Friday, November 26, 2010

Naturalist theories of mind and corporate personhood

All theories of mind need to do justice to the multiple realizability intuition:

  1. Conscious beings in general, and persons in specific, could have a physical constitution very different from ours (e.g., silicon, plasma cloud, etc.), with the computational algorithms being significantly different as well.
On a naturalist theory of mind, all there is to a person or a conscious being is the physical constitution together with external connections. Therefore, on naturalism, what (1) says is that there could be persons radically different from us in their overall constitution. This means that the naturalist theory of mind must have a very flexible account of what it is to be a person or a conscious being. Presumably, this account is going to be something like this: Conscious beings are ones that represent the external world in certain ways—the best stories about this are causal in nature—and respond in other ways (or at least are of a kind to do this). The specification of the ways in which representation and response are done is not going to be too specific—it must be at a high enough level of generality to do justice to (1). And then persons are going to be the subset of conscious beings tha have (or at least are of a kind to have) a particularly sophisticated form of representation and response—perhaps the right kind of representation of the internal patterns of response together with a self-directed response to those patterns.

Here, now, is my hypothesis. Any naturalist story that does justice to (1) will be apt to count many human social groups as both conscious and as persons. Social groups do represent the environment and themselves, and respond to such representations in various sophisticated ways, including self-reflection analogous to that which persons engage in. Social groups have corporate representations that are not the same as individual representations and corporate desires that are not the same as individual desires. To a very rough first approximation, a social group believes p provided that a majority of the members believes p in a way that is appropriately explanatorily connected with their group membership (e.g., their belief is in the right way explained by or explains their group membership), and desires p provided that it has the right kind of tendency to pursue p. Anything that can design an airplane is likely conscious and a person. But an airplane can be designed by both an individual human, and a social group such as two brothers.

  1. If naturalism holds, then many human social groups are conscious and a number of these are persons.
Notice that the computational sophistication in human social groups can be very high. For human social groups contain a number of human brains. Think of a computating cluster: a cluster while having some ponderousness can compute anything its parts can.


  1. Human social groups, other than perhaps the Church, are not persons.
(The naturalist is unlikely to worry about the exception.) If this won't do as a direct intuition, then we can argue for it on ethical grounds in the case of many social groups. For instance, an academic Department will often be such as to force the naturalist who does justice to (1) to count it as a person. But a respect is due to a person which is not due to an academic Department. A University administration should not dissolve a Department willy-nilly, but the gravity of dissolving a Department is not nearly comparable to the gravity of killing a person.

The dualist does justice to (1) without falling into an assertion that social groups are persons in a very simple way: a necessary condition for being conscious is having a soul or something like that, and a plasma cloud could have that, and social groups, at least other than the Church, in fact don't have that. (I am not saying that social groups couldn't have that, though I think they couldn't. I am inclined not to consider the Church literally a person, either.)

Objection 1: The naturalist can make it a condition of personhood that one not have persons as proper parts.

Response: If naturalism is true, the nerves in my shoulder could so grow that they would engage in the kind of computation characteristic of persons, and then a person would be a proper part of a person.

Objection 2: Social groups don't exist.

Response: It would be tough for a naturalist to hold that social groups don't exist and human beings do—both are appropriately posited by developed special sciences.


enigMan said...

If I was a Naturalist I would point out ants and computers as showing that things are not so simple.

Maybe ant colonies are as much an organism (in a different way) as the individual ant is. Analogously, viruses show that it's hard to draw a line between living and non-living organisms, but viruses are no argument for vitalism. And if a computer was so sophisticated that a Naturalist would count it as AI, what would the Naturalist say about a network of such? She might say that our evolved intuitions about personhood were inadequate for such a situation.

When would a social group count as a person in some legal sense? Can the Naturalist not just keep an open mind about that? After all, there is some development of personhood from zygote to adult, according to the Naturalist, which allows for various relatively arbitrary stipulations along the way. The Naturalist is likely to say that our intuitions about academic departments mean that we would stipulate that such were not persons.

wrf3 said...

Any naturalist story that does justice to (1) will be apt to count many human social groups as both conscious and as persons
Why? They could just as easily say that a "person" is the fewest components that fit the definition. We want useful abstractions, and piling on components typically makes abstractions less useful.

If naturalism holds, then many human social groups are conscious and a number of these are persons. But I don't think it's a particularly naturalist thought.
FWIW, corporations are treated as legal persons under the U.S. Constitution. Personally, I think the law strange, but it is what it is.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The restriction to the smallest entity satisfying the definition would imply we are brains and hearts aren't a part of us. Which is absurd.
The important questions here can't be settled by fiat or social decision because who is a person has ethical implications. This won't impress the naturalist who doesn't think ethics is objective. But that view is absurd, too. :-)
Corporations are persons for some legal purposes but not others. Dissolving a corporation is not murder.

wrf3 said...

