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Reply to Olson

by Lynne Rudder Baker e-mail

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


1.  Olson seems to think that my view of persons rests on thought experiments about changing bodies.  It does not. But the view rests on what I claim to be a difference in persistence conditions between persons and animals.  Granted, Locke’s Prince/Cobbler case and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” discussed briefly in Ch. 5, illustrate the difference in persistence conditions; but reasons to accept the Constitution View come from considerations like these:

    (a) The Constitution View situates human persons in a comprehensive metaphysics of the material world.  The material world is characterized by ontological diversity—by statues as well as by pieces of marble, by meteors as well as by molecules.  Persons are part of the natural world—material beings--yet ontologically different from other things. 

    (b) The Constitution View does justice to our uniqueness, as well as to what we have in common with animals.  Animalism has nothing to say about our uniqueness.

2.  As I argued in Ch. 5, I reject the psychological-continuity views of personal identity over time.  My answer (such as it is) to the diachronic question of personal identity over time takes a back seat to my answer to the synchronic question of what makes something a person in the first place.

3. “Animalism is not a contender.”  One big difference between the Constitution View and Animalism is that on the Constitution View [nonderivative] persons are essentially persons.  

(a) Why, Olson asks, should we accept that?  We have lots of essential properties that don’t determine our identity conditions, e.g., being such that the number 5 is odd.   I argue that being a person (i.e., having a first-person perspective) determines our persistence conditions.  Having first-person perspectives is what is distinctive of us; being such that the number 5 is odd is shared with all other entities.

(Later on, Olson says that on my view, “you have your identity conditions not by virtue of being a person, but by virtue of being a person essentially.”  This isn’t right.  If x has its identity conditions by being an F, then x is an F essentially.   Identity conditions depend on essential properties.) 

(b)  I say that if persons were not essentially persons, then “every person could be eliminated without eliminating a single individual.”  Olson professes to see an ambiguity in ‘eliminate.’  There is no ambiguity:  If F is an essential property of [nonderivative] Fs, then to eliminate a [nonderivative] F is to bring it about that something ceases to exist altogether, not just that something ceases to be an F.  (See Chapter 2.)  This is a matter of definition.  There is no ambiguity.   So, it is simply false to say that “by ‘eliminating’ a person Baker means just causing her to stop being a person.”  On my view, to stop being a person is to stop existing altogether.  And it is obviously question-begging to criticize my view by assuming that persons are not essentially persons.

(c) Yes, “students as such [have] no ontological significance.”  But of course they have ontological significance as persons.  On the Animalist view, students as such have no ontological significance either, and neither do persons.  On the Animalist view, a person has ontological significance only as an animal, not as a person. On the Constitution View, a person has ontological significance in virtue of being a person.  (See my forthcoming “The Ontological Status of Persons” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.)

4.  To say “Animals are brutish” seems like a slur, and certainly one that I never made.  I think that a first-person perspective makes an ontological difference in the world.  I certainly agree that human animals and chimpanzees are genetically, physiologically, and psychologically similar.  But the differences in the abilities of beings with first-person perspectives and of beings without first-person perspectives is so striking as to be an ontological difference.  (One way that I differ from typical metaphysicians (and from Animalists) is that I think that in some cases what something most fundamentally is depends more on what it can do than what it is made of.  See my reply to Noonan.)

5.  The Corpse Problem.  I think that an animal, whether it constitutes a person or not, still exists as a corpse.  I think that the animal that constitutes me exists from implantation (about 2 weeks after conception) until disintegration.  Part of that time it constitutes me.  So, I am constituted by an animal that will be a corpse (presumably), but I am not identical to that animal.  So, the Constitution View faces no corpse problem that is analogous to the one faced by Animalism (on Olson’s interpretation).

6.  A human person comes into existence when a human organism develops to the point that its brain can support a first-person perspective.  To have a first-person perspective is not a matter of having a brain in a certain state.  To have a first-person perspective is to have a conceptual ability; to exercise a first-person perspective is to exercise a conceptual ability.  This conceptual ability is the ability to think of (conceive of) oneself as oneself.  And it is an ability had by a person, not by a brain.  A sufficiently developed brain is a materially necessary condition for having this ability.

