Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Soulless Materialism

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, Chris and Brandon have a couple of very interesting posts up debating the question of higher-brain death and personhood (previously discussed in comments here). I share Chris' position, that cognition is essential to our personhood. If your brain goes to mush, then you - as a person - no longer exist. A mere husk of a body is not a person. A person is an agent; it has consciousness, thoughts, feelings, the ability to make decisions, and so forth. An organism might lack all these features and still be biologically "human", but it would not be a person.

It's hard to argue for a claim (that seems to me) so patently obvious. But I'll try. I take it we want our concept of a 'person' to highlight what is most important about a life, what gives that creature an intrinsic moral worth. Now it's surely clear that some form of mental life is absolutely essential to moral worth. Animals may not be persons, but we might reasonably have concern for their interests insofar as they can suffer or enjoy life. Plants or rocks, by contrast, warrant no such concern. So we should consider mental life to be a necessary, if not sufficient, feature of a person.

The alternative is to claim that any human organism is, ipso facto, a person. On this view, what really matters is having the right biological (rather than psychological) makeup. As Chris rightly notes, this view is insulting to the dignity of persons: "It results in the view that all of the things that make us different from one another -- all that makes us who we are -- is superfluous, merely icing on the cake of undifferentiated vital functioning."

To quote David Velleman:
Now, I don't believe in the existence of a soul conceived as a spiritual entity, a piece of spirit-stuff that inhabits my body. But there is a sense in which I believe everything that is most important -- and, in I think, everything that is morally important -- in the doctrine of the soul. For I believe that I am not just my body: I am something more than my body, something that could in principle survive the death of my body (though I do not believe that it actually will).

I don't call this "something more" a soul; I call it a mind. But in some languages -- ancient Greek, for example -- the word for mind (psyche) was also the word for soul. And just as others regard the soul as the basis for the moral status of persons, so I regard the mind.

I think that there is an important difference between opposing all abortion on the grounds that the soul is present from conception and opposing it on the grounds that the fetus is human. I disagree with the former view but I understand and admire it. The latter view strikes me as the sort of thing that is usually charged against secular academics: soulless materialism.

Now, Brandon complains that this restrictive view of personhood is unhelpful, since it doesn't tell us how to treat non-person humans:
We cannot apply our commonplaces about corpses, despite the oxymorons I've read (e.g., "animate corpses"); if we were dealing with corpses, properly speaking, no issues would arise, because the sort of questions we have to ask about those who have experienced higher-brain death cannot arise in the case of corpses. You do not fret about whether a corpse should die; if you can rationally do so, you are not dealing with a corpse.

But I think the view does provide at least some guidance. After all, since the person is already dead, we aren't fretting about whether they should die, but merely their body. It would seem reasonable, on this view, to treat their bodily remains as we normally do, i.e. in accordance with the wishes of the body's deceased owner. If a person wishes their body to be removed from life support once the person is gone, then that is exactly what we should do. There's nothing to "fret" about. To sustain the body in ghoulish animation against the deceased person's wishes, is as repugnant as burying them when they expressed a preference for cremation. It's just plain disrespectful.


  1. "It results in the view that all of the things that make us different from one another -- all that makes us who we are -- is superfluous, merely icing on the cake of undifferentiated vital functioning."

    That's not really true. The main difference between the two views you've discussed is that one view takes human life to be valuable in itself, while the other view takes some property that humans might have to be valuable. On the former view, the things that make us different from one another are only superfluous in that lacking one of these things doesn't make a human have any less intrinsic value. They aren't superfluous to who we are, though. In other words, it's only insulting to the dignity of persons if one assumes the other view of personhood. If one takes the mind to be the most important thing about personhood, then any view that says that somebody who doesn't have a "mental life" should be a considered a person, then of course you will consider that view insulting to the dignity of persons.

    I'm also not very impressed with your "argument." For example, if instead of having a mental life, we could choose a different property of humans that is essential for personhood. I could argue that having a certain color of skin is what gives that creature an intrinsic moral worth ("surely it is clear that the correct color of skin is absolutely essential to moral worth" - yep, that's my argument :)). You then could counter that what really matters is that we are all human, not what color of skin any of us may have. I could then reply that this is insulting to the dignity of persons because it results in the view that all of the things that make us different from one another - what makes us who we are - is superfluous.

