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Thinking Animals and the Constitution View

by Eric Olson e-mail

Churchill College

          Having already written a formal review of Persons and Bodies (Mind 110, 2001, 427-430), I see this exchange as a sort of tutorial.  I will try to explain why I found certain parts of the book puzzling or implausible, and Professor Baker will try to set me straight.  With any luck, other readers of her book will have had misunderstandings similar to mine, and will benefit as well.
          I will discuss two themes:  Baker's arguments against Animalism and her defense of her view against an important objection.

1. The Arguments Against Animalism

          Baker's view is that each of us is "constituted by" a human animal without being identical with it.  The most obvious alternative is that we are animals, or, as Baker would prefer to say, that each of us is numerically identical with something that is nonderivatively an animal.  (I'll say more about the qualification 'nonderivatively' later.)  I have defended "Animalism", as this view is sometimes called, and so I have a special interest in her criticisms of it.

          The Argument From Fiction (122f.):  If you are identical with an animal, then whatever happens to that animal is what happens to you, and vice versa.  Since no animal could change bodies or become partly or wholly inorganic, you couldn't either.  Yet body-changing is a staple of science fiction and philosophical thought experiments.  Animalism implies that those stories are necessarily false.  Yet we find them so plausible.  The obvious explanation is that the things they depict are possible.  Unless there is a good explanation for our readiness to accept these stories that is consistent with animalism, we ought to reject that view.
          The general idea is this:  If someone tells a story and the audience is willing to go along with it--no one is unable to enjoy the story because of an antecedent conviction that the events depicted therein are impossible--we ought to conclude that what happens in it is possible.  Or at least we ought to unless we have a good explanation for this willingness that is consistent with the story's impossibility.  I must confess that I don't find this argument form very persuasive.  If it supports the possibility of body-changes, then it equally supports the possibility of backwards time travel, faster-than-light travel, reincarnation, theism, universal translation machines, and artificial intelligence (think of the intelligent toasters, teapots, and shunting engines in children's stories).  These are all things whose possibility is seriously disputed.  Should we let the Argument From Fiction settle the issue?  I don't think so.
          For that matter, this sort of argument can easily support inconsistent conclusions.  If someone told a good story about a mathematician discovering a proof of Goldbach's conjecture (that every even number is the sum of two primes), I'm sure people would go along with it.  If someone told a good story about a mathematician discovering a counterexample to Goldbach's conjecture--a disproof--people would go along with it just as readily.  I take it that any mathematical claim that could be true is true.  So if this sort of argument is worth anything, it is evidence both for Goldbach's conjecture and for its denial.  And that is to say that it is no evidence at all.
          In any case, there is a fairly obvious explanation of why we find these stories plausible:  Whenever someone tells a story, we tend to go along with it, unless perhaps the story is obviously impossible.  This is especially so if the story is well told.  (Why this is so is a matter for empirical psychologists; but it's clearly true.)  And neither body changing nor any of our other examples is obviously impossible.  But of course something can be impossible without being obviously impossible. 
          Here is another, independent explanation for the "body-changing intuition".  If someone has memories, personality, and other mental traits just like yours, that is strong evidence for his being you.  As things are, it is conclusive evidence, since brain transplants, fission, and so on don't actually occur.  That makes it easy to suppose that anyone with mental traits just like yours in various science-fiction stories would be you.  But that is consistent with the claim that, because you are in fact an animal, body changing is impossible.

