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Olson - What Are We?
(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)
(For other versions of this Note, see the tables at the end)
This write-up is a review of "Olson (Eric) - What Are We?". Olson’s paper seems to be a warm-up exercise for the first chapter of "Olson (Eric) - What are We? A Study of Personal Ontology" (reviewed here1). My comments universally feature as “Note:”.
Abstract: Explicating a difficult metaphysical question to be distinguished from the Mind-Body problem and familiar questions of Personal Identity. Arguments for and against animalism. Olson’s worry that constitutionalism undermines his favourite argument for animalism. Fear that we are left with the “messy view” – that what we are is indeterminate pending further research on certain key questions in epistemology, metaphsics and the philosophy of mind. Headings:-
1). The Question:
- The Question
- Some answers
- How the question differs from others
- The thinking-animal problem
- Familiar objections
- Thinking Heads
- The Messy View
- What are our most general and fundamental properties?
- Two aspects to this difficult question – about “What” and about “We”. These break down into smaller questions:-
… and Olson mentions a couple of other questions not taken further here:-
- What are we made of? Not a chemical question, as we might not be (wholly) made of matter. Are we made of any kind of stuff, material or immaterial?
- If material, what matter, and how far do we extend? As far as our skin, only our brains, or beyond our skin (see "Chalmers (David) & Clark (Andy) - The Extended Mind" for the last option).
Note: I’ve not reviewed this paper. Should2 I?
- What parts do we have? Do we have spatial parts (see "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts" and "Lowe (E.J.) - An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind", pp. 15-20) or temporal parts (see this paper, Section 8)?
- Are we substances? Are we metaphysically independent; are we like cars or like dents? Are we aspects of the way something else is? Or an event or process that something else is undergoing? Is there something – an organism or a lump of matter – that stands to us as the car stands to its dent?
1). The car/dent distinction is just a more prosaic version of the Cheshire Cat / smile distinction.
2). Olson’s thesis is (or used to be) that we are (identical to) human organisms, so he doesn’t think of us as analogous to dents. Additionally, a dent is rather static, which we are not. However, a priori we might be events happening to a human organism (if I remember correctly "Wollheim (Richard) - Living", this would equate us with our lives). Yet (monistic) philosophers often have the idea that this event might be transferable from one organism to another; yet how could this happen to a (more active) dent? It would seem that a dent is essentially owned by the thing it’s a dent in.
- Do we persist through time? Do we really persist for 70 years, or are we replaced moment by moment by an unnoticeably dissimilar but numerically distinct succession of beings?
Note: this is the view of Butler and Reid with their assumption that bodies only partake of the “loose and popular” form of identity – that we are entia successiva (see "Chisholm (Roderick) - Which Physical Thing Am I? An Excerpt from 'Is There a Mind-Body Problem?'") - while souls satisfy the requirements of the “strict and philosophical” form of identity.
- What are our persistence criteria?
- What are our essential properties?
- By “we” Olson means “we human people, where a human person is roughly someone with a human body”.
Note: This seems somewhat confused.
1. Firstly, Olson insists on using “people” instead of the technical term “persons”, or uses the two terms interchangeably: he defends this usage in "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal: Introduction", but it strikes me as tendentious (reflecting Olson’s downplaying of our psychological properties and his rejection of the claim that we are essentially persons).
2. Secondly, a human person is not (on many accounts) “[someone] with a human body”. This seems to beg the question in favour of the animalist account.
3. Olson himself distrusts “bodies” in favour of “organisms”.
4. Does he really mean “we human beings”?
- Olson claims that his assertion that “we are people” is not substantive, and that the question “what are we?” can be expressed in other terms if it is denied.
Note: this seems obscure to me. Also, saying “we are human people” sounds like an answer to the question “what are we”, except that what Olson means by “people” and “person” is obscure.
- In this context, Olson doesn’t care about non-human people, if there are any. That is, he’s not here interested in Gods, aliens or artificial intelligences – if they have “the same mental features we have”.
- The “mental features” Olson takes to be sufficient for personhood are rationality, intelligence and self-consciousness.
Note: this is very quick and brief. It excludes language-use and the various reciprocal features identified in "Dennett (Daniel) - Conditions of Personhood".
- Olson points out that other candidate-persons most likely won’t have the same fundamental metaphysical nature as we do, or as one another. Some may be immaterial, others of composite nature. He doubts there is any one metaphysical sort encompassing all persons; at least we can’t rule this out until we’ve ruled out of existence the other candidate-persons.
Note: this seems to rule out a priori that PERSON might be a natural kind concept, or at least have a unified metaphysical nature.
- Whatever the answer to the above question, Olson restricts the scope of his enquiry to human people.
Note: this seems to rule out non-human people as falling into the community we call “we”. I can see nothing obviously incoherent about the Star Trek scenario where aliens, hybrids and artificial intelligences are all part of the same crew and would refer to themselves collectively as “we”, involved in the same enterprise. This begs the question against those who say that “we” are most fundamentally persons (rather than human beings, or human persons).
- There are two ways of putting the “What are we?” question:-
1). What sort of things do our personal pronouns and proper names refer to?
2). What is the nature of the beings who use these words? What sort of thing is now reading this sentence or wrote it.
Note: this is of the form “we are the sort of beings likely to be reading this book”, which might seem to restrict “we” to a class of literate, philosophically-motivated individuals. I think this was discussed in a supervision3.
