Human Persons and Organisms. The Constitution View, Animalism, and the Embodied Mind View

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2016 15 Pages

Philosophy - Philosophy of the Present



1 Introduction

2 The Constitution View and Animalism
2.1 The Constitution View of Human Persons
2.2 Animalism

4 The Embodied Mind View

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

We routinely use the term 'person' without ever causing much of a controversy in our everyday life. Things are different, though, once we take a look at academic philosophy. Here a heated debate is taking place. There is not too much agreement about what a person is, how and when persons do persist over time or who a person is, sparing moral philosophy. And as it is usually the case when philosophical problems are discussed but not resolved, new questions and problems arise in the course of the debate and the argument shifts away from its starting point. Such a shift gave rise to the problem that is at the heart of my thesis. It is not quite easy to pin it down, bearing in mind that already the phrasing of the corresponding questions might presuppose certain controversial assumptions. I propose that we state it in the following way:

We consider us to be persons and humans to be biological organisms. How do those two facts relate to each other and what can be inferred from them?

These questions originate in the unresolved problems I mentioned above and its resolution is linked to theirs. Say we as persons are identical to our organisms. From this proposition, it could follow that human persons persist under the same conditions that their organisms do and that human persons are simply organisms of some kind. Hence we can see that a lot is at stake when the person-organism relation is discussed. It at least touches on the ontological question (what is a person?) and on the question about the diachronic identity of persons (how and when do persons persist over time?). As a first approach to this problem, I am going to take a close look at a specific dispute between two positions one of which is called animalism , and the other one ‘The Constitution View of Human Persons’.

Animalism can be said to be the view that each of us is identical with an animal and hence with an organism. The Constitution View is the position that each of us is constituted by a body, but not identical with it, respectively an organism, exhibiting a relation like the one between a statue and the material it is made of. We have to be careful when substituting words like body and organism for one another, but I will say more about that once I actually get into the details of the dispute. For that matter, I am going to explicate and juxtapose the central arguments from Eric T. Olson (a proponent of animalism) and Lynn R. Baker (a proponent of The Constitution View), who explicitly refer to each other, but my argumentation will not stop there.

I think that if we are made to choose between one of the two views, we are destined to realize that we are encountering a dilemma. I, for my part, am not keen on embracing either of those theses. Admittedly neither Olson nor Baker say that we have no other choice but Animalism or the Constitution View. Therefore, I will take a look at what we can learn from contrasting the two views, and discuss what would make a good alternative. One such alternative, the Embodied Mind View, says that we are neither constituted by our organism, nor identical to it, but rather the controlling part of it. I will finish my endeavor by discussing the benefits and downsides of that view.

Having formulated a question containing the terms ‘person' and ‘organism', I still have said nothing to clarify what they could mean. I want to make up for that before I begin discussing the particular positions. Of course, these are controversial concepts in philosophy, but thankfully we can say something about how they are typically used. Persons are said to be subjects with certain cognitive or moral capabilities. Particular assessments of what it might take to be a person differ, but they usually include capabilities such as self-awareness, self-determination, autonomy or rationality. Organisms are contiguous living systems and as such biological entities.

2 The Constitution View and Animalism

In the following section, I will proceed chronologically. The text defending the Constitution View precedes the one on Animalism, therefore I will sum up its main arguments first.

2.1 The Constitution View of Human Persons

Lynn R. Baker defends the view that we are animals in such a way that we are not identical to our organisms, respectively an animal. In her thesis, she tries to show that we can spell out a sound version of the latter claim without denying the former. The starting-point of her argument is the notion of a human person. We are human persons. What makes us human and what makes us a person then? According to Baker we are persons by virtue of having the "capacity to have a first-person perspective" and human by virtue of "being constituted by a human organism" [1, p. 91]. Hence we are beings with a certain cognitive capability who are not identical to their organisms. Initially, she does not distinguish between the terms 'organism' and 'body' and uses them interchangeably.

What is revealed in the first-person perspective is the capability to conceive of yourself as a subject that is disjoined from a “world of things different from yourself” [1, p. 92]. A person is a being that can conceptually differentiate between itself and the rest of the world. Herein Baker talks of a capacity in order to make sure that a person doesn't cease to exist when falling asleep or “[going] into a coma” [1, p. 92], where they don't employ a first-person perspective.

What exactly is then the relation of a human person to its organism or body? Baker says that “a human body […] is the object of [a human person's] first-person reference”[1, p. 93] which means that “[the person] conceives of its properties as his own” [1, p. 94]. But when doing that a person is not identical to its body! Baker actually provides us with a definition of the relation in question. Since the definition of the constitution relation in general [1, p. 95] is very abstract and formal, I will explicate what it specifically means in the case of bodies and persons. For a body to constitute a person at a certain point in time, it has to be true, that

1) the body is in intrinsic and environmental conditions at that time, that are conductive to the development and maintenance of a first-person perspective; and

2) it is necessary that whenever a body is in such conditions, there is a spatially coextensive person; and

3) it is possible that the body could exist (in different conditions) without a spatially coextensive person existing as well.

To be fair this is a rather minimal explication [1, p. 96], but it is a clear and neat definition that comes sufficiently close to what Baker has in mind. She goes on to specify two terms from the first clause: the relevant intrinsic conditions “are that the organism, particularly the brain, is developed to [at least] the extent that a normal baby's brain is developed at birth”. The relevant environmental conditions “are those in which the infant naturally develops various senses of 'self'” [1, p. 96]. Under this definition dead bodies, decerebrated bodies and maybe even bodies of heavily demented beings do not constitute persons, since they are not in the appropriate conditions that allow for a capacity of a first-person perspective, but sleeping bodies, or bodies in the state of coma do.

