down to a naked brain (or a part of a brain), but no further. (I don’t say that this conviction is true; but it is widely held.) Of course, you couldn’t survive for very long as a naked brain – at any rate not without life-support machinery far more advanced than anything now in existence. But it may seem that you couldn’t survive even for a moment without a brain. If you are your brain, the reason for this would be simple: destroying your brain would literally destroy you, whereas cutting away your limbs and other organs would only change your surroundings, albeit in a drastic way.
- Likewise, the brain view fits nicely with the conviction that you would go along with your transplanted brain5. According to the brain view, to transplant your brain6 is literally to transplant7 you: to cut you out of your head, move you across the room, and then re-house you in a new head. If you were any material thing other than your brain (or a part of it), the view that transplanting your brain8 would transplant9 you would appear to have the awkward implication that the surgeons would move two brain-sized things across the room – you and your brain – raising the awkward question of what the relation would be, in mid-transplant10, between those two objects. (Friends of the constitution view11 have an answer to this question; but we have seen that it has its faults.) The brain view has the virtue of offering an entirely straightforward account of what happens in brain transplants12.
- Better yet, it offers a solution to the thinking-animal problem (Persson 1999: 521). Anyone who believes that we are not animals needs to say something about those human animals13 that appear to think our thoughts. Why don’t they count as people? And what reason could we have to suppose that we are not those animals? Friends of the brain view can answer that in the strictest sense human animals14 don’t think our thoughts: they think only in the derivative sense of having brains that think. The existence of unthinking animals15, or of animals that think only in a loose sense, is no threat to the claim that you and I are not animals. To my mind, this line of thought offers the best argument for the brain view. More importantly, perhaps, it poses a problem for anyone who believes that we are not brains: what grounds could you have for supposing that you are something other than your thinking brain? Call it the thinking-brain problem.
4.3 The brain view and our identity over time
- The brain is our organ of thought. We think with our brains, and not with our lungs or kidneys or any other parts of our bodies. The brain produces thought, much as the liver produces bile. So it seems, anyway. This suggests that the brain thinks. Just as the heart’s function is to pump our blood, the brain’s function is to think. (As before, let us take “thought” and “thinking” as broadly as possible, to include not only active cogitation but mental activity and states generally.) Philosophers of mind often say that if any material thing thinks, it is the brain: they ask whether a material thing could be conscious by asking whether a brain could be conscious. They ask whether mental states are physical states by asking whether they are brain states. But what could a brain state be, if not a state of a brain? And if a mental state is a state of something, that something ought to be the subject of that state, or at any rate a subject of it – that is, a thinking or conscious being. What more could it take for a thing to be conscious than for it to be in conscious states?
- But if the brain thinks, that suggests that anything larger than a brain – a human animal16, a thing constituted by a human animal17, or what have you – could be said to think only in the derivative sense of having a part that thinks. Brains, by contrast, would think in the strictest sense. They would have the property thinking; larger things could at best have the property having a thinking part. But having a thinking part doesn’t seem to be a way of thinking. The solar system, if there is such a thing, has many people as thinking parts. Yet clearly it doesn’t think. Not in any interesting sense, anyway. Maybe a human organism that thinks by virtue of having a thinking brain as a part bears a more intimate relation to the property of thinking than the solar system does by virtue of having a thinking person as a part, and this difference explains why we say that human organisms think and the solar system doesn’t. Even so, if it is the brain that thinks, it looks as if nothing larger than a brain could think in the strictest and most straightforward sense. Anything larger than a brain could think only a derivative sense – in the sense of having a special sort of part that thinks in the strictest sense. But isn’t it obvious that I think my thoughts in the strictest sense? Surely it couldn’t turn out that strictly speaking it is something other than me that thinks my thoughts, while I myself think only in some loose, second-rate sense. It follows that I could not be anything other than my brain. If the true thinkers of our thoughts – the beings that bear our mental properties in the most robust sense – are brains, then we must conclude, however reluctantly, that we are brains.
- We can summarize this reasoning like this:
It follows from these four premises that I am my brain. Those who think that we are not brains are committed to denying one of them. Let us consider the prospects for resisting the argument.
- (1) There is such a thing as my brain.
- (2) My brain thinks my thoughts in the strictest sense.
- (3) If my brain thinks my thoughts in the strictest sense, then anything else that thinks my thoughts does so only in the derivative sense of having a part that thinks in the strictest sense.
- (4) If anything thinks my thoughts in the strictest sense, I do.
- Start with the fourth premise. Could it be that in the strictest sense I don’t think? Surely not. If I know anything at all, I know that I think – not merely that it is correct to say in ordinary, non-philosophical contexts that I think, but that I think in the strictest possible sense. At any rate I think my thoughts if anything does. It could hardly be the case that something does think my thoughts – some one thing – but I am not it. As Chisholm once said in another context:
There is no reason whatever for supposing that I hope for rain only in virtue of the fact that some other thing hopes for rain – some stand-in that, strictly and philosophically, is not identical with me….If there are thus two things that now hope for rain, the one doing it on its own and the other such that its hoping is done for it by the thing that now happens to constitute it, then I am the former thing and not the latter thing. (1976: 104)
- That is how it seems to me. But I needn’t insist on this point. Those who say that you and I – the beings we refer to with our personal pronouns – don’t think in the strictest sense disagree with me only about words. As I said in §1.4, if the beings that think our thoughts are different from the beings our personal pronouns and proper names denote, the important matter is the nature of the beings that think our thoughts.
- What about the first premise, that there is such a thing as my brain? This might seem hard to deny, unless we are idealists and deny the existence of material things generally. But some philosophers concede that there are particles "arranged cerebrally" within my skull, yet deny that those particles compose anything. There is nothing, they say, that has all those particles as parts, and all the parts of which overlap one or more of those particles. We encountered this sort of sparse ontology of material objects in the previous chapter, and we will return to it in §§6.4 and 9.5.
- The third premise was that if my brain thinks, then anything else that thinks my thoughts does so only in the derivative sense of having a part that thinks. Though this looks right to me, I wouldn’t defend it to the death. It is not generally true that whenever an object has a part that is F, that object itself is F only in the sense of having an F part. If my foot is injured, then I am injured, and not, it seems, merely in a loose and derivative sense. It seems that I am injured in the same sense as my foot is: I really do have the property being injured, and not merely the property having an injured part (though I have that property too). Thinking might be like that: perhaps both my brain and I think in the strictest possible sense. If so, then the fact that my brain thinks provides no reason to suppose that I am a brain rather than, say, an organism, and the argument for the brain view fails.
- Even if this is right, though, it would offer little comfort to those who think that we are not brains. If I am something other than my brain, yet my brain thinks in the same strict sense as I do, then I am one of at least two beings thinking my thoughts. That makes it hard to see how I could have any reason to suppose that I am the non-brain that thinks my thoughts rather than the brain that thinks them. And we can hardly assert that we are not brains if we have no reason to suppose that this is the case. So even if the thinking-brain problem doesn’t show that we are brains, it may show that we have no reason to suppose that we’re not, and that would be trouble enough for anyone who rejects the brain view. We will return to this matter in §9.3.
- Those who deny that we are brains are most likely to say that our brains don’t think at all, contrary to premise 2. We use our brains to think, they will say, just as we use our eyes to see, but our brains no more think than our eyes see. Our brains do something necessary but insufficient for us to think. We think not by having thinking brains, but by having brains that do something other than thinking. Our brains may have neural structures that in some sense underlie mental properties, but they themselves lack those mental properties. We might call what the brain does “subthinking”, as opposed to genuine thinking.
- This attractive thought is surprisingly hard to defend. It is plain enough why our eyes don't see: the existence of open eyes in good working order in the presence of well-lit visible objects is not enough for seeing to take place. What the eyes do is only a small part of the activity of seeing. You need more than just eyes in order to see: you need something like a brain as well. But you don't seem to need anything more than a working brain in order to think. It is a philosophical commonplace that a brain removed from someone’s head and kept alive in a vat could think. (It may of course be false, but it is no less commonly held for all that.) Some doubt whether a brain that had always been in a vat could think, as it is unclear what could give its states any content – what could make them thoughts about Vienna, say, rather than about something else or about nothing at all – but this wouldn’t prevent a brain that was removed from someone’s head yesterday from thinking. And if a brain in a vat18 can think, why not a brain in a head?
- Some say that thinking is a biological property that only an organism could have. This is the opposite of Shoemaker’s claim (§2.5) that it belongs to the nature of mental properties that biological organisms cannot have them. If this is right, then our brains cannot think because they are not organisms. Now maybe a detached brain, kept alive in a vat, would actually be a biological organism: maybe you could make a human organism smaller by removing all of it except its brain, much as you can make a human organism smaller by amputating a finger (van Inwagen 1990a: 172-181). That would make the suggestion that thinking can be a property only of organisms compatible with the claim that a brain in a vat19 could think. But the brain view is not that we are detached brains in vats20, but that we are undetached brains in heads, and they are not organisms.
- If it were absolutely impossible for anything but a biological organism to think, it would be big news. It would rule out the possibility of artificial intelligence, or at any rate inorganic artificial intelligence. The only way to create artificial intelligence would be to create an artificial biological organism that was intelligent. Gods, angels, and immaterial thinking substances would be impossible. For that matter, the view that only organisms could think would rule out every account of what we are21 apart from animalism22 and the view that we don’t exist at all. That would make it a good deal easier to work out what we are!23 Until we see an impressive argument for this bold claim, we had best be on our guard.
- Others say that it belongs to the very idea of thinking that no thinker can be a proper part of another thinker. Thinking, in other words, is maximal24. Given that I think, and that my brain is a part of me, it follows that my brain cannot think – though a naked brain that wasn’t a part of a larger thinker might be able to think. A thing that was otherwise ideally suited to be a thinker might be unable to think merely because it had the wrong neighbors. I don’t myself find this idea at all plausible. I find it hard to believe that an embodied brain should be prevented from thinking by its fleshy surroundings, and that it would blossom instantly into a thinker if only the flesh were removed. In any case, the maximality of thought would not explain why our brains cannot think. It implies that if a whole human being can think, then its brain cannot. But it also implies that if the brain can think, the human being cannot. And by itself it provides no support for one starting point over the other.
- It may be that we don’t ordinarily call what brains do ‘thinking’. At any rate we commonly apply the word ‘thinking’ to things the size of human animals25 and we don’t (it seems) commonly apply it to brains. And someone might wonder whether it is really possible for us to be mistaken about this. Surely it couldn’t turn out that all the things we call ‘cats’ were really dogs and all the things we call ‘dogs’ were really cats. We can occasionally mistake a dog for a cat, but we couldn’t be thoroughly and systematically mistaken about which things are cats (assuming, at least, that there really are material things we call ‘cats’). If none of the furry domestic animals that purr and chase mice were cats, what would give the word ‘cat’ its meaning? This might suggest that we could not be thoroughly and systematically mistaken about which things are thinkers either. Don’t we mean by ‘thinking’ whatever it is that things the size of human animals26 do, and not whatever it is that brains do? What brains do may be very like thinking, but the way we speak shows that it does not fall within the extension of the word ‘thinking’ or the concept it expresses. Therefore, the argument would go, brains don’t think.
- But the concept of thinking, or the meaning of the word ‘thinking’, does not appear to have built into it any restriction on the size or shape of the things it applies to. The hypothesis that brains think and things the size of human animals27 don’t think does not appear to conflict with the meaning of ‘thinking’ in the way that the hypothesis that all the things we call ‘cats’ are really dogs and all the things we call ‘dogs’ are really cats appears to conflict with the meaning of ‘cat’. Many people have believed that the thinkers of our thoughts are immaterial souls rather than things the size of human animals28. That view has its faults, but it doesn’t appear to be internally inconsistent on account of the meaning of the word ‘thinking’. It isn’t like saying that wholly unconscious beings might think. The same appears to go for the hypothesis that brains think. Nor can anyone argue that if things the size of human animals29 don’t think, we lose our grip on the meaning of the word ‘think’. We can say a good deal about what thinking involves – for instance that it has to do with inner representational states mediating between sensory stimulation and behavior – without saying anything about the intrinsic nature of the beings that engage in it. That, indeed, is the main insight of the functionalist theory of mind.
- Someone may doubt whether there is any hard fact of the matter as to whether brains think and human animals30 (or things the size of animals) merely have thinking brains as parts, or whether animals think and brains merely have neural properties that underlie thinking. Brains, the idea goes, have a property that is a good candidate for being called ‘thinking’, and animals have another property that is an equally good candidate for being called ‘thinking’, and that’s all there is to it. To ask whether the brain property or the animal property is really thinking, or whether both are, is to ask an unanswerable question.
- I don’t think this idea is forced on us, though it is certainly a possible view. It would imply that it is indeterminate which things think our thoughts: whether it is brains, or things the size of human animals31, or perhaps things of intermediate size – heads, say. Given that we think our thoughts, it would follow that it is indeterminate which things we are. It would not be definitely true that we are brains, but not definitely false either; and likewise it would be neither definitely true nor definitely false that we are animals, or things the size of animals. It would therefore be indeterminate how big I am: whether I am six feet tall or small enough to fit into a hatbox. And it would be indeterminate whether anyone has ever seen me. We might call this rather untidy account of what we are32 the indeterminate-size view.
- The indeterminate-size view would appear to share most of the disadvantages of the brain view: troubles for the view that we are brains will tend equally to be troubles for the view that we are not definitely not brains. (We will come to these troubles presently.) So we gain little if we try to resist the claim that our brains think by arguing that it is indeterminate whether brains or whole organisms think.
- These reasons for supposing that our brains cannot think, or that they cannot think in the way that we can, are disappointing33. And the other ways of solving the thinking-brain problem aren’t very nice either. This is bad news for those who suppose that we are not brains, and good news for those, if there are any, who suppose that we are. For all that, I believe we can resist the claim that the true thinkers are brains, and thus solve the thinking-brain problem. First, though, I will consider objections to the brain view itself.
4.4 Thinking-subject minimalism
- What is the case against the brain view? We have already noted its implication that we are far smaller than we thought and that we never really see anyone. It also appears to have repugnant implications about our identity over time. For example, it would make it impossible for anyone to have different brains at different times: you cannot exchange your old brain for a new one if you are your brain. If Shoemaker’s brain-state transfer machine were to copy the contents of your brain onto another brain while erasing the contents of the original brain (§1.7), then according to the brain view you would remain the original brain. The new brain (or the person whose brain it is) would of course believe that it was you, but it would be mistaken.
- The brain view would seem to make it impossible for us to become wholly inorganic. Many philosophers find it fairly obvious that if your parts were gradually replaced with inorganic prostheses that duplicated the function of the organic parts they replaced, so that the resulting being always continued to think as you did, you would gradually come to have more and more inorganic parts and fewer and fewer organic ones until you were entirely inorganic (Unger 1990: 122, Baker 2000: 109). But it seems unlikely that any brain could become entirely inorganic. An organ that is now made up of living cells – that very thing – could not come to be made up entirely of metal and silicon.
- Our brains also appear to have different histories from our own. Physiologists tell us that our brains come into being early in our gestation, before arms and legs appear, and long before we are capable of having any mental properties. If they are right, then according to the brain view that is when we begin. That is, we begin well after conception, but long before we acquire any mental capacities.
- Or consider Einstein’s brain. A well-documented urban legend has it that Einstein’s brain is kept in a jar in Kansas, in the possession of the pathologist who did the autopsy after his death. Suppose the legend is true. It says that Einstein’s brain is now in a jar in Kansas. And the phrase ‘Einstein’s brain’ as it occurs in the legend appears to refer to the thing that was once the brain in Einstein’s head. If so, and if Einstein is the thing that was once (as we say) the brain in Einstein’s head, it follows that the thing in the jar in Kansas is Einstein himself.
- No one is going to be happy with all of this. The persistence of my brain does not appear to be either necessary or sufficient for me to persist. Now the derivation of these unwelcome consequences of the brain view relies on assumptions about what it takes for a brain to persist: that you cannot move a brain from one place to another merely by transmitting information, for instance, that a brain cannot become wholly inorganic, and that a brain may continue to exist after the death of the organism of which it was once a part. And although these assumptions look right to me, they are not beyond question.
- Perhaps a brain could become wholly inorganic. Perhaps it might one day be possible to point to a gadget made entirely of metal and silicon and say truly, “That machine was once made entirely of living tissue”, or, “That machine developed from a single cell.”
- Or maybe the thing in the jar in Kansas isn’t really Einstein’s brain. It was never in Einstein’s head. Strictly speaking it is merely a sort of fossil relic of the organ that filled the great man’s cranium: it is made of much of the same matter as that organ was when Einstein died, and has inherited many of its properties, much as a mineralized skeleton has many of the properties that a certain animal had when it died. It may be correct to describe this situation loosely by saying, as the legend does, that the thing is the jar “is Einstein’s brain”, just as the museum curator might call a fossil skeleton a tyrannosaurus. But for all that it may be no more strictly accurate to say that the thing in the jar was once in Einstein’s head than it would be to say that the skeleton in the museum was a fearsome predator 100 million years ago.