- The above two “What are we?” questions are not strictly equivalent and some say they come apart. Rephrasing them again:-
1). Semantic: I am whatever I refer to when I say “I”.
2). Metaphysical: I am whatever thinks my thoughts and performs my actions.
Note: this anticipates Olson’s “Thinking Animal” critique of the Constitution View according to which the animal thinks my thoughts, but I’m not identical to it.
- Olson views the second question as the more fundamental: we need to determine what thinking, speaking beings there are before we determine what our personal pronouns refer to.
Note: I agree, but (wouldn’t Olson say) there are even more fundamental abilities that “we” have (our non-cognitive animal functions) that are salient to what we are. As Olson would say, won’t we persist provided we have them, even though we lack all cognitive abilities?
2). Some answers: Just a survey of some possibilities …
- Animals: that is, biological organisms. All agree that there’s something right about this, but to have a body that is an animal is not to be an animal. Even many materialists deny that we are identical to our bodies.
1. This is (or used to be) Olson’s favourite answer, though he now seems to be suggesting things are not so simple.
2). Doesn’t even Olson claim that we are not identical to our bodies, but rather to the human organism? Some people (eg. "Kagan (Shelly) - Death: Course introduction" and "Feldman (Fred) - Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death") who hold the body (or brain) view claim that we survive our deaths as corpses. Olson denies this (correctly in my view).
3). What sort of “is” does Olson intend in the expressions “ … body that is an animal …”? The “is” of identity, or of property attribution?
Further Note on (3): this supposed “de re / de dicto” distinction was discussed (and rebutted) at a Supervision (see Note4).
- Spatial parts of animals - brains, or parts of brains
- Note: Olson makes no comment on this option, which is a favourite of physicalists, and brings together the conflict that while we are animals, “we go where our brains go”, because of the temptation of psychological continuity when coupled with appropriate physical continuity. There is still a distinction between saying that we are really just brains, and that we would survive (though in a “maximally mutilated state”) as a brain, and would continue to survive following a whole-body transplant (just as we would survive a successful heart-and-lungs transplant). This is probably my view. I am identical to “my” animal, and remain so as it is “pared down”. As such, I have to defend the view that a brain is an organism. It is not self-sufficient (it needs a complex support machine – normally the rest of the animal body, but a prosthesis would do – together with sensory contact with the outside world – again prosthetics will do). However, if I irreversibly lose all my psychological properties, I no longer have anything that matters to me even though, strictly speaking, I survive.
- Temporal parts of animals
- Note: this is not explained, but I presume it must be related to the Constitution View, or maybe just easily confused with it. We might be said to have psychological predicates essentially, so we only pop into existence when our animal develops them, and pop out of existence when it irreversibly loses them. This differs from the Constitution View in that it doesn’t allow me to hop from one animal to another, or to be otherwise reincarnated or resurrected.
- Temporal parts of brains
- Constitution View: we are material things, made of the same matter as our bodies, which makes up two things simultaneously, one of which is an organism, the other not.
- Note: we are referred to section 6 of this paper, and I reserve my comments until then.
- Hume’s bundles of perceptions: we are made of mental states and events, like theatre productions.
- Note: I don’t intend to consider this view.
- Immaterial substances: We are referred to "Swinburne (Richard) - Personal Identity: The Dualist Theory" and to "Zimmerman (Dean) - Material People".
- Nihilism: we are referred to "Unger (Peter) - I Do Not Exist". While the atoms that make up my body exist, and my thoughts may do so also, I don’t exist and our personal pronouns have no reference.
- Note: No-one would think this unless they felt they had no choice. I believe Unger has retreated from this position. He not only rejected the existence of persons, but of all non-simples. His approach is a response to vagueness. To avoid overpopulation (things and their virtually innumerable atom-complements), he denied the existence of non-simples. I suspect there is some overlap between Unger’s arguments and those of Olson himself (the “thinking animal” argument against the constitution view, which is another that relies on over-population objections allied to epistemic uncertainty).
- Others: Olson notes that none of the above answers tackles all his questions. As a reminder, these questions were:
For instance, that we are animals (say) doesn’t tell us whether we persist through time; for that we need to know whether animals persist through time. He says that “each of these views tells us a good deal about what we are”.
- What are we made of?
- What parts do we have?
- Are we substances?
- Do we persist through time?
- What are our persistence criteria?
- What are our essential properties?
1). Olson doesn’t even seem to consider the possibility that (metaphysically speaking) we might be Persons, which would seem to be a popular view. Maybe it’s covered by the Constitution View, or maybe Olson’s setting up of the question, and intentionally confusing people and persons, doesn’t allow the question to arise?
2). Olson’s last sentence is ambiguous (to my mind). Does he mean that all these attempts, even where misguided, raise enlightening issues that help with the question of what we are, or that they each go some way correctly towards answering the question, or merely that they purport to do so? The second option doesn’t seem possible, as they are mutually contradictory. I sympathise with the first interpretation – all these attempted solutions (and others), however benighted, are enlightening in one way or another.
3). It seems to be Chisholm’s view (in "Chisholm (Roderick) - Which Physical Thing Am I? An Excerpt from 'Is There a Mind-Body Problem?'") that animals don’t persist in the “strict and philosophical” sense.
4). I ought to evaluate how well the various options answer Olson’s questions one by one some time, but at the moment it would be too much of a diversion.
