What Are We?: A Study in Personal Ontology (Philosophy of Mind)


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Perhaps they don't think, or don't think as we do? Or perhaps the animals don't really exist at all? Calling this "the thinking-animal problem," Olson returns to it in each chapter, noting when it proves problematic Chs. Second, an account of personal ontology should supply what we need to address the issue of our persistence over time. Olson addresses what persistence could look like on each of the views, once again using this as a touchstone to determine which views have an advantage Chs. While the rhetorical tone in the middle chapters certainly conveys a sense of what appeals to Olson, it isn't until the final chapter that he offers his own opinions about the range of alternative answers.

After quickly dismissing the brain view and the bundle view, he scratches his chin over immaterialism before setting it aside. The constitution view has its advocates, but Olson sees it as "deeply implausible and, above all, unprincipled" That leaves him with animalism, the temporal-parts view, and nihilism, all of which remain "in the contest". His own allegiance lies with animalism, and he devotes some of this chapter to defending animalism against two trenchant objections.

The first of these -- the thinking-parts problem -- maintains that every part of an organism that includes a brain could be said to think in "the strictest sense", thereby creating a problem of determining which of this multitude we are. Applying the clay-modeling puzzle to the animal, the second objection is grounded in the observation that the stuff out of which we're made survives us even though it seems identical to us while we're alive, much as the clay can survive the statue into which it is formed.

In the end, though, he doesn't select animalism over the other two options, choosing to remain more circumspect about what is the correct answer to the question. The final few pages are devoted to development and defense of his bold conjecture that our fundamental metaphysical nature and the nature of material composition are closely connected. So long as composition is not simply a brute fact, Olson contends that animalism, the temporal-parts view, and nihilism are each implied by a different theory of composition; this creates a conceptual connection between personal ontology and material composition that "ought to make progress on both easier" Those expecting a defense of animalism -- a sequel to Olson -- will not find it here; if anything, this reads more like a prequel, containing circumspect reflections on the metaphysical background against which the problem of personal identity plays out.

The prominent position of the animal chapter and the pervasive use of the thinking-animal problem might give a contrary impression, or at least motivate concern that he is stacking the deck against all other answers to his question. If the topic were personal identity, giving such prominence to the human animal would be grounds for suspicion, but as this is a book about personal ontology, putting the human animal out front is to be expected -- after all, wherever I go, there it is.

1. The Field and its Significance

Metaphysics may eventually yield a surprising answer to the question of what I am, but in doing so it will have to either explain or explain away the human animal. More troubling, perhaps, is Olson's reliance on the subjective and the psychological in this book. To answer the question, "What are we? The fix Olson adopts is the human person , which under development looks strikingly like the Cartesian ego. Throughout his study, the "thinking thing" 13 is used as a touchstone to determine if the answer under scrutiny is adequate. It will be difficult to get personal identity without psychology, as Olson champions, if psychology forms the foundation of personal ontology.

Related to this is a feeling that the person isn't getting a fair shake in this book. This derives primarily from Olson's rhetoric. The book does not endorse any particular account but argues that the matter turns on issues in the ontology of material objects. If composition is universal—if any material things whatever make up something bigger—then we are temporal parts of organisms. If things never compose anything bigger, so that there are only mereological simples, then either we are simples—perhaps the immaterial souls of Descartes—or we do not exist at all. If some things compose bigger things and others do not, we are organisms.

Olson, author University of Sheffield Author Webpage. Lessons on Truth From Kant. American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.


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