Since the body and the person in a constitution relationship are spatially coextensive, they share their non-historical properties, that is properties which can be defined without reference to the past or the future. This fact conforms to our everyday practice of attributing traits of our bodies such as height or weight to ourselves. In order to make sense of the fact that we share most of our properties with something that is not identical to us, Baker introduces the notion of having properties derivatively. She provides a formal definition of that notion as well, which I am likewise going to explicate in a minimal sense [1, p. 97]. Something or Somebody has a property derivatively if

1) it is constituted by something that could have had the property without constituting anything at all; or

2) it is constituting something and its having the property entails that it is constituting something.

According to 1) 'being 1.90 m tall' is a property I have derivatively and my body has nonderivatively. My body could possess that property without constituting anything at all. It could be a decerebrated body of the same size, after all. According to 2) 'being a philosophy student' is a property that my body has derivatively and I have nonderivatively. My body being a philosophy student entails that it is constituting a person: me. For our purpose, we can simplify the notion even further by saying that any of our properties that requires for its bearer to be a person, is a property that we have nonderivatively and our body has derivatively. From the definition above it also follows that “[we] are persons nonderivatively” and “animals derivatively” [1, p. 97]. Correspondingly our bodies are persons derivatively and animals nonderivatively.

To further clarify what a human person is, Baker also discusses essential properties of persons, human bodies and human persons as entailed by the Constitution View. An essential property of some entity is a property without which the entity in question could not exist. So, for instance, a circle could not exist without being round. Baker claims that “on the Constitution View a person is essentially a person” [1, p. 106]. That is to say that there is no being that could lose the property 'personhood' and continue to exist with all their remaining properties, which aligns well with the claim that the emergence of a person is the emergence of a new entity [1, p. 105].

On the Constitution View, a “human person is not essentially a human person” [1, p. 106], though. For a person to be a human person is to be constituted by a human body. But, so Baker claims, a person could come to be constituted by a different body, e.g. a bionic one. Therefore an originally human person could become a bionic person, without ceasing to exist. A person has to be constituted by some body though in order to exist, so a human person is “essentially embodied” [1, p. 107]. It is here where the possibility emerges, that the particular body that constitutes us could be something other than a biological organism and those two terms come apart. Baker defines the term body as “a spatially extended, solid entity, all of whose parts are contagious” [1, p. 112] such that all organisms are bodies (but not vice versa) and that in any actual cases our bodies are organisms.

The conviction that there is a possibility of particular persons and bodies coming apart from each other, is also the motivation and justification for the claim that we as persons are not identical to our bodies [1, p. 109]. This aligns well with the idea that persons are of a different kind than animals. On the Constitution View “persons are essentially psychological/moral entities” while “human bodies are essentially biological entities” [1, p. 105].

2.2 Animalism

Contrary to the Constitution View, Eric T. Olson tries to defend the animalist claim “that we are animals” in a way that “each of us is numerically identical with an animal” [2, p. 319], respectively our organism (the 'animal' is a biological organism). His thesis serves two main purposes. Some of its passages are supposed to clarify what is (and what is not) implied by animalism; in the others, he discusses what it would mean to dismiss animalism's central claim, the problems associated with different ways to do so and why it nevertheless is a popular strategy. In all of that Olson does not explicitly commit to any view of what a person is. And he need not to. His main arguments do not appeal to any particular position on that question.

There are indeed many ways to misunderstand Olson's claim and its implications. A simple way to phrase it without misrepresenting it, is to say that “all human [persons] are animals” [2, p. 320] in the sense of identity I specified above. Herein the term 'human person' simply means “someone who relates to a human animal in the way that you and I do, whatever way that is” [2, p. 320]. This proposition, by the rules of logic, does not entail the reverse claim that “all animals, or even all human animals, are [persons]” [2, p. 320]. It is also different from the claim that all persons are animals. Depending on how you define the term 'person' there might be non-animal persons for Olson, as well [2, p. 320]. If we, for instance, were ever to design robots with similar mental properties to ours, they might be non-animal persons and it would not contradict his claim since all human persons would still be animals. Thus animalism does not entail the claim that “[being] a person is nothing other than to be an animal of a certain sort” [2, p. 320]. While Baker claims that our body could be something other than a biological organism, Olson denies this. To him the only viable use of the expression 'our body' is if it is “by definition a sort of animal” [2, p. 321] and since he believes that “no animal could be partly or wholly inorganic” [2, p. 321], our body could not be either. This comes as close to the claim that we are essentially animals as it gets.

Now that Olson’s clarifications of what animalism claims (and what it does not) are summed up, we can take a look at the arguments about what it would mean to reject it. Raising the question what we could be if not animals, he claims that we have several rivals to that view. Alternatively to being an animal we are either [2, pp. 323-324]

1) immaterial substances like souls, or compound things made up of an immaterial substance and a biological organism; or

2) material objects constituted by human animals; or

3) temporal parts of animals (phase sortals) that are psychologically interconnected; or

4) a bundle of sensations, perceptions, and thoughts; or

5) complexes of information “realized” in our brains; or

6) non-existent: all there is are thoughts, but no beings that have these thoughts.

Faced with such a multitude of views Olson does not go into detail to refute all of those claims. He raises the question, however, why it is so popular to reject the animalist view. Historically, he claims, it is the hostility towards materialism that is the main reason for that. Animals, as construed by Olson, are material objects. And for a long time it has been “hard to believe that a material object […] could produce thought or experience” [2, p. 325].



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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492 KB
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Institution / College
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg
Person Animalism The Constitution View The Embodied Mind View Derek Parfit Lynn R. Baker Eric T. Olson Jeff McMahan Philosophie der Person




Title: Human Persons and Organisms. The Constitution View, Animalism, and the Embodied Mind View