« Court Restores Sentencing Powers of Federal Judges | Main | Dualism, the Will, and a Person »

December 11, 2007



If neuroscientists using very precise instruments measured and recorded the exact state of all of our neurons, then destroyed our bodies, would we be dead? Would we be restored to life if new vat-grown bodies were induced to resume the recorded state? There's an empirical element to the question, of course, since some would guess that merely measuring the state of our neurons would miss something important about what makes us ourselves, but let's presume that no one (including reconstituted-you) can tell the difference between before and after. That being true ex hypothesi, did you ever die? If so, is that death morally different from delta-wave sleep? In any case would it be immoral for someone to decide not to reconstitute?

On a different note (and more directly related to the post) Dennett has recently taken the position that memory is criterial to consciousness, if the latter is to be a meaningful category. Of course, this doesn't save the relatively common situations (which I also experienced after a bike crash) when short term memory and recall from long term memory still works, but storage to long term does not. Dennett is fine with this, since such gray areas are the rule rather than the exception in his treatments of cognitive categories.

Moving away from Dennett specifically, I think many of the apparently insoluble conundrums in philosophy of mind dissolve once we stop insisting on fully reified divisions between folk-psychological categories. Is a person the *same* person after a stroke? Yes and no, to varying degrees. If we insist on one or the answer being 100% the case, then we create problems for ourselves and/or end up choosing criteria irrelevant to what we wanted to discuss.

Nathan Smith

If a ship's deck, hulls and masts are made from 1,000 logs of wood, and 501 of those logs are replaced, is it the same ship? I would, yes, probably so, as long as the new logs are fit into the same form of the old ship. The question doesn't seem to have a "right" answer, partly because a ship is something of a reification, but a person seems less of a reification because a person has a *will.* The will is one, and it defines the person: that which obeys my will is me. (This leaves a few puzzles-- are my clothes me?-- but they don't seem especially difficult ones.) Now, with a person, the physical substance of which a person is made is regularly replaced-- we are "waterfalls," forever eating our substance in and breathing and sweating and... etcetera... it out. So *that* can't be the definition.

Memory ties together a self across time, but what about forgetfulness? It seems that here the problem of the ship returns. If myself-today has 10,000 memories, and myself-in-ten-years forgets 8,000 of them and learns 8,000 new things, am I the same person? Yes, and not because, as in the case of the ship, the form remained roughly the same, but rather because *the same will* inhabited that memory the whole time.

Am I being circular? A continuity of will preserves the identity of the shifting contents of memory; memory connects my-will-now with my-will-tomorrow and makes them one self. Yet the symbiosis works. *From moment to moment* memory connects will, as points into a line. That thread of will defines the self as the contents of memory shift.

If the stroke involves a loss of capacity and some memories, I don't think it casts any doubt on continuous identity. Of course for some purposes we might say "He's a different man." We simply mean that many important features of him have changed greatly.

The problem is that there is a lack of *transitivity* about identity in this sense. A=C and B=C do not imply A=B. I am not the same as my past self in the same way that my past self is the same as me. A continuous will, inhabiting a climate of memory that has shifted but never been suddenly interrupted, makes me-today the same as me-ten-years-ago. But how is me-ten-years-ago the same person as me-today? That's where my surgery conundrum comes in. Me-during-the-surgery and me-waking-up-after-the-surgery are both linked by continuity of will and memory to me-before-the-anesthetic, *but not to each other*.

How strange is time!


On the stroke example, I should mention that some strokes and many brain injuries can cause radical personality changes without affecting memory much at all.

Joyless Moralist

You talk about "will" as though it were a concrete thing that you could identify. But what is it? Is there a little control room inside your brain, occupied by a little man who makes decisions and gives orders? Is there, as Descartes says, a pineal gland that communicates orders between the immaterial mind and the material body? You may say that you know "will" by experience, and you do know by experience that you can voluntarily do things. But how do you know that this ability isn't inseparably tied up with your physical body, as Aristotle or St. Thomas held? It just seems rather unhelpful to identify yourself with your will if you can't really explain what that is.

Nathan Smith

I have a guess what Aristotle and St. Thomas meant: the body is the arena in which the will is truly sovereign. Within the thought-realm, the will also exists and has some influence. But it is much harder to delineate just what powers it has. It may well be that only the experience of governing a body allows me to understand what a will is. In that somewhat weak sense, the will may be "inseparably tied up with the physical body."

