Interview with Eric Olson, professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, the author of the book «The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology» (1997) and «What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology» (2007). Questions: Evgeny Loginov and Andrey Mertsalov; illustration — Ivan Fomin.
Datepalmcompote: In interviews you’re usually asked about your way to philosophy and you reply that you were gripped by Plato. Was it only a gateway to philosophy or did Plato’s ideas somehow influence your approach to philosophy or determine yours interest in the personal identity problem?
Eric Olson: I think it was only a gateway. My approach to philosophy has things in common with Plato’s. We’re both drawn to metaphysics and to rationalism, and try to write in an accessible way. But I don’t think I learned these things from Plato.
DC: Some philosophers think that animalism is compatible with only one theory in the philosophy of mind, physicalism. Others claim that the only philosophy of mind that is incompatible with animalism is substance dualism. What do you think about relations between animalism and philosophy of mind?
E.O.: Physicalism is the view that mental properties are physical properties, or in some sense supervene on them. Animalism is the view that we are animals — biological organisms. Animalism would entail physicalism only if it were impossible for an organism to have a non-physical property, or one that doesn’t supervene in a certain way on physical properties. And I see no reason to accept that. But I can’t confidently say anything on this topic without being told what it is for a property to be non-physical. I’ve never been able to see a clear and important distinction between ‘physical’ and ‘non-physical’ properties, and because of this I’ve never had much interest in physicalism.
Animalism is certainly incompatible with our being immaterial substances, or things having a thinking, immaterial substance as a part. I’m sure there are other theories in the philosophy of mind that are incompatible with animalism, but none come to mind.
DC: What is your position in regards to Richard Swinburne’s thesis that ‘I’ is an informative rigid designator?
E.O.: Well, it’s informative in the sense that to know its meaning is to know the criteria for applying it to things. An occurrence of the word ‘I’ refers to the being that utters or writes it (in the right sort of speech act — not when singing a song or reciting a poem). It’s the word speakers use to refer to themselves. That’s all there is to its meaning. That makes ‘I’ unlike natural-kind terms such as ‘water’. You can know what ‘water’ means without knowing how something has to be for it to count as water.
But Swinburne sometimes says that an informative designator is one that you know the meaning of only if you ‘know fully what it refers to’, and I don’t think ‘I’ is informative in this sense. Knowing that it refers to the speaker doesn’t tell us whether the speaker is material or immaterial, simple or composite, a substance or an event or a Humean ‘bundle of perceptions’, or what have you. It tells us nothing about what sort of thing the term refers to, other than that it has certain linguistic capacities. Knowing the meaning of ‘I’ is compatible with complete ignorance about the metaphysical nature of its referent, just as knowing the meaning of ‘water’ is compatible with complete ignorance about the chemical nature of its referent.
So the meaning of ‘I’ tells us how to apply it to things. It tells us what situation something has to be in for an occurrence of the word to refer to it. Nothing more.
DC: During your career you have given several formulations of the thinking animal argument. Which one now you consider as the most powerful and convincing?
E.O.: I see the differences as superficial and philosophically unimportant. Here’s the central thought: This biological organism — the one some philosophers like to call my body — is thinking. And I am thinking. But there aren’t two beings here thinking, me and an intelligent organism. It follows by elementary logic that I am that organism. And that, in turn, implies that what it takes for me to persist is what it takes for that organism to persist. The same goes for other human people. Anyone who denies this — anyone who believes, for instance, that our persistence conditions are different from those of human organisms —is committed to rejecting one of the argument’s premises.
To me it seems a very simple argument. Most anti-animalists have said which premise they think is false, which has improved the quality of the discussion about personal identity enormously over what it was twenty years ago. What continues to surprise me is how many good philosophers misunderstand or ignore the argument. They deny that we’re organisms but see no need to say which premise they think is false (or why, despite appearances, the conclusion doesn’t follow). I don’t know how to make it any clearer.
DC: The conclusion of the thinking animal argument is that we are human animals. But it seems that it doesn’t prove that we are human animals essentially. Could the claim that we are human animals, yet not essentially, be compatible with animalism?
E.O.: Right: the argument’s conclusion is that we’re organisms. And as the organisms that we are happen to be are human animals, we are human animals. That doesn’t by itself imply that we are organisms or human animals essentially. It depends on whether human animals are organisms or human animals accidentally or essentially, which is a further question. I don’t know of any serious view according to which something that is in fact a biological organism could exist without being a biological organism, but that’s a question about the metaphysics of organisms — a question entirely independent of whether you and I are organisms or non-organisms.
I don’t think we are HUMAN animals essentially — not, at least, if an organism’s species is an accidental property of it, as philosophers of biology usually say.
DC: You’ve claimed that human animals are essentially animals. Is there any argument to support this step? Or you consider the step as obvious and the opposite as weird?
