What We Are Not

What We Are NotWe are not Cartesian egos.  We are not biological organisms either.

Not Cartesian egos

A Cartesian ego is a kind of mental or spiritual thing that is thought to inhabit a human body and give it life.  Many people believe we can exist independently of a human body – that we survive the death of our bodies, continuing to have experiences either without a body, or by being reborn in another body.

I hardly need to argue against Cartesian egos.  The idea is in widespread disrepute without any assistance from me.  It is hard to reconcile with a scientific view of the world.  We have no convincing evidence that such things exist.  Until we have, we should use Occam’s Razor for its intended purpose to prune them from our conceptual scheme.  Leaving them in creates clutter and awkward problems.

One problem comes from split brain research.  When the corpus callosum connecting a patient’s two cerebral hemispheres is cut, two centres of consciousness appear where there was one before.  Should we conclude that the surgeon’s knife divided a spiritual substance?   Instead of deepening our understanding, this multiplies mysteries.

Despite its academic unrespectability, the idea that we are Cartesian egos is embraced by billions of people.  It is deeply involved with emotion, as this passage from Umberto Eco’s novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana illustrates:

One evening the spiritual director stood in front of the altar balustrade, illuminated – like all of us, like the entire chapel – by that single candle that haloed him in light, leaving his face in darkness.  Before dismissing us, he told us a story.  One night, in a convent school, a girl died, a young, pious, beautiful girl.  The next morning, she was stretched out on a catafalque in the nave of the church, and the mourners were reciting their prayers for the deceased, when all of a sudden the corpse sat up, eyes wide and finger pointing at the celebrant, and said in a cavernous voice, “Father, do not pray for me!  Last night I had an impure thought, a single thought – and now I am damned!”

A shudder travels through the audience and spreads to the pews and the vaults, seeming almost to make the candle flame flicker.  The director exhorts us to go to bed, but no one moves.  A long line forms in front of the confessional, everyone intent on giving in to sleep only after the merest hint of sin has been confessed.

What makes this passage interesting is not the lie that a corpse sat up and spoke, but its stark illustration of the emotional power, and plasticity, of self-concern.  The boys who were told this story had no difficulty believing that they themselves would experience hellfire if they were unlucky enough to die with an unconfessed impure thought on their consciences.  These were healthy teenage boys with normal interests and appetites, not delusional, fearful, or given to morbid imaginings.  Yet a little story, highly incredible, terrified them and changed their behaviour.

Isn’t it interesting that practical people, who are not easily duped on the playground or in business, can be so moved by a fantasy of spirits in the afterlife?

Compare the boys’ fear of damnation with another fear which everyone can relate to – the fear of incapacitation in old age.  Most of us know someone who has lapsed into senile dementia.  The worst-afflicted cases have catastrophic memory loss – they fail to recognize their friends, or even close family.  Their adult competences fall away, and their mental life is reduced to a shallow experience of the present, pierced by shards of memory from distant childhood.  Watching this happening to someone, we feel sympathy and helpless horror, and we cannot avoid the thought that it might someday happen to ourselves.  We imagine being so radically reduced, having forgotten everything about our careers and accomplishments, tended by strangers, visited by mysterious well-wishers, bearing flowers.  We dread that happening to us.

Why should we dread that?  If that happened to me, I would not be the same person in any meaningful sense.  The worst cases of dementia cause catastrophic disruption of psychological continuity.  If someone doesn’t know my children or my wife, has no memory of a career developing software for railroads, no interest in sea kayaking or personal identity, could that person be me?  Surely not.  If my brain were so damaged that all that was lost, my life would be over – I would be as dead and gone as if a truck had run over my head.  Although there would still be life, simple experience, and the capacity to suffer, why should I regard it as my life, my experience, my suffering?

I can persuade myself that a life of severe senile dementia would not be my life, even though that life would be in my body.   When I do, I think of that sadly reduced Gordon in the possible future with sympathetic concern, as I think of other friends I have known in that condition.  I hope he won’t suffer too much.  But I do not dread his suffering.