However, once I do recognize this entity, the will, I can recognize that I "can voluntarily do things" in my thoughts, too, where there is no apparent connection to my body-- my body does not move in response to my introspective reflections-- and which there is no grounds for believing are supervenient upon the physical matter of my body and brain at all. The hypothesis that the will is inseparably tied up my physical body therefore does not appear to be supported by experience, and while one can assert as an untestable hypothesis that it is tied up with my physical body in ways that we do not understand, this is a mere arbitrary supposition.

I find it odd that Joyless Moralist wants to make this unnecessary concession to materialism.


We can regard the will as a veridically indivisible entity without subordinate parts and defined by its identity rather than its function, such that one will could be substituted for another that had identical properties and it would be somehow important even though no one could tell and so test could conceivably reveal the swap. We could, but why? Doesn't such a will seem like a made-up category, or rather, a category with no use?

If the will is a complex entity, then one might expect a non-circular explanation in terms of its constituent parts. Further, we may be in a situation like a meteorologist describing a hurricane: there's no concrete boundary between hurricane and not-hurricane, and if one simply defines a hurricane by wind speed or some other hurricane property, then one is missing most of what is interesting about hurricanes.

Joyless Moralist

That cannot be what Aristotle and St. Thomas meant, because they were not dualists. You want to draw hard and fast lines between "thought-realm" and "material realm" but they would never have done that in the first place.

Nathan Smith

If Thomas and Aristotle were not dualists, which they disbelieve in, the soul or the body? That is, no doubt, a stupid question. Yet it's all I can say to it. I guess a sort of dualism seems so self-evident to me... I need to think about this more.

Of course, Aristotle does seem to have been more or less a materialist, in contrast to Plato. Thomas is in a weird position, trying to reconcile Christianity, which is obviously non-materialist, with Aristotle. Hmm... I'm confused.


One implication of materialism is that things are not absolutely separable from each other. All things are correlated in some fashion, and that fact means delineation will always be imperfect. When we make delineations, we try to delineate along the strongest correlations, disregarding/ignoring the weakest correlations. By doing this, we come up with classes and categories. When we narrow a class or category down so much that it only encompasses a specific entity (composed of recognizable stable physical relations), we often give a unique label or pronoun to that entity, such as the Nile River or Nathan Smith. With regard to people, when we give them a name, we're tacitly referring to their body, but what we explicitly refer to is their will/personality (or rather the physical instantiation of that will/personality, if we're being good materialists). For even if a person undergoes a significant body modification, we will still recognize them by their will/personality.

I have more to talk about, but I have to go now.

Joyless Moralist

Dualism is a first step to materialism. The ancients would never have seen a sharp division between the worlds of matter and thought -- nor, for that matter, do the great Eastern religions. For them there is just being. Being is manifested in different ways, but there is no reason to draw a particular line between "thought" and "matter" in particular. You might as well make 'cold' and 'hot' or 'light' and 'dark' the main categories of being. This is why they could speculate that the world is in a sense God-thought, and why they could evaluate how much being a thing had in a way that would include both material and non-material elements together.

It was the demise of this metaphysics that signified the really dramatic step away from the Christian (or Greek, or Eastern) view and towards materialism. Descartes is a kind of proto-materialist -- he still allows for the existence of non-material things, but he pushes them into a mysterious world of their own that can only affect the other world through odd little access points like the infamous pineal gland. Actually, if you look at the body of Descartes' work as a whole, you see that he was much more interested in the material side of his dichotomy than in the other side. The access points are very few -- hence his rather curious claim that animals don't have any mental side at all, and are essentially no more than complicated machines. After Descartes, it wasn't too much of a stretch for later thinkers to want to blot out the mental side of the divide entirely, which leaves materialism.

Nathan Smith

There's a certain weird fatalism about Joyless Moralist. "Dualism is a first step to materialism," she says, but couldn't it just as well be a first step away from materialism? Also, it seems clear to me that Aristotle was closer to materialism than Descartes. Descartes was quite definite in affirming the existence of mind/thought/soul, where Aristotle thought the soul was merely the form of the body.

And to say that "there is no reason to draw a particular line between 'thought' and 'matter'" seems an obvious falsehood. I am sitting on a chair. I am thinking about a chair. The distinction between the physical chair and the thought-chair is certainly a clear and important distinction, with deep roots in the natural languages: thinking/seeing, real/imaginary, etc.

I can see why Joyless Moralist's classification of Cartesian dualism would fit in with her peculiar grand-tragic historiosophy in which Descartes is the serpent in a philosophical Eden. She knows more about the philosophers than me. But just because it makes a good story doesn't mean it's true. From what I have read about Aristotle, he seems to have been "much more interested in the material side" than the spiritual or mental, surely at least as much as Descartes; the difference is that Descartes had a quite definite belief in the existence of the soul/mind, on which everything else was founded, whereas Aristotle's belief that the soul was merely the form of the body seems pretty close to the modern materialist notion of supervenience.

re: "After Descartes, it wasn't too much of a stretch for later thinkers to want to blot out the mental side of the divide entirely, which leaves materialism."

