Are you an animal?


Essay number two:

The question ‘are you an animal’ is ambiguous. One one hand, it could be taken to mean ‘are we like other members of the animal kingdom in all but the degree of our abilities, or are we qualitatively different?’ This would lead to a discussion of whether humans are uniquely rational, whether animals have or can have moral capacity, and whether non-human animals can ever be self aware. On the other hand it could also mean ‘Is our essential nature that we are organisms, or are we thinking beings who are only incidentally organisms?’ This leads to problems such as what constitutes an individual’s identity, what does it mean to be a person, and whether anyone could hypothetically exist independently of their body. Based on the reading material I am going to answer the second interpretation of the question.

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke aims gives an account of personal identity. He argues that something is one animal if its constituent parts participate in one common life. The matter and particles are organised and work together to form an animal. He gives a similar account for plants (Using the example of an Oak) and machinery (Using the example of a Watch). The nature of the life is different: Animals are animate, for example, while plants are not, and a watch needs to be wound up to function while a plant does not. But while the nature of life is different, this oneness of substance directed to the same goal is what defines the object. Locke suggests that for men it is similar: a man consists of matter participating in a shared and continuous life. (In this context ‘men’ collectively refers to men, women and children) In this sense we, as men, are organisms; this would seem to support the claim that we are animals.

This would probably be Locke’s final position, except for his conception of a ‘person’. Despite their interchangeable meaning in common language, ‘man’ and ‘person’ are significantly different terms. For Locke, a person is ‘a thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider it self as it self’. He illustrates the difference with a man who lacks all introspection and self awareness, and a parrot which thinks and reasons. Clearly the man is still a man and the parrot is still a parrot, and yet the parrot satisfies his idea of a person while the man arguably doesn’t. This suggests we have a different identity apart from being human beings; in being persons; which in turn implies we are not merely animals but also a different class of being. The key distinction is when a person sees, hears, feels or senses anything, we are aware of our perception. Locke suggests that it is a contradiction for a person to perceive without being aware of our perception.

Locke reaches the conclusion that consciousness, this self awareness of our actions, always accompanies thinking and in fact is necessary for it. Animal organisms act according to instinct and biology whereas persons act according to their will. Because we are both persons and animals, we are influenced by both. As persons, our identity is not in the substance we are made of, whether physical matter or immaterial soul, but in some persistent aspect that unites our constituent parts. Just as animal identity comes from identity of life, not identity of substance, Personal identity comes from consciousness. This means you are the same person as long as your consciousness now is consistent with your consciousness in the past. Locke argues that it is possible for one man to be different persons at different times. Our intuitions support this: We do not punish madmen for what they did while sane, and vice versa. We recognise their consciousnesses are disconnected, and so treat them as different persons. Locke argues that nothing other than consciousness can unite our experiences into a person: mere substance can no more be a person than a corpse. If this account is accurate, you are not fundamentally an organism, but a person, and so while you may occupy or contingently be a physical animal form, this is not your identity.

Locke’s argument is generally understood to take consistency of consciousness to be based on memory. x today is the same person as x in the past only if he can remember what he did at that time in the past. This is problematic because identity and memories don’t have the same properties. For example, memory is not discrete, whereas identity is. Either A and B are the same person, or they are not. However, we don’t remember everything we do; sometimes we only remember the memory and so have a second hand recollection; other times we may remember events wrongly. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast on the 14th September 2016, but I nonetheless hold it was me who ate that breakfast. There may be an event I only sometimes remember; the conclusion from this is that I am only sometimes the person who attended the event, which is absurd. Furthermore, memory is not transitive, but Identity is. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy uses the example of an Elder lady who can remember being middle aged, and when she was middle aged she could remember being a child, but she can no longer remember her childhood. On this interpretation of Locke, the elderly and middle ages women are the same, and the middle aged women and the child are the same, but the elderly woman and child are not. This is not merely absurd but flatly contradictory.

The response to this, according to Eric Olson in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is a move away sameness of person according to memory, and a move towards psychological connectedness: our mental states now are caused to exist by our mental states in the past, and so this continual causation is the criterion of being the same person. In this form the worst objections to the memory approach can be addressed. In a modified form, Locke’s ideas live on.

This type of approach is called a psychological continuity approach, and it holds that persistent identity is based on continuity of mental states. These mental states can refer to consciousness and memories (as in Locke’s case), personality, beliefs, and so on. The main alternative to this approach is Brute-Physicalism, which holds that persistent identity is based on our physical bodies. It is closely associated with Animalism, the belief that we are animals, although it is possible to believe in one without the other. Based on the descriptions given by Eric Olson; Psychological continuity views hold that we may happen to be animals at the moment, but we are animals only contingently, and persons in essence. In contrast, Brute Physicalism holds that we have persistence criterion like other animals; we exist as long as our bodies exist and we are functioning as an organism. This means that while we may be thinking beings, our essence is as an organism. One way of thinking of this is that Brute-Physicalists believe it is possible in principle for us not to be persons while still being us, for example as a foetus, while the Psychological Continuity camp believe it is possible in principe for us to not be organisms while still being us.