  2. Well, you know, if you want to argue like that you'd better at least come up with a property that actually is "essential for personhood". Resting your counter-argument on a patent falsehood just isn't very convincing :P

    Besides, if all persons have the same skin colour, how can that be what individuates them?

    But I think you've misunderstood Chris' argument in that quote there. As I understand it, he was claiming that our mental lives/histories are what distinguish us from each other, not merely that it separates persons from non-persons (which would be question-begging as you note).

    That is, our personal identity is wrapped up in psychological continuity. If I knew that a mad scientist was about to wipe my memories and rewire my brain so as to change all my skills, knowledge, and even my personality/character, then I would consider the resulting person to be someone else entirely. If I had a brain transplant, "I" would wake up with a new body, not a new brain.

    The self is a psychological construct, not a merely physical one. If the brain is damaged enough, then that self will be destroyed. The person that *I* am will cease to exist, though my body lives on. These are all pretty common-sensical claims, I'd have thought, and it should be clear that you cannot say anything remotely analogous regarding such arbitrary properties as "skin colour".

  3. But read your way, the objection still assumes your view, since under the other view "what distinguish us from each other" is not only a mental life. It is one thing that distinguishes us from each other, but it isn't the only thing (just like skin color).

    "The person that *I* am will cease to exist, though my body lives on."

    Your view seems to be treating the body as superfluous. Your mind/body dualism view also seems like it will suffer from the same problems as soul/body dualism suffers.

  4. We may kill plants, but we may not kill people of non-human, extraterrestrial species. Some of the latter may be close enough in kind to plants to warrant calling them "plants". Personhood evidently isn't a biological category, and murder is a concept that tracks personhood, not species. It may be wrong in some sense to euthanize a human being who is missing brain, but it couldn't be murder in the moral sense (though it might in a useful and prudent legal sense, perhaps). If always wrong, it would be more akin to desecrating a church or screaming obsenities in the faces of small children. If sometimes wrong, its wrongness would be like killing plants and dogs just for the pleasure of seeing them die, or for no reason at all.

  5. the word person is just a word. Worse yet it is part of the thing we are debating. You need to tie down what you mean.

    What you mean I guess is that rights are attached to brains not bodies. Presumably one would have to say a certain level of IQ is required to be a person" (you might not like that definition but if you dont create a better one).

    An interesting implication is that you or I might consider ourselves MORE safely within that definition than some other people which may or may not have moral implications.

    the one good thing about the old definition where "it it was born from a mother human and a father human its a human" and as destiny church says "every child is a gift from god" is that it avoids us having to worry about such diferentiation.

  6. Genius, any definition whatsoever will remain open to borderline cases. Consider "artificially created" test-tube babies, or clones. Or even biological chimeras which are not fully human.

    I think the most important question is whether the creature has a mind. If something has no mind then it cannot possibly be a person. How to draw the line between minds of persons and sub-persons is a difficult question which we needn't get into here. The present question is whether a mind is necessary at all -- to which I think the answer is obviously 'yes'!

    Macht, the body isn't superfluous -- a brain without a body wouldn't be able to do much. But I think my particular body isn't so important. We can get organ transplants, and it doesn't change who we are. The brain/mind is primary, the locus of the self, and all that other stuff I was saying in my previous comment.

    And I'm not really a dualist. The mind is realized by the brain. I don't think there's anything problematic about brain/body "dualism".

  7. Hi, Richard, thanks for the comments.

    Chris's comment arose, I think, because he had originally characterized the position as identifying personhood with organismic functioning. But this isn't the view; the view is that the subject that is a human person is simply the same as the subject that is a human organism -- 'human organism' and 'human person' are labels applied to that subject for different reasons, but the subject is the same. The higher-brain view has to do something similar, or it becomes a weird sort of Cartesian materialism (hence my calling it a humunculus theory, which it becomes if it identifies personhood with cognitive functioning); it just makes an additional qualification. It is this additional qualification that does no real rational work, but merely introduces an unjustifiable complication in our reasoning. Identifying X as a person sets up guidelines, expectations, stable principles, which, even if they have to be modified for the particular case, give us something to work with rationally. Denying that X is a person isn't parallel; we have to go back and closely examine what X actually is before we can drawn any conclusions about what we should or should not do with regard to X.