But the *cogito*, the *cogito*, the *COGITO!* The mental side is the foundation of everything for Descartes. To "blot out the mental side" of Descartes is to miss the entire point, to lose the foundation of his whole epistemology. Perhaps this move was in fact; perhaps it was somehow rendered psychologically easy; but it seems unfair to blame Descartes for making the one philosophical move which was, from a logical point of view, utterly incompatible with his "first philosophy."

Joyless Moralist

Ha, this post is great, it made me laugh out loud. "Aristotle thought the soul was merely the form of the body," you say, and therefore he's a materialist. But what kind of self-respecting materialist believes in such things as *forms*? You can hardly get more non-materialist than that! Your priorities are badly disordered if you' prefer the man who announces the existence of a bizarre, ethereal "thought-realm" over the one who actually regards all of nature as *being* more than mere stuff -- which Descartes decidedly does not, the human creature excepting. Aristotle's idea of form and telos could hardly be further from the modern theoy of supervenience. A form *gives* a thing its shape and a telos its purpose; modern supervenient properties somehow weirdly follow on the arrangement that already exists.

I know this probably annoys you, but I can only say again that you've been seduced by Descartes. You take him at face value, and what's more, you've never read any of his stuff with the exception of the Meditations (or so I surmise) which was certainly written with seductive purpose, not as an honest or straightforward representation of his larger views. I keep meaning to assemble some more material on this to post for you, but I keep not getting time... anyway, I've got to hit the road now, but more on this later.

Nathan Smith

Well, the thought-realm idea I didn't get from Descartes. I think Joyless Moralist may have gotten trapped in wishful thinking here. What kind of self-respecting materialist believes in *forms*? Just about all of them, I'd say. Daniel Dennett, for one: he calls it "Design Space." It's not exactly the same concept of course, but very much akin to it. And *telos* is also not at all incompatible with materialism as understood today. It simply needs to be reinterpreted a bit, and narrowed, in the light of Darwinian evolution, but Aristotle was basically right that purpose is an important part of the explanation of the biological world which was the area he was most interested in. I think the gap between Aristotle and modern materialism is narrower than Joyless Moralist thinks.


JM's posts above seem highly inconsistent to me. Perhaps I don't understand the subtleties and nuances of her points.

Wikipedia on Materialism:
"As a theory, materialism belongs to the class of monist ontology. As such, it is different from ontological theories based on dualism or pluralism."

Wikipedia on Descartes:
"To further demonstrate the limitations of the senses, Descartes proceeds with what is known as the Wax Argument. He considers a piece of wax: his senses inform him that it has certain characteristics, such as shape, texture, size, color, smell, and so forth. When he brings the wax towards a flame, these characteristics change completely. However, it seems that it is still the same thing: it is still a piece of wax, even though the data of the senses inform him that all of its characteristics are different. Therefore, in order to properly grasp the nature of the wax, he cannot use the senses: he must use his mind. Descartes concludes:
“ Thus what I thought I had seen with my eyes, I actually grasped solely with the faculty of judgment, which is in my mind. ”

In this manner, Descartes proceeds to construct a system of knowledge, discarding perception as unreliable and instead admitting only deduction as a method. ... In terms of epistemology therefore, he can be said to have contributed such ideas as a rigorous conception of foundationalism and the possibility that reason is the only reliable method of attaining knowledge."

Perhaps JM can elucidate her points for us further and ease the confusion of her interlocutors.

Joyless Moralist

Yes. The Greeks, the early Christians, and the medievals were certainly ontological monists. Obviously their one currency wasn't *matter* but rather *being*. But it's hardly surprising that Wikipedia only brings modern philosophies into play when drawing its contrasts. Most contemporary philosophers would do the same. Just a sign of the completeness of the victory, or defeat if you prefer, that the ancient alternative doesn't occur to them.


How is "matter" different from "being"? What are the ontological differences?

Nathan Smith

My response to JM is: Yes, all that exists is "being." In this tautological sense, monism is true. But what kinds of things, in fact, *are* there, what kinds of things are engaged in being, and (a question which must have, or receive, some implicit answer, even if a vague one, before the conversation can get very far) how do we *know*?

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Only use a payday cash advance as a last resort.


Blog powered by Typepad