- Someone might even propose that the brain-state transfer machine doesn’t merely copy the psychological information from one brain onto another brain, but somehow moves a brain from one brain to another. Perhaps, despite appearances, there are really three brains in the story: the brain that the machine moves across the room, the brain left behind after the machine has done its work, and the brain onto which the first brain’s mental contents get copied. We might call them the travelling brain, the donor brain, and the recipient brain, respectively. The transfer procedure would presumably bring the donor brain into being (otherwise there would have been two brains in the same place before the transfer, the travelling brain and the donor brain – leaving us wondering why the machine moved one of them but not the other). No brain would first have and later lack the donor’s mental states. And the recipient brain, onto which the travelling brain’s mental contents are copied, would presumably cease thereby to exist, else there would be two brains in the same place after the transfer, the travelling brain and the recipient brain.
- Interesting though these suggestions are, I find them hard to believe. No sort of psychological continuity34 appears to be necessary and sufficient for a brain to persist, for the same reason as no sort of psychological continuity35 appears to be necessary and sufficient for an organism to persist (§2.7). If brains really did persist by virtue of psychological continuity36, however, it would be unsurprising if the same were true of human animals37, thus rebutting one of the main objections to animalism38.
- A better response to these worries about identity over time (or at least to some of them) is to say that the relation between a person and her brain is something more subtle than numerical identity. Some say that each of us is not strictly a brain, but rather a functioning brain, or a brain insofar as it is in certain states – states of the sort that make someone capable of thought and consciousness39. Because we are functioning brains – brains in the right states – we could not come to be non-functioning brains, brains in the wrong states. So the brain in the jar in Kansas is not Einstein. It is Einstein’s brain, but not his functioning brain. And you and I were never rudimentary embryonic40 brains incapable of consciousness, even though our brains were. The suggestion has to be that a functioning brain is something numerically different from a brain, so that when a brain stops functioning in the relevant way it may persist in a nonfunctional state, but the functioning brain goes out of existence altogether. If your functioning brain were your brain, or if ‘functioning brain’ were simply what we call a brain when it is functioning, then the view that we are functioning brains would be no different from the view that we are brains, and would have the same consequences about our persistence.
- But what sort of thing is a functioning brain? How do functioning brains relate to brains – plain, ordinary brains that may or may not be functioning? (What sort of thing is a sleeping41 dog, and how does it relate to an ordinary dog that may or may not be asleep42?) You might suggest that the functioning brain is something the brain constitutes, in the sense of §3.1, just when it functions in the appropriate way. Or perhaps a functioning brain is a temporal part of a brain: a part composed of those temporal parts of a brain that function appropriately. It is hard to see what else the claim that we are functioning brains could amount to, if it is to block the brain view’s unwelcome consequences about our identity over time. Someone who took this line might also say that in special circumstances one of us might be constituted by different brains at different times, or by a brain at one time and by an inorganic gadget at another time. Or the view might be that one of us could be composed of temporal parts of two different brains, or of earlier temporal parts of a brain and later temporal parts of something inorganic (see §5.7).
- But the view that we are things constituted by brains, or temporal parts of brains, is not the view that we are brains. It is not the brain view – though of course it resembles the brain view in obvious ways. These views may have an advantage over the brain view in that they agree better than the brain view does with what most of us are inclined to believe about our identity over time. But they also inherit the disadvantages of constitutionalism or the ontology of temporal parts. Moreover, they appear to face the same thinking-brain problem that arises for any other view according to which we are not brains: they make it hard to see how we can know that we are not the brains thinking our thoughts. They have no clear advantage over the view that we are constituted by or are temporal parts of whole organisms.
- Those who say that we are brains will have to say some surprising things about our identity over time – though perhaps no more more surprising than what they have to say about our size.
4.5 Direct involvement
- To my mind, the most serious problem for the brain view has nothing to do with its implications about our size or our identity over time. The real trouble is that it is unprincipled and that there is no good reason to believe it.
- If we are brains, it can only be because the brain is our organ of thought, and therefore the thing – the only thing – that thinks our thoughts in the strictest sense. (We could hardly be unthinking brains.) The reason why no one ever supposed that we might be livers or stomachs is that no one ever took the liver or the stomach to be our organ of thought. But what makes the brain our organ of thought? That is, why should the things that think our thoughts in the strictest sense be brains, and not, say, entire organisms?
- Presumably the reason is that the parts of a thinker must all be in some sense directly involved in its thinking. Things larger than brains cannot think, except in the derivative sense of having a thinking part, because they have parts not directly involved in thinking. Yet not just any object, all the parts of which are directly involved in a being’s thinking, is a genuine thinker. No individual brain cell thinks, even if all its parts are directly involved in thinking. That’s because it doesn’t produce thought on its own: for any cell that is directly involved in my mental activity, many other cells are involved in it in an equally direct way.
- So the brain view appears to be based on the principle is that something is a part of a thinker – a genuine thinker, something that thinks in the strictest sense – if and only if it is directly involved in that thinker’s thought, or mental life generally:
If x thinks in the strictest sense at a time t, then y is a part, at t, of x if and only if y is directly involved in x’s thinking at t. Call this thinking-subject minimalism. It is hard to see how the brain view could be true unless something like this is right. Otherwise it would be completely arbitrary to say that we are brains.
- Thinking-subject minimalism is not very plausible. We seem to have parts not directly involved in our thinking: fingers, for instance. Suppose a certain part of your brain became inactive, so that it was no longer directly involved in your mental goings-on. Minimalism implies that this would make you a bit smaller and lighter – but losing a finger wouldn’t.
- Still, it might have theoretical virtues. Consider the fact that there appear to be many candidates, of varying sizes, for being me: beings that seem to have all the equipment they need to think, and within which my mental activity takes place. There is my brain, and various parts of my brain, such as my cerebral hemispheres. There are also many candidates larger than my brain: my head, my upper half, this entire human organism, and so on. For that matter, we might ask why I am not something bigger still, which has this organism as a proper part. If there really are all these beings, what could prevent them all from thinking my thoughts? And if they do all think my thoughts, how could I ever know which one I am? How could I ever know how big I am – whether I am the size of half a brain or the size of a planet? Thinking subject minimalism might seem to solve this problem, by ruling out most of the candidates for being me on the grounds that they are either too big or too small to be genuine subjects of my thinking: too big because they have parts not directly involved in my thinking, or too small because not all the things directly involved in my thinking are parts of them. Then I could work out what I am43 by discovering which things are directly involved in my mental states and activities44.
- So minimalism might tell us which of the many things that look like thinkers of our thoughts really do think them, thereby telling us which things we are. It would also appear to tell us what determines our boundaries, and what makes things parts of us – something we wanted an account of what we are45 to provide. Animalism46 tells us that we extend as far as our biological lives extend, because that is what determines the boundaries of a living organism (§2.2). Minimalism seems to tell us that we extend as far as our mental states and processes extend, because that is what determines the boundaries of a thinking being. Not every view about what we are47 tells us what fixes our boundaries: we noted in §3.6 that the constitution view48 doesn’t.
- I have serious doubts about this story, however. Thinking-subject minimalism does not in fact tell us what beings think our thoughts. Nor does it tell us how big we are, or what determines our boundaries – even supposing that we know which particles are directly involved in which thoughts. Suppose for the sake of argument that all and only the parts of my brain are directly involved in my mental states and activities. Or rather, to avoid assuming the point at issue, suppose that all and only the parts of my brain are directly involved in those mental states and activities I think of as mine, or those that any part of this organism is directly involved in. Suppose further that every mental state must have a subject. Would minimalism imply, in that case, that my brain (or at any rate something the size of my brain) is the subject of my thoughts, and therefore what I am49?
- No. Minimalism would not even imply that any thinking being is the size of my brain, let alone that I am. Suppose that one part of my brain is directly involved in some of those mental states and activities I think of as mine while another part, perhaps overlapping the first, is directly involved in the rest of them. Call them part one and part two, and call the mental states and activities they are directly involved in the part-one thoughts and the part-two thoughts, respectively. And suppose that every part of my brain overlaps part one or part two. (This story is not meant to be fanciful: it doesn’t require me to suffer from any sort of mental disunity.) Now it may be that both part one and part two are parts of me, in which case both the part-one thoughts and the part-two thoughts will be my thoughts, just as we should expect. But minimalism is also consistent with the view that the part-one thoughts belong to part one, the part-two thoughts belong to part two, and no being is the subject of both the part-one and the part-two thoughts. For all minimalism says, there may be just one thinker here – my entire brain – or there may be two – part one and part two. Nor does it rule out the possibility that the thoughts I think of as mine are divided among more than two thinkers. Minimalism will tell us the boundaries of a thinker only if we already know which thoughts belong to that thinker (as well as which particles are directly involved in those thoughts). But it doesn’t tell us which thinkers there are or what thoughts belong to a given thinker. And so it doesn’t tell us what our boundaries are. It doesn’t tell me whether I am my brain, or part one, or part two, or something else.
- Now we could rectify this by combining thinking-subject minimalism with a principle that assigns thoughts to thinkers: a principle that would tell us, for instance, whether the part-one thoughts and the part-two thoughts all belong to the same thinker or whether the part-one thoughts belong to one thinker and the part-two thoughts belong to another. That is, we need an account of when mental states or properties belong to the same thinker and when they belong to different ones.
- The only such account that I know of is the psychological individuation50 principle of §2.9. This was the idea that mental states belong to the same thinker if and only if they are causally unified in the right way: if and only if they are disposed to interact with one another, and with no other mental states, in the way that is characteristic of mental states. Your desires tend to interact with your beliefs to produce action: roughly, your desire for something tends to cause you to act in ways that you believe will satisfy that desire, unless you have stronger competing desires. Your desires don’t interact in that way with my beliefs. With any luck it will turn out that all and only the mental states realized in your brain are unified in this way. The psychological individuation51 principle will then imply that the mental states realized there, but no proper subset of them, are the thoughts of a single thinker; and that thinker will of course be you (who else?). It will rule out the possibility that some of the mental states realized in your brain might belong to one thinker while others belong to another thinker. Putting this together with thinking-subject minimalism and our assumption that all and only parts of your brain are directly involved in the mental states realized in your animal body, we get the conclusion that you are your brain (or at any rate something the size of your brain). We will see in §6.4, however, that the psychological individuation52 principle fits badly with the brain view: it seems to imply that we are bundles of mental states, and not material things at all.
- Whether or not thinking-subject minimalism can tell us where our boundaries lie, there are grounds for suspicion about the principle itself. One worry is whether the principle has any real content. The very idea of “direct involvement in a being’s thinking” is suspiciously elusive.
- One way to see this is to try applying the principle. What should we expect the true thinkers of our thoughts to be, according to minimalism? What thing is it that is composed of all the things directly involved in my thinking? (Let us assume that all the mental states I think of as mine really are mine, and are not divided among several thinkers.) The brain view takes for granted that it is nothing larger than my brain: nothing outside my brain is directly involved in my thinking. This is questionable (Schechtman 1997). Take visual experience: aren’t your eyes directly involved in your visual experience? You can’t have visual experience without eyes, or at least something like eyes. But if your eyes are directly involved in your visual experience, then according to minimalism they are parts of you and you are larger than your brain.
- Even if nothing outside the brain is directly involved in my thinking, I am unlikely to be my brain. According to thinking-subject minimalism, brains will be too big to be genuine thinkers for the same reason as whole organisms are too big. The thing anatomy books call “the brain” has many parts that appear to be no more directly involved in producing thought than the heart is. Blood vessels, for instance: if the thing that pumps the blood to the brain isn’t directly involved in thinking, how can the vessels that distribute the blood within the brain be any different? Minimalism appears to provide no reason at all to suppose that we are brains. If we are anything smaller than whole organisms, we must be parts of brains.
- But which parts? What parts of my brain are directly involved in my thinking? Its nerve cells, surely? Yet even that looks doubtful. No one knows exactly how nerve cells produce thought and experience, but it appears to have something to do with electrical and chemical signals that they store and communicate to other nerve cells. And a good deal of what goes on within a nerve cell appears to be no more directly involved in this storage and transmission of information than the activities of the heart and other vital organs are. Many parts of a nerve cell are involved in acquiring nutrients or in expelling waste, or in maintenance and repair, or in maintaining the cell’s boundary. They don’t seem to be directly involved in whatever it is that gives rise to thought. Minimalism seems to imply that not even the whole of any nerve cell could be a part of a thinker.
- This ought to make minimalists uneasy. If neither the whole of the brain nor even the whole of any nerve cell within the brain is directly involved in thinking, what is directly involved? This unease can only grow if we think about how to distinguish in a principled way between direct involvement in a being’s thinking and indirect involvement. The point has nothing to do with thinking in particular. Imagine a factory that makes knives – an old-fashioned factory where the work is done mainly by hand, with no robots. All the factory workers are involved in some way in the manufacture of knives. Some deliver the steel; others beat it with hammers, sharpen the blades, stoke the fires, repair the tools, sweep the floors, run the canteen, keep the accounts; and so on. Which workers are directly involved in making knives, and which only indirectly? I don’t think we can say. There may be some sense in the idea that those who actually work the steel are more directly involved in the making of knives than those who sweep the floors. But is there really an absolute distinction – even an imprecise one – between those who are directly involved in making knives and those who are only indirectly involved? We could of course draw such a distinction for legal purposes – in order to work out insurance costs, say. But wouldn’t any such distinction be artificial?
- Or think of walking. Which parts of a human being – which atoms – are directly involved in his walking? Those in his legs, surely. But are all the atoms in his legs directly involved in his walking? Suppose he has excess water in his legs owing to poor circulation, which hinders his walking. Are the atoms making up the excess water directly involved in his walking? (And what could determine which molecules are “excess”, and which belong there?) What about his arms, or spinal cord, or heart? Is their involvement in his walking direct or indirect? Again, although we may, perhaps, be able to say which parts of a human being are more directly involved in his walking than others, there seems to be no principled way of saying which are directly involved and which are not. This is not due to ignorance of the mechanics of walking: we should be just as baffled if we knew all that. Nor is the problem that the boundary between the parts of a human being that are directly involved in his walking and those only indirectly involved or not involved at all is indefinite, so that there are borderline cases that we cannot confidently classify either as “directly involved” or as “not directly involved”. Asking which parts are directly involved and which aren’t is like asking which rivers are long and which are not long. I see no reason to suppose that direct involvement in a being’s thinking is any different from direct involvement in someone’s walking or from direct involvement in making knives. Any decision about which are directly involved in its thinking is bound to be arbitrary.
- I don’t mean to say that there is no truth at all in the claim that the brain, and not the liver or the stomach, is the organ of thought. Many parts of the brain are probably more directly involved in thinking than any other parts of the organism, just as those who beat the metal are more directly involved in making knives than those who sweep the factory floor. And anatomists distinguish an organ called the brain from the rest of the organism because what they call the brain contrasts noticeably with its surroundings (though its boundaries are not so neat as the anatomy books suggest). That is why we call the brain the organ of thought. But this is only a loose description. A great deal goes on within the brain besides thinking, and a great deal that goes on outside the brain contributes vitally to thinking. To say that the brain, or some part of the brain, is what does our thinking is no more strictly accurate than saying that the people who beat the metal are the ones who make the knives.
- If this is right, thinking-subject minimalism has very little meaning. Saying that all the parts of a genuine thinker must be directly involved in its thinking is like saying that all the parts of a genuine walker must be directly involved in its walking. Because there is no saying, even roughly, which things are directly involved in thinking, there is no saying even roughly which things, according to minimalism, are the parts of a thinker. Or if there is a non-arbitrary way of saying which things are involved in a human being’s thinking, it is likely to be that they are all and only the parts of the organism. The organism has a non-arbitrary boundary, and it would appear to be the largest thing whose behavior we can explain in terms of its thinking. Though there may be a real sense in which thinking is something an organism does, there seems to be no real sense in which thinking is something a brain does53.
- The view that we are brains is based on the idea that the parts of a genuine thinker are just those that are directly involved in its mental activity: thinking-subject minimalism. I have argued that there is no principled way of saying, even approximately, which things are directly involved in a being’s thinking and which are not. This leaves minimalism with no content, and the brain view without support.
- I have another worry about minimalism. It arises even if we can say which things are directly involved in mental activity and which are not. Imagine that we know what direct involvement in mental activity is. Now: why suppose that the parts of a thinking being must be just those things that are directly involved in its mental activity? Why can’t a thinker – something that thinks in the strictest sense – have parts that aren’t directly involved in its thinking? In other words, why accept thinking-subject minimalism?
- Minimalism is unsatisfying in isolation. If it is true, it ought to be true because it is an instance of some more general principle about the relation between a thing’s activities and its parts. It ought to be true because any being engaged in any sort of activity (in the strictest sense, not merely in the sense of having a part that engages in that activity) is composed entirely of things directly involved in that activity. We shouldn’t expect this to apply only to mental activity. Thinking-subject minimalism ought to be true because something like this is true:
If x engages (in the strictest sense) in states or activities of kind K at time t, then y is a part, at t, of x if and only if y is directly involved in x’s K states or activities at t. We might call this general activity minimalism.