          Animalism is not a contender (124).  What it takes for a person to persist through time must have something to do with what it is to be a person.  To be a person is to have certain mental features.  So a person's identity through time must essentially have something to do with psychology.  But psychological matters are irrelevant to animal identity:  a human animal could survive as a vegetable with no mental features at all.  So Animalism isn't an account of personal identity at all.
          Well, I'm a person, and Animalism is an account of my identity.  Isn't it therefore an account of personal identity?  It is certainly in competition with views that Baker would consider accounts of personal identity, such as her own.  Presumably Animalism isn't an account of personal identity because it doesn't give the identity conditions of persons as such.  That is because if some people are animals there are no identity conditions that necessarily apply to all and only persons.  Animal persons would have the same identity conditions as animals that aren't persons (dogs, for instance), and different identity conditions from persons that aren't animals, if such there be (gods, angels, intelligent computers).  Why is that a problem?  Baker agrees that there are no conditions of student identity or philosopher identity as such--no identity conditions that necessarily apply to all and only students or philosophers.  She will reply that that is because we are essentially persons and only accidentally students or philosophers.  But why accept that we are essentially persons?  What's more, we have many essential properties that don't determine our identity conditions:  being material objects, and being such that 5 is odd, for instance.
          Baker complains that any view on which persons are only accidentally persons "doesn't take persons seriously".  And no animal is essentially a person on Baker's definition of 'person'.  So if we were animals, "Every person in the world could be eliminated without eliminating a single individual"; thus, "persons as such have no ontological significance" (220).  She takes this to be a reductio ad absurdum of Animalism. 
          I find this hard to understand.  Insofar as it has any force at all, it seems to turn on an ambiguity in the word 'eliminate'.  To say that we could eliminate all the persons without eliminating any individual sounds like a contradiction.  It sounds like the claim that we could cause all the persons to cease to exist without causing any individual to cease to exist.  That is because to "eliminate" a being usually means to destroy it, so that it no longer exists.  To eliminate a sports fan you have to kill her, not merely cause her to lose interest in sports.  You can't eliminate a blue car just by painting it red.  But by "eliminating" a person Baker means just causing her to stop being a person.  So the supposed reductio is nothing more than the claim that if Animalism were true you could cause all the persons in the world to stop being persons without causing any of them to cease to exist.  And that is just a restatement of the view that persons are only accidentally persons.  Where is the objection?
          For that matter, Baker must concede that her own view "doesn't take take students seriously", and "gives students as such no ontological significance".  Why isn't that just as bad as "not taking persons seriously"?
          Baker also complains that Animalism is "chauvinistic" because it rules out the possibility of non-animal people (122).  This is a criticism of the view that to be a person is to be an animal of a certain sort (held by Wiggins and Wollheim), which unfortunately is also sometimes called 'Animalism'.  I mean by 'Animalism' the view that we human people are animals.  And that is compatible with the existence of wholly inorganic people:  gods, angels, demons, or what have you.

          Animals are Brutish (12-18).  Animals are interested only in surviving and reproducing.  That is because they lack the ability to think about themselves in the first person.  But anything with a first-person perspective is "basically different" from anything without one.  Thus, if human animals had a first-person perspective, there would be "a biological break or gap between between human organisms and nonhuman organisms".  The animal kingdom would be fundamentally disunified.  That is implausible.  Hence, because we have a first-person perspective, we couldn't be animals.  In short:  Animals are brutish and we're not; so we're not animals.
          I don't see any problem in the idea that some animals have a mental ability fundamentally different from the mental abilities of other animals.  Baker says this is inconsistent with the fact that "human animals are biologically continuous with nonhuman animals".  But why can't beings that are genetically and physiologically rather similar, as human beings and chimpanzees are, be psychologically quite different?  Nor do I understand how the Constitution View is any better than Animalism in this respect.  It says that human animals can think in the first person in the sense of constituting persons who can do so, an ability that no other known organism has.  Why is that any less of a biological discontinuity than human animals' having a first-person perspective in their own right?

          The Corpse Problem (207f.)  Unless your death is particularly violent, the matter that makes you up at the moment of your death will make up a corpse afterwards.  It is obvious that that corpse exists before you die, though of course it isn't dead then.  But the Animalist must say that you cease to exist when you die.  How, then, do you now relate to your "corpse-to-be"?  The Animalist has no satisfactory answer to this question.  (Shoemaker 1999 makes a similar objection.)
          Let me try to make the argument more explicit:

  1. When a human animal dies, there is ordinarily a concrete material object--its corpse--spatio-temporally continuous with it.
  2. An animal's corpse doesn't come into existence when the animal dies; it exists and coincides with the animal before the animal dies.
  3. An animal ceases to exist when it dies.
  4. Hence, each human animal coincides, while it is alive, with a corpse-to-be that is numerically different from that animal.

