The Thinking Animal Problem

I'm still in "pondering mode" on the question of when we make first contact with our children. I wrote about that topic in July and again in August. Now I'm reading Eric Olson's book What Are We? and ... still pondering.

I'm fond of the animalist view--Olson's view--which says we are animals (or organisms) that come to have mental properties at some point, whether before or after we are born, and can lose them at some point. According to animalists, the gaining and losing of mental properties isn't ontologically important, so to speak. There's no second entity, a person that's essentially a person, constituted by an organism over just that period of time when the right mental properties are instantiated.  

Why do I like the animalist view? Maybe it's just a matter of parsimony. There are organisms. There's no denying that. They come to have certain personhood-related properties.  There's no denying that. But do we really need to think there are also essential persons, entities over and beyond (but constituted by) organisms? When all is said and done, I think this sort of talk may be superfluous.

Which is not to say I'm sold on all of Olson's reasoning for animalism. Take for example the "thinking animal problem." Olson thinks this is a strike against ontologically distinct persons and the constitution view: it's extremely peculiar to say that the animal sitting in my chair right now (and no, I don't mean my cat!) is thinking all the thoughts that I (i.e. the person constituted by the animal) am thinking. For example, it's peculiar to think there are two entities looking forward to tonight's presidential debate (one constituting the other) and not simply and exactly one.

Well OK, it would be surprising, I admit, if I were constantly shadowed by a thinking animal. (It sounds a bit like going around with a ferret on your shoulder.) It's odd sounding, to be sure, but wildly odd? I guess some people think so, as (I'm amazed to learn from Olson) some constitutionalists are bothered to the point of being prepared to say that only persons have thoughts, not the organisms that constitute persons.  They are prepared to say (amazingly enough!) that the animal in my chair has a brain buzzing away, but nevertheless the animal can't think.  Only I--the person constituted by the animal--can think.  

The longer I think about the thinking animal problem, the less I can even understand why it's a problem to begin with, let alone a problem serious enough to warrant such a wacky solution.  On the constitution view we're going to have all sorts of doubling up of properties. The person in my chair is a democrat, and the animal is too. The person in my chair is typing, and the animal is too.  Right?  Should we really be troubled by the typing democratic animal problem, and say there's no typing democratic animal in my chair?  For that matter, if you fashion a lump of clay into a cute snail, should we be troubled by the cute lump problem, analogous to the thinking animal problem? Are we supposed to be bothered by there being two cute things--the lump and the sculpture?

It's (just barely) possible that we're supposed to find something particularly odd about the animal in our chair having our thoughts--because they're thoughts and it's an animal potentially having them.  But ... why?  If the thinking animal problem is especially about thinking and animals, why is there a special problem? If it's only as much of a problem as there being cute lumps of clay as well as cute sculptures constituted by lumps of clay, then (it seems) the problem is a non-problem. It's just not that dismaying to suppose there are two cute things in the picture above, the lump and the sculpture.

Actually, there's more to Olson's discussion of why the thinking animal problem is a problem--I'm just addressing the too many problem. It's really not obvious at all that we wind up with too many anythings if we say there's a thinking person and a thinking animal in my chair; and a cute lump of clay as well as a cute sculpture in the picture above.  It's a tad strange, to be sure.  Certainly not strange enough to get me to agree that only the person in my chair thinks, but not (mirabile dictu!) the animal.

1 comment:

Alan Cooper said...

Counting and classifying things is a human activity which imposes language-based mental models on the world which may not always fit very comfortably.

A caterpillar is an insect and a butterfly is an insect. In fact a single "entity" may be both, but would you really say "There's no second entity, a butterfly that's essentially a butterfly, constituted by an organism over just that period of time when the right lepidopteral properties are instantiated"?

I'd love to be able to agree with your opinion that "When all is said and done, I think this sort of talk may be superfluous". But there are many laws and practical judgements which are expressed in terms of the concept of "personhood" and we really do need to know as much as possible about what they are trying to mean.