3). How the question differs from others
- The question “what are we?” – hereafter WAW - must have an answer. If nihilism is false, something now reading this paper must have a basic metaphysical mature that is:
- Material or immaterial
- Simple or composite
- A substance or non-substance
- Momentary or persistent
- It sounds like, but differs from two other questions:-
How does WAW relate to and differ from these?
- The traditional mind-body problem (MBP)
- Familiar problems of personal identity, which themselves divide into two:-
1. The Personhood Question (PQ): what is a person?
2. The Persistence Problem (PP): what does our persistence over time consist in?
- The Traditional Mind-Body Problem (MBP)
- MBP considers the nature of mental phenomena and their relation to non-mental matters such as brain chemistry.
- WAW is concerned with the subjects of mental phenomena.
- WAW and MBP are connected and have mutual implications and constrain one another, but are not the same problem. We could solve MBP and still make little progress on WAW.
- For instance, if all mental events turned out to be physical events, this might rule out our being immaterial substances, but even there not everyone agrees (see "Chisholm (Roderick) - Which Physical Thing Am I? An Excerpt from 'Is There a Mind-Body Problem?'"). It would not arbitrate between our being organisms, brains, bundles of perceptions or non-existent.
Note: while I’ve not studied the full text, my take on Chisholm was not Olson’s. Chisholm seems to think (or at least posit) that we are microscopic physical things, but maybe the extract in "Van Inwagen (Peter) & Zimmerman (Dean) - Metaphysics: The Big Questions" is misleading?
- Likewise, knowing what we are will tell us little about the nature of the mental.
Note: while probably correct, this is a bit quick. The supposition that we are immaterial substances is sometimes thought to make the problem of phenomenal consciousness go away, but it is obscure to me just how. It just posits consciousness as a basic property of the immaterial substance, which is hardly an explanation, and is even further away from solving the “easy problems” of consciousness because nothing can be known about these immaterial substances (other than what we already know from folk psychology).
- The Personhood Question (PQ)
- The PQ asks what it is to be a person; the necessary and sufficient conditions. Olson thinks it almost totally unrelated to WAW. What it counts to be a person is one thing, what sort of things actually have these qualifications is another.
- Take the paradigmatic Lockean answer to the PQ – that a person is a “thinking intelligent being …”. This is entirely orthogonal to what sort of things, metaphysically-speaking, these “thinking intelligent beings” are.
Note: The PQ asks what persons are, and WAW asks what we are. If it turns out that we are (metaphysically-speaking identical to) persons, then the two questions are very intimately related (though there might be persons other than us), as would be the WAW to the PP. As noted above, Olson seems to have ignored the possibility that we are persons. The critical issue is whether PERSON is a substance-concept. Now Olson may have (as I agree he probably has) sound arguments against this possibility, but they need presenting.
- Olson notes Locke’s own position that we can have a view on what it is to be a person, yet not know what sort of things we are metaphysically-speaking.
Note: This is just Locke’s separation of PERSON from SUBSTANCE, and the supposition that persons are not substances in the de dicto sense. That is, if I am an animal, and am also a person, then this person is a substance (in the de re sense) but not in the de dicto sense (ie. qua PERSON), since persons are not substances. Further Note: this supposed “de re / de dicto” distinction was discussed (and rebutted) at a Supervision (see Note5).
- Similarly, to know that I am a person is not to know that I am an animal (if that is what human persons are), if Martians, gods or angels are persons (Olson says “people”). Nor are all human animals people – if those in a PVS fail to qualify as persons.
- Olson’s Conclusion: an account of our metaphysical nature implies virtually nothing about what it is to be a person.
Note: but surely (as Wiggins seems to argue) we (human animals) are paradigm persons, and all we really know about persons – and what we choose to be the important characteristics of persons – is all derived from observing human animals. This is an epistemological / semantic point rather than a metaphysical one, but (contra Olson) the questions are related.
- Olson tries an analogy with BLACKNESS. That is:-
“the definition of personhood stands to the metaphysical nature of human people much as the definition of blackness stands to the chemical nature of black objects on our planet”. Knowing what it is to be black (having certain reflectance properties) has nothing to do with the fact that (say) most black things on earth contain carbon. There can be carbonless black things and non-black things containing carbon.
Note: is this analogy sound, and does it matter? Firstly, it assumes that personhood is a property that other things have. If this is false, and persons are de dicto substances, then the analogy breaks down.
- The Persistence Problem (PP)
- The PP asks what it takes for us (or people in general) to persist through time. What sort of event would necessarily bring your existence to an end, and what determines which past or future being is you?
Note: this formulation betrays Olson’s usual cavalier attitude to the persons / people distinction and doesn’t seem to take seriously his own point that there might be no persistence conditions for persons in general, even though those for human persons might be well-defined. He also ignores the time-honoured suggestion that questions of persistence and identity are interrelated (“what it is to be an F and what it is for an F to (continue to) be” – see the Note on the Logic6 of Identity).
- Olson admits that knowing our persistence conditions will tell us something about our nature – it is one aspect of it – but not much. It doesn’t answer the questions listed at the top of this section.
- What it takes for a person to persist through time is one thing; what sort of beings (if any) have these persistence conditions is another.