Why is 4 supposed to be a problem for Animalism?  Well, Animalists object to the idea that a human person is numerically different from the human animal that coincides with her.  Since the animal is rational and conscious, that means that there is a rational, conscious being other than you--the person--located where you are, which is absurd.  (More on this later.)  If that is a problem for those who deny that we are (nonderivatively) animals, then the existence of a "corpse-to-be" numerically different from the animal might be a problem for Animalists.  For the corpse-to-be might also be rational and conscious.  (As long as it is alive, it is presumably physically indistinguishable from the animal.  What could prevent it from being rational or conscious?)  If so, then Animalism too has the absurd consequence that there is a rational, conscious being other than you now sitting in your chair.  So the rest of the argument is this:

  1. An animal's corpse-to-be is rational and conscious at a given time if that animal is rational and conscious then.
  2. Hence, each human animal coincides with a rational, conscious being numerically different from it, which is absurd.

          I can't see that this is any more of a problem for Animalism than it is for the Constitution View.  If it has any force against Animalism, then the argument you would get if you replaced the word 'animal' with the word 'person' would have equal force against the Constitution View.  Baker apparently thinks she can solve the problem by saying that the corpse-to-be and the person are numerically different but not "separate".  I don't myself see how this solves anything (see below).  But if it saves Constitutionalism from the corpse problem, then denying that the corpse-to-be and the animal are "separate" would save Animalism from the corpse problem.  So I don't understand why Baker thinks this is a problem for Animalism.
          However, the Animalist who accepted this supposed solution would deprive herself of a strong argument for Animalism:  there is a rational animal located where you are; you are the rational being located where you are; hence, you are an animal.  For on Baker's view the animal isn't the only rational being located where you are:  there is also a rational corpse-to-be.  Is there another way out for the Animalist?
          The Animalist might reject 3, and say that an animal continues to exist as a corpse after it dies.  Many Animalists do say this (Feldman 1992: 89-105, Carter 1999, Mackie 1999).  It is the obvious conclusion to draw from 2:  if there really is a "living human body" now located where you are, and that now-living thing will one day be a corpse, that is presumably because the animal that is now living will one day be dead.  What else could your "living body" be but an animal?  On the other hand, if 3 is true--if an animal ceases to exist when it dies--then there is no reason to suppose that any material object is first alive and then dead.
          Now I believe that a living organism does cease to exist when it dies.  As I see it, living organisms and corpses are profoundly different (Olson 1997: ch. 6).  A living thing, like a fountain, exists by constantly assimilating new matter, imposing its characteristic form on it, and expelling the remains.  A corpse, like a marble statue, maintains its form merely by virtue of the inherent stability of its materials.  The changes that take place when an organism dies are far more dramatic than anything that happens subsequently to its lifeless remains.  I have never seen a plausible account of what animal identity consists in--something that would tell us what sorts of adventures an animal, could "survive", and which would bring its existence to an end--that allowed for a living animal to continue to exist as a decaying corpse.  What does it take to get rid of an organism, if killing it isn't enough?  But the question of what it takes for an organism to persist through time is a difficult one, and I'm not terribly confident about this.  If I am wrong about animal identity, I would see it as a friendly amendment to my view.
          What if I am right about animal identity, and 3 is true?  Am I then in trouble?  Well, I could deny 1, that there are such things as corpses.  It isn't obvious that the particles left over when an animal dies compose a composite material object.  Alternatively, I could deny 2, and say that the corpse comes into being when the animal dies.  This seems no less plausible than saying that the animal ceases to exist when it dies.  If death can be the destruction of one being, why can't it be the advent of another?  And anyone who accepts 2 faces the problem of giving persistence conditions that apply to something that is first alive and constantly changing its parts, and then dead--a trick I have never seen done.  2 strikes me as a metaphysical dogma with no real support.

