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Thought Experiment Continued

Patrick Smith, a fellow product of the Harvard philosophy concentration now wasting his time on the internets, proposes a somewhat different analysis of the persistent vegetative states plus brain switching thought-experiment I offered earlier. He also for some reason regards the musings in question as "metaethical" when I think they're pretty clearly metaphysical.

On the pure philosophy of mind issues, I'll concede the point. This is more complicated than I'd made it out to be. I'm inclined to hew to a Parfitian line about identity, so anything that involves mish-mashes of any sort is going to end up with somewhat mishmashed identities in the end. But assume we're talking not about a purely philosophical issue, but certain kinds of concrete situations that require unequivocal resolution of the "who's who" question.

I have, for example, some bank accounts and some investments, and my name is signed to a lease on an apartment. It seems pretty clear to me that under the situation under consideration, the correct thing to do would be to provide the person with the Matt-cortex access to Matthew Yglesias' financial assets and assign to him the burden of meeting Matthew Yglesias' financial obligations. At the same time, I think it would be exceedingly odd to take the view that the PVS-Matt has inherited Terri Schiavo's financial assets (and obligations) or that whoever was assigned legal authority to make medical decisions on Terri's behalf should be empowered to make such decisions about PVS-Matt's fate. Rather, the natural thing to do would be for Terri's assets to devolve to her next-of-kin (or whomever her will may otherwise specify) and for the future of PVS-Matt to lie with cortical-Matt. That's how I see it. Others may see it differently.

I'd also like to address the point that some may view these speculations as in poor taste. If I offend, I apologize. But I think this is important, and not just an idle game, and it highlights the ways in which philosophy, oft-derided as useless, can be relevant. Clearly, the Schiavo debate has many dimensions. One such dimension is the existence of various different philosophical and religious views about the nature of life and personhood. Those issues aren't directly relevant to the legal case, but they clearly are relevant to our thinking about what the laws ought to say. Thought experiments are one useful way of moving discussion of these issues beyond mere table pounding (thought, I'll admit, not as far as one might like).

March 23, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

I can't be bothered to read the first article but its likely what I'm about to write has been written and disposed of there.

But anyway

If you switch brains then the person with Matt's brain is Matt. No question there.

The person with the vegetative brain - The family thinks its still alive.

That's the whole question.

Make the brain much less damaged, just from a few tokes of a controlled substance, and it is certain that the slightly damaged brain is just as much that person as switched Matt is Matt.

Turn the damage up, the person is still the person.

Turn the damage all the way up until the person is dead - now the person is dead.

The important question of is the woman in Florida dead is just not touched at all by this thought experiment. If you assert she is dead as part of the set up, then that's that.

Once we assert in the construction that PVS = dead we have our answer.

If PVS = maybe dead, but hopefully recoverable, then we're back where we started.

Posted by: Brian Mehren | Mar 23, 2005 3:19:46 AM

"claim that our personhood consists in our choices and the unification of agency"

Well, I can't quite follow...actually I can follow the arguments, I just don't know the names.
But your discussion of bank accounts obviously leads to the question of Terry Schiavo's legal status and what she would choose were she able to speak for her self. What is at issue is various imaginary Terry Schiavos that I would contend are not unrelated or unconnected to the "real" Terry.

"about the nature of life and personhood. Those issues aren't directly relevant to the legal case"

I think they are the legal case. What is the opposite of solipsism? For without getting new agey, I do firmly believe a portion of my identity is distributed to the people who have contact with me, and my own opinion is at best first among equals.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 23, 2005 3:21:14 AM

I don't like philosophy, so I'll just riff off of the Schiavo case instead.

---

In a routine AP story about the appeal denial, they quote a Schiavo demonstrator thusly:

"We represent the silent majority, if you look at the polls," Avant said. "We agree that Congress overstepped their bounds."

And suddenly we're looking at a mirror image of Nixon '68.

On a whole range of issues, Republicans represent a loud and organized minority, while Democrats represent a less vocal and intense silent majority.