- What general activity minimalism means depends on what counts as a sort or kind of activity, or on what types of activity the principle applies to. If mental activity in general is such a kind, then general activity minimalism entails thinking-subject minimalism: it entails that whatever engages in mental activity generally is composed of things directly involved in that activity. That would support the brain view. On the other hand, the principle might apply to specific types of mental activity, such as seeing or remembering or philosophizing. It might entail that whatever sees must be made up entirely of things directly involved in its seeing. That is, general activity minimalism might entail not the “general” thinking-subject minimalism we have been discussing up to now, but what we might call specific thinking-subject minimalism:
If x engages in mental activity of any specific kind at t, then y is a part, at t, of x if and only if y is directly involved in x’s mental activity of that kind at t. General activity minimalism cannot entail both thinking-subject minimalism and specific thinking-subject minimalism, for they are inconsistent (unless general activity minimalism is itself inconsistent, anyway).
- If thinking-subject minimalism supports the brain view, specific thinking-subject minimalism has implications that make the brain view look tame. If the brain and nothing outside it is directly involved in our mental activity, then different parts of the brain are directly involved in different sorts of mental activity. One part of the brain is directly involved in your visual perception; another part is directly involved when you try to remember someone’s name; and so on. Specific minimalism appears to imply that the true subject of your current visual perception is the largest part of your brain that is now directly involved in your seeing: your current vision module, we might call it. And the true subject of your current philosophical thinking would be the largest part of your brain that is now directly involved in your philosophical thinking: your philosophy module. (Here we have to pretend that it is possible to say what part of your brain is directly involved in your seeing or your philosophizing. But if we could say what part of a human organism is directly involved in mental activity generally, this ought to be possible.)
- If all of this makes sense, it is probably a safe bet that your vision module is not the same as your philosophy module. They may overlap, but they won’t coincide exactly. It follows that no genuine philosopher – no being that does philosophy in the strictest sense – is a genuine “seer”. One being now sees the book before you. Another being understands it. The one that sees the book does not understand a word of it, and the one that understands it sees nothing. Nothing both sees and does philosophy – not in the strictest sense, anyway. All true philosophers are blind. Reading, which involves both seeing and understanding, is an activity that nothing does, except in the derivative sense of having one part that sees and another part that understands. It is always a cooperative activity, like playing a duet.
- More generally, given what we know about the division of labor in the brain, specific minimalism would make it unlikely that any being ever engages in more than one type of psychological task. Some see, some hear, some remember, some reason; but nothing does all these things, or even any two of them. For that matter, no one being is likely to engage in both short-term and long-term memory, or to reason about both geography and history. What we take to be a single person with general mental abilities is in reality a vast colony of numerically different specialists, each of which performs only a single sort of mental task. Call this view homunculism.
- It is hard to see how homunculism could be true. Suppose I run a finger over the arm of my chair. I feel its rough texture and hear the scratchy sound it makes. In order to do this, I must both feel and hear. But homunculism implies that nothing both feels and hears. I should have thought it was utterly obvious that I do both feel and hear. For that matter, homunculism implies that nothing both hears and is reflectively aware that it hears: is unlikely, anyway, that the atoms directly involved in hearing are all and only the directly involved in being aware that one is hearing. Homunculism looks incompatible with the most basic sort of self-knowledge (Chisholm 1981: 87-88).
- You might suggest that the being that thinks, “I both feel and hear”, needn’t itself feel or hear, but could be aware of another being’s feeling and a third being’s hearing as if they were his own. Then it might appear to me that I feel and hear even if I neither feel nor hear in reality. This would mean that a sensation or other mental state might appear to me for all the world to be mine even though it wasn’t. I could be aware of a searing pain down my left side that seemed to me just as if it were my own pain, even though in fact it was not mine but somone else’s. I might be aware of both a searing pain down my left side and a searing pain down my right side. The pains might be indistinguishable to me. For all I could ever know “from the inside”, the pain in my left side might be mine while the pain in my right side was someone else’s; or it could be the other way round; or it could be that neither was mine. I could never know, by introspection, which mental states were mine and which belonged to other beings. That, surely, is absurd.
- Or consider what sort of beings you and I might be if homunculism were true. There would be many candidates, so to speak, for being me. There would be the being that does my philosophical thinking, or at any rate the philosophical thinking I take to be mine. (Or maybe different beings would do different kinds of philosophical thinking.) There would be the being that composes my written sentences, and the being that tastes my food. For every sort of mental activity that I in some sense engage in, there would be a different being – the genuine subject of that activity – that is a candidate for being me. But what thing should I be?
- I might be one of the candidates. Which one? Perhaps the one asking the question: if I know anything, do I not know that I am now wondering what I am54? It would follow, given homunculism, that I am not the author of this book, for the atoms now directly involved in my wondering what I am55 are unlikely to be precisely the atoms directly involved in my writing. Now according to homunculism this book is unlikely to have any one author; it is almost certainly a collaborative effort. But if I am now wondering what I am56, then I am probably not any of this book’s authors. It is doubtful even whether I wrote this book in the sense of having one of its authors as a part: who’s to say whether any of the authors within my brain is a part of the being now wondering what I am57? More generally, few of the mental states I think of as mine would really be mine. Most of them would belong to beings that are not even parts of me.
- Or perhaps I am not definitely any of the candidates; rather, when I say ‘I’ or ‘Olson’ I refer ambiguously to each of them. In that case it is presumably neither definitely true nor definitely false that I am the author (or an author) of this book, for although some of the referents of my ‘I’ were involved in writing it, many more were not. Nor will it ever be definitely true that I am feeling hungry, or thinking about Vienna, or in any other mental state.
- Or I might be the thing composed of all the candidates. In that case it might be definitely true that I wrote this book, at least in the sense that all its authors are parts of me. But it would follow from this that I am probably not the true subject of any of my mental states or activities: I should reason, perceive, and remember only in the sense of having a part that reasons, a part that perceives, and a part that remembers. This would deprive the brain view of any attraction it may have had. There is no point in supposing that we are brains that think only in the sense of having thinking parts. If we have to accept that we think only in a derivative sense, we may as well say that we are whole organisms.
- Homunculism is a hard view to like. Suppose it is false. Where does that leave the brain view? Well, the brain view assumes that whatever engages in mental activity generally is composed of just those things that are directly involved in its mental activity. But again, why suppose that? Why not suppose instead that whatever engages in some specific sort of mental activity, such as seeing, is composed of just those things directly involved in that specific activity? That leads to homunculism. Does anything support the brain view that does not equally support homunculism? (The other arguments for the brain view that we considered in §4.1 would support homunculism as much as they support the brain view.) In other words, is there any reason to suppose that thinking-subject minimalism is true rather than specific thinking-subject minimalism?
- Call an activity such that whatever engages in it in the strictest sense must be composed of just those things directly involved in its engaging in that activity a minimalistic activity. Thinking-subject minimalism says that thinking or mentality in general is minimalistic. Specific minimalism says that specific types of thinking, such as remembering, are minimalistic. (Given how the brain works, thinking in general and remembering will not both be minimalistic.) Which is it? Is thinking in general minimalistic, or are specific types of thinking minimalistic? Or neither? What determines which activities are minimalistic and which are not? I have never seen an answer to these questions. Without such an answer, though, it is hard to see how anyone could be warranted in taking thinking in general to be minimalistic. And because the brain view depends on that claim, it too is unwarranted.
- Someone might use the psychological individuation58 principle (§2.9) to argue that thinking in general is minimalistic while specific types of thinking are not. The principle says that particular mental states belong to the same subject if and only if they are causally unified with each other, and with no other states, in a certain way. Your seeing and your philosophizing are clearly unified in that way; so according to the principle they must belong to the same thinker. But there couldn’t be a being that was the subject of your seeing alone – a being that none of the other mental states we attribute to you belonged to – for although its mental states would be unified with each other in the right way, they would be unified in that way with many other states as well. That would be an argument against specific thinking-subject minimalism and homunculism, but not against general thinking-subject minimalism and the brain view. Howoever, for reasons we will come to in §6.4, the psychological individuation59 principle appears to be incompatible with our being brains.
- To sum up: The main reason to suppose that we are brains is the idea that our brains are the true thinkers of our thoughts. That in turn is based on the claim that every part of a genuine thinker must be somehow directly involved in its thinking. But there appears to be no such thing as direct involvement in a being’s thinking. And even if there is, there is no evident reason to stop at thinking: why suppose that every part of a genuine thinker must be directly involved in its thinking, rather than that every part of a genuine seer must be directly involved in its seeing? Whatever supports the brain view appears equally to support the absurd idea that genuine thinkers are specialists capable of performing only a single mental task. So the brain is unprincipled as well as implausible.
In-Page Footnotes ("Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Brains")
Footnote 3: Puccetti (1973) takes each of us to be a cerebral hemisphere, and Hudson (2001: 143) says we are temporal parts of brains. Tye (2003: 142) says that we are brains, but appears to take it back on the next page. (His view may be that we are material things constituted by brains.) Though the view that we are brains is often attributed to Nagel, this does not appear to be his considered view (see Nagel 1986: 40). As far as I can see he has no account of what we are.
Footnote 24: Burke 2003: 112-113. More precisely, Burke’s view is that if x thinks, then no proper part of x whose particles would come to compose x if the rest of x’s particles were annihilated can think. The complication is designed to make the maximality of thought compatible with the possibility of a thinker’s being composed of many smaller thinkers in the way that a human organism is composed of cells. I will ignore it in the sequel.
Footnote 33: Burke 2003 gives further reasons, which I find equally unpersuasive. Logical behaviorists might argue that brains don’t think because they have no observable behavior; but I doubt whether there are any logical behaviorists nowadays.
Footnote 39: Tye says that we are “brains insofar as those brains are in the appropriate physical states (states sufficient for psychological states making up a single psychological framework)” (2003: 143). McMahan (2002: 88, 92) makes similar remarks – though he suggests a few pages later (94) that we have mental states as parts. In the same way, someone might try to avoid animalism’s consequences about our identity over time by saying that we are functioning animals rather than animals.
Footnote 44: Hudson makes this claim (2001: ch. 4). Because he believes that brains have temporal parts, some of which are not directly involved in producing thought, he takes thinking-subject minimalism to imply that we are certain temporal parts of brains rather than “whole” brains. We will return to the problem of how I can know how big I am in §9.3.
Footnote 53: TT Note: The book has a long footnote here.
"Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Temporal Parts"
Source: What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology, Chapter 5 (November 2007: Oxford University Press.)
(OO-L): This chapter examines David Lewis's view that we are temporal parts of animals. It examines three arguments for the view that persisting things have temporal parts–four-dimensionalism. One is that it solves the problem of temporary intrinsics1. The second is that it solves metaphysical problems about the persistence of material objects without the mystery of constitutionalism–though these solutions require a counterpart-theoretic account of modality2. The third is that it solves problems of personal identity–involving fission, for instance–in an attractive way. It is then argued that according to four-dimensionalism, the bearers of such properties as thinking and acting are momentary stages, forcing us to choose between saying that we don't strictly think and saying that we don't persist.
- Four-dimensional hunks of matter
- Temporary intrinsics3
- Lumps and statues4
- The problem of modal5 incompatibility
- Puzzles of personal identity
- Thinking animals6 and other worries
- Thinking stages
- The stage view7
5.1 Four-dimensional hunks of matter
5.2 Temporary intrinsics13
- Having considered the view that we are spatial parts of human animals8, let us turn now to the idea that we are temporal parts of animals. The idea that animals have temporal parts is not easy to understand. The notion of a temporal part is inherently confusing. Even professional philosophers frequently get it wrong. For numerous reasons it is foreign to our ordinary ways of thinking. Learning to convert ordinary thoughts about persisting things into the ontology of temporal parts is a bit like learning a foreign language – only harder, because the dictionaries and grammar books are incomplete. I will try to explain what it means to say that we are temporal parts of animals, and to explore some of its consequences. Despite my efforts to do this in non-technical terms, however, I fear that some of what I am going to say will sound like Greek9.
- You and I are extended in space. (We appear to be, anyway, though a few philosophers disagree. Suppose we are.) We seem to be extended in space by having different parts – spatial parts – located in different places. For instance, you are now both above and below the seat of your chair: partly above it and partly below. That is because you have a part, or several parts, that are above the seat of your chair – wholly above it – and another part, or several parts, that are entirely below it. You fill up space by having parts spread out across it. Whether you have a different part for every bit of space you partly fill may be contentious (it is what van Inwagen (1981) has called the doctrine of arbitrary undetached parts); but it seems clear that you have a great many spatial parts.
- We also persist through time. (We appear to, anyway. Suppose we do.) Some philosophers think that we relate to time in much the same way as we relate to space. You have a location in time, just as you have a location in space. And just as you are extended in space, you are also extended in time: most of us extend for a bit less than two meters in space and for a bit less than a century in time. You are extended in time by having temporal parts spread out across time. Just as you are in different places by having different spatial parts located entirely in those places, the idea goes, you are at different times by having different temporal parts entirely located at those times. If you exist both in 2000 and in 2010, that is because you are partly in 2000 and partly in 2010. In other words, you have a temporal part located in 2000 – located wholly during that year – and another temporal part entirely located in 2010. Whether you have a different temporal part for every bit of time you partly fill may be contentious; in any case you have a great many temporal parts. Moreover, every part of you shares a part with one or more of your temporal parts: you are composed of temporal parts.
- We all know what spatial parts are. They are just ordinary parts of spatial objects. If we know what ‘part’ means, we know that hands (if there are such things as hands) are parts of human beings. But what are temporal parts? A temporal part of a thing is supposed to be a part of it that incorporates “all of that thing” for as long as the part exists. A temporal part of you is spatially just as big as you are, and located just where you are, while it exists. More precisely, a temporal part of you is a part of you that overlaps all of your parts that exist when that part exists (where overlapping means sharing a part). If something is a temporal part of you, then any part of you that doesn’t overlap that thing will exist only at times when that thing doesn’t exist. So:
x is a temporal part of y =df x is a part of y, and every part of y that does not overlap x exists only at times when x does not exist. Your nose may be a part of you, but it is not a temporal part, for it doesn’t overlap all of your parts that exist when it does. You have parts that exist when your nose does without overlapping it: your feet, for instance. Your nose doesn’t incorporate all of you while it exists: it’s too small to be a temporal part of you. But suppose there is such a thing as your first half. It would be just like you, apart from lasting half as long. It would walk and talk and study philosophy. It would take up all of you for as long as it existed. Any part of you that didn’t overlap it – your final hour, say, or a certain wisp of grey hair – would exist only at times when your first half didn’t exist. Suppose, if you can, that this thing would be a part of you. Then it would be a temporal part of you10.
- We ordinarily think of events, such as games – particular matches that occur at particular times and places – as being made up of briefer events or phases, and these seem to be temporal parts of those longer events. A baseball game takes up time by having different parts located at different times. It starts at six and is still going on at ten past seven insofar as one part of it – the first inning, say – starts at six, and another part of it – the third inning – is going on at ten past seven. And each inning takes up “all of the game” while it is going on: any part of the game that doesn’t overlap its third inning exists, or occurs, only when the third inning is not going on.
- It also seems that any temporary property we attribute to the game at a particular time is a property that some temporal part of the game occurring at that time has without temporal qualification: the game is dull between six and twenty past because the first inning is dull – not dull at that time, but just plain dull – and exciting at ten past seven because the third inning is exciting. We will return to this important point in the next section.
- Perhaps there is a long-running event consisting of everything you ever do and all that ever happens within your boundaries: your career or history. Its temporal parts or phases include your birth, your first day at school, your adolescence, and your reading of this book. The view I want to consider is that you have temporal parts just as your history does. Most of those who take this view say that there is a temporal part of you coinciding with every portion of your history: a part for every time, instantaneous or extended, continuous or discrete, when you exist. So you have an infant-sized temporal part that extends from your birth until your first birthday, a part that extends from the midpoint of your history until your demise, a part that exists throughout June and August 2010 and at no other times, and many more. In fact you and your career may be so similar, on this view, as to be same thing: you might be your history (Quine 1960: 171).
- This view is often put by saying that we are "four-dimensional objects", because it says that we are extended in one dimension of time as well as the three dimensions of space (if that is how many spatial dimensions there are). Others put it by saying that we are "space-time worms", because space-time diagrams are typically drawn in a way that makes a person's spatial extent small compared with her temporal extent: six feet looks small on most diagrams compared with 80 years. These descriptions can be misleading. The view that we are space-time worms does not imply that units of time can be converted into units of space – so many seconds to the meter – so that we are literally longer in time than we are in space. We’re not really worm-shaped. And the claim that we are “four-dimensional” by being extended in time is not strictly the same as the view that we are composed of temporal parts, for it may be that we are extended in time and yet lack temporal parts (Mellor 1998: 86). More generally, the name ‘four-dimensionalism’ has been given to a wide variety of views that have nothing to do with temporal parts. It might be better to call the view that all persisting objects are composed of many temporal parts simply ‘the ontology of temporal parts’. However, I will sometimes follow custom and call it four-dimensionalism. I will call the view that we in particular are composed of many temporal parts the temporal-parts view.