2. Baker's Defense of the Constitution View

          A large portion of Persons and Bodies is devoted to answering objections to constitution views.  Let me consider one such objection (or perhaps a cluster of objections).  I call it "the problem of the thinking animal".
          Baker agrees that there is a human animal located where you are--the one that constitutes you.  That animal has a highly developed brain and nervous system in good working order.  (Its brain is your brain.)  It belongs to a community of speaking, thinking beings, and is highly educated.  It has just the right sort of evolutionary history.  That ought to enable the animal to think and experience.  In particular, the animal ought to have all the mental properties that you have.  If the animal lacked some mental ability that you have--if it couldn't think first-person thoughts, for instance--then there ought to be some explanation for this difference.  (And since the animal is physically indistinguishable from you and has the same surroundings, explaining why it can't think in the way that you can won't be easy.)  So there seems to be a rational, self-conscious, thinking animal located where you are.  But Baker denies that you are that animal.  She concedes that you might "be" the animal in the sense of being constituted by it; but you aren't numerically identical with it.  (The view that you are identical with the animal is Animalism.)  Thus, there is a rational, thinking, self-conscious being located where you are, and presumably thinking your thoughts, that is numerically different from you.
          This, the objection goes, is implausible for three reasons.  First, it means that there are at least twice as many rational, self-conscious beings as we thought there were.  (I say at least twice because Baker apparently thinks that your corpse-to-be is a third rational, self-conscious being located where you are, identical with neither the person nor the animal.)  At least two philosophers wrote these comments, and at least two philosophers are sitting in your chair and reading them now.  We might call this the overpopulation problem.
          Second, you ought to wonder which philosopher you are.  Are you the animal philosopher or the person philosopher?  You may think you're the person.  But the animal presumably has the same beliefs as you have.  So it believes that it is the person.  (If you think you're a person and it doesn't, there ought to be an explanation for this difference.)  It has the same reasons for thinking that it is the person rather than the animal as you have for thinking that you are.  But it is mistaken.  How do you know, then, that you're not the one making the mistake?  If you were the animal rather than the person, you'd still believe you were the animal.  So even if Baker is right and you are a person constituted by an animal, you could never know this.  For all you know, you are an animal constituting a person.  We might call this the epistemic problem.
          Third, since the animal (we are supposing) has the same mental properties as you have, that ought to make it a person.  (It would satisfy most accounts of what it is to be a person that philosophers have proposed.)  But if the animal is a person, then people come in two kinds:  animal people, who are identical with animals and have the identity conditions of animals; and people constituted by but not identical with animals, with the identity conditions that Baker thinks we have.  But the Constitution View says that no people are identical with animals.  On the other hand, if the animal that constitutes you isn't a person, then at most half of the rational, intelligent, self-conscious, morally responsible beings walking the earth are people.  Being a person, per se, would have no practical significance.  (What's more, we could never know whether we are people.)  That conflicts with most accounts of what it is to be a person. We might call this the personhood problem.
          As I see it, there are two ways of responding to these problems (short of saying that you are identical with "your" animal).  First, the Constitutionalist might deny that the animal can think, or at least that it can think in the way that you can.  There is no thinking animal numerically different from you, but only an unthinking animal.  But why can't the animal think?  Shoemaker proposes that animals can't think because they have the wrong identity conditions (1984: 92-97, 1999).  The nature of mental properties entails that mental continuity must suffice for their bearers to persist through time.  This has the astonishing consequence that there are, strictly speaking, no intelligent or even sentient animals.  What appear to be sentient animals are in reality insentient animals that stand to sentient non-animals as human animals stand to you and me on the Constitution View.  If you and I have the physical properties that animals have--if we really are six feet tall and weigh 160 pounds, etc.--then this means that beings with the same physical properties can and regularly do differ radically in their mental properties:  each thinking person coincides with an animal physically indistinguishable from her that has no mental properties at all.  Mental properties fail to supervene on physical properties in even the weak sense that necessarily any two beings with the same physical properties will have the same mental properties (though there may be global psychophysical supervenience on Baker's view).  A being's physical properties (including those of its surroundings) don't even cause it to have the mental properties it has.  This is hard to believe.  I think Shoemaker's account has further problems as well, though I can't go into it here.
