Are we more than animals?

I am overwhelmingly unconvinced by an argument in Lynne Rudder Baker's book Persons and Bodies, to the effect that we are not just animals. She writes--

The argument seems to be:  (1) A human organism is just a survival machine.  In fact, all organisms are mere survival machines, "if evolutionary biology is correct" (p. 12).  But (2) a  person is more than a survival machine. Most importantly, a person has a first-person perspective--a capacity for self-awareness (etc.). So, (C) persons are not identical to human organisms.  She proposes the relationship is not identity but constitution.  I am a person constituted by an animal, like a statue is constituted by a lump of clay. Biology, then, is demoted--

Update 5:20 pm--Having now reread chapter 1 three times, I'm increasingly uncertain what the argument is. Baker says human organisms are "merely 'survival machines'" and persons are "more". What's this "more" that persons have and organisms lack? I thought it was a first person perspective.  But on second and third reading, it's not so clear what contrast she has in mind and peeking ahead in the book, I see my first interpretation may not hold up. To be continued, after I've read more of the book....

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j. said...

i would be curious how she rules out the possibility (which i associate with nietzsche, but pick who you like) that first-person perspectives make human beings animals that are screwed up. so, i guess, that it should be unclear whether the (?) difference is one that makes us 'more' or 'less'.

SYED said...

i dont understand how without any new thoery she finds a good promoter.

Alan Cooper said...

Well, I find it reassuring that you find those quoted passages confusing, but they do make me wonder once again about the quality of philosophy as a discipline.

It seems fair enough to define a person as an entity (usually an animal) with the specific characteristic of entertaining a sufficiently explicit "first person perspective". But even if persons are initially defined just to be animals (or perhaps other entities) which have such a first person perspective, the question has often been raised (in science fiction stories for example) as to whether that perspective can be separated from the entity in which it arose (eg by recording and copying memories etc to a different body or even to an artificial system). So one might also reasonably identify the person with the perspective itself rather than the entity in which it is manifested.

So far as I can see, there is no need to declare one definition as right and the other wrong - we just need to be clear, in any given context, which we are using.

But is any clarity or content added to this by all of LRB's philosophical jargon?

Jean Kazez said...

They are certainly confusing, because in the first chapter she does appear to be saying the human animal has different properties from a human person. And there it appears the properties in question are abilities--the animal is a mere survival machine, whereas the person can do all sorts of sophisticated thinking, etc.. In fact, she even lists all the impressive feats of persons. Later in the book, it turns out she does not actually think the underlying animal differs in its abilities from persons. All of the differences are mere "modal"--a human person is essentially capable of doing what a human animal can only do contingently.

I think all the jargon is fine--it's all commonplace in the metaphysics literature. People don't complain when scientists use technical terms, and really can't complain when philosophers do--as long as the jargon is really necessary. In this book it is necessary, as the book as about some very subtle concepts (constitution, identity, etc. etc.).

Wayne said...

Hmm.. I haven't read her book, but I find the possibility that we are not human animals pretty easy to grasp. I'm not denying that there are human animals... but my mental life, the thing that Descartes called a soul, is distinctly different from my human organism.

Organisms are a collection of things: Organs and membranes and such. I could survive, even if my organism doesn't. Take my brain out of my body and put it in a vat. My organism is dead, yet I remain.

Jean Kazez said...

I've reached the point where I am convinced by animalism (which says I have the nature and persistence conditions of an organism) 90% of the time. That leaves 10% of the time, when I find some sort of psychological view plausible, but definitely not Baker's. I find it a total non-contender that we come into existence when self-awareness develops, and not earlier, when we just become conscious. It seems outlandish to think that self-aware beings have this dual existence (they are merely constituted by their animal bodies, but identical to persons), and merely conscious animals don't. This is all a religio-ethical effort to shore up human specialness, as far as I can tell.

Jonah Dempcy said...

I am an anti- or post-humanist in the sense that I think that anthropocentrism is structurally similar to egocentrism, narcissism and so on. There is a structural isomorphy between the Copernican revolution which decentered the Earth, the Freudian psychoanalytic revolution which decentered the ego, and the Darwinian evolutionary revolution which decentered humans.

However, I take a different tack than most anti- or post-humanists. Whereas a common argument is that we humans shouldn't project so-called human emotions onto non-human domains, I say, contra: the very identification of particular emotions as human is anthropocentric itself. They aren't human emotions to begin with. E.g. like when Deleuze talks about the affects of precious metals, surely he doesn't mean they feel emotions in the same way (of course Deleuzian affects are not synonymous with emotions to begin with), but nevertheless there is a capacity to affect and be affected which humans share with other things -- not only animated things but relatively inanimate objects as well.

Now, on to the question of whether the human is identical to the organism: I would say, if we consider organisms to be quantities, then humans are more than merely their quantity of parts. But, so is everything, really. In some sense, even animals are more than mere survival machines.

I do like the idea from Leibniz that animals can never be killed -- when you "kill" an animal, it breaks up into smaller animals. So, even when the human organism "dies," it merely goes on living in smaller processes of decomposition and so on.

Jonah Dempcy said...

As to the question of whether there is something more than the organism, well, I really like this part from Kerslake's DELEUZE AND THE UNCONSCIOUS (2007):

"For Bergson and Janet, the human being is an organism that happens to have become complex enough to open up a 'zone of indetermination' (Bergson, 1896) in its brain, which permits the suspension of habitual reaction and the appeal to past experience. This cerebral zone of indetermination becomes the 'gap' or 'interval' through which duration enters, proceeding to take charge of the organism, turning it inside out. Time surges into the brain, changing everything, so that now it is the brain which becomes shaped around an ever-accumulating ontological memory, rather than vice versa. Wherever interiorized duration arises, time pushes through and inverts the fabric of the universe, so that matter must now be taken as the envelope of temporal becoming, rather than time being dependent on matter. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze makes the Kantian point that 'a succession of instants does not constitute time any more than it causes it to disappear; it indicates only its constantly aborted moment of birth. Time is constituted only in the originary synthesis which operates on the repetition of instants.' At the moment that the material universe inverts itself and interiorizes itself virtually, it (starting with the brain) becomes shaped around time, rather than vice versa. There is an ascent, through the involution of virtuality, to an entirely new order of validity, beyond the order of actual fact. The emergence of memory through the zone of indetermination opens up a process of interiorized differentiation which proceeds to evolve in tension with the more generalizing tendencies of intelligence."

I think this "zone of indetermination" is what confuses things. Yes, we humans are organisms, but we have the peculiar ability to interiorize differentiation lacking (for the most part) in other organisms. I don't know if there is a difference in kind or merely degree between humans and other organisms. Probably the latter. But there is a difference in kind between purely quantitative perspectives of organisms as survival machines and a richer view of the organism as qualitative: each organism has its haeccity, we experience qualia, so there is something like a begrudging admittance of dualism. See CONSCIOUSNESS MAKES A DIFFERENCE: A RELUCTANT DUALIST'S CONFESSION by Elitzur: http://www.newdualism.org/papers/A.Elitzur/Elitzur-Consciousness2.htm

Alan Cooper said...

I have no objection to jargon if it helps us to express something useful more compactly than would be possible without it. But I am still left uncertain as to what useful information or ideas are conveyed more compactly by the language used above than they could be in plain English.