Philosophy: May 2010 Archives

This is the 57th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post concluded discussing the psychological account of personal identity. This post moves on to the bodily account.

According to the dualist account of personal identity, being the same person is having the same immaterial mind or soul. According to the psychological account of personal identity, being the same person is having a continuation of the same set of psychological properties such as memories, desires, beliefs, personality traits, moral character, and so on. The main contender to those two approaches would be biological accounts, which base personal identity in some biological facts. The most common versions of biological accounts are the bodily account and the brain account. The bodily account takes someone to be the same person just in case they have same continuing body. Sometimes it's put in terms of whether there is a continuing organism.

The central intuition behind the bodily or organism view is that we are most fundamentally biological organisms. That's what it is to be a human being. So it would make sense if the criteria for remaining the same human being had to do with being the same biological organism, i.e. continuing to exist via having the same living body.

You get a counterintuitive result from the bodily view. Suppose we develop the technology to remove my brain and put it in your body. I think most people would then say I switched bodies, an intuition that favors the brain view. On the bodily view, you get the very weird result that I remain in my original body. If no brain is put in, then I might simply be a human vegetable. If your brain is put in my body, then I'd think I'm you and now would have all your memories, personality, moral beliefs, and character traits. But there's you, going around in your own body, thinking you're me and having my traits. According to the bodily view, it would still be you in your original body acting as me and me in my original body acting as you.

But Eric Olson gives a difficult argument to resist for a bodily view:

1. I could have been born without a brain.
2. If something could have been different about me, then it's not essential to me.
3. Therefore, my brain isn't essential to me, to my being me. So I could continue to exist without my brain.

The first premise seems intuitively true. I could have had the condition of anencephaly, in which case I would have been born with no brain, just a brain stem, and I wouldn't have lived long.

The second premise seems obvious at first glance. An essential property is defined as something without which you wouldn't have been you. How could you gain and lose essential properties, then? It should be the sort of thing you would never be able to gain or lose.


I can think of three different ways someone might try to resist this argument.

A)      If dualism is true, there actually isn't anything disturbing about this argument. If dualism is true, then our brains aren't essential to who we are. That's the point of dualism, in fact. Descartes thought it was possible to exist without your body at all, including your brain. So dualists might even accept the argument as it stands without accepting Olson's organism view of what we basically are.

B)      If a biological view that considers the brain to be essential to who we are is correct, then the first premise is false. The anencephalic baby that might have resulted from the same egg and sperm I came from wouldn't have been me, because it would have had no brain at all and thus not my brain. So the argument begs the question against that view by assuming a premise that no one holding that view would grant.

C)      If the psychological view is correct, then the second premise is false. I could have been born without a brain, and at that point my brain wasn't essential to me, but now it is because now my psychological properties are present. This requires that what's necessary for you to be you can change with time. Many philosophers would frown at this, since the idea was to find what's central to your being you that doesn't change over time. But this is a possible view. You could never lose an essential property. You'd stop being you (and thus stop existing). But you can gain essential properties. Once you have them, they're essential, but they weren't essential before you had them.

So it seems as if all three rival views have a response to the argument. That doesn't mean the argument is unsound. It just means the alternative views shouldn't accept the premises, so a careful proponent of the alternative views would be unconvinced. But you might not want to reject either premise except to defend a view you already hold, and so the argument might still convince someone who is inclined to accept the premises. Also, the notion that we're simply biological organisms does appeal to a lot of people, and that's the basic intuition behind this view, even if the view's implications in brain transplant cases and human vegetable cases might conflict with other intuitions some people have.

It's not clear that the arguments here are all that decisive, therefore. But it is clear that, though we have some intuitions that conflict with a bodily view, we also have some that conflict with it.

In the next post, I'll look a little more closely at the brain view.

Here's another one from Jonathan Glasgow that I'll just quote his own description of:

We are all simultaneously struck by an agent that causes us forget our systems of racial classification. Any time we start to racially classify ourselves, our cognitive apparatuses short-circuit. One hour later, cognition reverts to its pre-amnesiac state, and racial classification resumes.

(Again, as with several of these, if you think races don't exist, you'll say they continue not to exist through this. But this question is for those who think they do exist.)

Do races stop existing for that period of time and then come back into existence, or does something keep them in existence during the interim period? If so, what generates their existence?

The Author Theodicy

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My friend and sometime co-blogger Wink likes to think of God as the author of creation in a much more literal way than most people do. He sees God as writing a story, with human beings as some of the main characters, and one response he has to the problem of evil is that the story overall justifies certain instances of badness occurring throughout the story.

This also serves as a helpful analogy for him in thinking through the relation between divine sovereignty and human freedom, since the characters in a book can easily have free will of whatever sort you'd like even if every step of their fictional lives is written by an author. Within the story, their choices are all free. They make choices, and those choices need not be determined in any way by anything outside their control (although if it's a story in a deterministic world, then of course something outside their control does determine their actions, and they at most have only compatibilist free will).

It was hard to resist thinking about the author theodicy when I heard this quote on a recent podcast (see writeup here) by the executive producers of Lost:

We're sorry that it happened, but we're not sorry that we did it, and we make no excuses for it. It is a very intense and dark time on the show. Obviously the deaths of these characters provides a tremendous emotional catalyst for the survivors, because now they're at war. The sides were a little hazy before now. Now, there's great clarity. -- Damon Lindelof

Then consider the specific reasoning given:

We felt it was really important that the audience understand that, going into the end of this show, nobody is safe. One of the problems in television is that you innately know that certain characters aren't going to die, and that strips certain shows of their jeopardy. We want there to be a feeling that anything is possible, and that going into the end of the series, that is very much true. There will be some surprising things.

It's the author-theodicy version of a point made by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in sections of their work that I've taught in my history of philosophy intro class. Augustine asks us to consider a painting. There will likely be spots that, taken apart from the whole, would look ugly. But in the context of the whole painting they fit and make the painting itself more beautiful than it would be without them. Aquinas similarly says that the occurrences of evil in the world are indeed intrinsically bad. The fact that they occur is unfortunate, and other things being equal a good God who could prevent them would do so. But other things aren't equal, because the macroscopic picture of the history of the universe (which, of course, goes on forever into eternity according to Aquinas, with evil defeated forever after a certain point) is better as a whole if that evil occurs, even if the microscopic look at just that bit of evil should lead God to declare it bad and worth avoiding.

Lindelof seems to be making a similar point. It's unfortunate that these beloved characters had to die, but they thought things would be best for them to die at this point given the story they are trying to tell. The macroscopic look determines whether it's worth doing. They're not sorry they did it, because of that macroscopic effect. The microscopic look determines whether the event is unfortunate in itself, and in this case they admit that it is. But the macroscopic effect is what matters for storytelling, even if sometimes honesty requires acknowledging the microscopic picture as Lindelof does in this quote.

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