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The philosopher with no hands

Eric Olson interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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Eric Olson ponders on bodies and corpses, animals and people, asks whether Jeckyll was Hyde and whether he was ever a fetus. He has written two books, The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology and What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology and is the groovy philosopher of philosophical animalism.  

3:AM: How did you become a philosopher? Were you a philosophical child, always aware of the strangeness of things?

Eric Olson: I wasn’t especially philosophical as a child. Here’s an anecdote: In the church my parents forced me to attend, I was taught that there was a god who had created the cosmos out of nothing; that this benevolent being punished unbelievers for their sins by tormenting them in hell forever; that we continue to exist in a conscious state after we die, even though maggots devour our remains; and that this being, though only one god, was yet three distinct persons. Nowadays I find most of these claims incredible. At the very least they’re dripping with disputable philosophical implications. Yet at the time I never seriously questioned them. It didn’t occur to me that anyone could question them in an intellectually responsible way, since they were confidently endorsed by all the authorities I knew of. That would have been like doubting whether the sun was really 93 million miles away, or whether it was true that my country was at war in a faraway place called Vietnam.

I wasn’t exposed to real philosophy until my first year at university. I was planning to study biology or chemistry, since those were the subjects I had enjoyed most at school. But I found my chemistry course dry and technical. Then I was required, as every first-year student was, to read Plato. To my considerable surprise, I found myself gripped. I was convinced that Plato was dead wrong on almost every point, and what’s more that I could show it beyond reasonable dispute. (The tendency for undergraduates to think they’re smarter than Plato is well known.) But I had never before come across anything that I had strong convictions about – convictions that many others didn’t share. And philosophical debate seemed to come naturally to me, which I couldn’t say about many other subjects. Before the year was out I had decided to give up science and study philosophy.

3:AM: You’ve argued for animalism. This is the view that humans are animals. You point out that a surprising number of major philosophers, both ancient and modern, have denied this. Can you say something about this?

EO: ‘Animalism’ says that each of us is a biological organism: an animal. All that sets us apart from other animals, beyond our being naked and bipedal and slow to mature, is our intelligence. That’s a big difference: psychologically and sociologically it’s an enormous gulf, even if the precise width of the gulf is a matter of controversy. But it’s not a metaphysical gulf. Fundamentally we’re all the same sort of thing: living organisms. Most of the big names in philosophy have said the opposite: we are not fundamentally the same sort of things as dogs or apes. Our bodies may be animals, but we ourselves are not. (This claim needn’t presuppose the uniqueness of the human species: there may be beings standing to canine and simian organisms as you and I stand to human organisms.)

Historically, most philosophers rejected animalism because they couldn’t see how we could be wholly material things – things made entirely of matter. They were convinced that no material thing, no matter how sophisticated, could ever produce thought. Thought could never arise out of any brute physical process. A thinking being would have to be at least partly immaterial, and so must we. This idea was dominant as late as the 1960s, when the main debate over our metaphysical nature was whether we are Cartesian immaterial substances or Humean bundles of mental events.

3:AM: Why do you think people nowadays argue against the view that we’re animals? Is it that they fear something gets lost?

EO: I think a lot of people find the view demeaning. They often state it by saying that people are ‘nothing more than animals,’ which sounds like a way of saying that we’re little different, psychologically and behaviourally, from chimpanzees and baboons. In short, our being animals would be incompatible with the better parts of human nature.  

Another common line is that according to animalism people are ‘nothing more than their bodies.’ And it really does sound absurd to say that Bertrand Russell’s body denied the existence of God, and had a famous debate about the subject with Father Copleston’s body. That can make it tempting to think:  Animals are just bodies. But we’re not just bodies – we’re conscious, intelligent beings. So how could we be animals? The reasoning is sheer sophistry, but I’m sure it’s been influential.  

