Twinning, Inorganic Replacement, and the Organism View

In explicating his version of the Organism View, Eric Olson argues that you begin to exist only after twinning is no longer possible and that you cannot survive a process of inorganic replacement. Assuming the correctness of the Organism View, but pace Olson, I argue in this paper that the Organism View does not require that you believe either proposition. The claim I shall make about twinning helps to advance a debate that currently divides defenders of the Organism View, while the claim I shall make about inorganic replacement will help to put the Organism View on a par with its rival views by allowing it to accommodate a plausible intuition that its rivals can accommodate, namely, the intuition that you can survive a process of inorganic replacement. Both claims, I shall also argue, are important for those who are interested in the identity condition of a human organism, even if they do not hold the view that you are essentially an organism. [Ratio, forthcoming] [pdf | html]

Apr 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Latest Research, Metaphysics

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  1. I enjoyed this article. I’m glad to see that there’s a response in the philosophical literature to the twinning objection that corresponds with what always seemed to me like a common sense intuition: twinning just shows that when we’re very young/undeveloped we’re capable of nonsexual reproduction. I was surprised when I learned that there appears to be a consensus, at least within the vast majority of philosophers, that the twinning objection is fatal to the view that for everyone without a twin, we’re identical over time with the zygote from which it developed.

    I didn’t (and still don’t) see what would convince someone that the view has been demonstrated to be implausible, except a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that humans, at a particular point in their life, could reproduce like organisms which we view as ‘primitive.’ In some respects I think that, at the level of the individual human organism rather than the species, it could be likened to Victorians rejecting that humans evolved from less sophisticated primates. In both cases I think there’s a reaction of visceral distaste to hearing that, while at present we’re uniquely set apart from lesser animals, that is only a contingent truth and not necessary or essential.

  2. PS: There’re three lesser points I wanted to add after rereading the article…

    I’d heard ordinary totipotency objections before, but not the claim that in the first 16 days the embryonic cells don’t coordinate sufficiently to be considered a single organism. You appear to have disposed of that objection entirely with science. :) It occurred to me as I was reading it, however, that the objection seems to have an odd implication. Assuming that the zygote qualifies as a single celled organism, it’s odd that it would give rise to multiple organisms which, after the cells specialize, becomes a single multi-celled organism. Or would Olson deny that the zygote qualifies as a single celled organism?

    With the inorganic replacement example, I understood that the brain and brain-stem were gradually replaced with some sort of electronic device. There’s a Twilight Zone episode (the 1980’s reboot, not the Rod Serling original) very much like that. What is important to me, but I wasn’t clear about from the paper, is whether the organic body and inorganic regulating device are integrated with one another in terms of the energy that enables them to function. While it’s obvious to me that, as you say, “while it may be the case that organisms that are most familiar to us are all carbon-based life forms, there is no reason to suppose that all organisms are necessarily carbon-based life forms,” and that some “non-carbon-based life forms would also qualify as organisms.” However, when there’s a organic-inorganic hybrid (a cyborg?) I think that it’s possible that there could be an inorganic organism that’s merely wrapped in and regulating an organic sleeve that isn’t a part of the organism. I think this would be the case if the organic portion is sustained by the inorganic, but the inorganic isn’t sustained by the organic. A cyborg like the one in the Terminator movies would be an example.

    You said that Lynne Rudder Baker “holds a version of the Constitution View, according to which you are not identical to an organism but instead you are a human person constituted by an organism.” That’s interesting. I think that I’m identical to an organism which has the capacity (even if the ability is currently absent) to generate a human person. I guess Baker and I would disagree in that I believe that initially I was an organism that lacked personhood (at least until 18 months after birth and possibly longer). Also, I think it’s possible that in the course of my lifetime I (the organism that’s me) can generate different human persons. I’m skeptical, but willing to at least entertain the notion that I could still be identical to the organism which I am now even after it permanently loses its person generating ability (assuming that the organism is still alive), although it seems a moot point. Whether it’s me or not, I’m resolved that when that ability is permanently lost, my moral standing and ability to have rights is lost too.