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Reply to Noonan

by Lynne Rudder Baker e-mail

Department of Philosophy
University of Massachusetts
352 Bartlett Hall
Amherst, MA 01003-0525 - USA


I very much appreciate the sympathetic account that Noonan gives of (some of ) my views—especially my case against Animalism.  I also appreciate Noonan’s suggestion for replying to the Many Minds Objection.

1.  It is certainly true, as Noonan says, that I take persons to be ontologically different from animals.  This is one of the most controversial aspects of my view.  Persons necessarily have first-person perspectives, and these first-person perspectives provide the persistence conditions of persons.  The persistence conditions of animals stem from the purely biological properties (like metabolism, circulation, and so on). 

Noonan agrees that the first-person perspective has “fundamental significance in our view of ourselves” and, I think, he recognizes a “gap between ourselves and non-human animals on which Baker insists,” but, he goes on, “the move to the claim that it has ontological significance is not compelling.”   But I do not see that Noonan offers any real argument here.  Granted, I have no demonstrative argument, but I do give a number of considerations in favor of my view.  I have developed this theme further in “The Ontological Status of Persons,” forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

2.  My book tries to situate persons in a comprehensive nonreductive view of the material world.  The idea of constitution-without-identity is a general idea, of which the idea of constitution of persons by bodies is a species.  One of the novel features of my general view (and ipso facto of my view of persons) is a turn away from a traditional ontological assumption.  Traditionally, philosophers have assumed that what something most fundamentally is depends on what it is made of.  Underlying my view, by contrast, is a conviction that what something most fundamentally is often depends more on what it can do than what it is made of.  I think that new technologies—e.g., replacing damaged body parts with inorganic parts, building micro-machines from organic matter—blur the lines between what is “natural” and what is artifactual.  And this, in turn, suggests that the traditional view should be replaced.  What something is made of is often not as revealing of its nature as what it can do.  Hence, two entities with similar constitutions (say, you and a gorilla) are ontologically less similar than two persons with very different constitutions  (say, you and a Martian person (if there were any)).

3.  Some philosophers reject the idea of constitution-without-identity in favor of contingent identity.  To the example (from Lewis) of the dishpan and the piece of plastic, I have two replies.  Before giving them, I must mention that on p. 22, I state three basic assumptions of the book.  The first is materialism of the natural world.  The second is that all identity is strict identity; if x and y differ in their modal properties, they are nonidentical. (p. 22)  The third is three-dimensionalism.  I do not consider temporal parts.  I shall continue to assume three-dimensionalism here.  (As I mention on p. 22, if you take issue with any of my three assumptions, then regard my book as a conditional argument that shows how much ground can be covered under the assumptions.)  Now to the replies to the dishpan example:

First,  Noonan’s treatment of this example (like Lewis’s) depends on contingent identity, which I clearly reject on p. 22. [For an argument, see my “Why Constitution is Not Identity,” Journal of Philosophy 94 (1997): 599-621.]  

Second, if you take the dishpan and the piece of plastic that makes it up, where the dishpan and the piece of plastic begin and end at the same time, to be (contingently) identical, you have to give a different account of the relation between dishpan and the piece of plastic that makes it up when they do not begin and end at the same time.  Suppose that both the dishpan and the piece of plastic come into existence at 9:00, and that the piece of plastic makes up the dishpan from 9:00 until noon.  Case 1: At noon, a terrorist bomb blows the dishpan made of the piece of plastic to bits, and both piece of plastic and dishpan go out of existence.   Case 2: At noon, the terrorist bomb merely blows a sizable hole in the dishpan, which at 1:00 is repaired by placing a new piece of plastic in the hole.  From 9:00 until 12:00, the dishpan was made up of the piece of plastic. 

Now the advocate of contingent identity will say that the dishpan and the piece of plastic are identical in Case 1, but not in Case 2.   So, the contingent-identity theorist will need  two theories of the relation between the dishpan and the piece of plastic:  one for Case 1 (contingent identity) and a separate one for Case 2.  It seems to me clearly better to have a unified theory of the relation between the dishpan and the piece of plastic that covers both cases—as the constitution view does.  According to the constitution view, the relation between the dishpan and the piece of plastic is the same in both Cases:  constitution, not identity.  (For more on the dishpan case, see Ch. 7.)

I think that the idea of constitution-without-identity can accomplish what the idea of contingent identity is supposed to accomplish without introducing a kind of ersatz “identity” that falls short of genuine identity—strict, necessary, Leibnizian identity.

4.  By the way, I would not say that “no actual human person is identical with any actual human being.”  As I said in Chapter 1, the term ‘human being’ has been used ambiguously (long before I came on the scene): both to name a partly psychological kind, and to name a purely biological kind.   So, I try to avoid the term.  When I use it, I usually mean ‘human person.’

5.  I started with the question, “What am I?”  The answer that I gave is that I am most fundamentally a person, and I am constituted by a human body.   Only later did I consider the much-fought-over question of personal identity over time.  (I found Noonan’s book, Personal Identity useful in thinking about this issue.)  I can only agree with Noonan that I do not have a satisfactory account of personal identity over time; but neither, as I argued in Chapter 5, does anyone else.  The reason, I think, is that personal identity over time cannot be analyzed in nonpersonal terms; hence, any account is circular.  It is clear to me (but obviously not to everybody) that there is a fact of the matter about whether a particular person is I or not.   I hope to pursue this topic further later on.

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