I see phrases like ‘a person’s body’ as weasel words. They have a corrupting influence on philosophical thinking. The absurdity of saying that Russell’s body is thinking or conscious leads easily to the thought that the phrase ‘Russell’s body’ must be be the name of an object that is not thinking or conscious. So you have the thinking, conscious thing – Russell himself – and the material thing – Russell’s body – that doesn’t think and isn’t conscious. That’s only a whisker away from Cartesian dualism. There’s a lot of Cartesian thinking in the philosophy of personal identity, even if it’s usually more sophisticated and better disguised than this. If there’s any argument against animalism worth taking seriously, it’s that animalism conflicts with attractive claims about our persistence through time.

3:AM: I guess this takes us to your interest in personal identity. Can you explain firstly what the significance of this issue is before you give us the details of your thoughts.

EO: ‘Personal identity’ can mean many things. Most people use the phrase to mean your sense of who you are and what distinguishes you most fundamentally from other people. What philosophers mean by personal identity over time is something completely different: it’s about what it takes for us to survive or continue existing from one time to another. For example, I existed twenty years ago. What makes this the case? There were a lot of beings in existence in 1992. What makes some particular one of them, rather than one of the others, me? What is it about the way he relates to me as I am now? For that matter, what makes it the case that I existed at all back then? Why didn’t I come into existence just this morning? Similar questions arise about the future: what sorts of adventures could I survive, and what sort of thing would inevitably bring my existence to an end?

One thing that makes these questions interesting is the possibility of cases where the answer isn’t obvious. If your liver were transplanted into my abdomen, you would lose a vital organ and continue to exist (for a while) without it. The liver that was once a part of you would be assimilated into my living tissues and become a part of me. The same goes for other vital organs. But what if the surgeons were to transplant your brain into my head, taking with it all your mental contents? What would happen then? (Suppose they throw my original brain away.)

Maybe I would simply lose my own brain and get yours instead. I’d lose all the memories of my life and have them replaced with memories of your life – of conversations I never had, journeys I never made, and so on. The operation would give me all sorts of false beliefs: that I live in your house, work at your job, am the parent of your children. I’d be deluded about who I am: I’d be convinced that I was you. You, on the other hand, would lose your brain and stay behind with an empty skull. So a brain transplant would be analogous to a liver transplant.  

But most people, when they hear this story, are inclined to say that the cases are different. What would really happen is not that I got a new brain, but that you got a new body. That is, you would go with your brain: the operation would pare you down to a naked brain, then move you across the room into my skull, thereby replacing all your parts but your brain with what used to be my parts. You would look in the mirror afterwards and see my face. You would enjoy the magnificent physique of a middle-aged academic. The operation wouldn’t really be a brain transplant at all, but rather a transplant of everything but the brain. So no one would have his true beliefs and memories replaced with false ones, or be wrong about who he is.

The reason people tend to think that you would go with your transplanted brain, rather than staying behind with an empty head, is that the one who ended up with your brain would have your psychology – your mental properties. This suggests that our identity over time consists in psychological continuity: you are that future being who inherits your psychology in some direct way, and you are that past being whose psychology you have so inherited. That’s what it is for a past or future being to be you. Views of this sort – psychological-continuity views – are the orthodoxy in contemporary philosophy.

But psychological-continuity views rule out our being animals. You can’t move an animal from one head to another by transplanting its brain. The operation would simply move an organ from one animal to another. So if you were an animal and your brain were transplanted, you would just lose an organ and get an empty head. A brain transplant would be analogous to a liver transplant, contrary to psychological-continuity views.  

For that matter, every human animal starts out as an embryo with no mental properties at all, and thus no psychological continuity. The identity of an animal over time doesn’t consist in any sort of psychological continuity. If our continuing to exist from one time to another consists in psychological continuity, then we’re not animals, but something else. (What else is not so easy to say.)

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3:AM: So why do you go with animalism and against psychological-continuity views? Why not accept the obvious lesson of the brain-transplant story and conclude that we’re not animals?

EO: Well, there are some seven billion human animals inhabiting the earth – the same as the number of human people. For every one of us, there is a human animal, and for every human animal (certain pathological cases aside, perhaps) there is one of us. To all appearances, those animals do all the same things that we do: eat and drink, have conversations, surf the web. How could we be anything other than those animals?