    This is why, I think, I'm not sure where you are getting your last paragraph at all; it seems an utterly arbitrary conclusion. It doesn't follow, as far as I can see, from the organism's being a body; and if the organism is no longer a person, it doesn't automatically follow that the wishes of the person-who-no-longer-exists trump every other consideration. We have something of a hammered-out set of principles for a general ethics with regard to personhood; we have no such background principles for things-that-used-to-be-persons-but-are-no-longer-persons-but-also-aren't-corpses. We obviously have no such background principles; the higher-brain view itself hasn't even been considered in ethics until relatively recently. The qualification put forward by the proponents of the higher-brain view simply doesn't do any work on its own in simplifying, clarifying, or developing our moral reasoning. And when one looks at the way proponents of the higher-brain view actually use it in moral reasoning, one finds very little of substance; a lot of slipping back into unwarranted humunculus-talk, and a lot of attempts to try to push conclusions forward by rhetorical labels whose rational justifications are never made clear. In other words, the higher-brain view looks suspiciously like a residual Cartesianism in materialists who aren't brave enough to be immaterialists and yet aren't consistent enough to get rid of features that presuppose dualism. As to Velleman's view, I regard it as merely incoherent nonsense.

    I'm not convinced by your personal identity argument; it seems to me to equivocate between 'person' as in 'being a person' and 'person' as in 'being the particular person that I am'. I see no reason to think that the criteria for identity of persona or personality (which is what the latter amounts to) are the same as the criteria for identifying something as a person.


    You're right that murder (to take just one example) is a topos of personhood, not a topos of (the human) species; but this dispute, I take it, is over what should be considered a person in the first place.

  8. A problem arises when the mind is considered, not as one unified whole, but as a set of modules.

    Then the statement "If something has no mind then it cannot possibly be a person" is not so straight forward. Parts of the mind can be lost. Indeed, large parts of cognitive function can disappear but, for example, emotional functionality can remain.

    So the process of losing mind is a continuum extending from mild to severe (and is not really a linear process). Therefore, becoming a non-person through such a process is a non-linear continuum as well.

    How to decide at what point a person ceases to become a person remains problematical.

  9. Brandon, evidence from ethics can help get at the outlines of personhood. If killing a certain being isn't murder because it isn't of the kind whose killing can count as murder, then we have in that being a strong candidate for non-person, and therefore good evidence that we've narrowed the field of candidate definitions of personhood. Similarly, if someone proffers definition Q of personhood, demostration that a being could be murdered without satisfying Q refutes that definition.

  10. Richard,
    I had originally thought that you associated the self with the mind (where you take "mind" to be something along the lines of a process or a history or a type of software running on the hardware of the brain). Perhaps your view is similar to Marvin Minsky's ("the mind is what the brain does.")

    But in most of your posts, you've generally talked about the brain and the mind interchangably. But as far as I can tell, it isn't your view that the brain and the mind are the same thing. So, I think I have to take your statement about the brain not needing a particular body to actually mean that the mind doesn't need a particular body. (The brain is part of the body, afterall.) Is see nothing problematic in this view about a particular mind being instantiated in something other than a brain as long as it has the same history or is the same process or, following Minsky's view, "does the same thing."

    This is the context in which I charged you with dualism. Now, you seem to get around this dualism by saying that the mind isn't what constitutes personhood, but is merely necessary for it. The problem I have is that you aren't consistent in this. You also argue that a particular body isn't necessary, just some body is necessary. You've essentially made the body meaningless to the self. It doesn't matter what body an individual "I" is found in. If the mind (and thus the self and thus personhood) can be instantiated in any body, then the body literally has nothing to do with any particular person. I think that this is the "weird sort of Cartesian materialism" that Brandon is talking about.

    But I don't see how this position is even feasible. Even if I assuming that "the mind is what the brain does," it is clear to me that what the brain does is largely dependent on a particular body. I love to run. I run all the time and it is very much a part of who I am. My body also happens to be "built for running." Now, if I was 350 lbs. and had bad knees and asthma, I very highly doubt if I would enjoy running. I doubt that I would describe myself as a runner. In short, I don't see how my mental life/history could be the same in two different bodies. In other words, your idea - that if my brain were transplanted into another body then "I" would wake up with a new body - doesn't seem obvious to me at all. I'm not sure it would be correct to say that "I" existed at all anymore.