Gun control. Terry Schiavo. Anti-gay marriage, but pro-civil union. Making abortion safe, legal, and rare. Reversing the tax cuts on the wealthiest. Increasing the minimum wage.

Combine this silent majority with a reform agenda and some intensely motivated Social Security seniors, and there is an electoral opening big enough to drive a truck though.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 23, 2005 5:12:34 AM

Oh good Lord ! Matt Yglesias, stop it !

Your identity as a person is for the utmost part what your brain is. Your body also defines you as it impacts your practical interactions with others but it’s completely secondary. To think otherwise would be like arguing that extensive esthetic surgery or severe physical disability changes your personhood so much that it would require a death certificate and then a new birth certificate. Some sort of a bankruptcy procedure for the mind ? Stupid.

So yes, if you put your brain in somebody else's body, this somebody else becomes you. And your old body becomes nobody, just an empty envelope, functional (and available for a brain transplant) but dead, just like what happened to the body of the late Terri Schiavo.

As for the status of Ms Terri Schiavo’s body, terminating life support for her body is not killing her. With all superior functions of her brain destroyed and gone, not just disabled, Ms Schiavo is already dead and has been so for at least 10 years.

There. Case closed.

Posted by: Fifi | Mar 23, 2005 6:21:31 AM

On a mostly philosophical note, Eric Olson has argued in his 'The Human Animal' - convincingly, from what I can remember from reading three years as an undergraduate - that the reason Parfit and Williams generate all those confusions about personal identity is that personal identity comes apart from whom we should be concerned about as a continuing moral agent. So in the brain-spliting case which I think Parfit discusses (two bodies each get half of my brain, and thus each of them has memories of being me: which am I, seeing as I can't be both, as they are not identical, because there are two of them), I am not identical with either of the two: I don't exist any more, because the persistence conditions of human x are the persistence conditions of animal x. The persistence conditions of moral agent x might be totally different, however, because it would be sensible to regard, to some extent, me as having some moral interest in and responsibility for the existence of the two (this presumably has all kinds of interesting implications for problems about responsibility: I might be the human animal that did that act, but am I the moral agent who did?).

Posted by: Rob | Mar 23, 2005 6:22:48 AM

Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The funniest, freakiest, greatest and most drug-induced novel I've ever read.


'Gentleman from Mars, age 43, quiet, studious, cultured, wishes to exchange bodies with similarly inclined Earth gentleman; August 1-September 1. References exchanged. Brokers. Protected.' Exchanging bodies for touristic purposes having become commonplace, Marvin Flynn books a trip to Mars. Once there, the unexpected happens and Marvin's mind must seek refuge in a series of temporary bodies on different planets - with some very surprising results...

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 23, 2005 6:54:20 AM

"...wasting his time on the internets..."

Are we no longer using the awkward plural form only ironically?

Posted by: Grumpy | Mar 23, 2005 8:32:01 AM

"Clearly the Schiavo debate has many dimensions..."

...um, yeah, like the 4th dimension you're currently exploring, I suppose. Perhaps it's time to put on some Grateful Dead and simply let the acid take its course.

Posted by: weboy | Mar 23, 2005 9:07:31 AM

Thinking really hard about issues like these is probably fruitless because unless you can convince most ordinary people that you're right, it doesn't even matter what you think. (And of course, ordinary folks won't listen to or follow a philosophical argument)

The other thing is, doing a "brain transplant" like you say isn't even remotely possible. These questions are not worthwhile to ask unless there is some chance of them happening in the foreseeable future -- i.e., some chance of confronting this particular moral dilemma.

So I mean, you can talk about this stuff if you want, but talk because it's fun, not because it's useful.

Posted by: mk | Mar 23, 2005 9:13:49 AM

And suddenly we're looking at a mirror image of Nixon '68.