But I can also persuade myself that he will be me.  In doing so, I imagine that his suffering is mine, and I dread it, just as I dread a three hour session of elaborate and painful dental work.  Dread requires just two things: imagining a dreadful experience – whether hellfire, senile confusion, or pain in the dentist’s chair – and believing that the the experience will be one’s own.   If we believe we are not Cartesian egos or spiritual substances, we need not worry about suffering in Hell or in future lives.  If we believe that our lives end when we lose psychological continuity, then we can give up worrying about senile dementia too.  Whichever view we take about what the self is – spirit, mind, or body – we will probably continue to fret about our upcoming dental sessions.  The emotional quality and motivational force of self-concern seem largely independent of our ideas about what we are.

How we are, and are not, our bodies

The claim that we are not biological organisms is much more controversial than the claim that we are not Cartesian egos.  To those of a materialist bent (such as myself), that may seem false.  Our bodies certainly exist; and in a sense, we are nothing more.  We are nothing over and above biological organisms.

That is like saying that a computer is its hardware, because it is nothing more than hardware.  Although true, that is not a complete description of computers.  A computer cannot function without software.  Software is not hardware, but a state of hardware; Adobe Photoshop, running on my computer, consists of an image of the program loaded into random access memory.  That image is a sequence of 1’s and 0’s, or (physically) high and low voltages in a vast array of transistors and capacitors.  This state of RAM memory, in combination with states of the registers in the CPU, and of other programs (notably the operating system), is what it is for my computer to run Photoshop.

It is a mistake to conflate computer hardware and software.  When I purchase a computer, I am not stuck with the pre-installed programs; I can purchase and install more software, or write my own.  My investment in software is not a writeoff if my computer breaks down beyond repair; I can reinstall the same programs on a new computer.  A single program can be stored in an electronic file and copied many times in a variety of media, from which it can be loaded onto any number of computers which can then run it.

I remember, in 1983, the CEO of the small software company I worked for demonstrating the package I wrote.  Some potential investors, pointing to the letters “IBM” embossed on the computer monitor, expressed doubt that my company really owned the product.  To confuse software and hardware is a sure sign of technological illiteracy.

On my view, we are states of our biological organisms, as computer programs are states of the hardware that runs them.   Because we are states, we can be represented in the form of information and replicated in other organisms.  The medium in which the information is stored and transmitted doesn’t matter – any medium will do.  I call this the Information Theory of persons.

Some people take an opposing view.  They believe we are organisms, not states of organisms.  I call this the Organism Theory of persons.  It has stronger and weaker versions.  The stronger version is that being the same organism is what matters in survival.  It is the relation that justifies self-concern.  According to the weaker version, although we are identically organisms, being the same organism is not what matters in survival.

I do not think the strong form of the Organism Theory can be proven false.  It is consistent with empirical observation, and with uncontroversial truths about persons.  But there is much to say against the Organism Theory.  It is unattractive in a variety of ways, some of which we have touched on in earlier posts.

One drawback is that the strong form of the Organism Theory discourages adoption of beneficial applications of human replication technology.  If I believe I am, identically, a biological organism, then I will never choose to use information-based teleportation (itravel) as a means of transportation.  Itravel works by making a replica, then destroying the original.  I won’t use it if I think it will destroy me.  I will also be less likely to take out a life insurance policy that promises, in the event of my death, to replicate me from a backup file.  Although the survival of my copy might comfort my family and friends, it will not benefit me.

Another unattractive aspect of the Organism Theory is that it makes a deep mystery out of self-concern.  According to the Organism Theory, users of itravel who expect to survive the trip, to experience the sights, sounds and smells of their intended destination, are tragically misled.   They will experience nothing; their lives are at an end.  And their replicas at the other end are equally mistaken in claiming the experiences, memories and achievements of their predecessors as their own.

But where is the mistake?   Believers in the Organism Theory can only point to the discontinuity: the original is destroyed, and a replica is made.  A discontinuity of this sort, when applied to things other than persons, doesn’t usually matter much.  If my car is totalled, and my insurance replaces it with a new car, same make and model, same colour and accessories, and equal or better condition, I do not regard the exchange as a huge loss.