- Supposing that we exist and are located in time, there are two broad alternatives to the temporal-parts view. One is that we don’t persist at all: what we think of as a single persisting person is really just one momentary person followed immediately by a similar but numerically different momentary person, followed by another, and so on. If we follow the jargon and call momentary temporal parts of things stages, the view is that we are stages rather than worms. We will come to that view in §5.8. The other alternative is that we persist through time but have no temporal parts. (Or at least no proper temporal parts – no temporal parts other than ourselves. The definition of ‘temporal part’ appears to make everything located in time a temporal part of itself.) We don’t fill up time by having temporal parts spread out across it. There is no such thing as your first half.
- By itself, the temporal-parts view says little about what we are11: only that we are persisting concrete objects composed of temporal parts. It leaves entirely open what sort of four-dimensional objects we are. For instance it is compatible with our being bundles of mental states or even immaterial substances. But most advocates of the temporal-parts view say that we are material objects – "four-dimensional hunks of matter", as Heller (1990) puts it. We might be animals, or brains; but the more common view is that we are proper temporal parts of animals (see §5.6). Most of what I will say about the temporal-parts view applies equally to all of these variants.
- Those who think that we have temporal parts usually accept four-dimensionalism generally: they think that all persisting things are composed of temporal parts. Most say that nothing could persist without having temporal parts: for a thing to exist at different times is just for it to have different temporal parts located at those times. A number of important arguments support the ontology of temporal parts (usefully surveyed in Sider 2001). Two of them are of particular interest for the question of what we are12, and are the subjects of the next two sections.
5.3 Lumps and statues20
- The most common argument for four-dimensionalism is that it offers the best solution to something called the problem of temporary intrinsics14 or problem of change (Lewis 1986: 202- 204, Sider 2001: 92-98). Intrinsic properties are roughly those a thing has by virtue of the way it is in itself: those it would share with any duplicate of itself. (This is not a satisfactory definition. Intrinsicness is notoriously hard to define. But it will do for present purposes.) Extrinsic properties – those that are not intrinsic – are those a thing has by virtue of the way it relates to things outside itself. Shape is an intrinsic property; being an uncle and being north of the equator are extrinsic. The argument is highly abstract, but it is essential to understanding the ontology of temporal parts (Olson 2006c).
- I am now sitting down: I have a bent shape. An hour ago I was standing: I was straight, and not bent. So I am bent, and yet not bent: somehow I both have and lack the intrinsic property of being bent. The same goes whenever something has any intrinsic property temporarily. For that matter, it goes for temporary extrinsic properties: I am now an uncle; five years ago I wasn't; so somehow I both am and am not an uncle. Now it is plain enough that nothing can literally be both bent and not bent. Logic ensures that nothing can both have and lack the same property, or have both that property and its complement. Yet I clearly relate in some way to both the property of being bent and the property of being not bent. What way is it? The problem of temporary intrinsics15 is to answer this question.
- The answer might seem obvious. I am bent now, and not bent an hour ago. For a thing to be bent is for it to be bent at some particular time. If someone is bent, we can always ask when he is bent; and there will always be an answer, even if it is that he always was and always will be bent. A persisting thing has its properties at particular times, and if something has incompatible properties such as bentness and straightness it must have them each at a different time. That, as Aristotle said, is what time is for. the obviousness of this reply might even lead us to wonder whether there is really any problem of temporary intrinsics16 to be solved. Temporary properties seem problematic, the idea would go, only if we infer from my being bent at some particular time that I am just plain bent, without any temporal qualification at all, and if we likewise infer from my not being bent at some time that I am just plain not bent. But why should that follow? No one ever thought that deleting temporal qualifications was a valid mode of inference, like deleting double negations. And if we don’t commit that fallacy, where is the problem of change?
- But four-dimensionalists are not satisfied with this reply. Even if it is right that to be bent is to be bent at a particular time, they say, we need to explain what it is for something to be bent at a time, as opposed to being just plain bent. How does the temporal qualification – my being bent now – block the inference to my being bent simpliciter? If my relation to the properties of bentness and straightness is not simply having, how do I relate to them?
- The earlier thought that things don’t just have temporary properties like bentness, but have them at times might suggest that the temporal qualification is built into the having relation. So having or instantiating is a three-place relation involving an object, a property, and a time (or a four-place relation involving two objects, a two-place relation, and a time, or the like). Some things may have some properties without temporal qualification – maybe the number 7 is odd simpliciter – but that is another story.
- Four-dimensionalists object that this makes intrinsic properties extrinsic. The proposal is that being bent involves a relation not only to a property, but also to a time. For a thing to be bent, it says, is for it to relate in a certain way to something outside it – a time. Whether a thing is bent or straight depends on how it relates to times, just as whether someone is an uncle depends on how he relates to other people. It follows, the complaint goes, that nothing could be bent in itself: “In itself, considered apart from its relations to other things,” Lewis complains, a thing would have “no shape at all” (1986: 204). Shape would therefore not be an intrinsic property. More generally, no property could be both temporary and intrinsic, for a property could be had temporarily only if that having were relative to a time in a way that would make the property extrinsic. But surely we know that shape is both temporary and intrinsic.
- Whatever the merits of this reasoning may be, it has an important consequence: things must have their intrinsic properties timelessly, and not relative to times. Whatever has bentness must be just plain bent, without temporal qualification; otherwise its being bent would involve a relation to a time, making bentness extrinsic. That, the idea goes, is part of the nature of intrinsicness.
- Four-dimensionalists solve the problem of temporary intrinsics17 in a way that respects this consequence. They say that things have different properties at different times by having different temporal parts, located at those times, that have the properties without temporal qualification. I am bent now insofar as the temporal part of me located at this instant – or at any rate some temporal part of me that exists now and only when I am bent – is just plain bent. That part is not temporarily bent, or bent now, or even bent at every time when it exists. It is bent simpliciter, timelessly bent, just as 7 is timelessly odd. Its being bent involves no relation to a time whatever. That makes bentness an intrinsic property, as we always knew it was. Likewise, I am straight, and not bent, at some other time insofar as a temporal part of me located at that other time is timelessly straight. Moreover, I have those parts without temporal qualification. I don’t have a straight temporal part at one time and lack one at another, for having a straight temporal part and not having one are no more compatible than being bent and being straight, and just as intrinsic. (My straight temporal part and my bent temporal part are located at different times; but they are not parts of me at different times.)
- This means that I don’t simply have either the property of being bent or the property of being straight. How then do I relate to those properties? Am I bent, or am I straight? The answer is neither: I simply have a bent temporal part and a straight temporal part. (Compare the spatial analog: Am I hand-shaped, or am I foot-shaped? Neither: I simply have a handshaped part and a foot-shaped part.) My relation to the property of bentness is that of having a part that has that property simpliciter. My relation to the property of straightness is that of having another part that has that property simpliciter.
- So according to four-dimensionalism, when we say that a thing has different intrinsic properties at different times we are speaking loosely. The strict truth of the matter is that the thing has different temporal parts, located at those times, that have those properties without temporal qualification. In the strictest sense I don’t have the properties of bentness or straightness at all. My properties are not being bent or being straight, but rather having a bent part and having a straight part. If I had bentness and straightness (or being bent and not being bent), I should have to have them relative to times, which four-dimensionalists say would make them objectionably extrinsic. Nothing can strictly have both bentness and straightness, since they are incompatible; and nothing can have either property relative to a time, since they are intrinsic; thus, whatever has bentness must be bent and not straight simpliciter. So the things that are bent or straight are brief temporal parts of me, rather than I myself. I can have the intrinsic properties having a bent part and having a straight part, though, for unlike bentness and straightness they are compatible. I can have them without temporal qualification.
- The argument for four-dimensionalism, then, is this: There are intrinsic properties, such as bentness and straightness, that each of us in some sense has. Because these properties are intrinsic, we cannot have them relative to times, but must relate to them in some timeless way. But we cannot simply have them timelessly, for they are incompatible: nothing can be both bent and not bent. Therefore I am bent now only in the sense of having (timelessly) a temporal part located now that is bent simpliciter, and I was straight an hour ago insofar as I have another temporal part located then that is straight simpliciter. It follows that I have at least two temporal parts. Moreover, the fact that my intrinsic properties are continuously changing – the way my atoms are arranged, for instance, is changing continuously, owing to their constant motion – implies that I have a different temporal part for every moment when I exist. And what goes for me goes for concrete objects generally.
- Ironically, this argument has the very consequence it accuses the opposing view of having, namely that no property could be both temporary and intrinsic. If, per impossibile, something did first have and then lack an intrinsic property such as bentness, then according to the argument that thing would both have and lack bentness, for bentness, being intrinsic, can only be had or lacked without temporal qualification. According to four-dimensionalism, no intrinsic properties are temporary. Our momentary temporal parts have properties such as bentness, and we have properties such as having bent parts; but nothing has those properties temporarily. (This presumably goes for extrinsic properties as well: I am an uncle now insofar as I have a temporal part located now that is an uncle without temporal qualification. No one will suppose that I bear a timeless, two-place instantiation relation to intrinsic properties and a three-place instantiation relation involving a time to extrinsic properties.)
- For this reason and others, four-dimensionalists disagree about the persuasive force of the argument from temporary intrinsics18. That is, they disagree about how much better their own solution to the problem of change is than the alternative view that things have temporary properties relative to times19. Even so, they nearly all agree that their solution is true: that persisting, changing objects don’t strictly have temporary intrinsic properties, but instead have short-lived temporal parts that have intrinsic properties timelessly. This seems to belong to the very idea of a temporal part. We will see the importance of this in §5.7.
5.4 The problem of modal54 incompatibility
- Four-dimensionalism has important theoretical virtues. One of them is its capacity to solve problems about the identities of material objects in a different way from constitutionalism (see Sider 2001: Ch. 5 for a detailed discussion).
- Recall the clay-modelling puzzle (§3.2). A shapeless lump of clay is modelled first into a statue21 and then into a cube. We want to say that the same lump of clay is first shapeless, then statue-shaped22, then cubical, but that the statue23 is never shapeless or cubical. If this is so, then the statue24 and the lump must be two different things. Constitutionalists say that the statue25 and the lump are numerically different even though they coincide materially, making the statue26 physically indistinguishable from the lump at every time when the statue27 exists. But we expect physically indistinguishable material things to be indistinguishable in all their intrinsic properties. So their view makes it a mystery how the two objects could differ in their intrinsic properties (§3.4). For instance, what could give them different persistence conditions28?
- Four-dimensionalists say that the statue29 is a temporal part of the lump: the largest such part that is statue-shaped30. (Suppose the lump is made into a statue31 only once.) We can illustrate this with a space-time diagram, where the vertical axis represents space and the horizontal axis time: Figure 5.1.
- The statue32 is made at t1and squashed at t2. The whole “worm” is the lump, and the shaded part in the middle is the statue33. The lump is composed of earlier temporal parts that have a nondescript shape, later temporal parts that are cubical, and intermediate temporal parts shaped like Thatcher (as it may be); it is these last that compose the statue34. So the lump and the statue35 don't coincide materially, in the sense of there being things that compose both of them: the lump has temporal parts – timelessly has them – that are not parts of the statue36, and which do not even overlap any parts of the statue37. That is what makes the two objects qualitatively different. We can explain the qualitative differences between the statue38 and the lump in terms of the differences in their parts: the lump is different from the statue39 because it, but not the statue40, has temporal parts that are not statue-shaped41. The lump and the statue42 are no more alike than a baseball game and its third inning are alike.
- In the replacement puzzle (§3.3) we burn a clay statue43's arm to ashes and replace it with a new arm made of different clay (where this is the only change of parts in the statue’s44 career). We want to say that the statue45 persists through this change, while the lump of clay is destroyed and replaced by a new lump. Constitutionalists say that the statue46 coincides materially first with one lump and then with another. Four-dimensionalists say that the statue47 is (timelessly) composed of temporal parts of two different lumps.
- In Figure 5.2 The first lump, L1, occupies the forward-slashed space-time region; the second lump, L2, occupies the back-slashed region. If we suppose again that the statue48 is made at t1and squashed at t2, it occupies the horizontal region located between those times. The earlier part of the statue49, on this view, is a temporal part of L1; the later part of the statue50 is a temporal part of L2. The statue51 is not identical with either lump; but neither is it composed of the same parts as either lump. Neither lump coincides materially with the statue52. Again, the qualitative difference between the statue53 and the two lumps is explained by their having qualitatively different temporal parts. (The four-dimensionalist’s solution to the amputation puzzle is similar; we will come to it in §7.4.)
5.5 Puzzles of personal identity
- The four-dimensionalists’s story about lumps and statues55 may sound agreeable, particularly in comparison with constitutionalism. So it may seem to support the claim that persisting objects, including ourselves, are composed of temporal parts. There is, however, something about this story that we might find deeply puzzling.
- Suppose we ask why the statue56 ceases to exist when we squash it, but the lump doesn’t. According to the story there is no physical difference between the statue57 and the lump when we squash them, for they share all their temporal parts while they both exist. How, then, can objects that are physically identical at a time, and treated in the same way, behave so differently at that time? Isn’t this the very objection we made to constitutionalism? Four-dimensionalists say that we are to explain the qualitative difference between statue58 and lump in terms of their having qualitatively different temporal parts. That seems to imply that the statue59 perishes and the lump carries on in the clay-modelling story because the lump has certain temporal parts located after the squashing and the lump hasn’t. But that is no explanation at all. It is like saying that Descartes ceased to exist in 1650 because his career doesn’t extend beyond that year.
- If squashing a clay statue60 really does, necessarily, destroy the statue61 without destroying the lump it is made of, we expect the reason to be that lumps have something statues62 lack, namely a power or capacity to survive squashing. Otherwise it would be a mystery why clay statues63 always perish when squashed, yet lumps of clay never do. If lumps and statues64 didn’t differ in this way, we should expect them to behave more or less alike when squashed, and we should be unable to say confidently of any statue65 that if it were squashed it would perish. But such a difference in capacities appears to be incompatible with the ontology of temporal parts.
- We can make the problem more vivid by imagining a case where a lump and a statue66 always coincide. Imagine a lump of clay that comes into being shaped like Thatcher and retains that shape throughout its career without losing any parts. In that case the lump and the statue67 will share all their parts, temporal and otherwise (at any rate there will be things that compose both the statue68 and the lump). They will coincide materially. Four-dimensionalists say that in this case the lump is the statue69; otherwise they would face the troubles of constitutionalism. Yet the lore of lumps and statues70 tells us that any lump of clay could survive being squashed, even if it never is. Otherwise their differing behavior under pressure, so to speak, would be a mystery. If this is right, then four-dimensionalism is committed to these three claims:
… 1. The lump (in our story) could survive squashing.
… 2. The statue71 could not survive squashing.
… 3. The lump = the statue72.
And these claims look inconsistent. If the lump is the statue73, how could it – that one thing – be able to survive squashing, yet also unable to survive it?
- The same problem arises in the case of people and animals. Most philosophers, including four-dimensionalists, want to say that if your cerebrum74 were removed from your head and kept “alive” and functioning in a vat, while the rest of you were destroyed, you would survive as a detached cerebrum75. (This seems to follow from the conviction that you would go along with your cerebrum76 if that organ were transplanted77.) But no human animal78 could survive if its cerebrum79 were preserved and the rest of it destroyed. That seems to give human people and human animals80 different modal81 properties: different persistence conditions82.
- This may not look like a problem if your cerebrum83 actually is removed and kept alive. In that case you are not an animal; you are, rather (according to the temporal-parts view) composed of the pre-operation temporal parts of an animal and the post-operation temporal parts of a cerebrum84. But of course that isn’t going to happen. Your career will coincide exactly with the career of an animal, so that every temporal part of that animal is a part of you and vice versa. You and the animal coincide materially. In that case four-dimensionalists will say that you are that animal. How, then, could it be the case that you, but not the animal, could survive as a detached cerebrum85? Friends of the temporal-parts view will want to say things like these:
… 4. You could survive as a detached cerebrum86.
… 5. No animal could survive as a detached cerebrum87.
… 6. You are an animal.
And these claims are no more consistent than the others.
- Now many four-dimensionalists say that we are not animals, even though there are no cerebrum transplants88. Suppose that having certain mental properties is necessary for being a person; and call a more-or-less momentary temporal part of an organism that has those properties a person-stage89. Then it may be natural to suppose that a person must be something made up entirely of person-stages. (We will come to the question of which person-stages would go to make up a person in a moment.) But because every human animal90 starts out as an embryo91 with no mental properties at all, no human animal92 is composed entirely of person-stages. Alternatively, you might think that the stages of a person must all be in some way psychologically continuous with one another; but the embryonic93 stages of a human animal94 are not psychologically continuous with anything. Either way, it follows that human people, and therefore ourselves, are not animals, but at best proper temporal parts of animals: parts that include no unthinking embryonic95 stages.
- But it makes no difference here whether we are animals or temporal parts of animals, for if the persistence conditions96 of animals have nothing to do with psychology, neither do those of their temporal parts. So the view that we are temporal parts of animals appears to imply this:
… 4. You could survive as a detached cerebrum97.
… 7. No temporal part of an animal could survive as a detached cerebrum98.
… 8. You are a temporal part of an animal.
And these again look inconsistent.
- The general problem these cases illustrate is that things the temporal-parts view says are identical appear to have incompatible modal99 or dispositional properties – properties that appear to figure in the explanation of why those things cease to exist when they do. Because you are a person, you could survive as a detached cerebrum100; but because you are an animal or a temporal part of an animal, you couldn't. Call this the problem of modal101 incompatibility.
