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Philosophy: Baker and Olson

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Human nature and identity has been a matter of philosophical discussion for centuries. In the course of this discussion a question has arisen about what are the criteria of a person and whether they are related to psychological or physical aspects. Lynne Baker focuses on the idea that a physical body is not an essence, but a constituent of what makes a person. She believes that self-consciousness and first-person perspective are the main properties of a person. In contrast, Eric Olson suggests that body is the primary feature of a person, while consciousness is a property attributed to the body. Overall, Baker’s psychological criterion looks more justified than Olson’s bodily criterion because she treats human personality in a more complicated and multi-level way. Personally, I believe that consciousness and first-person perspective are sufficient criteria for distinguishing a person, while body is an organism that constitutes that person.

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When developing her argument on personality, Baker gives a profound analysis of ambiguities that accompany the discussion. When objecting to purely physical treatment of a human, she emphasizes that she does not deny the fact that treating people as animals can be useful in certain contexts. But, as she underlines, there should be a distinction between the scopes of biology and philosophy, and this makes all theories of body weak: “our animal nature, which we share with other higher primates, does not expose what we most fundamentally are. Ontology is not a branch of biology”.

While distancing from biological theories of animalism, the scholar still bases her argument on the premises related to seeing people as material beings. Yet, she differentiates between what humans are and what they are made of: “constitution is not identity”. Thus, when discussing the material nature of people, Baker claims that people are constituted from organisms, such as cells, but this does not make them identical to these organisms. In order to prove this suggestion, she notes that human beings and organisms that constitute them come to live at different stages, so they cannot be identical. Repeatedly, Baker stresses the differences between biological and ontological terminology: “Human organisms are a biological kind; human persons cannot pretheoretically be assumed to be a biological kind”.

Further on, the researcher formulates her position on human persons comparing it with her understanding of human animals. She completely supports the Darwinian position about origin of humans and their biological relation to higher primates. Yet, she refuses to continue discussion in the biological perspective: “I do not believe that our animal nature exhaust our nature all things considered”( Baker, p.26). In this context, she contrasts the concepts of human organism and human person, suggesting that they come to life not simultaneously. Even when considering human organism separately, she notices that it is not possible to find it identical to oneself at different stages of its biological development “a fertilized egg cannot be identical to an organism”. When an embryo develops, it becomes an individual human organism at a certain stage, which can be contrasted to a set of cells that do not have an individual consciousness. When asking a question on the relation between an embryo and a person, Baker answers in the following way: “A human person is wholly constituted by a human organism, without being identical to the constituting organism”. So, this statement illustrates the scholar’s idea of differentiation between the biological and ontological realms: body is matter from which a human is constituted, but this does not make essence identical to the matter. In other words, Baker states that human persons are still material, but at the same time are not confined to their material constitution.

Later in her discussion, Bakes introduces one of her main arguments on what human person is in contrast to other animate and inanimate beings. She mentions that one of the widely spread views on this issue suggests that consciousness is a criterion of a human. However, she believes that this criterion is not sufficient as many animals are conscious about the external world. Yet, unlike humans, animals do not have self –reflection about their own thoughts, so this exclusively human feature is named “first-person perspective”. By choosing this term, the scholar exposes an idea that only human persons are not only able to be conscious, but also can trace the fact that the thoughts belong to them. In other words, they are aware of the subject of thinking process: “The defining characteristic of a person is a first-person perspective. Human persons are beings that have first-person perspectives essentially and are constituted by human organisms (or bodies)”.

While explaining the first-person perspective as a uniquely human ability, Baker notes that this presupposes being able to be aware of oneself and to have thoughts of oneself as an internal watcher, or as the scholar puts it, “to conceive of oneself as oneself”. In order to prove this argument of hers, Baker uses linguistic evidence, introducing modes of how first-person perspective is implemented through speech. Thus, sentences containing “I” suggest of a person’s self-awareness as the subject of speech and thought. The researcher marks them as “I-thoughts” and suggests that these are the ideas that cannot be expressed without I-reference. To summarize, Baker states that “if a being has a first-person perspective, it is a person”.

Like Baker, Eric Olson suggests that people are animals in the first place because of their evolutionary relation to other animal organism. However, if Baker rejects the sufficiency of bodily criterion for distinguishing a person, Olson is persistent in proving that animal nature is the only direct evidence of a person: “I believe that we are animals” – this is the first premise in the discussion that he starts with his opponents.  In his argument, the scholar suggests that there is no provable evidence that a person and a human body are not identical. Because it is impossible to prove the opposite, he believes it to be a sufficient condition for speaking about humans as animals: “What is more, that animals can think. It is physically indistinguishable from you, with the same surroundings and causal history”. Olson speaks about “thinking body”, which refers to the idea that humans’ physical nature is the essence, while consciousness is just an attribute to that physical being. At the same time, Olson warns against thinking of human as his or her body because after human death a body is left, which does not equal to the idea of a person. Further on, Olson develops his argument, and speaks about three premises: “1) There is a human animal located where you are; 2) That animal thinks. In particular, it has the same thoughts as you have; 3)If you share your thoughts with a being other than yourself, you cannot know that you are not that being”. Thus, the main argument of Olson is based on the idea that a person is identical to human organism, but not identical to body, and that thinking is an ability that a human organism possesses.

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In my opinion, both scholars use reasonable arguments in their own right, yet I believe that Baker’s arguments are stronger. First of all, she underlines that a person can be treated as a human animal from the biological point of view, but not from the philosophical one. The fact that she distinguishes between biology and ontology, makes her premises look more preferable in comparison with Olson’s ones, who confines his arguments to biological perspective. Secondly, Olson’s argumentation is mostly built on rejecting his opponents’ arguments, which is not sufficient to prove that his own statements are true. I think that Baker is right about the correlation between human organism and human person, when she states that our physical nature is not our essence, but just matter of which a wider concept of a person is constituted. In fact, her argument about the first-person perspective is quite convincing, because it stresses the idea that persons do not only have consciousness, as well as some animals, but also that people have an ability to realize that they are the subjects of their beliefs, thoughts and words. Furthermore, she uses language as an evidence of I-sentences, which proves the idea that people are aware of themselves.

Thus, both scholars provide evidence that is worth attention and consideration. Baker suggests that humans are constituted of physical organisms, but are not identical to them. She chooses to state that being aware of oneself as the subject is one of the key proofs to her theory. In contrast, Olson builds his argument on the idea that it is impossible to prove that people are not animals because their material, thinking and time attributes coincide. He believes that thinking is an ability of a human organism, which is identical to a human person. In my opinion, Baker’s arguments are more convincing as they use a wider scope of evidence and differentiate between biology and ontology.

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