    The only way out of this problem, I think, is by saying that particular bodies aren't superfluous to personhood. And from this, I think the most rational view is that human organisms are persons. The other relevant view being that any particular body must have higher-brain function in order to be a person. But this is where Brandon's argument about human non-persons comes in.

  11. Okay, I think we're at risk of conflating two separate issues here. One is whether the mind is necessary for personhood, and the other is whether the mind alone is what constitutes a person.

    In this post, I meant to be arguing for the first claim. You and Brandon are claiming that a person is just a "human organism", so you could have a mindless hunk of flesh and still call it a 'person'. I think that's an absurd and repugnant view, for the sorts of reasons explored above. (Jim's point about what ethics teaches about personhood is a nice addition to this general argument.)

    The second issue is an interesting one too, but not my focus here. I don't have any fixed position on it yet, which probably explains the inconsistencies you've noticed :)

    Your explication of Minsky sounds quite plausible to me. And I agree that the body influences the mind, as your running example nicely demonstrates. To the extent that a brain (or rather, body) transplant would disrupt your psychological continuity in such ways, that may indeed be destructive to your personal identity. (Recall that I share Parfit's reductionism about identity.)

    But that's an extreme case. It seems at least possible to have a transplant into a similar-enough body that no such psychological disruptions occurred. In such cases, it is surely clear that "you" now have a new body, not a new brain. The mind is what most matters.

  12. I thought that I was keeping those two issues fairly distinct from one another (even though they are very related questions, which is why I talked about both of them), but I may not have been clear about what you were arguing for. I thought that you were arguing for both (I think because it seems difficult to argue the necessity question without looking at the constitution question.

    As I see it now, I think what Brandon and I have been talking about is the constitution question while you and Chris have been talking about the necessity question. So I think we may have been talking past each other since the beginning.

    My biggest issue is that I'm very wary about taking one property or aspect or way of functioning in humans and saying that it is necessary for personhood. It's not that I don't think our mental lives are important, it's just that I'm not confident in saying what parts of us are and what parts aren't necessary for personhood.

    What I am very confident in saying is that I - my entire self - am a person. But when you start asking me what parts of myself are necessary to be a person, my confidence goes way down. Now, I'm a lot more confident that I-without-legs is a person than I am that I-with-a-nonfunctioning-forebrain is a person. But, unlike you, it isn't clear to me that I-with-a-nonfunctioning-forebrain isn't a person at all. It is clear to me that I would be severely disabled, but it isn't clear that I wouldn't be a person.

  13. Jim:

    If killing X isn't murder, this doesn't necessarily imply that X is not a person; for not every killing of a person need be considered murder. From non-murder to non-person seems to be an illicit inference - at least without the addition of very controversial assumptions.

    And it seems to me that the proposal in the first part of your comment would beg the question in certain controversial cases. We consider an act murder because it is a killing of a person (under certain conditions); but to do so we have to be implicitly considering them a person already. If there were a disagreement about whether killing X is murder, one of the things that could very well be in dispute (and often is in dispute) is whether X is a person. So it doesn't seem to me to be helpful for controversial cases like that.

    But I do think you are right that the reverse inference is licit: if rational people think killing X is murder, and have reasons for it, there is in that very fact a prima facie reason to think that X is a person. (This is because murder implies that the victim is a person; and thus if rational people have reasons for considering the act murder, they have reasons for considering the victim a person.) So the proposal in the second half of the comment seems right to me.


    My view is not that a human person is "just a human organism" but that everything that is a human organism is also a human person; there is no reason to think that the label human organism is given for reasons that include everything about personhood, or even very much about it. We just don't have any good reason to force the extensions of the labels to diverge. And precisely my point is that a human organism whose higher brain has shut down is not a mere hunk of flesh, but a person whose higher brain has shut down.

  14. I would not claim that any human organism is ipso facto a person (I think this is David Wiggins' view, if I understand him correctly, for which he has very complicated reasons having to do with what he takes to be the indexical nature of the term "person").

    We can say generally, perhaps, that most normal, adult human animals are persons, and we can also say that a great deal of what is interesting in a variety of ways (rationally, morally, linguistically, etc.) about normal, adult human animals is due to the fact that those human animals are persons (here one can choose one's favorite philosophical criterion of personhood).

    But what we cannot say, at least not without further argument, is that being a person is (metaphysically) essential to my persistence. What grounds do we have for believing this latter claim?


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