Petey, that is pretty deep, and you're absolutely correct. This silent majority theme is a great campaign slogan. What has happened is that the Nixon silent majority has now become the loud, vocal minority while the liberal, vocal minority has become the silent majority.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Mar 23, 2005 9:21:37 AM

Matthew:

You have a romaticized notion of the primacy of your cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex has grown up to better analyze the data that is presented it. But your limbic system is where desire and fear are located. We recall best what is fearful or desirable for us: water at the watering hole, the sound of the birds squawking and sight of them flying away just before the lion came and almost bit our butts.

The limbic system tags situations as good or bad. To spare us learning each specific situation, our cortex is an analogy and association machine so we can respond to the sudden flight of antelope from a different watering hole as being like the birds that took flight in the previous one.

The limbic system is who we are, the cortex just services it. If you swapped cortexes (cortices) your cortex would be serving a new master. You would not bring your personality to the new brain. Indeed there would likely be such a disjunction between memories in the cortex and limbic system, you would be confused and disoriented.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 23, 2005 9:25:25 AM

Continuing on epistemology's train of thought, I can't imagine how this discussion hasn't yet considered the fact that Matt's brain - having lived in a male body for 23 years - certainly will NOT be the same when it starts living in a female body. "Matt" cannot go on with the same assumptions, habits, opinions and general outlook on life as before since he has a new context from which to process information, be it sensorial, emotional,social or intellectual.

Posted by: Ana | Mar 23, 2005 9:56:11 AM

The limbic system is who we are, the cortex just services it. If you swapped cortexes (cortices) your cortex would be serving a new master. You would not bring your personality to the new brain. Indeed there would likely be such a disjunction between memories in the cortex and limbic system, you would be confused and disoriented.

This is why this is a pointless investigation: there is currently no coherent, general way to slice up the brain into functionally characterizable segments and predict what effect their alteration will have on consciousness. We don't know how to bridge the gap between functionalism and consciousness, so this is just wild theorizing. Some epileptic patients have almost an entire hemisphere amputated and still get by okay. We just can't make the leap from anatomy to awareness yet.

Which, incidentally, is why Chalmer's thought experiment about a creeping silicon brain and Searle's Chinese Box are also mostly pointless -- they're just appeals to intuition. There's nothing logically inescapable about whatever conclusion the thought experimentalist arrives at. Obviously subjective experience is not as experimentally accessible as we might like, but just making stuff up isn't the answer. It's like asking a non-engineer, "what if the golden gate bridge was made of aluminum?" The anwer he comes up with will probably make sense to him, but it's not likely to be actually be very useful. In this case, we're all non-engineers.

Posted by: tom | Mar 23, 2005 10:43:40 AM

I agree with Dan that Petey's "mirror image of Nixon '68" is a nice thought. It provides a cohesive narrative that large enough swaths of literate people might have an inkling about. And I'd love to see my dad's friends navigate their hazy memories of college. Good fun all around.

Posted by: fnook | Mar 23, 2005 11:23:00 AM

Ana, that is precisely the point of my post.

It is not obviously true that simply putting Matt's Brain in Someone Else's Body results in a transplanted Matt. In fact, it is pretty close, in my mind, to being obviously false.

Posted by: Patrick | Mar 23, 2005 11:25:54 AM

Matt, go to netflix and rent "All of Me" with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin. It'll resolve these questions for you- if you can stop laughing long enough to think about them.

Posted by: JR | Mar 23, 2005 11:49:56 AM

I just want to be there when Matt starts inhabiting Schiavo's body. (Look! No italics!)

Posted by: Anderson | Mar 23, 2005 12:02:15 PM

well, in any case I wager you'd no longer be such the chick magnet ;)

but seriously, it strikes me that the question Matt's raising takes on entirely different significance depending on whether or not the body into which he considers transferring his cortex is a male or female one. I'd argue that Matt's brain transferred to a male body would be a person much more like Matt than Matt's brain transferred to a female body.

Posted by: flip | Mar 23, 2005 12:07:22 PM

Matt-

I found your original post unseemly (and this followup obtuse) because:

1. Your cortex-switching thought experiment does not in fact shed any light on the case at hand. (Like Tom up-thread, I doubt that it sheds any light on anything, but that's a bigger question than I have time for right now.)

