Persons, Animals, Ourselves, by Paul F. Snowdon

Are we primarily biological entities, or embodied consciousnesses? Christopher Belshaw on a fine book examining the arguments

January 8, 2015

Anyone tempted to buy this book because of its title and pretty picture should ask for their money back. There’s nothing here about pets, or farms, or wildlife. Look again. What Paul Snowdon is asking, in this fine and focused book, is whether we ourselves are persons or animals. Both, you might say. This is a start but doesn’t, he’ll insist, go far enough. He is asking what we are necessarily, or essentially, rather than simply what right now we just happen to be.

And now there’s a divide. Many non-philosophers, perhaps influenced by Charles Darwin, will suggest that we are animals, or biological things; while most philosophers, at least until pretty recently, have said that we are persons, or minds, or a consciousness.

This isn’t unfamiliar. We all sit in a tradition where, with death, we leave this earthly body, travel elsewhere and exist, blissfully, as a disembodied soul. Such views might seem quaint, but they’ve been more or less immediately succeeded by science-fiction equivalents in which I get myself a super-duper artificial body, or am kept alive as just a brain, or the contents of my mind are transferred to a computer, or I beam up to a distant planet. And if any of these can occur, it looks as if any essential link with the animal is severed.

Paul Snowdon is among the new kids on the block – the so-called “animalists” – wanting to resist all this. There are two parts to the argument. First, I don’t need a mind to exist. I was a fetus. I may in time develop Alzheimer’s, and end my life in dotage. And I’m almost certain to be put in a coffin, and then buried or burned. So I exist when and where the animal exists, whatever its mental and physical condition.

Second, I exist only when and where the animal exists. All these accounts of detaching the mind – and hence me – from the body are mere stories and, when we think about them, far from convincing. Snowdon asks whether you’d really accept that your son still exists if some clunking robot comes along, claiming to be him.

I have two worries about this. The first is simply that this dismissal goes a bit fast. Suppose these things do come to happen, and to happen fairly often. Who knows what, in time, we’ll get used to, and what we’ll say? (Remember the old worry – will it really be your husband if they give you something powered by a pig’s heart?) The second concerns the philosophical underpinnings. At the outset Snowdon airs some reservations about the abstract metaphysical claims within this debate. But perhaps his project as a whole then takes some of this metaphysics too much for granted. Why think that there is any such thing as the essential me? Why not think, instead, we will try to make the best of whatever comings and goings we encounter?

Let’s say Jim gets hit by a car. When there’s just a mindless body in a hospital bed, making the best of things involves allowing that Jim is still there, in a terrible condition. But when, as well as this body, there’s some fabricated equivalent sitting alongside, claiming not implausibly to be Jim and thanking the doctors for their efforts, we can do better. Both views – “animal” and “person” – suffer in the same way. They are too ambitious.

Persons, Animals, Ourselves

By Paul F. Snowdon
Oxford University Press, 2pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780198719618
Published 9 October 2014

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