- Some four-dimensionalists take a tough line here: Quine, for instance, denies that there are any modal102 properties at all (1960: 199), and Heller says that all material objects have their spatio-temporal boundaries essentially (1980: 53). Either view would make at least one proposition of each triad false, or at any rate not true.
- But most four-dimensionalists want to accept the modal103 convictions that feature in the first two claims of each triad. They try to solve the problem by saying that the appearance of inconsistency is an illusion. You could survive as a detached cerebrum104, they say, and the animal or animal part that you are could not survive it; yet these claims are consistent. The reason is that the modal105 predicate 'could survive as a detached cerebrum106' expresses a different property in 5 and 7 from the one it expresses in 4. When we say that you could survive as a detached cerebrum107, we mean that you qua person could survive it. When we say that no animal could survive as a detached cerebrum108, we mean that no animal qua animal could survive it. So it would be more perspicuous to write 4 and 5 like this:
… 4*. You, qua person, could survive as a detached cerebrum109.
… 5*. No animal, qua animal, could survive as a detached cerebrum110.
This does not express a modal111 difference between you and your animal body. Both you and that animal have the property of possibly surviving as a detached cerebrum112 qua person, and you both lack the property of possibly surviving as a detached cerebrum113 qua animal. 4* and 5* are therefore consistent with the claim that you are an animal. The same holds, mutatis mutandis, for the other cases.
- This means that that there are no absolute, unqualified modal114 properties of the form being possibly F or being necessarily G, but only qualified or kind-relative modal115 properties of the form being possibly F qua person and being necessarily G qua animal. If there were such a property as possibly surviving as a detached cerebrum116 – not possibly surviving it qua this or qua that, but just plain possibly surviving it – then we should want to say that you have that property, and that no animal or temporal part of an animal has it, thus raising the problem of modal117 incompatibility all over again.
- So what are these qualified modal118 properties? What do the qualifications ‘qua person’ and ‘qua animal’ mean? Many views are possible, but the most familiar is counterpart theory (Lewis 1968, 1971, 1986: 248-263, Gibbard 1975). The ordinary view of modal119 properties is that for a thing to be possibly F is for it to be F at some possible world. Counterpart theory says that for a thing to be possibly F is not for it to be F at a world, but for a “counterpart” of it at a world to be F at that world120. A counterpart of you at a world is a thing at that world that is at least as much like you as anything else at that world, and enough like you that we are willing to treat it as a modal121 stand-in for you. (The thing most like you at a certain world might be a chimpanzee. If we are not willing to consider how things would be if you were a chimpanzee – if our response to your question, "What if I were a chimpanzee?" were always, "You couldn't be a chimpanzee" – then there would be no counterpart of you in that world.)
- So far this is no help. If you have a counterpart at a world that survives as a detached cerebrum122, and no animal (or temporal part of an animal) has such a counterpart, then you cannot be an animal (or a temporal part of an animal). But things can be similar in different ways: something might resemble you in origin and physical composition, say, but not in psychology and behavior. And because the counterpart relation is based on similarity, whether a thing is a counterpart of you may depend on what respects of similarity are relevant in the context. So there appear to be as many different potential counterpart relations as there are respects of similarity. If we say that you are possibly F – that is, that at some world there is a counterpart of you that is F – we don't say anything determinate until we specify a particular counterpart relation – that is, a particular respect of similarity. And it needn't be the same one each time: a modal123 predicate can express different counterpart relations in different contexts.
- So when we say that you could survive as a detached cerebrum124, we might mean that you have a personal counterpart at some world – someone who resembles you in "personal" respects – who survives as a detached cerebrum125 at that world. Now whatever else a personal counterpart of something might be, it ought to be a person. Suppose a person is by definition a being composed of person-stages, each of which is psychologically continuous, in some appropriate way that is open to debate, with every other and with nothing else: a maximal psychological continuer for short126. Then any being that fails to go along with its transplanted cerebrum127 is not a maximal psychological continuer, and therefore not a person, and so not a personal counterpart of you or of anyone else. Thus, every personal counterpart of you whose cerebrum128 is removed and kept alive will go along with that organ. Presumably there are, at some possible worlds, personal counterparts of you whose cerebrums129 are removed and who go along with those organs. (At any rate this is so on the ontology of temporal parts.) And the personal pronoun in the sentence ‘You could survive as a detached cerebrum’130 makes the personal counterpart relation the relevant one. That makes it true to say that you could survive as a detached cerebrum131.
- When we say that no animal could survive as a detached cerebrum132, on the other hand, we might mean that no animal has an animal counterpart at any world – something that resembles it in "animal" respects – that survives as a detached cerebrum133 at that world. An animal counterpart of something must presumably be an animal itself. An animal, according to four-dimensionalism, is a thing composed of animal stages related to one another and to nothing else in a certain biological way that I won’t attempt to specify. And because a detached-cerebrum134 stage is not an animal stage, nothing made up partly of detached-cerebrum135 stages is an animal. Thus, no animal, and no animal counterpart of anything, survives as a detached cerebrum136 at any possible world. So nothing has an animal counterpart that survives as a detached cerebrum137. The word 'animal' in the original sentence makes the animal counterpart relation the relevant one. That is why it is true to say that no animal could survive as a detached cerebrum138.
- So the claim that you could survive as a detached cerebrum139 but no animal (or temporal part of an animal) could survive it, understood counterpart-theoretically, is compatible with your being an animal (or a temporal part of an animal). Similar remarks apply in other cases: the claim that any lump could survive crushing but no statue140 could, understood counterpart-theoretically, is compatible with the claim that some statues141 are lumps.
- Whether counterpart theory is the right account of modal142 properties is disputed, and I will not enter into this dispute here. The point is that friends of the temporal-parts view must either reject the modal143 claims about people and animals that we have discussed, or else understand them counterpart-theoretically (or in some other way according to which modal144 predicates express different properties depending on their context). Some philosophers find this a sufficient reason to reject the ontology of temporal parts (van Inwagen 1990b).
- Even if we accept counterpart theory, however – or for that matter if we follow Quine and deny that there are any modal145 properties at all – the question remains: why do statues146 but not lumps cease to exist when squashed? Four-dimensionalists deny that there is any modal147 or dispositional difference between a statue148 and its coincident lump: the lump, they say, hasn’t got a certain capacity to survive that the statue149 lacks. So things’ modal150 properties play no role in explaining why they cease to exist when they do. What does it explain it, then? What accounts for the striking difference in the actual behavior of lumps and statues151 when we squash them?
- Four-dimensionalists reply that there is no explanation: the question is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of persisting objects. For every period of time when a lump of clay exists, they say, there is a temporal part of the lump located exactly then. It follows from this that there is a temporal part of our imaginary lump that extends from the time when it is made Thatcher-shaped to the time when it gets squashed. That is the thing we call the statue152 of Thatcher. Why does that object cease to exist when it gets squashed? What stops it from carrying on for a bit longer and simply changing its shape? The four-dimensionalist’s answer is that nothing stops it. That is simply where its temporal boundary lies. To ask why it comes to an end when it does is like asking why a given period of time comes to an end when it does. Why does the 20th century come to an end at the end of 1999? What stops it from going on for a bit longer? The question is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of periods of time. The only answer we can give is that we wouldn’t call a period of time that extended beyond 1999 the 20th century. But that is an answer to a different question: a question not about why a particular thing ceases to exist when it does, but about why we talk the way we do. It is the same with the lump and the statue153. There are temporal parts of the lump that extend beyond the time when we squash it. But we don’t call those things statues154. And that is all the answer we can give to the question of why the statue155 doesn’t continue to exist after we squash it. (That does not mean, however, that nothing could have lasted longer than it did. Descartes could have lived longer, for there are personal counterparts of him that do live longer.)
- This is one of the aspects of the temporal-parts ontology that is most foreign to our ordinary thinking. Foreign or not, however, four-dimensionalism is a powerful theory of the nature of persisting objects.
- We have seen that the ontology of temporal parts offers an important solution to metaphysical puzzles about the persistence of material things, including ourselves. And we saw that this solution comes at the cost of requiring modal156 predicates to be inconstant: it implies that in a sense you could survive as a detached cerebrum157, but in another perfectly good sense you couldn’t possibly exist in that state. The view that we are composed of temporal parts – the temporal-parts view – has further important implications about our identity over time.
- Recall the “brain-state transfer” machine of §1.7, which records the psychological information encoded in your brain (thereby erasing that organ) and copies it onto another brain (thereby erasing that organ’s previous contents). Some philosophers believe that this process would literally move you from one human organism to another. But we may wonder what sort of thing could move from one animal to another in this way. What sort of thing could be sent as a message by telegraph? Not a material thing, surely.
- On the ontology of temporal parts, however, a material thing can move, in a sense, from one human animal158 to another via brain-state transfer. Perhaps no material thing would move from one place to another in the sense of passing through all the points in between; but there would be a material thing that was first in the one place and later in the other. There would be a material thing made up of the temporal parts of the “donor” animal located before the adventure and those of the “recipient” animal located afterwards. That thing would be rational and intelligent in the same way as you are – supposing, at least, that you are material – for it would share your rational, intelligent stages. So the machine would bring it about that a rational, intelligent being is first in one place, associated with one human organism, and later in another place, associated with another organism. Those who believe that we can move from one animal to another via brain-state transfer will say that this being would be you. Thus, the temporal parts view is compatible with the claim that you could swap animal bodies via brain-state transfer.
- But the temporal-parts view is also compatible with the claim that you couldn’t swap bodies via brain-state transfer. The animal that ends up with your mental contents in the story does not inherit them from you in anything like the usual way. If you did swap bodies, your mental capacities would not be continuously physically realized. This suggests that you would have a gap in your career: you would cease to exist while the machine does its work, then come into being once more when the work is finished. (Suppose the machine that records the psychological information from the first brain then prints it on sheets of paper; much later the information is typed by hand into a second machine, which then reconfigures the second brain to match the first one. In what form could you exist after the first brain is erased but before the second brain is reconfigured? What sort of thing could you be then?) And you might deny that any material thing could exist intermittently. The temporal-parts view can accommodate this conviction.
- The ontology of temporal parts provides three main candidates for being you in this case. First there is the one that stays behind: the human animal159 whose mental contents are erased when the machine does its work and then lives on as a sort of human vegetable. Second, there is the one that ceases to exist: the temporal part of the first animal that extends from its beginning (or from the point where it first acquires mental capacities of the right sort) until its mental contents are erased. Finally, there is the one that gets transferred: the thing composed of the pre-transfer stages of the first animal and the post-transfer stages of the second (or at least those stages of them that have the right mental properties). On the usual ontology of temporal parts, these three beings all exist. The question of what happens to you in the brain-state-transfer cases is the question of which of them is you.
- Friends of the temporal-parts view say that this depends on which of them counts as a person, for you are the only person in the story. Now all three candidates are rational, intelligent, and self-conscious, at least for a time, and the ordinary view is that being rational, intelligent, and self-conscious suffices for being a person. (Don’t we call a rational, intelligent, self-conscious being a someone and not a mere something?) But friends of the temporal-parts view deny this. Otherwise there would be far too many people in the world: not only would all three candidates in the brain-state-transfer story count as people, but so would most of your temporal parts. (Remember that on the ontology of temporal parts a being is intelligent at a time by virtue of having a temporal part located then that is intelligent without temporal qualification.) A person, they say, must consist of stages that are not only rational, intelligent, and self-conscious, but which also relate to one another in the right way.
- There is room for disagreement about what this way is: whether it is non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity160, non-branching psychological continuity161 of any sort, some wholly non-psychological relation, or what have you. This is the old debate about personal identity over time – the persistence question of §1.6 – transposed into the ontology of temporal parts. Those who say that personal identity over time consists in non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity162 will call the candidate that ceases to exist when the machine does its work the person. Those who say that any sort of psychological continuity163 suffices will call the one that gets transferred the person, while those who think it is something wholly non-psychological will probably say that the candidate that stays behind is the person.
- Who is right? They might all be right. According to four-dimensionalism all three candidates exist, and all three satisfy some reasonable definition of the word ‘person’. Those who appear to disagree about which candidate is the person may only be using the word ‘person’ in different senses. More generally, those who appear to disagree about what it takes for a person to persist through time may all be right. They may not disagree at all. They may only be talking about different beings – about “people” in different senses of the word. There are people in the sense of beings composed of person-stages related to one another, and to nothing else, by non-branching, continuously physically realized psychological continuity164 – “conservative people”, we might call them – people in the sense of beings composed of person-stages related to one another by psychological continuity165 of any sort – “liberal people” – and so on. Different accounts of personal identity over time are accounts of the identity over time of different sorts of people. Friends of the conservative psychological-continuity view have given the right account of the persistence of conservative people; those who prefer the liberal psychological-continuity view have given the right account of the persistence of liberal people. For that matter, those who say that our identity is animal identity have given the right account of the persistence of “animal people”. Any proposed account of what it takes for us to persist through time will presumably be the right account of the persistence of some sort of beings that are plausible candidates for being people. Or almost any account. The view that you persist if and only if your immaterial soul continues to exist will not be the right account of the persistence of anything unless there are immaterial souls, and four-dimensionalism in no way implies that there are.
- This would vindicate the common view that the facts about personal identity over time are in some sense up to us to decide: they are up to us to decide insofar as it is up to us which sort of “people” to talk about (Olson 1997b, Sider 2001b). No other view of what we are166 (with the possible exception of the bundle view, some versions of which incorporate the ontology of temporal parts) has this consequence. Whether this speaks in favor of the temporal-parts view or against it will be a matter for debate.
- Here is one more point about our identity over time. The temporal-parts view is the only account of what we are167 that is consistent with the attractive idea that some sort of psychological continuity168 suffices for us to persist. It seems possible for a person to be psychologically continuous, by anyone’s lights, with two future people: let each of your cerebral hemispheres be transplanted169 into a different head. It is easy to believe that you could survive if one hemisphere were destroyed and the other were transplanted170, so that the operation produced only one being psychologically continuous with you. But it seems impossible for both offshoots to be you, for there are two of them and only one of you, and two things cannot be numerically identical with one thing. (Suppose one of the offshoots had a beard and the other didn’t. If both were you, you would both have a beard and not have a beard at the same time, which most of us regard as a contradiction.) And the claim that just one of the two offshoots would be you would make it a mystery which one it was, and why. This leads many philosophers to say that you could survive a single transplant171 but not a double transplant172: if two beings each got half your brain, that would be the end of you. It follows that psychological continuity173 is not sufficient for you to persist: you may perish even though a later person is psychologically continuous with you. Only "non-branching" psychological continuity174 suffices. But it is hard to believe that you could fail to survive the transplant175 operation merely because it produced two beings psychologically continuous with you rather than one.
- Friends of the temporal-parts view are able to say that you can survive the double transplant176 (Lewis 1976). You survive, so to speak, as both offshoots. That is because in fission cases there are, in effect, two of you all along, who share their pre-operative temporal parts but not their post-operative parts. One of them starts when you do and then goes along with your left cerebral hemisphere in the operation; the other has the same beginning, but goes along with your right hemisphere. But they do not coincide materially; they merely overlap, like two railway lines that diverge after having a section of track in common. Thus, as long as someone is psychologically continuous with you in the right way, you survive. It doesn't matter if more than one is.
- This has the surprising consequence that if there is fission in your future, there are two people sitting there and thinking your thoughts even now – though they look for all the world, even to themselves, like one. In order to know whether they are two or one – or more generally, to know how many people there are at any one time – we need to know what the future holds. (This is not a case of backwards causation177, however. The fission operation doesn’t cause it to be the case that there are two people there earlier. It simply makes it the case, in a non-causal way, that the pre-fission stages are parts of two people rather than one.)
- The story the temporal-parts view tells about fission is surprising in other ways too. You might want to know which person you are. Suppose the one who gets your left hemisphere – "Lefty" – will be in pain after the operation, while the one who gets your right hemisphere, "Righty", will be comfortable. Will you be in pain? The temporal-parts view suggests that when we say 'you', we refer to that person whose stage we are addressing. If that stage is a part of more than one person, as the pre-operative stages in the fission story are, we refer ambiguously to both. So if there is fission in your future, we refer at once to two different people when we say 'you' (supposing we refer at all, anyway). Our sentence 'You will be in pain' says two things at once, one true and one false. It is like saying that the planet between the earth and the sun is cloudy. One of you will be in pain, the other not. But we cannot say that either of those people is you. To say that you are Lefty is at most half right, since only one of you, as it were, is Lefty; the same goes for the claim that you are Righty. Nor can we say that either person is not you. So we can know what happens to all of the people in the story, and yet not know what will happen to you. The question we so urgently want answered – will you be in pain? – is unanswerable, based as it is on the false presupposition that the pronoun ‘you’ refers to only one being, or at any rate that all of the beings it refers to share the same fate178.
- Friends of the temporal-parts view will point out that we say similar things about analogous spatial cases, such as railway lines that share their tracks at one place and diverge at another. How many lines there are here depends on what is the case elsewhere. And simple questions such as whether this line goes to Tulsa may have no straightforward answer because the expression ‘this line’ refers ambiguously to two lines, one of which goes to Tulsa and one of which doesn’t. The logic of the case, we might say, is impeccable. But that may not make the story any easier to believe. It may only be a reason to deny that fission is like spatial branching – that is, to deny that we have temporal parts.