Think about what it would mean. There’s a human animal sitting in your chair and reading this now. That animal would seem to be conscious and intelligent. (It’s got your brain. What could prevent it from using that brain to think?) In fact it would seem to be psychologically indistinguishable from you. So if you were not that animal but something else, there would be two conscious, intelligent beings sitting there and reading this: an animal and a nonanimal.  

If that’s not bad enough, it’s hard to see how you could ever know which of the two beings you are. You may think you’re the nonanimal – the one that would go with its brain if that organ were transplanted. But wouldn’t the animal believe the same thing about itself, only falsely? Wouldn’t it have the same reasons for believing this as you do? But then for all you know, you might be the one making the mistake. Suppose you wonder: am I the person who would go with my transplanted brain, or the animal that would stay behind? From your point of view, both answers would be equally likely. That cuts the ground right out from under the transplant argument. The thought driving the argument was that you would go with your transplanted brain. But you could never have any reason to think this: for all you could ever know, you might be the animal that would stay behind.

Unless, despite all appearances, human animals are somehow not conscious and intelligent like we are, it’s very hard to deny that we are those animals.

3:AM: What does animalism say about personal identity over time, then?

EO: If people are animals, then personal identity over time is animal identity over time. The organism you see in the mirror is you, and you go wherever it goes. So although your sense of who you are (your ‘personal identity’ in the popular sense) may have to do with psychological continuity, your continued existence from one time to another does not.

What animal identity does consist in is a large question. It certainly has nothing to do with retaining the same matter. Your being an animal doesn’t mean that when all your matter has been replaced in the course of metabolic turnover in a few years’ time, you’ll no longer exist, and someone else will take your place. An organism is not an inert lump of matter, but a dynamic system: it survives by taking in new matter, extracting energy from it, and then expelling it. Matter flows through an organism like water through a fountain, only slower. As long as its life-sustaining functions continue, the organism still exists.

3:AM: Has the question of personal identity over time become more urgent as modern science advances to the point were we might be able to download consciousness or clone bodies with ease in some near future?

EO: There are people who believe that we will one day be able to create healthy adult human beings with blank brains, so that as age advances, we can ‘download’ our mental states into these beings, cheating death and giving ourselves perpetual youth. Variants of the story have us transferring to longer-lasting inorganic ‘bodies’ rather than artificial organisms. The story is called transhumanism.

Of course, medical technology is nowhere near the point where we could actually do any of this. It’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future. It’s pretty doubtful whether it’s even possible: whether a human brain actually has such a thing as a ‘blank’ state, for instance, or whether an inorganic being could ever be conscious or intelligent.

But even if it really is possible, we have to ask whether the result of copying your mental states to a new human being would be you. Maybe it would be nothing more than a duplicate of you, with false memories of someone else’s past and a mistaken conviction about who it is. If we copied your mental states to ten human beings at once, at most one of the ten resulting people could be you. The other nine would be deluded. Why wouldn’t all ten be deluded?

I doubt whether the result of copying your mental states to another human being could ever be you. It certainly couldn’t be if you’re an animal. You can’t move an animal from one human being to another by copying its mental states, any more than you can move a computer from one room to another by sending an electronic file. In fact it’s hard to see what sort of concrete object you could move from one organism to another just by transferring information. That is: it’s hard to see what sort of things we could be according to the transhumanists.

Another worry: as the story is always told, the ‘scanning’ procedure that reads off your mental states disperses your atoms, or at least erases your brain’s content. That makes it easier to believe that you’re the transfer recipient, because there’s no other obvious candidate for being you. But there’s no reason why the procedure has to be destructive. Suppose the machine reads off your mental states without doing you any more harm than an x-ray, then copies them to another human being as before. In that case, surely, you would stay where you are and the transfer recipient would simply be deceived into thinking that he or she was you. But your relation to that person is the same in both variants of the story: in each case she gets a copy of the mental states read off from your brain. So if that person wouldn’t be you in the case where the procedure is harmless, how could she be you in the case where the procedure erases your brain? It looks as if the ‘downloading’ procedure could never extend your life. The most it could do is make a copy of you.

