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Chisholm - Which Physical Thing Am I?

(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)

This write-up is a review of "Chisholm (Roderick) - Which Physical Thing Am I? An Excerpt from 'Is There a Mind-Body Problem?'". My own comments universally appear as “Note:”.


  1. The Theory
  2. Some Objections Considered
  3. Conclusion

1. The Theory
  1. According to the double aspect theory, some physical things have mental or intentional properties as well as physical properties. Persons – you and I – are such things.
  2. In support, Chisholm approvingly quotes "Strong (C.A.) - Final Observations", p. 237, to the effect that I am to outer appearance physical, but am to inner perception psychical. So, there is no contradiction in a physical, partite, effective thing that feels.
  3. This gives a problem – if we are physical things, which physical thing are we. Chisholm claims the answer is obviously either our “gross physical body” or a proper part thereof.
    • Note: Olson claims that there’s an important distinction between bodies and organisms, and would claim that I am identical to the human organism, not the human body. Does this make a difference to Chisholm’s arguments?
  4. Chisholm claims that there are sound arguments to do with facts about persistence through time that show that I cannot be identical to my body.
  5. The main contention is that “the body I carry around with me” is an ens successivum - an entity that is made up of different things at different times. The “set of things that makes it up” varies from day to day. It has different “stand ins” that “do duty for” the successive entity at different times.
    • Note: Just what is a “successive entity” – is this something that is only self-identical from moment to moment in the “loose and popular” sense? Or is it a substance that is “constituted” by different entities from moment to moment? Also, how many levels of thing do we have here? Persons, then bodies, and then the stand-ins for those bodies?
  6. Chisholm now asks whether I am an ens successivum such that different things do duty for me on different days? He denies this on the grounds that if I have an emotion, no other thing has this emotion for me, and particularly not different things at different times.
  7. The argument for the above claim is as follows:-
    1. I am supposed now sad.
    2. An ens successivum bearing my name is sad if one of its stand-ins is now sad.
    3. I am not sad in virtue of anything else being sad for me.
    4. Therefore, I am not an ens successivum.
    • Note: I don’t know what to make of this argument. It doesn’t add anything except make premise (3) explicit. Why should we accept this? Don’t my various body-parts perform their functions for me (eg. don’t my kidneys purify my blood). So, why can’t my brain feel my sadness? And my brain is an ens successivum, part of a larger ens successivum that is my body. And saying “my body” isn’t to say that I’m anything other than my body, it’s just a figure of speech (For what? For when I want to emphasise my corporeal rather than mental aspects).
  8. What is a non-successive entity like? It is not made up of different things at different times. It has all of its parts essentially.
  9. Chisholm adopts a “Leibnizian” position whereby something exists only if its contrary exists. So, since entia successiva exist, entia nonsuccessiva must exist too.
    • Note: Can this approach possibly be sound? Do unicorns and gods exist because non-unicorns and non-gods exist? I’d thought that Leibniz was talking about concepts – we can only have the concept of a thing if we have the concept of its opposite (I’ve a vague recollection of some “scholastic” arguments in natural theology along these lines) – but our concepts bear no necessary connection to what exists).
  10. Anyway, Chisholm thinks we can only make sense of anything persisting if in any interval, however small, an ens successivum exists during part of that time.
    • Note: I’ve no idea what he’s on about here.
  11. So, might I not be an ens nonsuccessivum? He mentions Leibniz’s account of the Rabbis’ suggestion that there is an incorruptible Luz bone. Neither he nor Leibniz accept this idea as such, but Chisholm seems to accept the idea that there may be a microscopic material object that is the person. Leibniz had denied that the soul dwells there, and Chisholm accepts this rejection if the soul is taken to be something that the person has. What he does say is that the person dwells there, that the person is the Luz bone or a proper part of it (or of the microscopic entity Chisholm prefers to the Luz bone).
  12. Chisholm considers the impact of his thesis – that persons are intactly persisting physical things – on personalism. While the personalists would have rejected this idea, it lends support to other ideas the personalists thought important. Bishop Butler rejected the idea that “our gross organised bodies” are any part of ourselves, even though we use them for sense-perception and action; claiming “we see with our eyes in the same way we see with our glasses”.
    • Note: What is “personalism”?
  13. Chisholm accepts:-
    1. That our eyes are only the organs of sight, and not the subjects of sight.
    2. That the destruction of the “gross physical body” does not logically imply the destruction of the person.
    3. The substance of Aquinas’s attribution to Plato: that the person is in the body as a sailor is in the ship.
    • Notes (indexed to the 3 remarks above):
      1). I think every physicalist would agree that the eyes are much as Butler and Chisholm allege, though they do much more information processing and transduction than mere spectacles. The interpretation of the visual information takes place in the visual cortex, and the subjective awareness of that information presumably takes place (somewhat mysteriously) there or elsewhere in the brain. Some would say that the subject of experience is the brain, or part of it. Chisholm, it turns out, would agree with this, though not in the conventional physicalist sense.
      2). The emphasis is on “gross” – Chisholm is claiming that there is some small part that is indestructible and that ensures the persistence of the person despite the destruction (or change – for Chisholm the moment by moment replacement) of the body, because it is (identical to) the person.
      3). This sounds a step back from Descartes’s rejection of the pilot/ship analogy – Descartes has the soul intermingled with the body – but the claim is not really the same thing for Chisholm as it is for Plato and Aquinas. His pilot is a physical thing.