- And although the proposed view implies that psychological continuity179 is sufficient for our identity over time in the sense that you persist if someone in the future is psychologically continuous with you, it implies that psychological continuity180 is not sufficient for our identity over time in another sense: not every future being who is mentally continuous with you is you (Parfit181 1976; see also Lewis 1983). Lefty is not psychologically continuous, before the operation, with Righty as he is afterwards. You can be psychologically continuous with someone other than yourself.
5.6 Thinking animals182 and other worries
5.7 Thinking stages
- We saw that the constitution view183 faces a problem about those human animals184 that think our thoughts and perform our actions but which, according to those views, are not ourselves. A similar problem arises for the temporal-parts view. Most four-dimensionalists say that we are not animals, but maximal psychological continuers: beings composed of person-stages, each of which is in some way psychologically continuous with each of the others and with no other stages (§5.4). Since all human animals185 have embryonic186 stages that are not in any way psychologically continuous with anything (and some have senile stages not psychologically continuous with anything), this means that we are at best temporal parts of animals. Yet four-dimensionalists cannot deny that the animals we are parts of think. They say that for a persisting thing to think at a time is for it to have a temporal part located at that time that thinks; and since your thinking stages are all temporal parts of a human animal187, the animal thinks just as you do. So according to the temporal-parts view you share your thoughts with an animal numerically different from yourself. And you ought to wonder, it seems, how you could ever know that you are not the animal.
- Four-dimensionalists could avoid the consequence that our bodies are thinking animals188 other than ourselves by saying that we are animals. That would mean giving up the idea that any sort of psychological continuity189 is necessary for us to persist. (They could still say that it is sufficient for us to persist by appealing to counterpart theory.) But it wouldn’t help, for on their view your current stage is a temporal part of a thinking maximal psychological continuer as well as a temporal part of a thinking animal190. So you would still face the problem of how you could know whether you are the animal or the maximal psychological continuer. That is why most animalists191 deny the existence of maximal psychological continuers, and thus reject four-dimensionalism generally.
- In fact four-dimensionalism implies that there are all sorts of beings now thinking your thoughts. Your current stage is a temporal part not only of a maximal psychological continuer and an animal, but also of the first or second half of that animal. And it is a part of a vast number of gerrymandered and badly behaved objects: the thing made up of the temporal parts of your animal body located before midnight tomorrow and the temporal parts of Kilimanjaro located thereafter, for instance, and the thing made up of the temporal parts of the moon located before last Friday, the temporal parts of my left ear located after tomorrow, and the temporal parts of your animal body located in between. All of these objects, by virtue of sharing your current thinking stage, now think in the same sense as you do. So there are far more beings sitting in your chair and thinking about philosophy than we thought192.
- How could you ever know which of these beings you are? It is bad enough not knowing whether you are the animal or the maximal psychological continuer. Now it seems you ought to wonder whether you might be the first or second half of the animal, or one of the countless gerrymandered objects that share your current stage. What grounds could you possibly have for accepting any of these alternatives? If you really had no idea which thinker you are, you would have no idea what your future holds. The fact that there will be a human person tomorrow who is psychologically continuous with you as you are today would be no reason at all for you to believe that you will be a human person tomorrow. As far as your evidence in the matter would go, you could just as well be an enormous volcano tomorrow.
- Faced with this absurd prospect, friends of the temporal-parts view appear to have little other choice than to embrace personal-pronoun revisionism, the linguistic hypothesis discussed in §2.7. The idea is that your current temporal part is a part of only one person. There is room for disagreement about just what counts as a person, but any reasonable definition of 'person' will imply that there is just one being of that sort now thinking your thoughts: just one maximal psychological continuer, for instance.
- Or at least this is nearly true. The usual temporal-parts ontology implies that for every person (in any ordinary sense of the term), there is another being just like it but a nanosecond longer or shorter – a being entirely indiscernible from the first by any practical means, and just as good a candidate for being a person. So in reality there is not one person there, but a large class of more or less indiscernible and mostly overlapping people. This is a version of what Unger (1980) calls the problem of the many193. It means that it is probably indeterminate which of those beings you are. This is of course rather implausible. Four-dimensionalists point out that we should “count those people as one” for ordinary purposes: when all the people in a certain situation overlap and differ from one another only trivially, those of us who are not engaged in metaphysics describe this by saying that there is just one person there (Lewis 1976, 1993). And perhaps it shouldn’t worry us too much if we cannot know which of these beings you are, or if all ordinary ways of referring to you are ways of referring to all of them ambiguously, since we can’t tell them apart anyway. For that matter, the problem of the many194 is not obviously unique to the temporal-parts view: anyone who thinks that we are material things will have to say something about those beings, if there are such, that are just like ourselves but larger or smaller by a single particle.
- But the important point here has nothing to do with the problem of the many195. It has to do not with the surplus of good candidates for being you, but with the surplus of bad candidates: the human animal196 (if you are a maximal psychological continuer), the animal’s first or second half, and all the arbitrary and gerrymandered objects that share your current stage but diverge wildly at other times. Pronoun revisionism says, first, that these beings are not people. Second, personal pronouns, first-person thoughts, and other “personal” referring expressions denote only people. Third: as a competent speaker of English, you know that your first-person thoughts and utterances must refer to a person if they refer at all. So if you know what it is to be a person, you can work out (subject to the caveat about “the many”) which of the beings that share your current stage you are.
- This proposal has the repugnant consequence that the vast majority of rational, intelligent speakers are not people. And they cannot refer to themselves in the first person – not, anyway, in the language they actually speak. Their language also prevents them from having first-person thoughts about themselves. That is a strange sort of disability. If the ontology of temporal parts is true, however, and if most of what we say in ordinary life about ourselves and others is right – if it really is true to say that you will be a human person tomorrow and that you were never a satellite of the earth – then it seems that some such linguistic hypothesis must be correct. We may not like it much; but then the alternatives might not be very nice either.
5.8 The stage view199
- I come now to what is perhaps the most serious objection to the temporal-parts view. Recall the problem of temporary intrinsics197 (§5.2): how can a persisting thing have incompatible properties, such as sitting and standing? Four-dimensionalists say that for a thing to sit at a time is for it to have a temporal part located at that time that has the property of sitting without temporal qualification. I sit now only insofar as my current stage sits. Assuming that I persist, I don’t strictly have the property of sitting at all, but rather the property of having a sitting part. And what goes for sitting goes for temporary properties generally198. Given that persisting things change continuously, it seems that the things that strictly have ordinary properties must literally be momentary: only a momentary being could have a shape without temporal qualification, and any material thing with ordinary properties has a shape.
- This means that although certain momentary temporal parts of me have such familiar properties as sitting, sleeping, writing, weighing 150 pounds, and being conscious, I myself have none of those properties. I don’t have the property of sitting, or of sleeping, or of writing. Strictly speaking I have no shape or weight. I have no mental properties, or at any rate none such as being conscious or thinking about Vienna. I have no temporary properties of any sort. If I did, I should have them relative to times, and four-dimensionalists agree that things do not have properties relative to times. I am not even perceived, except perhaps by Berkeley’s God. My stages may be perceived, but if I had the property of being perceived I should also have the property of not being perceived, for being perceived is a temporary property. This is all rather troubling. The temporal-parts view implies that the familiar objects that think and act and are seen and heard are our stages, not ourselves. We ourselves are unobservable theoretical entities.
- Four-dimensionalists will reply that we still have these familiar properties in a certain sense. We often attribute to an object the properties of its parts: we say that someone is sunburned when in the strictest sense only a part of her nose is sunburned, or that the day was wet when really only most of the afternoon was. And these descriptions are perfectly correct. So even though I don’t bear a property such as sitting in the strict sense in which my current stage bears it, I nonetheless relate to that property in a way that makes it true to say that I am sitting. That is, I have that property in what Butler (1975) might have called “a loose and popular sense”. The temporal-parts view does not deny that I sit or think in any sense. It is compatible with the way we ascribe ordinary properties to ourselves in ordinary situations.
- Of course, more needs to be said, for it isn’t generally right to attribute to an object the properties of its parts. My left foot is a part of me. It weighs about three pounds and is entirely unconscious. Yet it would be absurd to describe this fact by saying that I am foot-shaped, weigh three pounds, and am unconscious. Why is it right to say that I sit by virtue of having a sitting temporal part but wrong to say that I am foot-shaped by virtue of having a foot-shaped spatial part?
- Four-dimensionalists will presumably concede that I have the properties of being foot-shaped and being unconscious in the same way as I have the properties of sitting and thinking: my relation to all those properties is the same. They will explain why we say that I am sitting but not that I am foot-shaped by appealing to our interests and expectations. Those interests and expectations make it useful, in ordinary circumstances, to describe me as sitting or thinking when my current temporal part has the property of sitting or thinking, whereas it would not be useful – in fact it would be positively misleading – to describe me as foot-shaped or unconscious, even though I have parts with those properties too. There may be possible circumstances in which it would be right to attribute to me the shape or the mental properties of my left foot, but as things are it isn’t. Just why this should be so is a nice question, but I don’t doubt that it has an answer.
- This is all fine and good, but it misses the point. Let us grant that nothing the temporal parts view says conflicts with the way we ascribe ordinary properties to ourselves in ordinary situations. Suppose it is true to say, when we are not doing metaphysics, that we sit and think and are conscious, even if the real bearers of those properties are not ourselves but brief temporal parts of us. Still, don’t we have a deep conviction that we are among the real bearers of such properties as thinking and being conscious? Doesn’t it seem evident not only that you and I think and are conscious in some sense or other, but that we think and are conscious in the strictest possible sense? Of all the things we know about ourselves, isn’t this the most certain? Surely we cannot suppose that we think only in virtue of the fact that some other thing thinks for us. As Chisholm said, if there are two beings thinking these thoughts, one thinking them on its own and the other having its thinking done for it by the first, then I am the first thing and not the second.
- Someone is bound to reply that this “thinking-stage problem” is no different in principle from the thinking-brain problem. Nearly everyone believes that we are animals, or at any rate material things the size of animals (things constituted by animals, perhaps). And it follows from this belief (the reply goes) that we think only in the sense of having spatial parts – brains – that think in the strictest sense. So if there is a problem here, it has nothing to do with the temporal-parts view in particular. It is one that nearly everyone shares. Moreover, no one worries about the thinking-brain problem. So why worry about the thinking-stage problem?
- Now I think we ought to worry about the thinking-brain problem. I worried about it at some length in the previous chapter. If it really were true that only our brains think in the strictest sense, then in my view we ought to conclude that we are brains.
- In fact the thinking-stage problem is more serious than the thinking-brain problem. There are three possible ways of solving the thinking-brain problem. (I don’t regard saying that we “think” only in the sense of having thinking brains as parts to be a solution.) One is to deny that there are such things as brains. An analogous solution to the thinking-stage problem would say that there are no such things as person-stages, which is incompatible with the temporal-parts view. The second and most popular is to deny that only our brains think in the strictest sense. An analogous solution to the thinking-stage problem would be to deny that our stages think in the strictest sense. That too is incompatible with the temporal-parts view. So two of the three possible solutions to the thinking-brain problem are unavailable in the case of the thinking-stage problem. The third is to say that we are brains. Four-dimensionalists could say, analogously, that we are stages. That would solve the problem, though at a considerable cost: that we are momentary stages is no easier to believe than that we are brains. It is, however, an important variant of the temporal-parts view, and deserves a section of its own.
- According to the temporal-parts view it is stages that think and act strictly speaking; yet we are not stages. That is hard to believe. It is also hard to believe that the things that bark and wag their tails and chase postmen are not dogs, but mere parts of dogs, dog-stages. One way to avoid this is to reject the ontology of temporal parts altogether. But another is to say that people and dogs are stages. Call this the stage view200.
- If there is any reason to suppose that we are momentary things that do not strictly persist, this is it. There are powerful arguments in support of the ontology of temporal parts, and anyone who holds that view must either say that we are stages or deny that we think or talk or have any other temporary property in the strictest sense. The stage view201 has other virtues too. It avoids the thinking-animal problem by implying that our animal bodies don’t think in the strictest sense. The only true thinker of my current thoughts, it says, is my current stage, which is me. It also gives us the right number of objects existing at any one time (setting aside the problem of the many)202: it implies that there is just one person sitting here now, even if there is fission in my future, just as we thought – whereas on the temporal-parts view there are at least two (Sider 2001: 188-190).
- But although the stage view203 has important advantages over the temporal-parts view, it is rather hard to believe. Most obviously, it implies that we don’t persist through time. This means that you are not the person who began reading this sentence. That was someone else – someone very similar to you, of course, and strongly causally connected to you, but a numerically different being all the same. We are all far younger than we thought. We were never children. We have no past and no future. For that matter, we can’t move, or change. What appears to be a persisting, changing person (or dog or what have you) is in reality only a series of static momentary beings.
- Defenders of the stage view204 – and it has its defenders (Sider 1996, 2001: 188-208; Hawley 2001) – are surprisingly easy about this. They respond, as one might have come to expect by now, by insisting that their view is compatible with everything we ordinarily say and believe and care about. Even if the stage view205 is true, they say, certain past and future stages relate to me in ways that lead us, for reasons to do with our interests, to call them by my name. Sider calls such stages “temporal counterparts” of me (personal temporal counterparts, to be more precise). He says that the ordinary belief that I was once a boy is true because I – the current momentary bearer of my name – have as a personal temporal counterpart an earlier boy-stage, which is compatible with the stage view206.
- This means that when we say that I was once a boy, we are not asserting or implying that anything persists through time. We are not asserting the numerical identity of any earlier thing with any later thing. When we say such things we are only speaking as if something persisted because that is a convenient way to talk. (You can imagine how inconvenient it would be if we had to call every new momentary object by a different name.) We are doing what Hume called “feigning a continu’d being” (1978: 208). Saying that I was once a boy is rather like saying that the Prime Minister is a man today but was a woman twenty years ago. When we say this we don’t ordinarily mean to imply that anyone has changed sex. We’re not saying that something that is a man today and something that was a woman twenty years ago are one and the same. Rather, we are saying that a man who exists today and a woman who existed twenty years ago relate in some other way: that the woman then held and the man now holds the office of Prime Minister. If we are using the language of identity over time here, we are using it loosely.
- When a currently existing stage relates to earlier stages in a way that leads us to speak of them as if they were one – that is, when they are temporal counterparts – we might describe this by saying that the current stage has persisted in the same sort of loose sense. Although the stage view207 denies that people and dogs really persist – that they persist “in the strict philosophical sense of the word”, as Butler would say – it is compatible with their “persisting” in the loose and popular sense in which the Prime Minister has persisted for some two centuries. Stage theorists claim that this “loose and popular persistence” is the only sort of persistence that most of us think or care about. Our ordinary, non-metaphysical thought and talk about identity over time is concerned only with the having of earlier and later temporal counterparts. It is facts about temporal counterparts, not facts about ourselves at other times, that make our ordinary statements and beliefs about our persistence true or false. Our practical attitudes are likewise based not on strict identity, but on the personal temporal-counterpart relation: we hold people responsible for the actions of their earlier temporal counterparts, and each of us has a special, selfish concern for the well-being of her later temporal counterparts (we encountered a view like this in §2.8). So according to the stage view208 we do persist, in the only sense that matters. Whether things persist in the strict philosophical sense, stage theorists say, is of interest only to metaphysicians. Thus, only a metaphysician will object to the stage view209 on the grounds that it rules out our persisting through time. To anyone else this is a mere technical detail.
- This story is not easy to believe. The stage view210 certainly appears to conflict with things we ordinarily believe and say. When we say, in ordinary contexts, that I was once a boy, we seem to be asserting that I myself once had the property of being a boy, and not that I relate in a certain way to some other being that had that property. Even if the story were true, though, it would not entirely silence the complaint. The fact that most of us find the stage view211 more or less incredible shows that it contradicts something that most of us believe. I, for one, believe that I persist in the strict philosophical sense, and not merely that certain past beings are temporal counterparts of me, even if the existence of such beings makes it correct for ordinary, non-metaphysical purposes to describe me loosely as having existed in the past. I don’t believe that this conviction of mine is eccentric, or that it came about only as a result of my philosophical training. It may be that it is a metaphysical conviction, and that our ordinary, non-philosophical beliefs do not imply it. But it is no less widely or deeply held for all that.
- In any case, the stage view212 has further troubling consequences. For one, it is incompatible with any plausible view of what it takes for us to persist through time – that is, of personal identity over time. It conflicts, for instance, with the view that our identity over time consists in some sort of psychological continuity213. In fact it implies that no sort of continuity at all, psychological or otherwise, suffices for us to persist. Of course, it may still suffice for us to persist in a loose and popular sense: the fact that some future person inherits her mental and physical properties from you in some appropriate way might make her a personal temporal counterpart of you. But it does not suffice for her to be you.
