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.
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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
Let me try to make the argument more
- When a human animal dies, there is
ordinarily a concrete material object--its corpse--spatio-temporally continuous
- An animal's corpse doesn't come into
existence when the animal dies; it exists and coincides with the animal before
the animal dies.
- An animal ceases to exist when it dies.
- Hence, each human animal coincides, while
it is alive, with a corpse-to-be that is numerically different from that
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:
- An animal's corpse-to-be is rational and
conscious at a given time if that animal is rational and conscious then.
- 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
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
Carter, W. R. (1999) Will I Be a Dead Person? Philosophy and
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Feldman, F. (1992) Confrontations with the Reaper. New York: Oxford
Lewis, D. (1976) Survival and Identity. In A. Rorty, ed., The Identities
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Mackie, D. (1999) Personal Identity and Dead People. Philosophical
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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
Shoemaker, S. (1984) Personal Identity: A Materialist's Account. In
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------. (1999) Self, Body, and Coincidence. Proceedings of the
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