Our 'personal' nature

Surviving in the 21st century

Posted Feb 27, 2012

Our "personal" nature

Philosophers agree to quite a surprising degree about what it's like to be a being like you or I. They agree that we reason, have preferences and beliefs, make decisions, plan for the future, care about other things that are relevantly like us, are morally responsible for at least some of our behaviours, experience pain and pleasure and so on. This is surprising only because they so starkly disagree about what beings like us really are, by our very nature, or as it is often put, essentially. Some think that what you and I are, really, by our natures, are human animals. What it is to be a human animal, in turn, is to be a member of a certain biological kind: to have a certain evolutionary history, and perhaps a certain genetic makeup. Philosophers with this view are often known as animalists.

Animalists think that when you ask the question "when did I come into existence?" we can answer that question by figuring out when the human animal that is you, came into existence. We can also figure out what sorts of events will cause you to go out of existence, that is, to die. We even know who to go to, to answer these kinds of questions: biologists. Since these turn out to be questions about a biological kind, human animal, they are best answered by biologists who study that kind.
Whatever exactly biologists tell us about under what conditions human animals come into and out of existence, it seems pretty likely that sophisticated mental states will turn out not to be very important to the story. Almost certainly, human animals will come to existence well before they have much in the way of psychological states as we would recognise them, and likewise human animals will, at least with modern technology, be able to continue to exist even in the absence of many, or in some cases all, such psychological states. Because of this animalists think that psychological states are not any sort of essential feature of you and I being the kinds of things we are. That is to say that animalists think that you and I can survive without any such psychological states.

That is not to say that they don't think such states are important. Clearly human animals do, for a lot of the time that they are alive, have many complex psychological states, and clearly these are states that we care a good deal about. It matters to us that we have the memories that we do, the beliefs, hopes and desires that we do, the intellectual capacities that we have; the likes and dislikes we do, and that we love the people we do. Animalists concede that these are all things that you and I care about, but none of these things taken together or jointly, make us the kinds of things that we are.
Another group of philosophers that we might call personalists, deeply disagree. Personalists think that you and I are, by our nature, essentially persons. Persons are things defined not by a biological kind but by their psychological properties. On this view what makes you the kind of thing you are is that you have mental states with certain sophisticated features, and that those mental states are connected in appropriate ways to mental states that you had in the past, and will have in the future. What is definitive of you and I, on this view, is that we reason, plan, care, remember, believe, have likes and dislikes, and so forth.

So does it matter? Everyone agrees that having psychological states of certain kinds matters to us. If I offer to wipe you memories entirely, or completely change your intellectual capacities, or completely change the things you care about, you are unlikely to take me up on the offer. Animalists think that this is because if I do any of these things I change important things about you, and things that you do not wish to be changed. Nevertheless, animalists suppose, if I were to completely erase your memories, and change your intellectual capacities, and change your beliefs and desires, change your plans for the future, and, indeed, change all of your psychological properties, you would still be you. You would survive this process, since you would be the same human animal. You would just be a very psychologically different human animal. You would survive that process in just the same way that you would survive if I amputated both of your legs. Neither of these processes might be desirable for you, but you would be you afterwards in both cases.

Personalists disagree. They think that if I radically alter your psychological states in the way just described, then what I have done is tantamount to murder. I have left a human animal alive, to be sure. But I killed the person that was you. I have killed you; if any person remains, that is a different person from you.

It is easy to see why this disagreement matters. Personalists think that a human animal that lacks any psychological states is not a person, and hence not something is essentially like you and I. Further, they think that if a human animal comes to lack such psychological states, the person that did exist has ceased to exist leaving a mere "shell" that is the human animal. These beliefs have significant ethical implications. Animalists think that you and I were one foetuses. Personalists do not. Animalists think that you and I can survive brain death. Personalists do not. Animalists think that what you are and I, essentially, is very different to what a conscious reasoning alien is, essentially. Personalists do not. None of these beliefs entail any particular ethical consequences. Personalists are not committed to thinking that because you and I were never foetuses, that it is ethically permissible to terminate the existence of foetuses. But since foetuses are not , according to personalists, persons, we cannot resolve issues about the ethical status of foetuses by noting either that you and I were once foetuses, and that foetuses are, essentially, just like you and I. On the other side of the coin, animalists need not think that it is ethically permissible to radically alter the psychologies of being like you and I just because doing so would not bring death to us. But if such radical changes are impermissible it is not because you and I are essentially persons who are defined in terms of those psychological properties.

It is not just ethical issues that are impacted by which view one endorses. There are interesting questions about what sorts of events you and I could survive. As technology changes, some of the more recherché scenarios that philosophers entertain may become a reality. Neither animalism not personalism have anything to say about whether there might one day be conscious robots, conscious computers or intelligent aliens. But they do have something to say about what we should think about such beings were any to exist. Animalists think that if there are, (or will be) such beings, they are in some deep and essential sense unlike us. Personalists think that if there are (or will be) be such beings, then those beings are persons just if they have the right sort of psychological states connected in the right ways over time. If they do, then they are, in some deep and essential way, very much like you and I.

In part because animalists and personalists disagree about whether you and I could ever be essentially alike conscious robots or aliens, they also disagree about which decisions it would be rational for you or I to make in the face of learning certain sorts of things. Suppose in the future I discover that my body (the human animal) is dying. I am told that there are two kinds of treatment I might use. One treatment will prevent my body from dying, but in doing so will cause significant, but by no means complete, psychological damage and disruption. The other treatment will not prevent my body from dying, but will instead copy all of my psychological states onto the brain of a new body. Of course, the prospect of copying someone's psychology onto a different brain is at this time utterly fanciful. But as long as psychological states just are brain states, there seems no reason in principle that one could not be in a position to bring a brain (and body) into existence that is a complete copy of an existing brain with all of its memories, beliefs, and desires. Let's suppose that in the case under consideration, a new body has been grown especially for these sorts of purposes, but is nothing like my current body. Personalists will prefer the second option, since it preserves my psychology. They will see it as a scenario in which I effectively move bodies just as I might move houses. Animalists will see the same scenario as one in which I die, and some other human animal falsely comes to believe that it is me: death and delusion, not survival. The animalist will prefer the first option in which the human animal survives albeit with a somewhat changed psychology.

Science fiction is replete with personalists - witness that in Star Trek teletransportation is represented as a method of travel, not a way of killing people and replacing them with duplicates at a different location. But, philosophers aside, while there are plenty of personalists out there, there are also plenty of animalists. Determining who is right is not straightforward. But it is intriguing to ponder what an animalist might say should she ever find herself the recipient of the second treatment outlined above. In prospect she should, of course, conclude that she will die and a duplicate of her psychological states will be created in a different body. So she ought to object strenuously to calling this "treatment". But subsequent to the procedure will she maintain that although she has all of the same psychological states as the person that did exist previously, that person nevertheless died and the current one is nothing but a duplicate of the original? Or will she come to believe that she is the person who existed prior to the procedure, and come to believe that that person -herself in the past-was just wrong that the procedure would not be a treatment? We will need to await the advent of new technologies to see. I can't wait.