According to a prominent view of organism persistence (“vitalicism”), organisms cease to exist at death. According to a rival view (“somaticism”), organisms can continue to exist as dead organisms. Most of the arguments in favor of the latter view rely on linguistic and common sense intuitions. I propose a new argument for somaticism by appealing to two other sources that have thus far not figured in the debate: the concept of naturalness, and biological descriptions of organisms, in particular in ethology and ecology. I show that if we hone in on the relevant notion of naturalness, we can show that organisms can (and often do) continue to instantiate the natural property being an organism after death.
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I borrow this terminology from Blatti (2014), who makes an analogous distinction between somatic and organic versions of animalism about personal identity (I take this distinction to be parasitic on the somaticism/vitalicism distinction). The words ‘terminator’ and ‘anti-terminator’ are also frequently used in the literature, but they are ambiguous between views about organisms, persons, and bodies (see Hershenov 2005). Hence my preference for ‘vitalicism’ and ‘somaticism’, which refer unambiguously to theses about organism identity.
My use of the words ‘dead organism’ shouldn’t be understood as automatically implying that dead organisms were once alive. For example, ‘dead organism’ might function similarly to ‘counterfeit money’, which of course doesn’t refer to a kind of money at all (Mackie 1999, p. 222). Thanks to an anonymous referee for forcing me to be clearer about my use.
One can also deny (1) by claiming that there is an object after the organism’s death, which is not a corpse or a dead organism; this object may or may not be something that used to be an organism. I will ignore this view in what follows: the first version seems to share all disadvantages of my view without its main advantage, whereas the latter is not relevantly different from corpse creationism. (Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this option.)
Carving out causal powers means, roughly, specifying the features on which causal powers hinge (Schaffer 2004, p. 92).
See Kim (1998, p. 108) for more on the micro-basing relation.
Schaffer (2004) thinks there is rivalry between the scientific and the perfect natural conception, but unfortunately I lack space to examine his arguments in this paper.
According to one position, biology does not contain laws in the strict sense, i.e. laws that are “universal in that it is supposed that they apply everywhere in space and time, and they can be expressed in perfectly general terms without making use of proper names or of tacit reference to proper names” (Smart 1959, p. 360). Similarly, Beatty (1995) argues that there are no biological laws, if these laws are taken to be non-accidental generalizations. However, according to another position there are, in fact, biological laws. For example, Sober (1997) and Elgin (2006) argue that there are non-accidental generalizations in biology. Mitchell (1997, 2000) takes a different approach by arguing that we should favor a new conception of laws of nature that does not require laws to be non-accidental generalizations. She argues for a pragmatic approach to laws that offers “a multi-dimensional conceptual framework [that] should replace the standard dichotomous law/accident distinction in order to display important differences in the kinds of causal structure found in nature and the corresponding scientific representations of those structures” (Mitchell 2000, p. 242). Of course, in the scope of this paper I cannot tackle such questions. I am assuming, however, that the properties used in biology (whether biology gives us laws of nature or not) are natural in the scientific sense specified by Schaffer.
For a short review of competing views regarding whether or not biologists need the concept of an organism, and an argument that they do, see Pepper and Herron (2008).
I am using the expression ‘putative corpse’ to avoid presupposing that dead organisms exist. In what follows I will argue that they do, but the expression ‘putative corpse’ is meant to be neutral between somaticism and vitalicism. (I thank an anonymous referee for asking me to clarify this point).
I thank an anonymous referee for pressing me on the exact formulation.
I am not assuming any particular theory of properties, and when I speak of the property of being a somatic organism, I have in mind abundant properties in the sense of Lewis (1983), i.e. simply the meanings of our predicates. It’s not controversial to assume that there is an abundant property of being a somatic organism. The interesting question is whether there is a sparse property corresponding to this predicate; the discussion to follow is intended to provide some reason to think that there is.
I thank an anonymous referee for pointing out the need to clarify this issue.
Note that if the theories are not empirically equivalent even in the narrow sense, the vitalicist would be in trouble in any case. As the discussion to follow will clarify, vitalicists presuppose that they can find an empirically equivalent paraphrase of sentences that confer commitment to somatic organisms into sentences that don’t. So, for the sake of the argument I will assume that neither somaticism nor vitalicism is simpler in any sense that would touch on the theories’ empirical adequacy. In addition, it might in principle turn out that one of the two organism concepts is so gerrymandered as to not even be the meaning of a projectible predicate (e.g. not support counterfactual generalizations). While I grant that this could in principle turn out to be the case, I don’t find it very likely in the case with vitalic and somatic organisms. (Thanks to an anonymous referee for helping me make my position clearer.).