It’s doubtful whether the transhumanist dream is compatible with any coherent view of personal identity over time.

3:AM: Returning to the science fiction stuff, you have argued about the possibility of computer-generated life, the idea that computers programmed in a certain way could become alive. You kind of doubt it. Can you say something about this really cool area of your work? Are there things happening today in computer science that might have changed your mind at all?

EO: What I called computer-generated life is the claim, popular in the 1990s, that programming a computer in the right way might not just simulate life (in the way that computer programs can simulate weather systems), but actually create it. The controversy was about whether the result of this programming could ever be genuine life, or only something more or less similar to it. I took a different approach. I thought: You can’t have life without living things. To create life, then, is to create living things – organisms.  

But what sort of organism could you create just by programming a computer? An organism has to be made of something. It has to have a size and a location. So what sort of stuff could a computer-generated organism be made of? Where could it be located? How big would they be? Advocates of computer-generated life – who were scientists by training and not philosophers – had made only metaphorical gestures in this direction. So I tried to answer the questions myself. I considered all the possibilities I could think of, and they were all just about incredible. Computer-generated life looks metaphysically impossible.

I have a similar suspicion about artificial intelligence. There’s been plenty of debate about whether programming a computer in the right way could produce something that counted as genuine intelligence, or only something more or less similar to it. But to create intelligence is to create an intelligent being – or else to make a previously unintelligent being intelligent. And the friends of artificial intelligence have said very little about what sort of beings they might create, or make intelligent, by programming computers. What would these things be made of? Where would they be located? I’ve never seen good answers to these questions. Computer intelligence may be no more metaphysically possible than computer-generated life.

I don’t know whether computer-generated life is still in fashion. But because my doubts have nothing to do with the sophistication of the programming, recent developments in computer science are unlikely to make any difference.

3:AM: Anyone who writes a paper called ‘Why I Have No Hands’ has got to be asked to explain himself, because it’s not exactly the kind of thing philosophers are expected to be working on. So why have you no hands, and presumably me too?

EO: Half a dozen journals refused to publish that paper. One reviewer said that although it may have some value as entertainment, it wasn’t serious philosophy. Since then it’s generated a good deal of discussion in the journals, so I think I’ve had the last laugh.

Suppose we accept that there are certain particles ‘arranged manually’, which enable me to tie my shoes and feed myself. Now we might ask: do those particles add up to or compose something bigger – a hand? Is there anything there – any material object – besides the particles? The question may sound monumentally abstruse, if not outright unintelligible. Is there really any difference between particles’ being arranged manually and their composing a hand? And if there is, why should anyone care about it? But there is a difference, and it does matter.

Suppose there really were such a thing as my hand. Then there would also be such a thing as ‘all of me but my hand’. (The wrist joint, for all its anatomical utility, has no metaphysical significance.) But this object – call it a ‘hand complement’ – would be just as conscious and intelligent as I am. (It would differ from me only by lacking a hand as a part. How could that prevent it from thinking? I could think if I lost a hand.) In that case my hand complement would be a second conscious being in addition to me. There would be two conscious beings within my skin – a hand complement and a whole human being – thinking exactly the same thoughts.  

But I’m the only thinker sitting here. More generally, there aren’t two conscious, thinking beings wherever we thought there was just one. If that’s right, then my hand complement can’t be an intelligent being. And since it would be intelligent if it existed, there can be no such thing as my hand complement. But then there can be no such thing as my hand either. And of course what goes for my hand goes equally for my legs, my heart, and so on. A variant of the argument implies that I have no head. The entire nursery-school ontology of ‘parts of the body’ goes out the window.