2. There are important conceptual/metaphysical questions implicated in the Schiavo case -- they have to do with when we ought to say that the person who was Terry Schiavo is now gone even if some of her bodily functions are still present -- but these are not what people are arguing about as far as I can see. They are arguing, mostly, about the facts of the case: is her cortex destroyed beyond repair or not? Is she systematically responsive or not? Have all reasonably appropriate therapies been tried or not?

3. It seemed to me that you were using an ongoing tragedy simply as a hook to hang your puzzle on, and that you were not at all engaged with the human dimensions of the affair. Clever in the bad sense.

Posted by: tcatch | Mar 23, 2005 12:45:56 PM

tcatch:

The facts of the case seem indisputable, that Schiavo's cortex is atrophied past the point that anyone has ever recovered from. Not that this diminishes her humanity. The issues in this case are: 1. should we be allowed to refuse care that may be life sustaining, and 2.may we pass that decision-making capacity on to someone else if we can't speak for ourselves.

There are no metaphysical questions at hand in this case. The case is NOT about what it means to be human, etc. It is about whether we have a right to refuse treatment. And if a proxy may make this decision for us at our direction.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 23, 2005 12:58:13 PM

but seriously, it strikes me that the question Matt's raising takes on entirely different significance depending on whether or not the body into which he considers transferring his cortex is a male or female one. I'd argue that Matt's brain transferred to a male body would be a person much more like Matt than Matt's brain transferred to a female body.

Sex is hardly the only important factor here -- there are all kinds of body differences that would make a big change. The brain is not sole master of the body, it is strongly influenced by the biochemical environment created by the rest of the organs.

What I think needs to be acknowledged relevant to "brain transplant" (and even moreso "particular brain component -- liek cerebral cortex -- transplant" hypotheticals is that there is a continuum of degrees of body change all of which change "who you are" in some sense. In practice, its fairly easy to draw bright lines on identity in most cases because, in our present world, we mostly deal with A's Brain in A's Body or A's Brain is mostly-A's Body with a couple major organs borrowed from B (or B and C). But if we could have A's cerebral cortex with the rest of in B's Brain in C's Body with a couple organs from D, then those lines wouldn't be quite as bright.

But none of this really has a lot of direct applicability to the Schiavo case, nor does the Schiavo case really do anything to illuminate the discussion of these issues.

Posted by: cmdicely | Mar 23, 2005 12:59:58 PM

The case is NOT about what it means to be human, etc. It is about whether we have a right to refuse treatment. And if a proxy may make this decision for us at our direction.


No, really, this case is about (1) under what condition should the state step in to replace the proxy we have designated explicitly or implicitly in some other act like marriage, and (2) having decided (1), do those conditions apply in this case.

There is little serious condition that Schiavo could refuse this treatment or that, under normal conditions, her husband could act on her behalf. What is at dispute is whether or not her husband is acting inconsistently with his duty as guardian and whether, therefore, he should be replaced with a more appropriate guardian.

Posted by: cmdicely | Mar 23, 2005 1:03:38 PM

Yeah, Epistemology, really. You can refuse to take antibiotics any time you want, the question is whether your wife can refuse them for you and under what circumstances.

IIRC, a few years ago in Boston a couple of scientologists went to jail for refusing traditional medical care for their child. That's probably more germane.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 23, 2005 1:18:22 PM

There is little serious condition [...]

Or, rather contention. Stupid fingers.

Posted by: cmdicely | Mar 23, 2005 1:24:10 PM

Matt-

When are you going to quit your underpaid job at a DC mag with a low circulation and get on the editorial board of a major paper? The WP, NY Times and LA Times might not be interested yet, but you could surely get a position at another big publication. Chicago? Atlanta? The Dallas Morning News needs a smart liberal. The main voice on their editorial page is a former NR guy who homeschools his fucking kids.

Posted by: Michael | Mar 23, 2005 2:07:04 PM

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