          The other sort of response is to accept that the animal located where you are has the same intrinsic mental properties as you have, and try to solve the problems that this raises through what I would call linguistic tricks.  For instance, whenever two thinking beings are as intimately related as you and "your" animal are, we "count them as one" for ordinary purposes.  That is, we speak as if they were one.  When I write on the copyright form that I am the sole author of this essay, I don't mean that every author of this essay is numerically identical with me.  I mean only that every author of this essay bears some relation to me that doesn't imply identity:  co-location, perhaps.  My wife is not a bigamist, even though she is, I suppose, married to both me and this animal.  At any rate would be seriously misleading to describe our relationship as a ménage à quatre.  The animal and I are two, but "almost one" (Lewis 1976, 1993).  This is meant to show that the Constitution View (or more generally the view that we aren't animals) needn't contradict the things we say and believe when engaged in the ordinary business of life about how many people there are.  Unless we are doing metaphysics, we simply don't distinguish between strict numerical identity and the relation, whatever exactly it is, that each of us bears to a certain human animal.  That, the idea goes, solves the overpopulation problem.
          The solution to the personhood problem is that not just any rational, self-conscious being is a person, but only those rational, self-conscious beings that have the right identity conditions.  That is why human animals aren't people.  The solution to the epistemic problem is based on the idea that personal pronouns like 'I' and related terms like 'Socrates' always refer to people.  Thus, when the animal associated with you says 'I', it doesn't refer to itself.  Rather, it refers to you, the person it constitutes.  When it says 'I am a person' it isn't saying falsely that it is a person, but truly that you are.  So the animal isn't mistaken about which thing it is, and neither are you.  You can infer that you are a person from the linguistic facts that you are whatever you refer to when you say 'I', and that 'I' always refers to a person.  You can know that you aren't an animal because people by definition have identity conditions different from those of animals. (Noonan 1989: 75f., 1998: 316)
          This proposal faces difficulties that I can't go into here.  In any case, it still leaves us with an uncomfortable surplus of thinking beings.  No matter how we describe it, there are still far more numerically different thinking beings than we thought there were.  What is more, it makes personhood a trivial property.
          Baker offers what she takes to be a third solution to the problem of the thinking animal, different from these.  The animal that Baker calls your body has the same mental properties as you have.  And it is a person.  Moreover, you are an animal.  How could you be an animal without having the properties of an animal, such as brute physical identity conditions?  Because you are an animal only contingently, whereas you are a person essentially.  You could stop being an animal and still exist, for instance by having all your parts replaced with inorganic ones.  Why doesn't your body have the identity conditions of people?  Because it (or he or she, I suppose we should say, since it is a person) is an animal essentially and a person only contingently.  You have your identity conditions not by virtue of being a person, but by virtue of being a person essentially.
          So far this seems to be no help at all.  It implies that there are two people sitting in your chair and reading this, you and your body.  What is more, people come in two kinds:  there are essential people, who have the identity conditions of people and are animals only accidentally (if at all), and accidental people, who are animals essentially and have the identity conditions of animals.  And it seems to do nothing to explain how you could ever know which person you are, the essential person sitting in your chair or the accidental person.
         Baker's response is that you are a person, and your body is a person, and you are not identical; but that doesn't make two people.  That is because you and your body don't have "separate existence".  I suppose this is because  you and your body are made of the same parts.  But what does it mean?  It sounds like Lewis's view:  strictly speaking--counting by identity--there are two or more rational, self-conscious beings now sitting in your chair; but they are related in some intimate way that makes it correct to speak loosely as if they were one.  As a solution to the overpopulation problem, this seems no better and no worse than Lewis's.  And it provides no solution to the epistemic problem.
