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Olson - The Human Animal: Reply to Zimmerman

(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 "Zimmerman (Dean) - Problems for Animalism".

Olson “agrees with nearly everything Zimmerman says” (which probably explains why he doesn’t engage with the detail) and thinks that he has provided two serious objections to the view that we animals. I’d thought that Zimmerman had provided three problems, but I think Olson, and maybe Zimmerman, considers the first problem to break down into two parts.

  1. The first problem – which Zimmerman covers in the first two sections of his paper – Olson calls The Rival Candidates Problem. The reason it is a single argument is that Olson can get out of the first part by denying the existence of various common-sense objects; but then he’s caught by the point that if he does this, how does he know that animals exist?
  2. The second problem – covered in the third section of Zimmerman’s paper – Olson calls The Vagueness Problem.
The details go as follows:-



The Rival Candidates (RC) Problem

The reason Olson thinks he’s a human animal is that there’s a human animal right where he is, and it’s thinking – and he doesn’t want more than one thinker for metaphysical and epistemological reasons. But what if there are other candidate-thinkers. Zimmerman had mentioned “mere hunks of matter” and “mere bodies” (whatever they are) as well as psychological continuants. He might also have mentioned heads and brains. If these exist, it looks like they can think just like an animal can. Why am I not one of these, and how would I know which I was. Olson has about 5 alternatives:-
  1. He can deny that the rivals think, and explain why.
  2. He can accept they exist and think, but explain how he knows he’s not one of them.
  3. He can deny their existence.
  4. He can combine these options, saying different things about different candidates.
  5. He can endorse relative identity.
He rules out the 5th option, and doesn’t discuss the 4th (disjunctive) account. He doesn’t like any of the other three either, but prefers the 1st. I note that (2) would only solve the epistemological, not the metaphysical (overpopulation) problem.

The RC problem worries him much more than the usual objections to animalism, such as:-
  1. Thought Experiments: animalism runs into trouble from brain transplants or robotic replacements.
  2. Moral Objections: that animalism implies that we are only temporarily and contingently people (ie. persons).
He first tries a damage-limitation exercise; the RC problem afflicts any candidate account of PI, so the problem isn’t exclusive to him – it just threatens his claim that his solution is the best. He also has his usual swipe at Baker, saying that she has the same problem, despite the fact that she repeatedly claims that the CV can account for Olson’s epistemological and metaphysical worries (claims that, while contentious, deserve consideration).

I think we need to remember the context of all this – Zimmerman’s paper is against Olson’s Master Argument for animalism, not against animalism as such (though no doubt he’s against that as well). So, Olson might be able to remain an animalist if he found a better argument. I need to do likewise4. It is a really awkward problem, because of the “all or nothing” logic of identity. Something like Baker’s CV (though not her ontological pretensions for persons), in which we can circumvent the double-counting and epistemological problems, has to be along the right lines.

But Olson does take the problem seriously. If all these candidates really existed, all psychologically indistinguishable, and without my being able to know which I was – then we have a mess in which it is indeterminate or unknowable:- Olson is inclined to adopt a sparse-ontology approach – in which there are only particles and organisms – so he denies the existence of the RCs. This really would solve the problem, but Olson agrees with Zimmerman that he needs a principled reason for believing in the existence of animals while denying the existence of the RCs – or indeed for believing in any composite things.

Olson thinks he has a principled reason for believing the only candidate for being him is an animal. He is influenced by "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings". He considers Van Inwagen’s Special Composition Question - which asks when a mereological sum forms another thing. He rejects both of these, as he expects most of his readers will do likewise. Instead he wants some middle ground, where there are some composite objects, but not just any old gerrymandered ones. The composite object needs to be unified in some way. The hard question is what this unity is.

He thinks the most plausible candidates for composite objects are animals. His choice seems to come down to personal confidence (presumably5 justified elsewhere). He’s sure animals exist – because “the particles that make up a cat are unified if any particles are” – but not so sure about the other RCs. He just blusters – saying there are lots of reasons for thinking ourselves animals, and none for thinking ourselves the other RCs – except maybe mereological simples (Chisholm’s view?). He claims it’s an answer to the problem, if not a very good one. I don’t, though, think he really engages with Zimmerman’s concerns.



The Vagueness Problem

Olson parses Zimmerman’s argument as follows (though not in numbered bullets – this is my explication):-
  1. Animals have vague boundaries,
  2. So, there are vastly more animal-shaped hunks of matter than there are animals
  3. These hunks are the only candidates for “us”
  4. Each hunk is conscious if any hunk is
  5. They can’t all be conscious
  6. So, no material things are conscious
  7. We are conscious,
  8. So, we are not material things
  9. Animals are material things
  10. So, we are not animals.
All this is a bit quick, and it’s not clear what the suppressed premises are (presumably these are premises Olson, rather than Zimmerman, is committed to).

Anyway, Olson finds this a troubling objection, though he doubts (5) – which was Zimmerman’s premise (4) – if the hunks really exist, then Olson believes that they would think. Hence, he denies (2) – there are no hunks of matter in Olson’s view.

Olson’s positive view (for which we are referred to Section 17 of "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings" – ie. "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Problem of the Many and the Vagueness of Composition") is that there is just one animal-candidate present. It has fuzzy boundaries – atoms on the periphery are neither definitely parts of it nor definitely not. He admits that this position – and that of the sparse ontology of material objects that he also espouses – is unfashionable. But the vagueness objection is hard to answer and he can’t think of a better answer. He also thinks that any answer to the question what we are suffers from the vagueness problem; the exception being the answer that we are mereological simples (presumably immaterial ones) – but this view has problems of its own which Olson doesn’t elaborate on here. I think the claim that animalism suffers from the vagueness problem no worse than the alternative accounts deserves some elaboration. How does Baker treat of vagueness on the CV? Also, as previously noted, I’d thought that Chisholm was positing a materialist mereological simple view of personal identity.



Printable Version:



Previous Version of this Note:

Date Length Title
21/05/2009 00:34:34 8038 Olson - The Human Animal: Reply to Zimmerman



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 - Persons and Bodies - Precis 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) Precis of "Persons & Bodies: A Constitution View" Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Olson (Eric) Replies to Baker, Markosian & Zimmerman Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Zimmerman (Dean) Problems for Animalism Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes



References & Reading List

Author Title Medium Source Read?
Jubien (Michael) Contemporary Metaphysics Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Low Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied No
Jubien (Michael) Ontology, Modality, and the Fallacy of Reference Book - Cited Low Quality Abstract Jubien (Michael) - Ontology, Modality, and the Fallacy of Reference No
Jubien (Michael) Things and Their Parts Paper - Cited Low Quality Abstract Jubien - Contemporary Metaphysics, 1997, Chapter 9 Yes
Jubien (Michael) Things and Their Parts Paper - Cited Low Quality Abstract Jubien - Ontology, Modality, and the Fallacy of Reference, 1993, Chapter 2 No
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
Van Inwagen (Peter) Material Beings Book - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings No
Van Inwagen (Peter) The Problem of the Many and the Vagueness of Composition Paper - Cited Van Inwagen - Material Beings; 1990; Ch. 17 No



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