2. Some Objections Considered

Chisholm clarifies his proposal by considering 5 objections:-
  1. Objection: Physics knows nothing of any incorruptible matter of which the person might be made.
    Answer: His theory implies no such thing, only that there are certain material things that remain uncorrupted as long as the person survives. The theory is that the person is identical to some proper part of the gross body, most likely something microscopic – certain material particles or sub-particles – in the brain. While not being the Luz bone, it is like it in being intact and nonsuccessive.
    • Note: This seems to be a crazy idea, but one that’s theoretically open to empirical investigation. It seems to be predicated on the idea that the “strict and philosophical” identity relation allows for no change of parts (mereological essentialism). Chisholm throws down the gauntlet at the end of the extract for those who don’t like his theory to think of something better.
  2. Objection: thinking requires a complex structure not possessed by microscopic particles. So what does the thinking for this particle?
    Answer: I am that microscopic particle, I have a brain, so it has a brain too; the same brain I have. The brain is the organ of consciousness, not the subject of consciousness, just as for my nose and smell. That is, unless I am my brain (or nose). The theory is that the subject of consciousness is a proper part of the organ of consciousness.
    • Note: There’s a lot going on here. Firstly, I reject the analogy between brain and nose for the reasons given earlier for the eye. Secondly, I am suspicious of the use of “have”. I (considered as a biological organism) have a brain as a functioning proper part. The supposed microscopic particle has a brain in a different sense – that of possession. Chisholm is right to reject the regress of increasingly tiny brains as proper parts of increasingly tiny homunculi. However, how is the posited homunculus supposed to think with its (gross) brain? What’s the interface protocol? There’s something inimical to the spirit of physicalism going on here – why say this thing is physical at all? Why not just stick with immaterial souls? Physicalism claims that all that exists are physical things (together with, maybe, abstract objects), but further that we can explain how macroscopic things work by reference to the working of their parts and the operation of universal physical laws. The positing of unchangeable physical things – simples – that are capable of complicated things – perception – seems contrary to the spirit of these claims.
  3. Objection: if I’m identical to a microscopic particle, how come I’m 5 ft 10 ins tall and weigh 14 stone?
    Answer: I have a body with these properties.
    • Note: So, it seems that – for Chisholm – I really am tiny. The same issues come up for the “brain view”, that I really only weigh 3 lb, and so on. I suspect this to be just a matter of a linguistic convention that we would keep even if the metaphysical theories on offer turned out to be true. I don’t consider the objection serious. It is probably correctly responded to by Baker’s account of “having properties derivatively” by reason of being constituted by something else that has these properties non-derivatively. Note, however, that Baker’s view – that I am constituted by my gross physical body - bears no relation to Chisholm’s – that I am identical to a minute proper part of my body.
  4. Objection: Are you serious in saying I weigh less than a milligram?
    Answer: Yes. Both the statement that I weigh 14 stone and that I weigh less than a milligram are correct, according to different manners of speaking, though the latter is more accurate. He wheels out the “loose and popular” versus “strict and philosophical” distinction, and an analogy “I’m at such-and-such a garage”, when I mean my car is. Some of “my” properties are borrowed from my body. Chisholm has a footnote where he notes Strawson’s claim that persons have both psychological and physical properties. According to Chisholm, most of the physical predicates are borrowed from the person’s body.
    • Note: this is really the same point as (3), but with more of the incredulous stare, and a bit more explanation in response. Baker’s indebtedness to these ideas is clear.
  5. Objection: Your brain is your organ of thought, and is responsible for all your psychological properties which, according to Locke, are constitutive of your identity. Since you are not your brain, but a microscopic particle within it, it might be possible to exchange the brain (less you) with another person. In that case you (in Chisholm’s sense) would no longer be you (in Locke’s sense).
    Answer: this is only absurd if we confuse the criteria of identity with the truth-conditions of identity. The criteria (in normal circumstances) aid identification, but they do not make identity.
    • Notes:
      1. This seems simply to ignore the whole Lockean “psychological approach”, which claims that psychological continuity is constitutive of personal identity and not just evidence for it.
      2. That said, Chisholm is right to stand his ground. The situation is similar to the second horn of Williams’s dilemma in "Williams (Bernard) - The Self and the Future", where the brain-state transfer device is taken to induce massive psychological change rather than identity transfer.