Maybe that sounds silly. But if it’s not true, there must be something wrong with the argument that leads to it. Are there such things as hands but no such things as hand complements? Does something prevent my hand complement from thinking? Could I actually be my hand complement, despite the fact that it’s smaller than I am? Do I share my thoughts with a vast number of other beings of different sizes? (How could I ever know which one I am?) Or does the argument’s conclusion somehow not follow from the premises, despite its seemingly impeccable logic? None of those alternatives looks any better than denying the existence of hands. At any rate, those are the options. There is no easy, comfortable position here.

3:AM: You were unsettled by Hud Hudson’s idea that a thing can have different parts in different places, his theory of ‘partism.’ You use the story of the ship of Theseus to discuss your unease. Can you say what you think the problem is with this view as I think it is a good example of the fascination of this area of philosophy and your approach.

EO: This is a technically demanding topic (some readers may want to skip ahead). Briefly, ‘partism’ is designed to solve problems like the one about hands. (Hudson doesn’t apply it in cases quite like this one, but we can ignore that.) Suppose again that there’s such a thing as my hand complement. We don’t want to say that it’s a thinking, conscious being in addition to me. Partism would enable us to say that my hand complement is me, so that there’s only one conscious being here.

But my hand is a part of me and not a part of my hand complement. How could we be the same thing? How could one thing both have and not have a hand as a part? Well, we know that a thing can have different parts at different times: if I have a bad accident at the sawmill, my hand might be a part of me today but not tomorrow. Hudson proposes that a thing can have different parts at different places. So the hand could be a part of both me and my hand complement (which are the same thing) at the place where that hand is located, and not a part of either being at some other place. What appear to be two things with different parts are in some cases just one thing, made up of more than one set of parts at once.

It’s a very clever thought. But how can we generalise it? Here’s a troublesome case: Theseus builds a ship and goes to sea. Now and then he returns to port and replaces some of the ship’s worn pieces until eventually every one of them has been exchanged. Meanwhile, the local museum has been collecting the cast-off pieces, which they manage to assemble just as they were when Theseus first set sail. So there are now two ships: the repaired ship at sea and the reconstructed ship in the museum. Which of the two is Theseus’ original ship?

If Hudson is right, we ought to be able to say that both are: the repaired ship is the reconstructed ship. Despite appearances, there’s only one ship in the story. It simply has different parts at different places. In the museum, it’s made up entirely of old pieces; at sea, it’s composed entirely of new ones. So the museum guide could point to the reconstructed hulk and say, ‘The ship you see here has been at sea for the last month and is now approaching Corsica.’  

If someone actually said this, we’d take her to be referring to the ship at sea by pointing to something else that represents it, just as she might do by pointing to a picture or a model of it. But what if she insisted that the ship in the museum and the ship at sea were literally just one ship? That would be hard even to understand, never mind believe. It seems as obvious as anything can be that there are two ships (if there are such things as ships at all), one in the museum and the other at sea. Yet according to partism her statement ought to make perfect sense.

To be fair, Hudson doesn’t think his theory applies in this case: even if my hand complement and I are one human being, the repaired ship and the reconstructed ship are two ships. But he has no account of why this is so, or of where his theory applies and where it doesn’t.

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3:AM: You’re impressed by Peter van Inwagen, and clearly many of your interests seem to spin out from his Material Beings and his mereological investigations. Can you say what was the appeal of metaphysics? Was it the ‘unsettling commitments’ that you liked, the risk to ‘common sense’, the ‘making it strange’. Jason Stanley says that he likens philosophy to novel writing. Is this something you can understand?

EO: What drew me to van Inwagen’s philosophy wasn’t the strangeness of his views (He claims, for instance, that there are no material objects except elementary particles and living organisms – which neatly solves the problem of the ship of Theseus.). It was rather the way he argued for these views. His thought has a simplicity and clarity that I’ve always aspired to. When he writes about something, the mist dissolves. Everything becomes plain. And once I’ve seen it, it often seems so natural and obvious that I wonder how anyone could see things so clearly without agreeing. I’m aware, of course, that he doesn’t have this effect on everyone. But his critics rarely manage to reveal an alternative landscape of equal clarity. To my eye, they only wrap things in mist again.