There are cases when we prefer the original to a copy.  I would be sad to lose the ring my wife gave me years ago when we were married.  A replacement would not be that ring, with its special history.   However, I recognize this attitude as sentimentality.  My ring is symbolic of our relationship, not the relationship itself.  If the ring were lost, I would replace it.  My wife and I would reconcile ourselves to the substitution, with little harm done.

For a believer in the Organism Theory, the continuity of the same body (or its brain, or part of its brain) somehow matters a great deal.  If the body dies or is destroyed, life ends, even if everything else considered important about a person – personality, memories, abilities, habits, appearance – is preserved.  Why should a piece of meat be so important?  This seems like magical thinking.

The Two Lives Objection

The Organism Theory is sometimes expressed as the claim that we are identically animals.  In this form, it is called Animalism.  Eric Olson defends Animalism on the grounds that it avoids an unnecessary, and confusing, multiplication of entities.  Human beings are animals that think, have experiences, and are self-conscious.  Persons also think, have experiences, and are self-conscious.  It seems implausible that our bodies house two kinds of conscious entities: animals and persons.  This is known as the Thinking Animal Argument, or the Two Lives Objection.

Derek Parfit adds a twist to this objection:

And suppose these beings jointly think, ‘I am a human being’.   On the Lockean [i.e. two-entity] proposal, there must be two thoughts here, one of which is false.   How can a single mental event be regarded as the thinking of two different thoughts?

If two entities jointly think something, it does not follow that they have two thoughts.  The sentence opening Chapter 1 of the book on my desk is, “Many of us want to know what we have most reason to do.” That statement is ambiguously true of both my copy of Reasons and Persons and Parfit’s intellectual work of the same title.  The truth is there are two books on my desk, one of which exists in no other place, the other also being found in libraries around the world.  These two things – the bound volume and the intellectual work – have the same opening sentence.  One sentence, not two.

The book analogy, discussed in more detail in an earlier post, answers the Two Lives objection.  If we can clearly distinguish between human animals and persons – and we can – we can truly say that both of them are conscious, and have thoughts – the same thoughts.

And if the sentence, “This book is an intellectual work, not a bound volume,” appears in a book, the ambiguity of the word “book” gives it two readings. On one reading, the sentence is true; on the other, false. The fact that the self-referential phrase “this book,” is ambiguous is not a reason to reject the distinction between intellectual works and physical volumes. More realistic examples such as “This book is protected by copyright law,” and Do not deface this book,” may be considered self-disambiguating, since copyright applies to intellectual works, whereas the instruction not to deface only makes sense if it is applied to the physical volume (the property of the local library). The sentence “I am a person” can reasonably be understood as self-disambiguating.

I think the tendency to confuse human animals and persons stems mainly from the fact of their close coincidence in space and time.    When they stop coinciding, as did the two kinds of book when scribes in monasteries started making copies, the distinction will be much more obvious.  It will also be more necessary.

The Weak Form of the Organism Theory

Interestingly, Olson does not hold the Organism Theory in its strong form.  If my brain were transplanted to another body, he says, then I – the original animal – would have a brainless body, and would hence be dead.  My personality, thoughts, memories etc. would be transferred with my brain to the other body.  Housed there, they would animate another human animal who would not be me (although he would claim to be me).

On Olson’s view, most of what is important about me would survive; but I would not.

Like the strong form of the Organism Theory, this position is coherent, but unattractive.  One unattractive feature is that, if my brain were transplanted, I would not coincide with what is most important about me.  After the transplant I would be dead, although what is most important about me would live on.  Another unattractive feature of Olson’s theory is that it contains no entity which does coincide with what’s most important about me.  Our concepts, remember, are human artifacts that reflect what is important to us.  It would be strange and inconvenient not to have a concept that coincides with what is most important about persons.


Olson, Eric (2003) “An Argument for Animalism”, in Martin and Barressi, ed. (2003) Personal Identity

Parfit, Derek (2008) “Persons, Bodies and Human Beings”, in Dean Zimmerman, Theodore Sider & John Hawthorne (eds.) Contemporary debates in metaphysics, Oxford: Blackwell

Leave a Reply