The restriction to the smallest entity satisfying the definition would imply we are brains and hearts aren't a part of us. Which is absurd.
Is it? Some people have mechanical hearts but they are still themselves.

And, I have to echo St. Paul who shows us that we are not our flesh. So it's not really absurd, except to the naturalist.

machinephilosophy said...

I think what was meant is the core self-conscious vantage point of the transcendental mind, which defies mechanistic reduction. Stuart Hackett lists seven objections to materialistic conceptions of the mind, each of which he considers conclusive. Here's one from pages 222-223 (any edition): "If thought is identified with motion in the brain (or anywhere else in the organism), how is it ever possible to remember a previous experience? For when a motion has once become past it is never repeated as the same motion. But it may be insisted that while all the given motions are numerically distinct, they may be generically the same: yet how could we know this or be aware of it? To classify two entities as in the same genus, it is necessary to observe a similarity between them. But on a materialistic basis, the thought of similarity would have to be a motion also: and before it occurs, the motion of the original experience and the motion of the alleged memory experience would be past. And the question arises: how could any motion connect two motions that no longer exist? Thus the very possibility of thinking generically similar thoughts---a possibility essential to the process we call memory---exists only on the supposition that materialism is false."

wrf3 said...


Computers are electrons in motion, similar to the human brain. Computers have memory. The flaw in Hackett's argument should therefore be easy to spot.

machinephilosophy said...

Well if I were going to spot a flaw in an argument, I would spot it, not just make a vague claim that it has a flaw. Computers have control statements in both their hardware and software, supplied by human minds, which already supplies criteria for making such distinctions. Let's see which specific motion (any one would do) can distinguish between other motions or identify two that are similar, especially since it's so easy to do this.

wrf3 said...

machinephilosophy wrote: Well if I were going to spot a flaw in an argument, I would spot it, not just make a vague claim that it has a flaw.

You presented an argument that memory is impossible if thought is due to some kind of motion in the brain.

Yes, thought is due, in part, to the motion of electrons in the brain. But that's not all it is. Atoms are also able to store state information and this is the basis of memory.

machinephilosophy said...

The argument which you still do not address is: What motion distinguishes other motions from each other or classifies them under the same genus or as related in any way? Seems like if you're so enamored with mere matter in motion, you would at least point to some particular motion as the arbitrator of *some* point about *something*.

wrf3 said...

machinephilosophy said, The argument which you still do not address is: ...

Our brains are neural nets. There are textbooks that discuss the chemistry thereof.

Douglas said...

Hi Alex,

Problem: the materialist's account of people is either too specific (only allowing things with brains to be people) or too abstract (absurdly allowing all social groups to be people).

Try this:

For x to be a person is (i) for x to have at least one integral material part that disposes x to have conscious experiences, etc., and (ii) for all of x's parts to be material.

An integral material part of a thing is a material part of it that it couldn't have lacked. Might it be that the parts of non-person social groups are never integral? A philosophy department, for example, has no integral parts.

Can we think of purely material things that are people and that lack any integral material parts? I think of an intelligent cloud or a talking blob, both without natural divisions. The materialist might be rational to deny that these are metaphysically possible things.

Alexander R Pruss said...


But the members of a couple are integral parts of the couple.

Moreover, I suspect that a lot of naturalists will be attracted to mereological ontology. But the mereological sum of myself and the CN Tower has me as an essential part.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"Some people have mechanical hearts but they are still themselves."

Sure, and artificial legs, arms or eyes. But this doesn't challenge the claim that our non-artificial hearts, legs, arms and eyes are parts of us (whether the prostheses are parts of the person is a different question). It only challenges the claim that our hearts, etc. are essential parts of us.

Douglas said...

The counter-example of a couple is a good one!

I don't want to commit to a view about whether a mechanical heart might become part of you, but I don't see the view as implausible.

enigMan said...

A related scientific case may be the split-brain disorder, where each half of the split brain acts in many ways like a person. Naturalists may therefore think of the normal human brain as two people made into one person by the links between the two hemispheres. Analogously, they might imagine that were people to be parts of a society that did deserve to be regarded as a person, then they would lose their individual personhoods. In other words, the mere fact that we regard ourselves as people, correctly, may be enough to show that we are not parts of any corporate person (except in legal senses).

enigMan said...

Still, I think the Naturalist would just deny any perfectly definite and precise objective ethical import to our intuitive (evolved) rather than legal concept of a person.

As you say, Alex, that may be another problem for Naturalism; and another related problem may be how the Naturalist would deal with general representation and response. The Naturalist will probably want to take a 4-Dimensionalist view. But that will just give her static patterns of a certain kind. And such patterns would exist (as subsets) inside any sufficiently complex pattern.

Human brains being relatively simple, such patterns might be found all over the place. So the Naturalist has a tendency towards theories that would put people all over the place. The Naturalist may therefore have to choose between denying consciousness or denying 4-Dimensionalism.