Note: as always, this presupposes that personhood is a property of substances that are not essentially persons. If PERSON was a substance-concept, then its persistence conditions would be intrinsic to it rather than dependent on those of something else. But if persons are not de-dicto substances, then their persistence conditions are not the same as those of the substances they are parasitic on. However, if persons are complex properties of substances, then it’s not clear what “same person” means. De re “x is the same person as y” might mean x is a person and y is a person and x is the same substance as y. But de dicto, I’m not sure what it means. We’d have to invoke all the apparatus of psychological continuity and connectedness beloved of the supportive of the “psychological view”, but where the sufficiency thresholds for persistence appear arbitrary (maybe I’m muddled here – arbitrary thresholds apply to connectedness, but maybe continuity is an all-or-nothing thing in the absence of – well – discontinuity).
Further Note on (3): this supposed “de re / de dicto” distinction was discussed (and rebutted) at a Supervision (see Note7).
- Olson proceeds to follow up this question of persistence according to the “psychological view”. Even if details such as “continuous physical realisation” ("Unger (Peter) - Identity, Consciousness and Value", p. 108ff) and “non-branching clauses” are accepted, psychological continuity still doesn’t by itself tell us what we are. These riders may exclude our being immaterial substances (but even this is allegedly debateable), and psychological continuity excludes the possibility of us being human animals (which can persist without such capacities, as Olson argues in Section 5) but many other possibilities are left open. So, the psychological-continuity view gives us at best a radically incomplete picture of what we are.
- Also, we could know a lot about what sort of things we are without knowing our persistence conditions.
Note: this is just thrown in, but it seems much less defensible than the reverse contention. After all, many different kinds of thing might happen to have the same persistence conditions, so we might not expect persistence conditions to tell us much about what we are. However, it is part of the task of getting to grips with what a thing is to explore what its persistence conditions are. I feel indebted to Olson for (maybe inadvertently) pointing out the direction of inference here.
- Olson concludes this section by complaining that the WAW question is scarcely mentioned by philosophers, except briefly ("Shoemaker (Sydney) - Personal Identity: a Materialist Account" pp. 112-4), other than to reject our being immaterial substances (by "Nozick (Robert) - The Identity of the Self: Introduction", "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" (Part 3) and "Unger (Peter) - Identity, Consciousness and Value").
4). The Thinking Animal (TA) Problem
- So, what is the answer to the WAW question? Olson claims not to know, and refers us to his latest book "Olson (Eric) - What are We? A Study of Personal Ontology" for justification as to why all the options face grave difficulties. He will devote the remainder of this paper to giving examples of the problems that afflict the various accounts. Firstly, however, he gives his favourite argument for animalism – defined as the view that we are biological organisms - “the thinking animal problem” (see "Carter (William) - How to Change Your Mind" & "Olson (Eric) - An Argument for Animalism").
The argument goes like this:-
- 1). There are human animals; for each of us there is a human animal and, except maybe in extreme pathological cases, for each human animal there is one of us.
2). That we are human animals is the natural (default) position – they are so like us physically and mentally that it’s hard to tell the difference. The alternative views sound farfetched in comparison.
3). The animal appears to be mentally just like you. It thinks.
4). If you are something other than the animal, there are two thinkers thinking your thoughts (you and your numerically distinct human animal), and twice as many rational, intelligent self-conscious beings as we first thought. Since the animal appears to possess the qualifications for being a person, there are also twice as many people (persons) as we had supposed. This is the metaphysical objection.
5). Additionally, if you are something other than the animal you could not know whether you are the animal or the non-animal, since you both have the same grounds for thinking you are the non-animal. Even if you aren’t the animal, you have no good reason for believing you’re not. This is the epistemological objection.
- This is an important argument, and I really ought to address8 the other, fuller, formulations Olson cites before addressing this one, but I have a number of initial queries or objections.
- The first is to question whether we actually have a problem in the first place. Take both the metaphysical and epistemological objections: similar objections arise against perdurantism. According to this view, where things are extended space-time worms, if an individual is (unbeknownst to the observer) about to fission in the future, any pre-fission stages are shared by (at least) two worms, so there are in fact two individuals present where we thought there was only one. Also, the “individual” present cannot know which of these two he is. We have the same two objections, but Lewis (in "Lewis (David) - Survival and Identity") just ignores the incredulous stares and comes up with a linguistic explanation – we count stages rather than worms, because we have no way of knowing that multiple worms are present.
- Additionally, substance dualists also (or sometimes) allow that both the soul and the brain think. I need to research the views here ("Swinburne (Richard) - Personal Identity: The Dualist Theory" is a good start). There may be those (Eccles?) that think that the soul thinks with its brain, rather than that both think, but those modern Platonists who think that the soul can exist disembodied presumably believe that both the soul and its brain think.
- Note that Chisholm, while not a dualist, deals with a similar sort of objection in "Chisholm (Roderick) - Which Physical Thing Am I? An Excerpt from 'Is There a Mind-Body Problem?'", whereby the microscopic material particle that Chisholm thinks is me thinks with its brain. There is only one thinker. So, the response to the TA argument might either be that there is, in fact, only one thinker (the animal is used by the person to do its thinking for it) or alternatively that there are two thinkers, but that this doesn’t matter.
- Olson’s argument is an objection to the Constitution View, to which Baker has a response, so I will cover that when I review "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - What Am I?".