Of course animals think.  Dogs think.  Dogs are animals. Therefore, animals think.  (But animals cannot think the same kinds of thoughts that we can.  Animals can’t wonder how they’re going to die.)

Much of what Olson says is caricature.  For example, I carefully distinguish between having a property derivatively and having a property nonderivatively.  I say that constitution is so close to identity that my body is a person derivatively in virtue of constituting me.  (For elaborate detail, see Chapter 2.)   Without mentioning the distinction, Olson says:  “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....”  Not at all.  To have a property F derivatively is not be to a different kind of F.  It is to be an F in virtue of constitution relations to something that is an F independently. 

7.  Assorted charges of overpopulation:   In my book, I dealt with these as clearly as I could—i.e., by setting out valid arguments in Chapters 6 and 7.  Olson does not mention any of these arguments.

Charging that my view has various absurd consequences, Olson assumes throughout that if x and y are non-numerically-identical, then x and y are “two things,” and if x is an F and y is an F and x and y are non-numerically-identical, then there are two Fs.   His strategy is:  Infer from nonidentity of x and y, where x constitutes y, to “two things” or two Fs, then point out the absurdity of supposing that there are “two things” or two Fs in the circumstances.   However, as I’ll show, where constitution is at issue, the inference from nonidentity to “two things” or two Fs is always question-begging.

First, note that what’s at issue here is not “numerical identity” in the sense of strict, Leibnizian identity; what’s at issue is rather ‘non-numerical-identity.’   Olson assumes that there is only one variety of nonidentity; my view holds that there are two varieties of nonidentity: constitution and separate existence.   Since constitution has an intermediate position between identity and separate existence, what is true of nonidentity in cases of  separate existence may not be true of nonidentity cases of constitution.

I have gone to great lengths to show that “nonidentity” subsumes two different relations:  If x and y are nonidentical at t, then either x and y are constitutionally related at t, or x and y have separate existence at t (where x and y have separate existence at t iff there is no F such that x and y are the same F at t).  Where there is nonidentity in the sense of separate existence, then there are “two things” or two Fs (if Fs are in question) there.  Where there is nonidentity in the sense of constitution, then there are not “two things” or two Fs there.  Since that is my view, it begs the question to infer from non-numerical-identity to “two things” or two Fs. 

Moreover, there is another problem with the “two things” idea: Olson insists on counting things as things.  (He might say ‘numerically-identical things.’)  I think that this is incoherent.  The question, How many things are there in this room (not to mention in the universe)? makes no sense.  How many pencils, yes; how many persons, yes; how many animals, yes, how many things, no.  This is not a “linguistic trick,”  but would be agreed to by philosophers from Aristotle to Putnam. 

Here are a couple of examples of Olson’s illicit inference from nonidentity of Fs to two Fs:

(a) Olson takes as a premise in an argument against me that if x is a person and y is a person and x and y are not “numerically identical,” then there are two persons.  This cannot be a premise in a non-question-begging argument since it is just a denial of one of my premises (see (P1) on p. 173). 

(b) Without the question-begging assumption that if x is an F and y is an F and x and y are non-numerically-identical, then there are two Fs, Olson cannot even raise the question, “How do I know which of the two numerically different people who share my location I am?” This question—as well as his final question about two thinkers of the same thought and the facetious “Are you the animal philosopher or the person philosopher?”—simply ignores my discussion of  ‘the same F’ (p. 174), and my answers to similar objections by Snowdon (pp. 198-202).

All of Olson’s objections that my view entails too many thinkers, philosophers, thoughts, etc. rest on a tendentious use of ‘non-numerical-identity.’  In light of the fact that I have gone to considerable lengths to make clear what constitution is, objections cannot legitimately lump together the two kinds of non-numerical-identity that I have carefully distinguished, and then charge me with absurd conclusions.  

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