3. Conclusion
  1. There are persons, and they are either physical or non-physical. Does anything we know of persons justify us taking the second option?
  2. If we assume that the concept of an extended thing presupposes that of a non-extended thing, might we not suppose that persons are non-extended things? But this contradicts the assumption that persons are entia per se. Unextended things (such as boundaries, lines, points and surfaces) are ontological parasites on extended things, rather than vice versa, so are not entia per se.
  3. Chisholm asks rhetorically what point there would be in the supposition that some individual things have the property of being non-physical – how would it explain anything?
  4. If I am physical, the most plausible explanation is that I’m a proper part of my macroscopic body, even though it’s not possible to tell from the outside which part I am.
  5. Those who think this implausible need to come up with a better idea.
    • Notes (indexed to the 5 remarks above):
      1. An interesting question that Chisholm proceeds to address, but far too briefly.
      2. Entia per se are presumably substances, as distinct from the properties that substances have (though does Chisholm believe in substances, given his mereological essentialism?). When we say that something is unextended, is this the same as saying it is non-physical? Are lines not extended? Are points parasitic on anything? I agree that surfaces, like dents, are parasitic on the things whose surfaces they are.
      3. Well, indeed! But one might give it a try (as many philosophers have).
      4. Can we tell from the inside what proper part I am? And why can’t we tell from the outside?
      5. Some would say they have.
Summary Response

It seems to me a rather desperate move to suggest that persons are microscopic unchanging particles. The suggestion appears to stem from accepting mereological essentialism combined with a desire for our “strict and philosophical” persistence. If we are such strange items, how do we interact with our brains? What advantage is there in assuming we’re physical in that sense, when the supposed physical thing is unknown to physics? The mistake seems to me to be in the initial premise of mereological essentialism for organisms.

Printable Versions:

Previous Version of this Note:

Date Length Title
03/02/2008 12:46:05 14546 Chisholm - Which Physical Thing Am I?

Note last updated Reading List for this Topic Parent Topic
18/12/2010 19:58:05 None available What are We?

Summary of Note Links to this Page

Jen_080204 (Brandom, Chisholm, Baillie), 2 Olson - Immanent Causation and Life After Death Status: Personal Identity (Summary of Progress to Date) Theo Todman's Philosophy Research Papers Thesis - Chapter 02 (What are We?)
Zimmerman - The Human Animal: Objections        

To access information, click on one of the links in the table above.

Authors, Books & Papers Citing this Note

Author Title Medium Extra Links Read?
Gasser (Georg) Personal Identity and Resurrection: Introduction Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Olson (Eric) Immanent Causation and Life After Death Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Shoemaker (David) Personal Identity and Immortality Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Todman (Theo) Thesis - Chapter 02 (What Are We?) Paper Medium Quality Abstract   Yes
Zimmerman (Dean) Problems for Animalism Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes

References & Reading List

Author Title Medium Source Read?
Chisholm (Roderick) Which Physical Thing Am I? An Excerpt from 'Is There a Mind-Body Problem?' Paper - Cited High Quality Abstract Van Inwagen & Zimmerman - Metaphysics: The Big Questions Yes
Gasser (Georg) Personal Identity and Resurrection: Introduction Paper - Referencing High Quality Abstract Gasser (Georg) - Personal Identity and Resurrection: How Do We Survive Our Death? 2010 Yes
Gasser (Georg), Ed. Personal Identity and Resurrection: How Do We Survive Our Death? Book - Referencing (via Paper Referencing) Medium Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied 95%
Olson (Eric) Immanent Causation and Life After Death Paper - Referencing High Quality Abstract Gasser (Georg) - Personal Identity and Resurrection: How Do We Survive Our Death? 2010 Yes
Shoemaker (David) Personal Identity and Ethics: A Brief Introduction Book - Referencing (via Paper Referencing) Low Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied Yes
Shoemaker (David) Personal Identity and Immortality Paper - Referencing High Quality Abstract Shoemaker (David) - Personal Identity and Ethics: A Brief Introduction, 2009, Chapter 1 Yes
Strong (C.A.) Final Observations Paper - Cited The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 38, No. 9. (Apr. 24, 1941), pp. 233-243 No
Van Inwagen (Peter) & Zimmerman (Dean) Metaphysics: The Big Questions Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Medium Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied 16%
Williams (Bernard) Problems of the Self Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Low Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied 55%
Williams (Bernard) The Self and the Future Paper - Cited High Quality Abstract Williams - Problems of the Self Yes

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