E.O.: There’s nothing obvious about it. The reason I think human animals are animals essentially is that I can’t see any possible situation in which something that is in fact a human animal — or an animal of any other sort — could exist without being an animal. If my brain were removed from my head and kept alive in a vat, for example, there may be reason to suppose that I myself would exist in the vat, but not that the animal would. The animal would only lose an organ, just as it might lose its liver. Likewise, if my organs were removed bit by bit and replaced with inorganic prostheses until eventually there were an entirely inorganic person with memories of my life, the animal would not gradually become inorganic until all its parts were made of metal and plastic and silicon. Removing the animal’s organic parts would only make it smaller. The prostheses would be part of its environment. By the time the last organic parts were replaced, there would be nothing left of the animal: it would no longer exist.
So I see the view that we are animals only accidentally — or that anything could be an animal only accidentally — as extremely implausible: ‘weird’, as you say. But it’s not obviously weird. The weirdness comes out only when we think carefully about the view’s consequences. (For what it’s worth, I discuss the view briefly in ‘What does it mean to say that we are animals?’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 22 (11-12), 2015: 84-107.)
DC: Am I right that your animalism goes with modal scepticism? Because if it’s not then the zombie argument may be considered as a threat to the Thinking animal argument.
E.O.: By the zombie argument I suppose you mean the attempt to show, by means of a priori modal intuition, that there could be something physically identical to a conscious being, with the same behaviour, but lacking in consciousness. This would imply that consciousness is not a physical property. I’m modal sceptic enough to have no view here: I am unmoved both by attempts to show that zombies are possible and by attempts to show the opposite. (Though I’m not a complete modal sceptic: I think today’s weather could have been different, and that 42 could not have been prime. I’m only sceptical about modal judgments to do with scenarios far removed from actuality — the sort that philosophers are divided on.) But there is no obvious connection between this scepticism and animalism.
I don’t see the zombie argument as a threat to the thinking-animal argument. Even if there really could be an entirely unconscious being physically identical to me as I am now, that would be no reason to doubt whether this human organism is conscious. (Just as the fact that it was possible for today to be wet is no reason to doubt whether it’s in fact dry, as it appears to be.) The zombie argument claims that a being physically just like me might lack consciousness because the natural laws linking brain states with states of conscious awareness could be different. Its advocates don’t think there actually are any zombies, but only that they exist in worlds with different laws. A zombie argument that would undermine the thinking-animal argument would have to claim that zombies are consistent with the actual laws of nature: that it’s nomologically possible for the human animals walking the earth to be zombies, while sharing their matter with conscious beings physically identical to them. Many opponents of animalism do appear to hold that view, but not on the basis of zombie arguments (see ‘The zombies among us’, Noûs 52, 2018: 216–226).
DC: Do you agree that animalism implies perdurantism?
E.O.: No. Perdurantism is the view that all persisting objects are composed of temporal parts —presumably ‘arbitrary’ temporal parts, so that for any period of time when something exists, whether short or long, continuous or discrete, it has a temporal part existing only then. There is no logical connection between this claim and the view that we are animals.
In fact nearly all perdurantists deny that we’re animals. According to perdurantism, what we are and what it takes for us to persist are not metaphysical questions, but only a matter of which rational, temporally extended beings our personal pronouns and proper names refer to. (Or at least this is so up to a point. Whether we have immaterial souls is still a metaphysical question.) There are rational animals, or at any rate animals that are rational during most of their existence (excluding their embryonic period and, in cases of severe dementia, their final months). There are other beings —temporal parts of animals — that are rational throughout their entire existence, with a high degree of psychological continuity to boot. Call them ‘psychological continuers’. The widespread conviction that our persistence consists in some sort of psychological continuity might make it more likely that our personal pronouns and proper names refer to psychological continuers than to animals. And if our personal pronouns refer to non-animals, then we are non-animals.
DC: From your point of view, what is the relation between animalism and the biological approach to personal identity? Does the first imply the second? Does the second imply the first?
E.O.: I suppose the biological approach is the view that some sort of biological continuity is necessary and sufficient for us (human people) to persist. Whether this follows from animalism depends on whether some sort of biological continuity is necessary and sufficient for a human animal to persist. I think it probably is, but I’m not confident about this, and it’s independent of whether we’re animals.
The biological approach does not imply animalism. Someone might take us to be certain parts of animals, parts that persist by virtue of some sort of biological continuity. But I can’t see any attraction in such a view, and I don’t know of anyone who actually holds it.
DC: It is often said that the history of the personal identity debate starts with Locke. But between Early Modern philosophy and analytic philosophy there is a huge temporal gap. Can you name the starting point of contemporary debate? Maybe the paper or a book which may be considered as a Big Bang?
