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Olson - The Human Animal: Reply to Baker

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

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


This is a review of that part of "Olson (Eric) - Replies to Baker, Markosian & Zimmerman" (where Olson replies to his critics, Baker1, Markosian2 and Zimmerman3) that deals with his response to "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Big-Tent Metaphysics". Baker felt sufficiently incensed by Olson’s reply that she wrote a complaint ("Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Response to Eric Olson").

Olson kicks off by noting how he and Baker forever seem to talk past and misrepresent one another.

  1. Olson doesn’t deny the existence of people; he just claims that they have the same identity conditions as cats.
    • As usual, Olson uses the term PEOPLE, which the uninitiated might consider to be equivalent to the plural of the term PERSON, but which he means to be equivalent to the term HUMAN ANIMAL (or maybe HUMAN BEING). He avoids using the term of art PERSON because he thinks introducing the term PERSON as distinct from (say) HUMAN BEING prejudges the case against animalism – but I don’t think it does. At least you shouldn’t legislate any view out of existence by completely ignoring the opposition’s terms of art. So, Olson doesn’t deny the existence of people (human beings) but he does deny the existence of (human) persons, if they are supposed to be entities other than human animals.
    • I need to add an article4 on PEOPLE to my list of philosophical nuggets.
  2. Olson also accepts the existence of chairs and flowers, things that an earlier draft of Baker’s paper implied that he’d left out of his metaphysics.
    • This is in a footnote, and a discussion of artefacts appears later in paper. From the footnote it appears that Olson is not a reductionist. However, I’m not sure about this, or even if it’s relevant. What I think he does deny is the existence of artefacts – in the same way that he denies the existence of persons – if they are understood as ontologically separable from the matter – or organisms – that are co-located with them (I keep wanting to say “that constitute them”, though not necessarily in Baker’s technical sense). So, he would deny that a wooden table can gradually metamorphose into one of metal, in the same way that he denies that a person can gradually metamorphose into a machine. That said, PERSON and MACHINE might be seen as belonging to different categories. What doesn’t metamorphose into the machine is the human animal. By Baker’s lights, the person isn’t metamorphosing at all. But this is just the same old disagreement as to what exists. Olson also think there’s something fishy about tables in the first place.
  3. Olson doesn’t ignore all that’s distinctive and non-biological about our careers, he just denies that they are relevant to or identity conditions.
    • But Olson does ignore Baker’s ontological claims: namely, that there’s an ontological difference between human persons and human animals. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think Olson should argue that he has already taken this ontological difference into account by acknowledging that human animals are members of the species homo sapiens whose typical members have a FPP during extended portions of their lives. Then he hasn’t missed anything out. He can still deny that the very same FPP is transferable, if he wants to (though I don’t think he does) but he doesn’t deny its existence and importance.
Olson now considers Baker’s claim that she might gradually metamorphose into an inorganic machine, provided it had her FPP. Olson denies that denying this is “totally ad hoc”. He’s argued that Baker is a biological organism, and both he and Baker are agreed that a biological organism cannot come to be an inorganic one. Olson thinks that Baker misdescribes her own view, because while she claims to believe that she is an animal, she can’t really believe this as it has unacceptable logical consequences when combined with her other views. That is, you can’t simultaneously hold:-
  1. That you are an animal,
  2. That the persistence conditions of an animal are such that an animal starts off as a fetus and may end up a vegetable, and
  3. That you weren’t a fetus.
Olson presses the point: Baker says that while I’m an animal, I’m not merely an animal. Olson parses that as “x is F, but x is not merely F”. He doesn’t really spell it out (though he does refer to “the second conjunct”), but from the inferences he draws (that if every F is G, then x is G; ie. he has taken it that Fx) it appears that he takes it that “but x is not merely F” should be understood as “and x is H”, so that from (Fx and Hx) we get Fx. The example for F is “a philosopher”; but surely this isn’t a primary kind term, so Baker is bound to object. Now Olson gets to the real substance of the matter. He says that Baker doesn’t believe that I have the property of being an animal – because if she did, she would have to admit that I was once a fetus. Instead, she believes that I have the property of being constituted by an animal. And, yes – she does believe that. So, I suspect that all the tedious logical spelling out is a complaint that Baker shouldn’t use “is” equivocally. The equivocation disguises the fact that she doesn’t really believe that she is an animal in the way that Olson believes she is. Olson is of course correct in this analysis.

Olson makes an analogy – which he takes to illustrate the sort of error Baker is making. We might say that (in the Biblical epic) Charlton Heston is Moses – but we wouldn’t thereby by claiming that he really is Moses, only that he’s acting a part. If someone did make the claim that CH really is M, they wouldn’t be in agreement with the normal speaker. The way the analogy is supposed to work is that Olson (but not Baker) is making the claim that Baker really is an animal. Baker is only saying something like that she is playing the role of an animal. I’m not sure that Baker would accept this. Her account of constitution has it that the relationship between the thing constituted (the person) and the thing constituting (the animal) is much closer than this role-play.