        But the story has another twist.  You are a person and an animal in different senses, Baker says:  you are an animal only derivatively, and a person nonderivatively.  That means roughly that you are an animal only insofar as something that constitutes you is an animal in itself, independently of its constituting anything; but you are a person independently of anything's constituting you.  Your body, on the other hand, is a person derivatively:  it is a person only insofar as it constitutes a person.  More generally, you have all of your physical properties derivatively:  you "borrow" them from your body (68).  (Surprisingly, Baker doesn't say that your body borrows all of its mental properties from you, but only those that require a first-person perspective.  You borrow your other mental properties, such as feeling hungry and wanting food, from your body.  This has presumably to do with the idea that animals are brutish.  It implies, I think, that we are derivatively brutish, since the things that constitute us are nonderivatively brutish.)
          But rather than solving the problem, this seems only to muddy the waters.  We wanted to know whether the animal that Baker calls your body can think in the first person.  We are told that in one sense it can, and in another sense it can't.  It can think in the first person insofar as it constitutes an essential person who can think in the first person; it can't think in the first person independently of its constituting anything.  Well, insofar as your body can think in the first person, there are at least two numerically different beings--people, in fact--thinking your thoughts, even if they "aren't separate" or are "almost one".  Isn't that extremely implausible?  Insofar as your body can't think in the first person, Baker owes us an explanation of why, despite being physically indistinguishable from you with the same history and surroundings, it can't think in that way.  No such explanation is provided.  I don't see what has been gained.
          Let me say a few words about the epistemic problem:  how do I know which of the two numerically different people who share my location I am?  Baker can explain how I know that I am a person (196).  To be a person, on her view, is to have the capacity to think first-person thoughts.  Thus, any being that can wonder, What am I? is a person.  The question, Am I a person? is self-answering.  However, on Baker's view there are two people thinking my thoughts--counting by identity, that is.  There is an essential person and an accidental person.  How do I know which person I am?  How do I know whether I am a person essentially?  At one point (196 fn.) Baker says that whatever thinks first-person thoughts nonderivatively is a person nonderivatively, and whatever thinks first-person thoughts derivatively is a person only derivatively (such a being would be the body of an essential person, or at any rate something that constitues such a person).  But how do I know whether I think in the first person derivatively or nonderivatively?
          Baker says there is only one first-person thought there (197).  The first-person thought 'I am essentially a person' refers derivatively to an animal and nonderivatively to an essential person.  But how does that help?  If the animal (the essential animal, I mean) that thinks this thought thereby says that it is essentially a person, it is mistaken.  Insofar as the animal thinks that one thought, the thought is false; insofar as the essential person thinks it, it is true.  How can a single thought be both true and false?  Or is it derivatively false and nonderivatively true?  But that would mean that insofar as the animal's thought is true, it doesn't refer to the animal itself, but to the essential person the animal constitutes.  That would make Baker's proposal just a complicated variant of Noonan's view.
          I simply don't understand what Baker's solution to this problem is supposed to be.

          There are many more things in Professor Baker's book that I didn't understand (her remarks about counting first-person perspectives in chapter 5, for instance).  But I think I've already said more than enough.  I hope she can help me see the light.



Carter, W. R. (1999) Will I Be a Dead Person? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 59: 167-172.

Feldman, F. (1992) Confrontations with the Reaper. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, D. (1976) Survival and Identity. In A. Rorty, ed., The Identities of Persons. Berkeley: California. (Repr. in his Philosophical Papers vol. I, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.)

------. (1993) Many, but Almost One. In Campbell, et al., ed., Ontology, Causality, and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Repr. in his Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology, CUP 1999)

Mackie, D. (1999) Personal Identity and Dead People. Philosophical Studies 95: 219-242.

Noonan, H. (1989) Personal Identity. London: Routledge.

------. (1998) Animalism Versus Lockeanism: A Current Controversy. Philosophical Quarterly 48: 302-318.

Olson, E. T. (1997) The Human Animal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shoemaker, S. (1984) Personal Identity: A Materialist's Account. In Shoemaker and Swinburne, Personal Identity. Oxford: Blackwell.

------. (1999) Self, Body, and Coincidence. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 73: 287-306.

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