E.O.: You can find claims about the metaphysical nature of people throughout the history of philosophy. The question of what it takes for a person to persist through time came to prominence with Locke in 1694. I’m sure it must have been posed earlier, but for some reason it didn’t make a lasting impression. And it’s been discussed pretty regularly since Locke. I don’t think there was any ‘big bang’ that set off the contemporary debate — though Parfit’s work, with its vivid examples and powerful questions, was perhaps the most influential. If the question has become more prominent in recent years, I suspect it’s because of an increasing interest in metaphysics generally.
DC: You are famous for denying a strict connection between personal ontology and metaphysics of self on the one hand and questions about moral responsibility on the other. Does this mean that you deny that identity of the person is a necessary condition for attribution of blame or praise?
E.O.: I’m undecided about this. Animalism (together with a biological approach to our persistence) implies that someone else could be psychologically continuous with me, with vivid memories (or ‘quasi-memories’) of my actions. Suppose my brain were transplanted into your head, so that you remembered the things I did last year just as well as I do today. It would seem to you as if you did those things. They would weigh on your conscience just as they now weigh on mine. Would that make you morally responsible for them and liable to praise or blame, just as I am in the actual case? Maybe. We can ask the same question about a perfect duplicate of me made by taking new atoms just like mine and arranging them just as mine are now arranged. (We might suppose that I die soon afterwards, or that the duplication procedure destroys me.) The duplicate would remember (or quasi-remember) my actions just as well as I do. They would weigh on his conscience just as they do on mine. Would he be responsible for them? Hard question.
DC: Marya Schechtman says that your arguments for animalism were part of her motivation to switch her position from narrative theory to Person Life view. Do you agree that animalistic personal ontology and the Person Life view as answers to characterization question are compatible?
E.O.: It’s impossible to say briefly what Schechtman thinks a person-life is. But her view is that a person is something with a person-life. More strongly, the number of people is determined by the number of person-lives, so that necessarily every person-life is the life of a person and every person has one and only one person-life. And necessarily, if any being is a person, she exists just when her person-life is going on: no one can diverge from her person-life. Given that we are people, which no one denies, it follows that each of us has one and only one person-life and exists just when it’s going on. (But the view allows that any of us could exist as a non-person without ever having a person-life. It doesn’t say that we have to be people.)
This is not actually an answer to the characterization question — the question of what makes someone the individual person she is. It’s an answer to the ‘personhood question’, that of what it is to be a person. (Pretty much all answers to these questions are compatible with our being animals.) It’s also an answer to the persistence question, that of what it takes for a person to persist through time: it says that if something is a person at a time, then necessarily it exists at another time just if the person-life it has at the original time is going on at the other time. And it’s an answer to what I’ve called the ‘population question’— what determines how many people there are at any one time. Philosophers are often unclear about what question their theories purport to answer, and nowhere more so than in discussions of personal identity. It leads to all sorts of confusion.
Schechtman thinks the person-life view rules out our being animals. That must be because it’s impossible for a human animal to have a person-life, or because a human animal and its person-life could diverge. But I don’t know why she thinks this. I can’t see anything in her description of a person-life that would have either implication. She doesn’t attempt to describe a possible case where an animal diverges from its person-life, or point to any property that you and I would have on the person-life view but no animal could have. And I can’t understand her own account of what we are. I’m sorry I can’t give a more helpful answer.
DC: Do you see any weakness of your animalism as personal ontology? Are there any issues to work on in this field?
E.O.: Every philosophical claim has weaknesses: it raises hard questions, has implausible consequences, and is incompatible with other attractive views. Animalism fits badly with perdurantism, for instance (even if it’s logically consistent with it). Perdurantism has lots of attractions — in connection with vagueness, for example. That’s a weakness of animalism, or a cost.
Animalism also has important consequences for practical ethics (in connection with conjoined twins, human embryos, and senile dementia, among other things) and for the philosophy of religion (in connection with life after death and the incarnation). There’s plenty of work to be done in working out these consequences. Insofar as they’re implausible, I suppose that’s a weakness in the view. Because I see the case for animalism as strong compared to the case for ethical and theological doctrines that clash with it, I don’t lose a lot of sleep over this; but others see it differently.
DC: What have you never thought about?
E.O.: Nearly everything. The proportion of topics, even metaphysical topics, that I’ve put any real thought into is close to zero. To take just one example, I’ve never thought about the nature of consciousness. This is partly because the question isn’t clear enough for me to know where to start thinking. I couldn’t say, in any useful detail, what would count as a theory of consciousness — even a bad theory — or what question it’s supposed to answer. I’m also not convinced that consciousness has the enormous importance that many people see in it — though that’s sheer autobiography and not a value judgment.
More generally, I can’t get far with a topic until I have a good understanding of the question at stake, and it takes me a long time to get to that point. In most cases I never do. I wish I could have wise thoughts about a broad range of philosophical topics, but that’s not the way my mind works.