Finally, Olson turns his attention to Big Tent Metaphysics (BTM):-
  1. Baker says that “reality and value go together” and that every property that is distinctive (D) or significant (S) determines a natural kind. However, if she just meant “metaphysically D or S”, then she’d be saying something trivial, so just what does she mean? Olson takes it that it’s something D or S to us, and that’s my understanding too. He adds “in any way”, which may be taking things a bit far, though Baker does owe us an account of just how D or S a trait has to be in order to generate a new primary kind. Olson seems to be claiming that for Baker, all D or S properties are essential – and she’d probably agree – but unless she’s to claim that all properties are essential (in which case there could be no persistence through change), she has to give a (non-circular) account of essential properties.
  2. Olson says (rightly) that it is this BTM that leads Baker to claim that we’re not really organisms, just constituted by them. Baker finds the FPP S & D. So, anything with a FPP is an essential kind. “Person” is shorthand for “thing with a FPP”, so Persons are an essential kind, and have their defining property – an FPP – essentially. Since organisms don’t have FPPs essentially, Persons can’t be organisms. So far, so good.
  3. For Baker, the person and the organism are distinct things – numerically different – yet they aren’t separate things. Olson has two problems with this – just what does “separate” mean, and how do I know which I am?
  4. Olson says (rightly) that there are lots of things we are interested in, and picks just the one I think represents an ontological watershed – sentience. Where I am is a sentient being who (or that) isn’t essentially a person as sentient beings don’t necessarily have FPPs. Amusingly, Olson claims that Baker needs a Big Tent because she has a lot of things to fit into it. I don’t know how Baker answers this question. Presumably she must allow that we have a Sentient and a Person co-located and both constituted by the Human Animal. If her logic of constitution works at all, it won’t have a problem with this as there is still only one thing present – but she might have to change the direction of focus. The one things present is the human Animal, which constitutes both the Sentient and the Person. If we say there is something that is most fundamentally a Sentient, and another thing that is most fundamentally a Person, don’t we have 2 things – but we always seemed to have two things, because we had the thing that is most fundamentally a Human Animal as well as the Person, so maybe it all works out somehow.
  5. Olson now asks why we should accept BTM (note this is independent, I think, of accepting the CV). He gives Baker’s argument … which is really just the assertion that metaphysics isn’t worth doing unless it treats of everything we find significant – ie. that it say something to say about Persons, artefacts and Sentients as such.
    • Note 1: Olson has to deny the existence of artefacts as such (ie. as things over an above the lumps of matter that make them up) because otherwise he ends up with overpopulation just as in the TA argument. Or so it would seem. I need to check6.
    • Note 2: Does Metaphysics really treat all organisms alike? Members of the species Homo Sapiens in general have interesting properties that members of other species don’t, or at least not to the same degree (maybe an important distinction). Is this a metaphysical fact, or something that only biology, or psychology, is interested in? Surely the fact that there is such a thing as (self-) consciousness (or sentience) is a metaphysical fact?
  6. Olson is unmoved. He makes an analogy between Physics and Metaphysics. Physics doesn’t deal with Persons as such – it treats them as lumps of matter – but Physics is worth doing, for all that. I’m not sure I’m moved by that argument, either. The special sciences are agreed to be a partial view (except by reductionists, who would claim that everything is really just matter in motion, and that physics misses nothing out). However, metaphysics is supposed to deal with everything that exists. I suppose it can’t just leave things out – if it doesn’t want to include them, it must deny that they exist. That’s just what Olson does – he does deny that persons exist – but only if they are thought of as anything other than animals with peculiar properties.
  7. Olson ends by rejecting the claim that there is something about metaphysics that requires it to capture all the categories that are important outside of metaphysics, because he doesn’t know what that something is.



Printable Version:



Previous Version of this Note:

Date Length Title
08/04/2009 08:41:17 12888 Olson - The Human Animal: Reply to Baker



Note last updated Reading List for this Topic Parent Topic
18/12/2010 19:58:05 None available Olson - The Human Animal Abstracta Symposium

Summary of Note Links from this Page

Awaiting Attention (Write-ups) Baker - The Human Animal: Big-Tent Metaphysics Markosian - The Human Animal: Three Problems for Olson Zimmerman - The Human Animal: Objections  

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




Summary of Note Links to this Page

Baker - The Human Animal: Response to Olson Olson - The Human Animal Abstracta Symposium      

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?
Baker (Lynne Rudder) Big-Tent Metaphysics Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Baker (Lynne Rudder) Response to Eric Olson Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Gasser (Georg) Personal Identity and Resurrection: Introduction Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Olson (Eric) Replies to Baker, Markosian & Zimmerman Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes



References & Reading List

Author Title Medium Source Read?
Olson (Eric) Replies to Baker, Markosian & Zimmerman Paper - Cited High Quality Abstract Abstracta Special Issue I – 2008 (Brazil) Yes
Olson (Eric), Etc. Abstracta Special Issue on "The Human Animal" Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) High Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied Yes



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