- It would seem that this sort of objection would defeat our notions of supervenience. So, if the mind supervenes on the brain, so that there is no change of mind-facts without a change of brain-facts, still we don’t have two thinkers even though the mind and the brain are not numerically identical.
- Also, the same sort of intuitions were used by Unger (in "Unger (Peter) - I Do Not Exist") to argue against there being any ordinary things. Because a cat and the complement within the cat of one of that cat’s atoms (ie. the cat less an atom) would both seem to be cats, we have at least two cats present, and the cat doesn’t know which cat it is. The same sort of responses arise to those that Olson gives below. According to Unger, we should take the first (ie. the “metaphysical”) option in the section below - there are no cats. My suspicion is that the intuitions underlying this form of argument are unsound, but I can’t quite put my finger on the reason at the moment.
- I may seem to be trying to convict Olson of guilt by association. What I’m really trying to say is that the argument-form, if sound, proves too much.
- Olson thinks there are three and only three possible counters to this argument:-
1). Metaphysical Solution - “No bodies”: Despite appearances, there is no human animal you could be, because there are no human animals. This might be the case if idealism is true (Olson says “maybe the entire material world is unreal”), or if mereological essentialism is true (whereby there are only simples and unchanging aggregates, but no organisms). This solves the metaphysical objection, and the epistemological objection disappears since if there are no animals, then you know you are not one.
2). Psychological Solution - “Animals don’t think”: since it’s hard to explain why an animal with a healthy nervous system can’t think, this has to be taken as a brute fact. If animals can’t think, there is only one thinker, and since I’m thinking, and animals can’t think, I know I’m not an animal. Hence both objections are answered. Olson fingers as supporters of this response "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Self, Body, and Coincidence", "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Functionalism and Personal Identity - a Reply" (a reply to "Olson (Eric) - What Does Functionalism Tell Us About Personal Identity") and "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View".
3). Epistemological Solution - “We can know”: this is a partial solution, in that it accepts the (to Olson) metaphysically objectionable fact that there are two thinkers thinking the same thoughts. Olson gives no details about this “solution”, but notes that it implies different answers to the two WAW questions (metaphysical and semantic) raised earlier in section 1. Olson cites "Noonan (Harold) - Animalism Versus Lockeanism: A Current Controversy", with his counter-arguments in "Olson (Eric) - Thinking Animals and the Reference of 'I'". There is also a “forthcoming” article by Noonan (“Persons, Animals and Human Beings” in J. Campbell & M. O’Rourke (Eds.) Topics in Contemporary Philosophy, Vol. 6: Time and Identity (MIT Press), which I need to track down).
- Olson is right to say that these answers are unpalatable. I await a study of Baker to see if there are in fact any more answers. However, I think (as noted above) that the objections themselves are not so objectionable. However, I do need answers to the objections. Presumably the basic idea is that there are not multiple things present, but one thing (in the sense of one substance) referred to in different ways.
- Is Olson fair to Baker in accusing her of adopting the epistemological solution? Isn’t her approach that when one thing is constituted by another, there’s only one action going on, or only one property possessed; but that that which is constituted has some of its properties derivatively, and performs some of its actions derivatively?
- Olson concludes the section with the claim that there are no other solutions, and that all these are obviously unattractive. So, if there are no problems with animalism, we should be animalists. However, there are problems!
- Note: While the “thinking animal” (TA) argument is a favourite one of animalists, I don’t think it sound, and think there are other arguments for animalism. That it is the “default” solution and can be defended against objections seems sufficient to me. If it can’t be defended against objections, then the TA argument for it cannot be sound, and if it can, the TA argument is unnecessary.
5). Familiar objections
- Olson considers two obvious objections to animalism. The first has to do with persistence conditions, and the second with essential properties.
- Persistence Conditions: it is alleged by anti-animalists that our persistence conditions differ from those of animals. Many philosophers claim that psychological continuity is necessary and sufficient for us to persist through time. Olson presents the Cerebrum Transplant thought experiment (CT TE). The orthodox view is that because psychological continuity is preserved in this situation, the recipient of my cerebrum would be me. Yet the cerebrum is not the animal, which stays behind with an empty head (see "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology", pp. 114-119). No sort of psychological continuity is necessary or sufficient for a human organism to persist. Hence, because of the different persistence conditions, you are not an animal, essentially or otherwise.
- Olson’s reference to an “empty head” implies a double cerebrum transplant, so worries about fission are not at the forefront here. Even so, it is assumed that the (double) cerebrum is sufficient to maintain psychological connectedness. Yet is this so? If the brain-stem is necessary for phenomenal consciousness, then it may be that we cannot snip off enough of the brain and thereby transplant the “psychological person” without killing the animal. It is an empirical matter whether this is in fact the case. Does this matter? The question before us is “what are we?”, not “what would we be if we had different neural structures?”. Yet there’s something dissatisfying about being a hostage to empirical fortune. But maybe not, for Olson’s objection is itself empirically-based. Without the brain-stem, the animal dies, so he needs psychological continuity not to rely of the brain-stem or his CT TE fails. I presume that this is in fact the case, and that the CT TE does fail. Yet things might have been otherwise. In that case, there would have been a tension between two of our intuitions: wanting to say that we are animals, and also wanting to say that “we go where our psychology goes” – ie. where (enough of) our brain goes. Whole brain transplants (WBTs) are no use to Olson’s case because there is no persisting animal left behind, lacking a brain – and because there’s no competitor, we might consider the brain to be the animal (“maximally mutilated”). Yet if there were a neat segregation of the thinking and perceiving portion of the brain from the part that controls and regulates the body, then maybe we would be right to consider ourselves not as animals, but as material thinking things contingently attached to an animal body from which we could be readily detached and transferred to another biological life-support machine. It is because we are not separable in this way that we are right not to consider ourselves as “really just brains”. But we might have been such things. Note also that apart from sight (where our eyes (or at least our retinas and optic nerves) might properly be considered to be part of our brains), our sensory modalities are intimately bound up with our bodies, and not so easily separated as is often alleged in TEs.