- Someone might find this consequence not merely implausible, but incoherent. No momentary being, you might think, could count as a person: anyone who believes, or seems to believe, that people never persist through time has just not got the concept of a person, just as someone who believed, or seemed to believe, that cats are fuzzy toys would not have the concept of a cat. But if it belongs to the concept of a person that people ordinarily persist in the strict philosophical sense, then people cannot be stages. If it also belongs to the concept of a person that people have the property of thinking, then the ontology of temporal parts in general is inconsistent with the existence of people.
- If the stage view214 is compatible with the existence of people, however, it gives us far too many people. You might have thought that this book has only one author. (That's what it says on the cover.) Not so, according to the stage view215: even if only one philosopher was at work on it at any one time, a vast number of momentary philosophers successively took over the job – though none stayed at it long enough to write even a single word.
- Finally, the stage view216 implies that none of the people who exist are the ones we know and love. Consider Socrates. What stage is he? According to the stage view217, plenty of stages successively bore the name 'Socrates'. But nothing could make it the case that just one of those stages, rather than another, was Socrates. We couldn't discover that Socrates – the teacher of Plato and the wisest man in Athens – existed for only an instant during the evening of the 6th of August, 417 BC. No stage could be Socrates. If Socrates can only be a stage, then there can be no such thing as Socrates. The same goes for the rest of us. What stage could I be? You might say that I am the current bearer of my name: the current "Olson-stage". (Set aside the inconvenient fact that we cannot refer uniquely to any one momentary stage.) But why should I be that stage? Choosing it would be just as arbitrary as choosing a moment during an August evening as the instant when Socrates existed.
- There are many clever things that stage theorists can say in response to these complaints. They can say, for instance, that because all the authors of this book are personal temporal counterparts of one another, there is a perfectly good sense in which only one person wrote it. And they can say that because there are many successive bearers, of the right sort, of the name ‘Socrates’, it is true to say that Socrates existed, even if none of those things is Socrates. That is, they can reply to these complaints in much the same way as they reply to the objection that the stage theory218 violates our conviction that we persist through time. And the objections can be sharpened, as before, in a way that makes them immune to those replies, if perhaps less forceful.
- Whatever the outcome of this debate may be, four-dimensionalists must choose between the temporal-parts view, according to which we persist but don’t strictly think or act, and the stage view219, according to which we think and act but don’t strictly persist. It would be nice if we could avoid this dilemma.
In-Page Footnotes ("Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Temporal Parts")
Footnote 9: The most comprehensive exposition of the ontology of temporal parts is Sider 2001. Heller 1990: Ch. 1 and Hawley 2001 are also recommended.
Footnote 10: I say more about what a temporal part is in Olson 2006c.
Footnote 19: There is more than one alternative to the four-dimensionalist’s account of change, but the one I have sketched here seems the most plausible. Haslanger 2003 is a useful guide to this messy debate.
Footnote 89: This assumes that a more-or-less momentary object can have the sorts of mental properties characteristic of people: self-consciousness, for instance. And that may be doubtful. Four-dimensionalists generally say that a momentary thing can have mental properties if it has the right causal antecedents (Sider 2001: 197f.). What something does for a moment might count as thinking in part because of what other beings do at earlier (and perhaps later) times, in something like the way that an event counts as the turning point in a war because of what happens earlier and later. Given what we said earlier about temporary intrinsics, four-dimensionalism appears to require this. It implies that thinking is an extrinsic property. The subject of momentary thinkers will come up again at the end of §7.4.
Footnote 120: For the sake of simplicity I am here indulging in the fiction that there are things that exist only in other possible worlds: things that don’t actually exist but might have existed. Although Lewis believes that this fiction is true, counterpart theory can be formulated in a way that is free of this implication (Stalnaker 1986).
Footnote 126: This has the interesting implication that personhood is an extrinsic property: whether a thing made up of appropriately connected person-stages is a person depends on whether it connects in that way to any other person-stages. If personhood were intrinsic, the temporal-parts view would have the absurd consequence that every connected temporal part of a person is a person.
Footnote 178: Blackburn (1997: 181) makes a similar complaint. The semantic theory developed in Perry 1972 is intended to avoid this consequence.
Footnote 192: At any rate all four-dimensionalists that I know of believe in these objects. They accept universal composition for momentary stages: for any momentary temporal parts of any objects whatever, there is an object that those things compose. One might be able to accept an ontology of temporal parts without holding this: perhaps one could say that only some momentary stages compose something, while others don’t. But that would prevent one from saying many of the things four-dimensionalists want to say: see for instance §5.4 and Sider 2001: 120-139.
Footnote 198: The property of being 43 years old might seem to be an exception: I don’t have it now by having a temporal part located now that is 43 years old. Most four-dimensionalists will deny that there is any such property. Otherwise things would have to have it relative to times, and four-dimensionalists generally hold that all things have all their properties without temporal qualification. They will say that the sentence ‘Olson is 43 years old’, uttered at a time t, expresses a true proposition if and only if Olson is born 43 years before t. So I don’t temporarily have the property being 43 years old; I timelessly have the property being born 43 years before t.
"Olson (Eric) - What Are We? Bundles"
Source: What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology, Chapter 6 (November 2007: Oxford University Press.)
(OO-L): This chapter considers Hume's proposal that we are made up entirely of particular mental states and events: the bundle view. An argument for the bundle view is based on the claim that the traditional idea of substance is dismissed. The bundle view is then shown to follow naturally from widely held claims about diachronic and synchronic personal identity. Reid's objection that bundles of thoughts cannot be thinkers is elaborated and endorsed. It is then argued that the bundle view cannot easily avoid the thinking-animal problem. There follows a critical discussion of two related views: that we are bundles of universals1 and that we are something like computer programs. Both are found to be hopeless.
- Bundle theories
- Traditional arguments for the bundle view
- Personal identity and the bundle view
- Can thoughts think?
- Thinking animals2 once more
- Bundles of universals3
- The program view
6.1 Bundle theories
6.2 Traditional arguments for the bundle view
- We have now considered a number of views according to which we are material things: organisms, things coinciding materially with organisms, and spatial and temporal parts of organisms. I cannot think of any other promising materialistic view of what we are4. So let us turn to views according to which we are not material.
- One such view is that we are composed of mental states or events: particular beliefs, desires, sensations, emotions, and so on. In particular, each of us is composed of all and only his own mental states or events. Our parts may include both occurrent states or events – things actively going on within the mind, such as your current philosophical cogitations – and non-occurrent states and dispositions lying dormant, such as your memories of last summer and your taste in furniture. Or our parts may be particular mental qualities or “tropes”. But none of our parts are material things. We are not made of matter. Though our bodies may be made of matter, the parts of our bodies are not parts of us. Call this the bundle view.
- We need to distinguish the bundle view from other claims that sound similar. One is that our parts include both mental states and a material body that is not itself composed of mental states. Because this suggestion has no obvious attraction over the bundle view, and most of what I will say about the bundle view applies equally to it, I won’t discuss it separately.
- More importantly, a number of claims besides the one that concerns us have been called “bundle theories”. First, there is supposed to be something called the bundle theory of the mind: the view that the mind is nothing but a bundle of mental states. What this means depends on the meaning of the word ‘mind’. If 'mind' means 'thinking being', then we are minds (since we are thinking beings), and the view that our minds are bundles is the view that we are bundles. But those who assert that minds are bundles are sometimes merely making a claim about the nature of our mental lives, namely that they are not unified in the way that certain philosophers have thought. This is not a view about what we are5. In fact it looks consistent with any view about we are.
- Another bundle theory says that all concrete objects, and not just ourselves, are composed of particular states or qualities. This “global” bundle theory is not the same as the bundle view. Someone could hold either view without holding the other: someone could say that we are bundles but that unthinking objects such as trees are not, but rather traditional substances; or someone might think that all concrete objects are bundles but deny that we exist. I will argue in §6.5, though, that friends of the bundle view are better off with a global bundle theory.
- A third sort of bundle theory says that concrete objects are composed not of particular states or qualities, but of universals6. The view is roughly that Kilimanjaro (say) is composed of a certain height, a certain shape, a certain geological structure, and so on – not a particular height, shape, and geological structure that necessarily belong to that mountain alone, but the very same height, shape, and so on that other mountains might share. Applied to ourselves, the view would be that we are composed of psychological universals7. We will consider this view in §6.6.
- Then there is the view that we are "logical constructions" out of mental states. Ayer once wrote, "We know that a self, if it is not to be treated as a metaphysical entity, must be held to be a logical construction out of sense-experiences" (1946: 125). (By “a metaphysical entity” Ayer meant an immaterial substance, and he thought had shown talk of immaterial substances to be meaningless.) What does it mean to say that we are logical constructions? The phrase 'logical construction' is a tricky one. To say that Fs are logical constructions out of Gs sometimes means that Fs are sets, in the mathematical sense, built up out of Gs. But Ayer did not think that you and I were sets. (The idea that we might literally be abstract objects that have their members essentially is hard to take seriously.) As Ayer used the term, a logical construction is not a kind of thing at all. We cannot say that, among the things that there are, some are logical constructions and some are not. That would be like saying that among the things that there are, some are real and some are unreal – no one thinks that there are leprechauns, and that they belong to a kind called “unreal objects”. When Ayer said that we are logical constructions out of sense-experiences, he meant that all statements that appear to be about ourselves, or about thinking beings generally, could be translated without loss of meaning into statements that make no reference to thinking beings, but only to sense-experiences (1946: 63). When we say, “Paul heard a noise,” what we are saying is equivalent to some longer and more complicated statement that refers to or quantifies over nothing but mental states.
- This is not the view that we are composed of experiences. (Ayer is explicit about this: 1946: 127f.; see also Pike 1967.) The logical-construction view does not say that we have thoughts as parts. In fact it says nothing at all about our metaphysical nature. It is not a metaphysical claim at all, but rather a claim about meaning – specifically the meaning of "person talk". In fact it is unclear what it could mean, on the logical-construction view, to ask what we are8. If all so-called talk of people is equivalent in meaning to talk of things other than people, what could it mean to ask what sort of things people are?
- If the logical-construction view suggests any metaphysical view, it is that there are really no people, but only things other than people – the mental states or what have you that figure in Ayer’s translations of person talk and which presumably account for the appearance of there being people. If there were people – if our thoughts had subjects – then surely our talk of people would refer to or quantify over them, and thus would not be synonymous with statements that refer to or quantify only over mental states. But this is to put a metaphysical gloss on an anti-metaphysical view. On the logical-construction view, the statement “there are no people” can mean only that there are no mental states (or whatever it is out of which people are "logically constructed") of the appropriate sort – which of course logical constructivists deny. To ask about the metaphysical nature of people, they say, is to misunderstand the meaning of person-talk. It is like asking about the metaphysical nature of sakes: to wonder whether there is such a thing as Kolya’s sake, and if so what sort of entity it might be, is to misunderstand the meaning of the word ‘sake’. ‘Kolya’s sake’ is not an expression that purports to refer to anything. Ayer is saying that neither is ‘Kolya’. To use another analogy, asking what the logical-construction view says about the metaphysical nature of people is like asking what logical behaviorism says about the metaphysical nature of mental states, or what phenomenalism says about the metaphysical nature of physical objects.
- Most of this book rests on the assumption that the logical-construction view is false. I could say a good deal about why I think it is false, but this is not the place for it. In any case it is not an account of what we are9. The bundle view I want to consider says that we are bundles of mental states and events.
- Because we think, it follows that bundles of mental states think: the subject of my thoughts is something composed of those very thoughts. Now it is hard to understand how a bundle of mental states could think (see §6.5 below), and someone might suggest instead that we are bundles that don’t think. I can see no attraction in this “unthinking-bundle view”. No one who takes us to be unthinking bundles will suppose that other things think our thoughts. That is, no one will suppose that we don’t think our thoughts, but other beings – things that are not even parts of us- -do think them. The unthinking-bundle view could be true only if nothing thinks our thoughts: that is, if thoughts occur, but have no subjects or thinkers. But if nothing thinks our thoughts, does it not follow that we don’t exist? First-person singular statements, such as that I am now awake, refer to their subject, the being that makes them and whose thoughts they express. If there is no such subject, they don’t refer at all. And if the word ‘I’ never refers to anything, then there is no such thing as I, just as if the word ‘Atlantis’ never refers to anything there is no such thing as Atlantis. (Assuming, anyway, as the unthinking-bundle view does, that ‘I’ is a referring expression in the sense of §1.4.)
- Might someone suppose instead that we exist but don’t think? That our personal pronouns refer to unthinking beings? That would be strange. But it would be even stranger to suppose that they refer to bundles of thoughts. If personal pronouns and proper names referred to something, but never to thinking beings, what unthinking beings would they refer to? Maybe some things would be better candidates for their reference than others. Given that we say such things as “Thatcher is a human being” and “Thatcher is sitting down”, it would be absurd to say that ‘Thatcher’ referred to a bicycle or a tree. If anything, we might expect it to refer to a human organism – one that according to the unthinking-bundle view is for some reason unable to think. That’s the sort of thing it appears to refer to. But why suppose that it refers to a bundle of thoughts?
- In any case, the unthinking-bundle view is not really an answer to our question. Although it answers the question, What do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to?, it does not answer the question, What sort of beings think our thoughts and perform our actions? Indeed, it assumes that these two questions have different answers. And I said in §1.4 that the second question was to have priority over the first should the two diverge. The interesting idea behind the unthinking-bundle view, as I see it, is that nothing thinks our thoughts. We will come to that suggestion in due course.
- Let us return now to the bundle view that concerns us, the claim that we are composed of mental states. This is not a complete account of what we are10. Though it implies that we are concrete particulars, that we are not substances, and that our parts are particular mental states, it does not say which or what sorts of mental states are parts of us and why, or which properties are essential to us, or whether we persist through time. We will come to these questions shortly. Still, the idea that we are made up entirely of thoughts tells us a good deal about what we are11, enough to rule out many rival accounts. It stands in stark contrast with the other views we have considered. That is is enough to work with.
- The bundle view is counterintuitive for some of the same reasons as the brain view is. It implies that we never strictly see ourselves or each other, and that we are wholly invisible and intangible: you can no more touch a bundle of thoughts than you can touch a dream. So it is perhaps unsurprising that it has few defenders. Hume proposed that each of us is "nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions" (1978: 252) – though even he found it hard to believe. Quinton says that each of us is "a series of mental states connected by continuity of character and memory" (1962: 398; see also 1973: 97-105), and I have already mentioned Rovane's claim that a person is "a set of intentional episodes" (1998: 172; see also Campbell forthcoming). I suspect, however, that the bundle view has a large underground following. I will argue that a number of popular views about personal identity support it. First, though, I will briefly review some traditional arguments for the bundle view.
6.3 Personal identity and the bundle view
- The bundle view was once considered the obvious alternative to our being simple immaterial substances (by Hume and Quinton, for instance). Arguments against substance dualism were taken to support the bundle view. Nowadays we know better.
- Others argued for the bundle view (and for the global bundle theory more generally) on the grounds that the very idea of a substance is incoherent. This reasoning usually began with a certain picture of what substances are supposed to be, something like this:
To perceive an object is to perceive its qualities: shape, size, motion, and so on. Some philosophers suppose that there must be more to a thing than just its qualities: there must also be something that stands under and supports them. They posit something called a substance to play this role. Their view is that an ordinary thing like a cat is made up not only of the furriness, the feline shape, and the sinuous movements that we perceive, but also of a substance in which those qualities inhere. Yet even those who say this admit that we never perceive the substance itself. How could we? The substance is by definition something apart from its qualities, and therefore incapable of characterization. It is not furry or feline or moving. It has no qualities at all; it only supports the qualities we observe. And the mere fact that the substance supports certain qualities tells us no more about how it is in itself than the fact that something supports certain books tells us how it is in itself. It is a mere “something, we know not what”. A substance is therefore a mysterious theoretical entity: a metaphysical abstraction of the most dubious sort. We might tendentiously call this the Lockean picture of substance (Campbell 1990: 4-11 is a recent example). If this is what substances are, sensible philosophers will have nothing to do with them. What could we be, then, if not substances? Bundles of qualities, presumably. There is little else that we could be, on the Lockean picture. We needn't be bundles of mental qualities only: we might be made up partly of brute physical qualities as well. But some sort of bundle view will be almost inevitable.
- The core of the Lockean picture is the idea that what is furry or shaped or moving in the strictest sense is not a substance, but a particular quality or trope. That leaves the substance with nothing to do but fix the qualities in place: it stands to them much as a lump of soft clay stands to colored feathers stuck into it. So the qualities the substance supports do not characterize it, but merely clothe it. If there is anything the cat’s qualities characterize, it is the bundle of those qualities.
- I reject this picture root and branch. The idea of a thing uncharacterized by any qualities makes no sense to me. But I don’t agree that the thing the qualities characterize – the thing that is furry or moving – is itself a quality, or a bundle of qualities. What I understand by 'substance' bears little resemblance to this absurd picture of a bare particular clothed in qualities. As I see it, a substance is not a metaphysical abstraction, but an ordinary thing: the cat that is furry and moving. The cat is not a compound made up of qualities and the substratum that supports them. Nor is it made up of qualities alone. It is made up of other substances: cells, molecules, and atoms. What makes it a substance is not that it is “something apart from its qualities”, but that it is not itself a state or a quality of something else. It is not qualities that we perceive, but substances.
