Philipse on Personal Identity

Yes, it’s been over a year since I last talked about “God in the Age of Science”, but I haven’t forgotten about it. So here I’ll talk about the last section in Chapter 7, which is the one on personal identity. It’s also the one where Philipse’s two main arguments really made me wonder if he was, in fact, even a philosopher.

Philipse is trying to address an argument by Swinburne here — again, although it won’t be all that problematic until the next chapter — that argues against the empirical/naturalistic idea of determining personal identity, presumably because after all of Philipse’s previous arguments about bodies it would seem to leave God out, or at least mean that we could only talk about the personal identity of God by analogy, which Swinburne is loathe to do. So Swinburne, according to Philipse, tries to dodge that problem by arguing for Cartesian Dualism, and at least against the empirical idea. Swinburne’s argument is essentially this:

1) If the empirical account — which Philipse favours — is true, then there are going to be cases where there is no right answer to the question of whether a person P1 is is the same person as another person P2.

2) But there is always a right answer to these questions even if we might not always be able to actual know or determine what that right answer is.

Therefore, the empirical account is wrong.

Philipse accepts 1), and so will try to challenge 2), and in fact — continuing his habit of making arrogantly grandiose claims — will insist that it is false. This means that he will have to deal with the thought experiments about brain transplants that Swinburne uses to try to demonstrate the issues. Unfortunately, here is where he introduces a pair of not only really bad arguments, but ones that are arguably anti-philosophical as well:

An account of a concept should give us an illuminating overview of the various uses of the relevant term in the language. However, our language is not made for a fanciful science fiction world, but for the real world in which we are living.

… it is a methodological mistake to test an analysis of an ordinary concept such as the concept of a person or the concept of knowledge by attempting to apply it to science fiction examples. … One cannot elucidate the normal concept of a word, and analyse the concept it expresses, by wondering how it we should apply it to imagined situations that never or very rarely occur, and in which the concept loses its grip.

This is, lamentably, a very common argument that many people use against the philosophical use of thought experiments: it’s not covering real situations, so any problems that it raises aren’t actually problems. However, it is odd to see a philosopher advocating that thought experiments aren’t of any use in analysing a concept. It is even odder to see a philosopher essentially arguing that the point of conceptual analysis is merely to give an overview of how people use the term. Thus, if most people think that gut feelings or faith entail knowledge, it would seem that the job of the philosopher to find out a view of the concept of knowledge where that can be true, instead of pointing out that the actual concept of knowledge, independent of the common usage, seems to leave those things out as true knowledge. So it really looks like Philipse is limiting conceptual analysis to something that we’d normally think some branch of linguistics might do, which is simply list out the common usages of a word. Surely philosophical conceptual analysis is to do more than that, and thus separating it from common usages is key to ensuring that we are not misled by errors in the common usages.

And the big effect here of those arguments is to give the impression that the main reason Philipse is trying to discredit the use of thought experiments is because the thought experiments really are a problem for his view, which is also how those arguments are commonly used in the other areas. Thus, it seems like the thought experiments raise something that even Philipse thinks is a problem for his view, and he has to retreat to “Well, these are too artificial of cases” to try to avoid those nasty consequences. But Philipse’s main view is that 2) above is false, as he strongly asserts later. Thus, if Swinburne’s thought experiments really came up with examples where the empirical approach couldn’t give an answer to the question of whether a person P1 was another person P2 or not, then there ought to be no problem for Philipse, as he is in no way committed to saying that there really must always be an answer to that question. So, if it is such a problem that he must go to great lengths to invalidate the thought experiments by, essentially, invalidating all of them, then either he is indeed committed to the claim that there must always be a right answer to such questions or, else, these specific thought experiments are cases where even the empirical approach ought to have an answer, and it doesn’t. Either way, his dodge fails, and he’ll actually have to answer the issues raised by the thought experiments.

And he uses this analysis as the entire basis for his conclusion that 2) is false, when obviously it shows no such thing. He retreats to a claim that, in fact, as merely a description of normal usage it’s fine for it to have gaps, but that doesn’t mean that, again, there are cases where even by that usage there is no right answer to the question.

The rest of the chapter are simply attempts to show that Swinburne’s Cartesian Dualism might fare no better, a step that ought to be unnecessary if he actually had proved 2) false. Even then, a dualistic approach always has an answer: P1 is P2 iff the mind in P1 ends up in P2. We might not be able to prove where the mind actually went, but that wasn’t Swinburne’s contention. Arguably, Philipse has the same options open to him for the empirical approach, but for some reason he doesn’t take them.

In Chapter 8, we’ll look at necessity again, and note that Swinburne’s problems about necessity don’t seem to be ones that would bother other theists, like the Scholastics.

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