- Olson claims that not even something that is contingently an animal would go along with its transplanted cerebrum. Why is this? Wouldn’t Baker say that I am contingently (constituted by) an animal, and that I would go along with my brain?
- Essential Properties: we are alleged by anti-animalists to possess certain essential properties that are inessential for animals. Baker identifies the capacity for first-person thought (see "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View", p. 59). It is not just that absent this capacity we cease to exist as people, but that we cease to exist altogether. (Note: according to Baker, this is because we are people, where PERSON is taken to be a substance concept.) Olson points out that no animal has essential mental properties – with the usual examples of fetuses and those in PVSs. Animalism entails that our psychological properties are only temporary and accidental features.
- Note: I agree with Olson that we are animals and that we have no psychological properties essentially. But there is a difference between surviving and having what matters in survival. We can’t have anything that matters without surviving, but we can survive without having anything that matters. In this, I’m ignoring metaphorical survival, such as surviving in your works or in people’s memories.
- Olson is unimpressed by these objections, or at least considers them unequal to the task of defeating the TA argument. These are not the promised grave objections. Any interesting metaphysical claim has some unwelcome consequences, and how can we be sure of their cogency? The import of TEs is always obscure, and how can we be confident that we have essential mental properties?
- Note: I think Olson is unduly sanguine in his assessment of the dialectical situation here. We all have a very strong intuition that where our first-person perspective goes (where our window on the world goes), we go; and most of us (some substance dualists aside) have the further strong intuition that this perspective is enabled by our brains, so that where our brains go, we go. Where doubts creep in is the empirical matter of how much of our brains is required to maintain this perspective. If this brain-portion includes sufficient of the brain-portion required to keep the animal in existence, then we could say that the animal goes with me (and that I am the animal). If sufficient of the brain can be left behind to regulate the animal and keep it alive, while the residue maintains my window, then the animal does not go with me, and I am not the animal. Then there is the debate about whether or not whole (or nearly whole) brains are or are not organisms. Olson is right that the import of the CT TE is unclear, but certain clarifications would refute animalism. Note, however, that some of the facts might be hard to ascertain. Even assuming that a first-person perspective does go along with the transplanted brain-portion, and that the recipient animal claims to be me, it might still be deceived. It might still have been the case that the lights went out on me, never to come on again, and that the recipient is deceived into thinking himself me, as would any atom-for-atom duplicate. But I don’t think there’s any reason to expect this (because it looks as though the normal consciousness-preserving causal chains are in place), but we can never find out by asking anyone.
- Animalists themselves may fall prey to a TA-style argument brought on by the idea of constitution.
- By constitution, Olson means the standard statue/clay idea whereby the statue and the lump of clay that constitutes it have different persistence conditions. "Thomson (Judith Jarvis) - Parthood and Identity Across Time", "Thomson (Judith Jarvis) - The Statue and the Clay" and "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View" are referenced.
- Note: this is the TE that Gibbard tried to use to demonstrate the incoherent notion of Contingent Identity – see "Gibbard (Allan) - Contingent Identity". Because there’s no such thing as Contingent Identity, modal arguments show that the statue and the clay can never be identical, even when coterminous.
- Note: I’m not convinced that Baker has the standard view of constitution, but I’ll review this in due course – soonest in "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - What Am I?".
- Olson notes that it would be odd if there was something that constituted the statues of Yeltsin yet there was nothing that constituted Yeltsin himself. Denying this would be as unprincipled as insisting that statues of men but not those of women are constituted by lumps.
- Olson agrees that the statue and the lump are made of the same matter at the same time. Candidates for the analogous case of a human animal and its matter are “mass of matter”, “lump of flesh”, “aggregate of atoms”.
- Note: from this we see that what Olson means by constitution does indeed differ from Baker’s. For Olson, we have mereological constitution – a thing is constituted by the suitably structured set of its parts (the animal is constituted by its parts fitted together in the right way). However, for Baker, it is the person that is constituted by the human animal as a whole. If may be that Baker would allow nested constitution. I will review10 this in due course.
- Olson claims that animalism and constitutionalism are formally consistent, yet sit uneasily together.
- Note: I’m not quite sure what Olson means here. Presumably, the claim is that we could just insist that the above analogies fail, and that while a lump of clay constitutes a statue, nothing constitutes a human organism. Yet I agree with Olson, this would be odd. An organism is a substance that is constituted by different matter at different times. The only ways out of this are to deny that organisms exist, or that they aren’t substances, but rather entia successiva (see "Chisholm (Roderick) - Which Physical Thing Am I? An Excerpt from 'Is There a Mind-Body Problem?'"), or other attempts along these lines which are even more repugnant to animalists.
- Olson now spells out the problem. The animal can think, the lump of flesh that constitutes it can think, so we have two thinkers and we don’t know which we are. This is the TA argument all over again, but this time directed at animalism.