Stanley’s point is that philosophy is a first-order activity and not a second-order activity. Philosophers don’t study Plato’s just because of his historical importance: that’s not philosophy, but history of ideas. We do it because we think Plato might have something to teach us about the subject. We’re doing the same thing he was doing, namely asking philosophical questions and trying to answer them. So philosophers treat Plato in the way novelists treat Dickens: as a colleague rather than as a mere object of study. That’s the sense in which philosophy is like novel writing and not like literary criticism. But you could make the same point by saying that philosophy is like physics and not like the history of science, or like polevaulting and not like the study of athletics. I doubt whether the connection between philosophy and novel writing goes much deeper than that.

3:AM: You’ve spoken of how science and philosophy can cooperate. For some, philosophers shouldn’t be so close to science. For others, philosophy is redundant as science proceeds to explain away philosophy. So how do you face down these two contrary positions to your own?

EO: Many scientific discoveries have a direct bearing on philosophy. For example, recent work in cosmology has revived ‘design’ arguments for god’s existence. The laws of physics turn out to involve numbers that apparently could have been different – the mass of the electron, for example, or the relative strengths of the elementary forces – but which all have to fall within an extremely narrow range of values in order for life to be possible. If these things had been left to chance (supposing that makes sense), the overwhelming likelihood is that the numbers would have had values resulting in a lifeless universe. This is something that no philosopher ever imagined from the armchair. So why is the universe ‘fine tuned’ for life? One salient answer is that it was designed that way by some sort of god. To take another example, the science of colour vision has demolished volumes of a priori philosophising. Philosophers would be foolish to ignore this information.

To say that science makes philosophy redundant is to say that science can supply all the answers: all legitimate questions can be answered by the methods of the sciences. This claim is trivially self-refuting. The methods of science cannot establish whether every legitimate question can be answered by those methods. So the claim is illegitimate by its own standards. For that matter, the question of what the ‘methods of science’ actually are, or ought to be, is a philosophical question. You can ignore philosophy, or try to reform it, but you can never do away with it altogether. Any attempt to dig its grave will only be more philosophy.
 
3:AM: One of the things some critics say about contemporary philosophy is that it is too boring, technical, jargonised and distant from non-philosophers’ philosophical issues. You have spoken about how you admire a paper by Chisholm which went on and on in what seemed tedious detail until suddenly ‘as if by magic’ the answer became clear. This suggests that maybe you find critics of philosophy and how it’s done impatient. The problem isn’t philosophy but those who aren’t prepared to think hard enough. Can you say something about this whole business of how philosophy should be done and how it gets perceived by outsiders? And for you, what makes philosophy so good?

EO: Those complaints could be made about any period in the history of philosophy. Most great philosophical works are dry and technical. Think of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, or Hume’s Treatise, or anything written by Aristotle or Aquinas or Hegel. If these critics were avid readers of Aristotle and Kant, and found their major works far more exciting than anything in contemporary philosophy, they’d have a legitimate complaint. But I don’t think that’s the case. (It’s pretty hard to imagine.) I suspect that they simply find philosophy too hard. But philosophy is hard. That’s its nature. No one would expect serious works of physics or mathematics or economics (as opposed to popularisations) to be immediately accessible to intelligent readers with no training in the subject. Why should philosophy be any different?

And contemporary philosophers don’t neglect the interests of those outside the profession. It’s true that if you open the pages of a journal like Mind or Analysis you’re unlikely to find anything on the meaning of life, whether we have free will, or any other topic that ordinary people ever think about. But there’s plenty of work being done in those areas if you look for it.

I concede that academic writing is very often harder to read than it needs to be. It tends to be larded with needless technical detail and jargon. It’s interesting to ask why this is. Laziness is part of it, but the peer-review process is also to blame: it’s easier to get academic work published if it’s highly technical than if it’s simple and clear, because simplicity and clarity make it easier for reviewers to spot the weak points. But this holds for all subjects, and has nothing to do with philosophy in particular. If anything, philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition tend to write more clearly than their colleagues in many other fields.