Olson suggests that Psychological Continuity arguments are more intuitive and more in line with common sense – and when I first read about them I had the same reaction. ‘If your brain were transplanted, and that organ would carry with it your memories and other mental features, the resulting person would be convinced that he or she was you. Why should this conviction be mistaken?’ If person A’s brain is transplanted to person B’s body, then person A is not the vegetable left without a brain, but the individual who has all the mental states of A. While intuitive, psychological continuity views have a surprising number of philosophical problems which its proponents have to deal with. For this reason, the less intuitive Brute-Physicalism is able to offer a credible alternative.

To explore these ideas, Derek Parfit uses an analogy of a teleporter which disassembles the body and reconstructs it out of different matter at a different location. It is easy to imagine that the consciousness is transferred, and so this is effectively a transportation method. Then he changes the thought experiment so the teleporter doesn’t destroy the original body. Now the picture is completely different; it seems obvious that the consciousness will stay with the original body. This creates a problem; the existence or nonexistence of the original body does not effect the duplicate at all, so whether or not the consciousness is transferred can not be contingent on the original body. The psychological continuity approaches give nonsensical results in this situation, suggesting that we are fundamentally organisms. (Although this isn’t Parfit’s final conclusion.)

Bernard Williams has a similar thought experiment. He proposes a hypothetical situation in which A and B’s memories and characters are swapped, resulting in A-Body-Person and B-Body-Person. A and B are informed that this procedure will take place, and following it one of them will be given a large sum of cash and the other will be tortured. (These were picked as things that can be viewed univocably as good or bad.) If A asks for B-Body-Person to receive the cash, then the person with A’s memory and personality will say they are happy with their choice. Conversely, if A asks for A-Body-Person to receive the cash, then A-Body-Person will not remember asking but will be pleasantly surprised at the outcome, while B-Body-Person will both acknowledge they got their wish and dislike what is happening to them. This so far supports the view that each individual’s identity corresponds to their memories.

However, Williams then constructs a case against this view: A has a rational incentive to fear pain even if he knows he will first have total amnesia, because he will still have to suffer it. Williams adds incremental steps, gradually moving towards the position where A’s memories and character are changed into memories and a character identical to those of another, who goes through an identical procedure with A’s memories and character. In this final situation, A should still fear pain, because even with drastically different mental properties, he will still experience pain and it will still be unpleasant.

The value of thought experiments like this one is that they help draw out the assumptions made, and make implicit claims and problems explicit. In the first case Williams frames it in such a way that the consciousness seems to move and inhabit the new body, whereas in the second he frames it to imply it stays with the original organism. Both accounts are credible, and which one seems more convincing to me switches from moment to moment, like an optical illusion of two faces and a vase.

From what I understand, I think this argument can’t be conclusively resolved for two reasons. Firstly, different people use different definitions, which lead to different conclusions. For example, one person might hold that personal identity is based on consciousness above all else, like Locke, and so continuity of consciousness is the basis of whether a person at time x and time y are the same person. Another person might hold that identity is based on consistency of memories and character; so a person may have a different consciousness but they can be recognised as the same person, because they have inherited the memories and character of the original. Both of these views are defensible because they are not matters of fact but of definitions. As long as there is this kind of difference in how people conceive identity, there will not be a consensus on the nature of personal identity.

Secondly, much of the field is not subject to falsification. For example, if my brain were removed and put in someone else’s head, would it be me who woke up, or another person with identical mental features? If it is the second option, there would be no way of knowing because the newly created person would believe that they are me. There is simply no way of knowing whether consciousness is transferred with the individual’s mental states, or if it stays with the original brain. As long as we lack the scientific methods to find this out, philosophers will limited to thought experiments and logic when trying to answer this kind of question.

Finally, there is no definite link between the belief that identity is more closely bound with our bodies than our mental states, and the belief that we are animals. For example, it is consistent with the first of these two to believe that we are in essence a disembodied soul, or spirit which inhabits a body. This shows that even if the debates around psychological continuity and brute-physicalism are resolved conclusively, this will not necessarily translate to a consensus on whether we are in essence organisms or thinking beings.

Personally I feel strongly and intuitively that we are not merely animals, that while being an organism may be a part of our natures it is not the most fundamental and intimate part of us. However, this is an argument of what seems common sense to me more than a result of philosophical reasoning. While I don’t like to conclude without reaching a conclusion on the issue, this issue in particular feels like such a philosophical stalemate that I have nothing better than intuition to rely on as to which perspective is right.


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