Over Thanksgiving I got to thinking a lot about entification, for a lack of a better word. We take a lot of long walks when we're in Central Pennsylvania, and what's a long walk for but to get some things figured out? Plus, you have a captive audience. In this case, mostly my son, who has an amazing tolerance for discussing strange things.
So, entification. I've been reading The Metaphysics of Gender, by Charlotte Witt, and she builds on the ontology in Lynne Rudder Baker's book Persons and Bodies. Here's what they'd both have us believe: a human organism is conceived, develops, gets born, and develops a first-person perspective. At that point, a second entity emerges--a person. The person is constituted by the original organism but not identical to it. Because of the constitution relation, the person weighs just what the organism weighs. Because of the non-identity, though, there can be a difference in the properties of persons and organisms. In particular, they can differ in their modal properties. The organism could exist without having a first-person perspective--it did, early on, and may once again in senescence. But the person has a first-person perspective essentially. It couldn't exist without it.
Witt builds on this by proposing another turning point. The person starts to be responsive to and evaluable in terms of social norms. Thus is born a social individual, an individual who is essentially governed by social norms. So we are trinities of three individuals--organism, person, social individual. The latter two are constituted by the organism, but not identical to it. (Perhaps another day I'll blog about why Witt is motivated to postulate a social individual, and what it has to do with gender.)
The virtue of this constitution talk is that you get to affirm multiple, seemingly incompatible, intuitions. It's essential to us to have a first-person perspective, but it's also not. Differentiate the person and the organism, and you can say both things. It's essential to us to be responsive to social norms and it's also not. Differentiate the social individual and the person, and you can say both things.
Wonderful. But how does all this entification really work? I'm tempted to think (at the moment) that it doesn't work. Think about this over time. A fetus starts developing, becomes fully developed, and comes to have a first-person perspective at time t (some time after birth). Prior to t, there's just an organism. At t there's an organism with a first-person perspective. The organism doesn't have the FPP essentially. It existed without it prior to t. It just has it, but not essentially. We are to believe that, also at t, a new entity comes into existence--one with different modal properties from the organism. But--why? Something (the organism) comes to have a new property, and has it inessentially. That's the whole "trigger" for entification (so to speak). From what I can tell, there's just nothing here to account for the "birth" of a new entity, with different modal properties from the old one.
If entification is that easy, it's going on all the time, everywhere. First you have a mere pumpkin. You then carve it into a Jack-O-Lantern and put it in front of your house, so that it plays a role in the Halloween tradition. It beckons children to knock on your door and say "trick or treat". The moment all that is true is (I guess!) a moment of entification. The pumpkin doesn't just acquire the property of being a Jack-O-Lantern, but a new thing comes into being--a thing that is essentially a Jack-O-Lantern. There is now a Jack-O-Lantern constituted by a pumpkin, not just a pumpkin.
But no (come on!) that story really makes no sense. All that happened is that the pumpkin got some new properties--it got hollowed out, acquired a face, got put outside, beckoned some trick-or-treaters. How can a thing acquiring some properties (inessentially) generate a whole new entity? And how could that new entity be one that has the new set of properties essentially?
Now, granted--if I am looking at a Jack-O-Lantern, I find it intelligible to describe it either way. I can focus on the mere pumpkin and say the face, candle, role in trick-or-treating, etc., are all inessential. I can focus on the carved pumpkin, on the other hand, and say that the package of Jack-O-Lantern features are essential. But I can't explain how can it can be that you start with a mere pumpkin (JOL features inessential), give it the JOL features, and wind up with a new entity that has the JOL features essentially. If I take the initial entity seriously, as what really exists, I just cannot understand the recipe that gets you (out there, in reality!) from the mere pumpkin to the pumpkin that's a Jack-O-Lantern essentially -- the Jack-O-Lantern* (where an A* is an A that's essentially an A).
Now, constitutionalists are very happy with lumps of clay that start constituting statues* (things that are essentially statues, unlike lumps of clay), so I suppose they are going to be happy with pumpkins that start constituting Jack-O-Lanterns* (things that are essentially Jack-O-Lanterns, unlike pumpkins). But I wonder if they are really happy with all of this, as opposed to liking constitutionalism about organisms and persons, and therefore getting on board with the rest. There may be reasons to like this story about us, beyond the reasons to like it (or dislike it) in general.
Consider the alternative (or, one alternative). The human organism develops over time, and has the property of being a person during a certain phase of its existence, but never essentially. Of course, on that view there are still persons. There are just no persons*--things that are persons essentially. The property of being a person is like the property of being a child, an adult, a parent, a citizen, etc.--it can be acquired and lost during the career of a single individual. If there are just human organisms, it's hard to avoid thinking that my organism started to exist very early on--before I was born, and maybe even very early in my mother's pregnancy. If "I" referred to a person* defined in terms of a first-person perspective, then "I was once an inch long" is false. If "I" refers to an organism, then "I was once an inch long" is true. To get the sentence to come out false, you might think it's good to separate persons and organisms.
I think the totality of linguistic data does not, however, all invite a distinction between persons and organisms. Charlotte Witt invites us to agree that her adopted daughter Anna, who was born in Vietnam, would have been a different person if she'd been born in America. Conversely, I suppose, she thinks this is true: "I would have been a different person, if I'd been born in Vietnam." This is naturally construed as being about a certain organism, so "I" refers to the organism involving my DNA. For the sentence to be true, "being a person" has to be a predicate like "being poor." It says something about the attributes "my organism" would have had, if I'd been born in Vietnam, not about which entity I would be. If you thought "I" referred to a certain person*, it's at least harder to understand what the sentence is saying and how it could be true.
Then again, I'm loath to lean too much on "what we would say", since we say many very odd things about who we are or would be, under various circumstances. A recent New York Times editorial invited us to trace our pasts back before the moment of conception. "Think about your own history. Your life as an egg actually started in
your mother’s developing ovary, before she was born; you were wrapped in
your mother’s fetal body as it developed within your grandmother." We will inevitably have to throw out a lot of what we would say, if we're going to make sense of what we are.
Anyhow. What I want to know is how (on earth) you start with a pumpkin, just add Jack-O-Lantern properties, which are inessential to pumpkins, and wind up with a Jack-O-Lantern*. You can lay down some necessary and sufficient conditions that entail that yes indeed, it happens, but that's not necessarily an explanation. Explaining how Jack-O-Lanterns* come into existence seems impossible, really, as the supposed precipitating event--a pumpkin getting some inessential properties--just does not seem like the right sort of thing to generate the very same properties being instantiated by a new entity essentially.