3:AM: Experimental philosophy reverses the usual idea that the folk are muddled and philosophers will clarify the muddle. They kind of say that what the folk say isn’t what the philosophers think. Maybe the intuitions driving positions about property dualism in the philosophy of mind are dubious, they wonder, and that’s the kind of starting point for Josh Knobe and his crew. Are you interested in x phi and what they bring to the philosophical table? Are you burning your armchair?

EO: The philosophical ‘experiments’ that I’m familiar with are basically sophisticated opinion polls. This is important for those areas of philosophy that rely heavily on the opinions of ordinary people. (Philosophers call them ‘intuitions’ because that sounds more authoritative.) If you’re doing ethics, for example, you may need some premises about what it’s right or not right to do. Where do you get them? The traditional procedure is to ask yourself, your colleagues, and your students, and if you find broad agreement, you take the judgment to be correct. Philosophical opinion polling appears to cast doubt on the reliability of this procedure, suggesting that the answers people give can vary widely depending on their cultural background, the way the questions are phrased, the order in which they’re presented, and other factors not relevant to the truth of those answers.

This is all controversial and the results have been questioned. I haven’t paid much attention because I don’t put much faith in ordinary opinion. To my mind, the fact that ordinary people are inclined to say certain things when questioned about points of serious philosophical controversy is little reason to think that those sayings are true. Perhaps most people, when told the brain-transplant story, really would say that you would go with your brain rather than staying behind with an empty head. I still think they’re probably wrong, because that view has consequences that on reflection I find impossible to accept. If the polling were to show that ordinary opinion is not actually in agreement with psychological-continuity views of personal identity, I’d be interested. But I don’t think it’s where those views are weakest.

I think there’s a deeper reason for distrusting philosophical intuitions. I don’t mind going against things ordinary people can be prompted to say about philosophical issues. But I worry when I disagree with other philosophers – people who are at least as able as I am and who have thought about the matter just as deeply. In that case it would be irresponsible for me to be confident that I’ve got it right and they’re wrong. Fortunately there are points that we do agree about. No one disputes that if psychological-continuity views of personal identity are true, then we are not animals, and that it follows from this that the animal you live in, so to speak, is either not intelligent or is a second intelligent being in addition to you. The controversy is about whether these consequences are acceptable. Knowledge of what follows from what – of what the options are – is more solid than knowledge of which option is right.

3:AM: Interestingly, you seem to agree with Eric Schwitzgebel’s view of the difficulty of Indian philosophy for those trained in Western philosophy. He contrasts Indian with Chinese philosophy which he says is far more graspable. Can you say something about this and why you think this is so? Someone like Graham Priest and his work on dialetheism and Hegelians working on deviant logic might disagree and say that once classical logic is thrown aside there’s no problem.
 
EO: I can’t comment on Chinese philosophy, but I have a terrible time understanding books on Indian philosophy (or at any rate Indian metaphysics) written for Western audiences. The problem is not that the teachings conflict with standard logic. Maybe they do, but in order to know that I’d have to see their logical structure, and I’ve never got even that far. My impression is that much of the material is simply impossible to communicate to someone trained only in the Western tradition. So even if you were to spend several years of your life learning Indian philosophy from the experts, you’d have nothing to tell the rest of us. I hope this impression is false. I’d love to see a really clear book on this subject.

3:AM: And finally, can you give perhaps your top five books that the sassy crowd at 3:AM should read to get up to date with contemporary metaphysics?

EO: Richard Taylor, Metaphysics. This short book is about as accessible as philosophy gets. It covers most of the juicy topics you’d hope to find in a metaphysics book, including fatalism (which Taylor endorses) and the meaning of life.

Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics. More careful and less provocative than Taylor, but equally fascinating.

Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen, ed., Metaphysics: 5 Questions. A book of interviews with contemporary metaphysicians.

Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman, eds. Metaphysics: The Big Questions.
A large collection with something for everyone.

Hud Hudson, The Metaphysics of Hyperspace. A delightful book, though not suitable for beginners.



richardmarshall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 8th, 2012.