- Note: Given that (this sort of) constitution is correct, and that animalism is correct, might not this be a reductio ad absurdum of TA argument and Olson’s epistemic and metaphysical worries? After all, all it shows is that Olson cannot use the argument, but this wasn’t the only argument for animalism. Olson seems to think the TA argument is animalism’s “principal support”, but I can’t see why. Of course, if the argument-form were sound, it would provide a sound refutation of any theory subject to its attack.
- Olson sees the same three possible responses as were adduced against his version of the TA argument.
1). Metaphysical: there are no lumps of flesh (or other candidates) out of which we might be constituted. This just gives up on constitutionalism altogether.
2). Psychological: Lumps of flesh do constitute us, but can’t think. There’s no principled reason for this, and if there were, it would be effective against animals being able to think, and Olson’s version of the TA argument would fail.
3). Epistemic: There are thinking lumps of flesh, but we can know that we are not they. The same objections arise for this attempted solution as to the Psychological solution.
- Note: in the above “solutions”, Olson (in his own words) seems sometimes to refer to “animals” (which the argument strictly requires) and sometimes to “us”. This reflects Olson’s assumption that we are animals, but seems somewhat sloppy to me.
- Note: I wonder whether there is a disanalogy between the statue/clay and the organism/flesh, but need to think it through carefully. The statue and clay are both fairly static entities. We do distinguish pieces from portions. Portions do not persist through change of parts – they possess each of their parts essentially - but pieces (or lumps) do persist through change of parts. Now, while both statues and pieces can survive change of parts to some degree, they are not dynamic entities in the way that animals and other organisms are. It’s not clear that there is a persisting piece of flesh that’s distinct from the organism. There might be the case that the organism is constituted by its body, and that bodies have different persistence conditions from organisms (for instance, that bodies persist trans-mortem as corpses). But it’s not clear that they do – corpses have different persistence conditions from bodies (presumably similar to other masses of matter, but this is unclear to me). Living bodies seem to have just the persistence conditions of living organisms (nor is there any such thing as a dead organism: a corpse isn’t an organism. The organism ceased to be at death).
- Olson finishes this section by claiming that things are even worse than might have been thought at first sight. His argument that this is so breaks down into the following assertions:-
1). If animals are constituted by lumps of flesh, then in turn animals will constitute thinking beings with psychological persistence conditions or beings with essential mental properties.
2). While there is no acceptable account of how one material object constitutes another, most of those who accept constitutionalism think it too obvious to require argument that the consequent of the statement immediately above is true.
3). If these constitutionalists are right, then the only defence of animalism will be epistemic.
4). Yet such a defence seems hopeless; for even if we could know we’re not lumps of flesh, what grounds could we have for knowing that we’re animals rather than the essentially mental beings we (the animals) constitute?
- Notes: I’m not sure what to make of this argument. Is Olson altogether serious? Taking the points one by one:-
1). The point here is presumably that if mereological constitution is true, then the sort of constitution that Baker invokes is true also. But is this so, or does Olson even care about Baker’s form? Can psychological beings be mereologically constituted of animals? It doesn’t look likely. Psychological beings can be constituted by the parts that make up animals, but then it’s just the animals themselves we’re talking about.
2). Fair enough, but this is the constitution of psychological beings by whole animals – that is Baker’s view, but this has nothing to do with mereology, and is not connected to the constitution of animals by their parts.
3). That is – we admit the metaphysical “multiple thinkers” problem, but claim to know which one we are.
4). Baker has an answer to this challenge. We’ll defer discussing it until we look at "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - What Am I?".
7). Thinking Heads
- This is another example of the same problem.
1). Your head thinks and is intelligent, yet is not identical to you, so we have two thinkers. Even were it detached and placed on life-support, it would still think.
2). Olson claims your head is not physically identical to you in the sense that the lump of flesh constituting you would be.
- I broadly accept Olson’s first contention, though deny that it has the troublesome consequences that Olson worries over. This is, after all, nothing but Tib/Tibbles and Dion/Theon. No doubt there is a conundrum here, but it is nothing new. The responses to these “vagueness” worries have similar metaphysical and epistemological solutions analogous to the ones that Olson rejects.
- While Olson’s second point seems obvious, it is expressed rather oddly. As always, we have the assumption that we are animals – it would not be obvious that lumps of flesh constitute persons. Some further comments …
- Firstly, some philosophers think we are in fact our heads (or at least a proper part of them), so Olson’s claim seems to beg some questions. It seems to assume animalism (ie. what we are animals rather than heads). I think that is indeed the underlying presumption here – we are considering the problems facing animalism.
- Secondly, even if constitutionalism were true you would still not be constituted by a lump of flesh. Again, it depends on which form of constitutionalism. Mereological constitution would involve a different piece of flesh each instant, while animal constitution just involves an organism.
- What are the persistence conditions of pieces of flesh? I said that corpses persist and have persistence conditions different to those of organisms. Similarly, pieces of flesh will have persistence conditions that differ depending on whether we view then as parts of organisms or parts of corpses-to-be.
- The problem is exacerbated for Olson, because there are all sorts of other parts of you that can think (eg. your brain or your top half).
- Anyone who denies we are heads is committed to a solution, and has the usual three options:-
1). Metaphysical: Deny that there are such things as undetached parts. There are “particles arranged capitally”, but no heads. This is the drastic solution favoured in "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts" and "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings".