- A substance is not "incapable of characterization": to characterize something is precisely to say what qualities it has. That is at any rate the anti-Lockean picture I was taught. It provides nothing like a complete theory of substances, and leaves plenty of hard questions unanswered. But I see nothing wrong with it. In particular, I see no reason to accept the Lockean picture, or the traditional arguments for the bundle view that presuppose it.
6.4 Can thoughts think?
- To my mind, the most serious argument for the bundle view (the bundle view of ourselves, not the global bundle theory) has to do with personal identity. Since the time of Locke, philosophical orthodoxy has assumed that personal identity is grounded in psychological facts. No account of what we are12 fits better with this assumption than the bundle view.
- Consider the view that you could move from one human animal13 to another via Shoemaker’s "brain-state transfer" procedure. No substance, material or otherwise, thereby moves from one animal to another (the ontology of temporal parts aside, anyway). What does move? If Shoemaker's description of the process is correct, it transfers the particular mental states realized in the first animal's brain to the second animal's brain. And if it is possible to move you by moving nothing but mental states, the natural conclusion is that you are composed of mental states (Campbell forthcoming).
- More generally, many philosophers think that our identity through time consists entirely in facts about mental states or events. What is necessary and sufficient for a person x existing at one time to be identical with something y existing at another time, they say, is for the mental states x is in at the first time to stand in certain relations – causal ones, perhaps – to the mental states y is in at the second time. In fact the very question of personal identity over time is sometimes stated as what is necessary and sufficient for mental states or events occurring at different times to belong to the history of a single person (Grice 1941; see also Perry 1975: 7- 12). Now what sort of thing could have its persistence determined entirely by facts about relations among mental states? Well, something composed of mental states could. It is doubtful whether any concrete object made up entirely of things other than mental states could survive or perish just by virtue of relations among mental states. The obvious conclusion is the bundle view. (Or perhaps the view that we are made up partly of mental states and partly of something else. Again, I take this to be an uninteresting variant of the bundle view.)
- Or one could argue for the bundle view from considerations about what determines how many of us there are at any one time. We might wonder whether the result of cutting the neural connections between the cerebral hemispheres would be two people in one body, or whether there might be several people “inhabiting” a single human organism at once in an extreme case of multiple personality. A deeper question is what sort of facts would settle the matter. What would make it the case that there were two people sharing a single human animal14? Or is it possible at all? For that matter, what makes it the case that there is just one person associated with an ordinary human animal15, and not two or more? Many philosophers say that the answer lies in psychological facts: just as (they say) facts about psychological continuity16 over time determine whether we have one person or two in “diachronic” cases, facts about psychological unity at any one time determine how many of us there are in “synchronic” cases. They say that simultaneous mental states belong to the same subject if and only if they are in some sense unified. The reason why the mental states of an ordinary human animal17 are all the thoughts of a single person is that they are unified in the right way. But if they were sufficiently disunified, they might be the thoughts of two different people.
- There are different accounts of what this unity amounts to. Kant thought that what made something a mental state of a particular being, and hence a mental state at all, was that being's ability to combine or synthesize it with its other mental states – to unite those states, as he put it, "in one self-consciousness18" (1929: B134). More recent accounts exploit the fact that many mental states are disposed to interact in special ways with other mental states. It is characteristic of desires, for instance, to interact with beliefs to produce action: roughly, your desire for something tends to cause you to act in ways that you believe will satisfy it, unless you have stronger competing desires. That seems to be part of what it is for something to be a desire – and also part of the nature of belief. The claim that the entire nature of all mental states consists in such facts about their causal dispositions is the core of the functionalist theory of mind. That theory is controversial. But few would dispute that these causal roles are at least part of the nature of many mental states.
- It appears to follow from this that many mental states necessarily come in packages: in order for something to be a desire, for instance – as opposed to a memory or a visual sensation or something non-mental – it has to occur as part of a network of beliefs and other states with which it is disposed to interact, directly or indirectly, in characteristic ways. Call such packages mental systems. (Let us not confuse matters by calling them minds. You and I are minds in the sense of thinking beings; but we don't want to conflate this platitude with the contentious idea that we are mental systems. For what it's worth, I find the word 'mind' as a count noun unhelpful in thinking about personal identity.) Mental states belong to the same mental system if and only if they relate causally to one another and to actions (or are disposed so to relate) in the right way. A mental system is something composed of mental states related to one another and to certain actions, but not to anything else, in this way.
- Now mental systems match up pretty well with people, or thinking beings generally. If I want an orange, and believe that there is an orange in the bag and that it is within my power to get it out of the bag, this will ordinarily result in my attempting to do so, unless I take that to be incompatible with some other goal of mine. My desire for an orange will not combine in this way with anyone else's beliefs to cause action. Ordinarily all and only the mental states of a given thinker will be parts of a single mental system. Where there is more than one independent mental system, there is ordinarily more than one thinker. So it is tempting to suppose that being parts of the same mental system is what it is for mental states to belong to the same thinking being. This is Shoemaker's view:
It is only when the belief that it is raining and the desire to keep dry are co-personal that they tend (in conjunction with other mental states) to lead to such effects as the taking of an umbrella; if the belief is mine and the desire is yours, they will not directly produce any joint effects. And it seems that if a belief and desire do produce (in conjunction with other mental states) just those effects which the functional characterizations of them say they ought to produce if co-personal, then in virtue of this they are co-personal....Whether mental states...should count as belonging to the same person, or mind, would seem to turn precisely on whether they are so related that they will jointly have the functionally appropriate sorts of effects. (1984: 94; see also 1997: 294) The claim is that, necessarily, for every person or thinking being (“mind”), there is exactly one mental system, all and only the elements of which are the mental states of that being; and for every mental system there is exactly one thinking being whose mental states are the elements of that system. Mental systems and thinkers must match up one to one. This is the psychological individuation19 principle of §2.9.
- This principle may sound attractive, and Shoemaker is not alone in advocating it. It is also closely connected with his explanation of why organisms are unable to think (see §2.5 above), giving opponents of animalism20 another reason to look favorably on it. And those who accept the orthodox view that psychological facts determine our identity over time may find it natural to suppose that psychological facts also determine how many of us there are at any one time.
- The psychological individuation21 principle suggests that thinking beings are themselves mental systems. How could the number of mental systems necessarily fix the number of anything but mental systems? Remember: the number of mental systems is determined entirely by causal relations among mental states and actions. And it is hard to see how causal relations among mental states and actions could entail both the existence and the precise number of things that are not even partly made up of mental states or actions. But if thinking beings have mental states among their parts, then you and I have mental states among our parts, which is a version of the bundle view.
- It is especially hard to see how the psychological individuation22 principle could be compatible with our being material things. (I assume that no material thing has mental states as parts.) Any material thing that could have mental properties at all, it seems, could be mentally disunified. Nothing could guarantee that the mental states of any material object must be psychologically unified in the way that Kant and Shoemaker demand of a mental subject. Think of an extreme case of multiple personality, in which many of the usual interactions among mental states break down. This would be a being whose beliefs, desires, perceptual states, and so on don’t interact in the usual way to produce actions, any more than your mental states interact with mine to produce action. They would not form a unified mental system. Even if there is enough interaction among the mental states of a human organism in any actual case of multiple personality for them to form a mental system, this doesn’t seem to be a necessary truth.
- Suppose there really were such psychological disunity within a human being. If every mental state must belong to a mental system, these disunified states would have to belong to different mental systems. In that case there would be two or more unified mental systems associated with one human organism at once. According to the psychological individuation23 principle there would therefore be two or more thinking beings – two or more people – “sharing” that animal. Could those people be material things? Well, what sort of material things could they be? They would have to be physically different, else there would be nothing to explain their mental differences. (No materialist would suppose that two people could be physically identical, with the same surroundings and history, yet differ radically in their mental properties.) It seems that each would have to be a different part of the animal’s brain. But that presupposes thinking-subject minimalism; and as we saw in Chapter 4, minimalism faces no end of trouble24.
- So the psychological individuation25 principle looks incompatible with our being material things. It appears to rule out any account of what we are26 apart from the bundle view. If this is right, it has important implications. It is not only an argument for the bundle view, but an argument against materialism generally, based on a widely held principle about personal identity. It means that you can’t be a materialist and at the same time accept everything we are inclined to say about personal identity. This is especially inconvenient for those materialists – usually advocates of the constitution view27 – who argue against animalism28 on the grounds that it is incompatible with our convictions about personal identity. It now turns out that their own view is incompatible with those convictions. Being a materialist is harder than it looks.
6.5 Thinking animals31 once more
- I hope I have shown that there is something to be said for the bundle view. Let us now look at it more critically.
- To my mind, the most forceful objection to the bundle view is expressed in this quotation from Reid:
I am therefore [according to Hume’s bundle view] that succession of related ideas and impressions of which I have the intimate memory and consciousness. But who is the I that has this memory and consciousness of a succession of ideas and impressions? Why, it is nothing but that succession itself. Hence, I learn that this succession of ideas and impressions intimately remembers and is conscious of itself. I would wish to be further instructed whether the impressions remember and are conscious of the ideas, or the ideas remember and are conscious of the impressions, or if both remember and are conscious of both....This, however, is clear, that the succession of ideas and impressions not only remembers and is conscious, but that it judges, reasons, affirms, denies – nay, that it eats and drinks and is sometimes merry and sometimes sad. If these things can be ascribed to a succession of ideas and impressions, in a consistency with common sense, I should be very glad to know what is nonsense. (1940: 378) As I understand him, Reid is objecting to the idea that a bundle or “succession” of thoughts should think or act. There may be such things as bundles of thoughts, but it is a metaphysical blunder to suppose that such things are the subjects of the thoughts that compose them. Reid doesn’t say why it is a blunder: he takes the claim to be patently absurd once we set it out clearly. That seems to me to be right. (Even philosophers sympathetic to the bundle view have agreed: see for instance Pike 1967: 163.) But can we say more to help those not yet convinced?
- Well, consider the idea that a particular thought might think that very thought. Might your belief that it’s cloudy believe that it’s cloudy? Could your love of hot curry love hot curry? Does your dream of white horses dream of white horses? Surely not. Even hardened bundle theorists will accept that. Nor can your dream of white horses believe that it’s cloudy, or have any other thought. If we know anything, we know that thoughts don’t think – just as games don’t play and dances don’t dance.
- Now, could one hold that something composed of many thoughts might think, even if no individual thought can29? The mere fact that a thing is composed entirely of parts that don’t think needn’t prevent it from thinking. A thinking thing could be composed of unthinking atoms, for instance. (So it seems, anyway.) How might a thing made up of nothing but unthinking parts think? Well, it could think if its parts cooperated to produce thought: if they each did something other than thinking, and these individual sub-psychological activities came together to add up to an act of thinking on the part of the being they compose (see §8.4). It is hard to imagine any other way in which something composed of unthinking things could think. But could individual thoughts cooperate to produce thinking? Might they each contribute something sub-psychological, so that these contributions added up to a mental act? It would seem not. Individual thoughts are acts of thinking. They are not sub-psychological ingredients of acts of thought. And combining lots of acts doesn’t give you an actor. Combining lots of games doesn’t give you a player. Combining lots of thoughts doesn’t give you a thinker. The idea that bundles of many thoughts might think seems no more credible than the idea that an individual thought might think.
- Sensible as this may reasoning may sound, not all philosophers are convinced. Some deny that there is any real distinction between states and events on the one hand and the things that are in those states or that participate in those events on the other – between thoughts and thinkers, or dances and dancers, or games and players. “Physical objects,” wrote Quine, “conceived thus four-dimensionally in space-time, are not to be distinguished from events or, in the concrete sense of the term, processes30”. If there is no distinction between physical objects and events, or between actors and acts, then there is no obvious absurdity in the claim that dreams might dream, beliefs might believe, or bundles of thoughts might think.
- The idea that both bundles and individual thoughts think seems to imply that every thought has at least two thinkers, namely the thought itself and the bundle it is a part of. That would leave it unclear what could make it the case that you were a bundle rather than an individual thought, or how you could ever know. I don’t suppose anyone tough-minded enough to deny the distinction between actors and acts is going to lose any sleep over this. But it certainly is messy.
6.6 Bundles of universals37
- Suppose for the sake of argument that a bundle of thoughts really could think. What about the thinking-animal problem – the problem of how we can know that we are not those human animals32 that appear to think our thoughts?
- Well, what sort of things would animals be if the bundle view were true? Would they too be bundles of states or events or qualities? Or would they be something else – substances, perhaps? I think friends of the bundle view will want to say that animals are bundles. If the human animal33 located where you are were a substance, we should expect your mental states to be states of it (or perhaps states of your brain; in any case they would be states of some substance or other). If there are substances as traditionally conceived, then some states, anyway, will be states of those substances. That’s what substances are for. But if your thoughts are states of an animal, that animal ought to be a subject of those thoughts. It ought to have them. It ought to think. What could be the difference between being in a state of belief and believing, or between being in a state of hunger and being hungry? And if animals think our thoughts, yet are non-bundles different from ourselves, the thinking-animal problem arises once more.
- Here is another argument against a “mixed” bundle view. Anyone who says that we are bundles but organisms are substances will want to deny that organisms and other substances think. Why wouldn’t substances think? Presumably because it is impossible for them to think: substances could have non-mental properties, but never mental properties. Something about mental properties would prevent substances from having them. That would open a deep metaphysical gulf between the mental and the non-mental. It would not be substance dualism, the view that some substances have mental properties and others have physical (or non-mental) properties and nothing could have both. It would be an even more profound sort of mind-body dualism: not only could no substance with physical properties have mental properties, but no substance of any sort could have mental properties. The boundary between the physical and the mental would be the boundary between substances and non-substances.
- Bundle theorists are unlikely to find this attractive. Nor does the bundle view provide any support for it: the claim that thinking things are bundles rather than substances in no way suggests that material things should be substances rather than bundles. If the subjects of mental states are bundles, we should expect the subjects of non-mental states to be bundles as well. Let us suppose, then, that not only we ourselves, but human animals34 too are bundles of states or events or qualities. More generally, all ordinary concrete objects are bundles: there are no substances as traditionally conceived.
- But this would not yet solve the thinking-animal problem. If animals are bundles of states, which states make up your animal body? We should expect them to include those physical states and activities we attribute to you: your height, your mass, the activities of your digestive system, and so on. But wouldn’t they also include your mental states? If the non-mental activities going on within the animal are parts of the animal, why shouldn’t the mental activities going on within it be parts of it too? And if the animal has thoughts as parts, how can it fail to think? You think, according to the bundle view, by having thoughts as parts. Why shouldn’t the animal also think by having thoughts as parts? If the animal digested in virtue of having digestive activities as parts but didn’t think in virtue of having mental activities as parts, that would again be a metaphysical dualism of the mental and the non-mental; and we should want to know what makes the mental so different from the non-mental.
- One could get round this problem by saying that we are those animal bundles: we are not bundles of mental states only, but bundles composed of both mental and non-mental states. That would mean that we are animals. This would solve the thinking-animal problem, all right. However, it would raise the problem of how we know we are not thinking bundles of mental states. And wasn’t the whole point of the bundle view to offer an alternative to our being animals? Bundle-theoretic animalism35 would have no obvious advantage over the usual “substance animalism”36.
- I will say no more about the view that we are bundles of mental particulars. What about the view that we are bundles of mental universals38? The idea is that I am composed of such properties as believing that it’s cloudy and feeling hungry – properties that I might share with others. In particular, I am composed of those psychological properties that I have or instantiate. Now I have a hard time understanding this. I have enough trouble thinking about universals39 by themselves. The idea that I myself might be made up of nothing but universals40 – abstract objects not strictly located in space and time – sounds to me like the sort of thing that comes to one in a dream after eating too many oysters. But I will venture a few brief remarks.
- It is not obvious what advantages the “universal bundle view” has over the particular bundle view. If it is hard to see how a bundle of mental particulars could think, it is even harder to see how a bundle of mental universals41 could think. And if a bundle of mental particulars would have no grounds for believing that it was not an animal, a bundle of mental universals42 would seem to face the same difficulty.
- The universal bundle view also has troubles of its own. Start with the “problem of distinct discernibles”. There could be someone else psychologically just like me. It is of course enormously unlikely that anyone else has a mental life exactly like mine, right down to the smallest detail – so unlikely that we can be confident that it isn’t the case. But it doesn’t seem absolutely impossible. It would be like winning the lottery a million times in a row without cheating, rather than like winning the lottery without buying a ticket. It would not be possible, however, if I were a bundle of psychological universals43. For then my doppelgänger and I should be composed of the very same universals44. Our parts would be not merely exactly similar, but numerically the same. And surely the same universals45 cannot compose two different objects. At least it looks impossible to me – though my lights are dim in these regions46.
- Another problem is that I have different mental properties at different times. I once believed that I was 20 years old. I used to like bubble gum. There was a time when I had never heard of George W. Bush. Not any longer. But a collection of universals47 cannot be composed of different universals48 at different times. The collection composed of universals49 A, B, and C cannot come to be the collection of B, C, and D, let alone the collection of D, E, and F. These can only be three different collections. So it seems, anyway. Which collection of universals