2). Psychological: there are heads, but they don’t think ("Burke (Michael) - Is My Head a Person?"). Olson considers this response unprincipled.
3). Psychological: while our heads think, we can know we aren’t them.
- All but the first option lay animalism open to the same charge as the alternatives are subject to in Olson’s TA argument.
- Note: As previously remarked, this just shows that Olson is misguided in relying on the TA argument to support animalism.
8). The Messy View
- Olson recapitulates: there are metaphysical and epistemological objections to animalism – there are non-animals thinking our thoughts and we cannot know that we are not they. However, whatever we are, there are analogous problems.
- Further problems arise if four-dimensionalism (4-D) is true and we have temporal parts (and temporal parts exist in their own right). Olson presents 4-D as an alternative solution to the statue/clay problem to that offered by the constitutionalist: the statue and the lump share a temporal part – see "Sider (Ted) - Four-dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time", pp. 154-161.
- Note: this seems to be a change of view from "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal: Introduction" & "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal: Alternatives" (part III), where Olson seemed to think that there would be no interesting metaphysical questions outstanding for personal identity if 4-D were true. No doubt if Olson had maintained his confidence in the TA argument, he would have continued to reject 4-D as a consequence, but as he now thinks animalism itself to be subject to this argument, he’s not so confident.
- There are the usual three responses – metaphysical, psychological and epistemological – to 4-D as to the other alternatives, and different alternatives may have different responses.
- Suppose these responses on the part of the animalist fail. That is, there really are non-animals thinking our thoughts and we can never know we aren’t them. Should we conclude that we aren’t animals? Olson thinks not – while we can’t know we’re animals, we can’t know we’re not either, as these objections apply mutatis mutandis to the alternatives.
- This leads to the “mess” of the section-title. Olson rejects nihilism via Descartes’s cogito, so what am I?
- Note: this seems a bit quick, given the (even pre-Kantian) objections to the cogito argument. Admittedly, Olson doesn’t actually refer to the cogito, but the formula “if I think, I exist” seems to be the same.
- Olson’s answer is that there’s no one thing I am, nor one thing our names or personal pronouns refer to.
- Expanding on this thought, Olson considers two alternatives for the reference of ‘Olson’:-
- It could refer simultaneously to all the candidates for being Olson, so that anyone using the name would say many things simultaneously, or
- It has “indeterminate reference” – it definitely does have reference, but it is indeterminate to what it refers.
- The first of the above alternatives seems absurd – how could statements using terms like this have truth-values. Yet they do. This may be Olson’s point – that’s why this solution is “messy” – but surely there would be some linguistic conventions as to which of the possible references was intended in a particular context. That would enable our propositions to have truth-values.
- I find the second alternative a little obscure. The reference is called “indeterminate” because we can’t determine what the reference is. But aren’t linguistic references subject to stipulation rather than discovery? The real metaphysical nature of the referent is subject to empirical investigation, but the particular referred to (if the reference is successful) isn’t open to doubt (is it?).
- So, I cannot know whether I am an animal, and it is not definitely true either that I am or that I am not an animal. And the same goes for the truth of any other self-identification. This is the “messy view”.
- Note: There seem to be two completely different issues here. It might be a shame that I cannot know what I am, but this just says something about the epistemic predicament of humanity. However, it seems a bit of a leap from the juncture Olson has arrived at to deny the principle of bivalence and allow “indefinite truth”. Presumably I am what I am and definitely so, it’s just I don’t know the truth-value of the various possible assertions. It’s not that they don’t have a truth value.
- Olson asks how bad this is. He seems to think it pretty bad, for he thinks we can have no determinate answer to a whole series of questions about our properties: how tall, heavy or old we are. All these depend on what we are for their answers. Similarly, we wouldn’t know our persistence conditions. While these questions might have the usual conventional answers, they would be no more true than the unconventional ones (“I weigh 5 pounds and fit into a hat-box”).
- Note: What it is that interferes with the truth-values of the various assertions? It seems to be the reference of “I”, we don’t to what we’re referring so we don’t whether our statements are true or not. But this seems to be an unduly pessimistic way of looking at things. When I say “I am 14 stone” I suppose it is a convention that I’m referring to the weight of my body, but this is no more conventional than any other linguistic practice, and (within a tolerance – I’m not referring to a precise but an approximate weight) this statement has a definite truth-value.
- Olson doesn’t like this “messy” view, but doesn’t think any of the metaphysical, psychological and epistemological responses to the alternative views are promising for weeding out the over-population.
- Note: as usual, my issue is whether the TA argument gave us a problem in the first place. Where I am there is a human animal, a member of the species homo sapiens, a mammal, an anthropoid (?), an adult, a student, a person, … yet there’s only one thinker present – me.
- Olson concludes by claiming that we can only know what we are when we have answered the following large and difficult questions of ontology, philosophy of mind and epistemology:-
1). Are constitutionalism or 4-D true?
2). What are the parts of a living organism?
3). What does it take for a thing to have mental properties?
4). What is the nature of self-knowledge and self-reference?
- Note: I agree that the first question is critical to our investigations, but I suspect the other three, while interesting, appear relevant in the present context only because of Olson’s unsound TA argument. Consequently they can probably be finessed as far as my researches are concerned.
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