On the widespread view that theories are sets of sentences, when comparing rival theories for simplicity, we are strictly speaking comparing linguistic items. But linguistic items can be compared not only with respect to linguistic simplicity, but also with respect to the simplicity of the phenomena they posit. It is this very much worldly notion of simplicity that I have in mind, even if the means through which I investigate it may well be linguistic.
See Hughes et al. (2011).
See also Mongkolsamrit et al.: “The fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato (Ascomycota, Hypocreales, Ophiocordycipitaceae, anamorph Hirsutella formicarum) is an entomopathogenic fungus specific to Formicine ants (Formicinae, Formicidae) found in tropical rainforests.” (2012, p. 217).
Note that the death location is not random: “dead infected ants were located \(25.20\pm 2.46\) SE cm above the ground, where the humidity and temperature were optimal for fungal growth, and on the north-northwest side of the plant biting onto a vein of the leaf. Parasites in the dead ants relocated from this ‘manipulative zone’ did not grow, confirming the adaptive value of the behavioral change”. (Andersen and Hughes 2012, 163).
Note that while I am focusing on a particular biological case, this is shorthand for a number of cases, because O. unilateralis represents a species complex, containing several species, which attack several species of carpenter ants (Evans et al. 2011, p. 598) and have a pantropical forest distribution on formicine hosts (p. 601). As hypothesized by Evans et al. (2011), “there may be hundreds of species within the complex parasitizing formicine ants worldwide” (p. 598). So the phenomenon is not widespread in terms of being common beyond this species complex, but it is widespread (and therefore not very unique) because the phenomenon doesn’t just characterize one species. Moreover, the genus cordyceps (a genus of fungi) includes over four hundred species, which are parasitic mainly on insects (not only ants). In addition, the case has implications about diversity. Evans et al. (2011) suggest that if their study was repeated on a global scale, it could reveal “that there are tens if not hundreds of species still to be delimited within the complex” (p. 601). This has significance both for addressing the question of “to what degree does this diversity scale up?” and for reconsidering “the oft repeated mantra that arthropods are the true ‘kings of the jungle’, especially when species diversity is the parameter of interest” (Evans et al. 2011, p. 601).
Note that in (A) the fungus is said to grow from the back of the ant’s head. This description is significant because it does not involve the qualification “dead” to describe the ant, although at the point the ant is no longer alive. So biologists seem to assume that the living infected ants are identical to the resulting objects after death. In addition to (A), the description in (C) also shows that scientists take phrases like “the dead ant’s body”, “the infected dead ant” and “the ant” to refer to the same object.
One worry is that attributing roles to living and to dead organisms will end up being disjunctive, because there are things that only living or that only dead organisms can do. This may count against attributing a single role to the organism concept. However, it’s not generally true that the concept has to be maximally non-disjunctive. For instance, there are things that only young organisms do and things that only mature organisms do. So we need to balance between having reasonably non-disjunctive theoretical roles and sufficiently unified biological laws or generalization. Sometimes we need to sacrifice some non-disjunctiveness to achieve some unity in the generalizations. Otherwise we would have different organism concepts for an organism’s offspring and adult organisms. I believe I provided some reason to think that the unity achieved by subscribing to the somatic organism concept is worth it. (I thank an anonymous referee for pressing me on this issue).
I thank an anonymous referee for raising the issue of different senses of (not) having causal powers and its relation to natural properties.
Of course, a third option is that they do not have causal powers at all. But this cannot be the appropriate sense of “not having causal powers” since material objects (unlike mathematical abstracta, for instance) can cause things.
Merricks (2001) famously argues that no xs compose an object unless that object has non-redundant causal powers. While his argument is intriguing, there are various ways in which they can be resisted. The literature on Merricks’s overdetermination argument is vast; see Sider (2003), Yang (2013), Árnadóttir (2015), and many others.
If having causal powers means having non-redundant causal powers, then there would be little point in distinguishing natural properties in the scientific sense from natural properties in the perfectly natural sense.
Many thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point, and for helping me substantially improve the discussion here.
This strategy, in effect, turns an argument due to McGrath’s (2005) on its head. McGrath argues that whatever puzzles common sense ontologists have about individually plausible but jointly inconsistent statements resurface for the eliminativist as statements that are individually plausibly correct but (still) jointly inconsistent.
Indeed, this is exactly Ayers’s view: “...what was initially a foreign body becomes a part of the individual by coming to participate in the common life, as in grafting or transplant surgery. A plastic hip-joint, however, like a false tooth, can never become part of the individual” (Ayers 1991, p. 185). Of course, the vitalicist might also claim that inorganic objects can be proper parts of an organism, if they adequately participate in the organism’s life. And, again, the somaticist is free to agree. The point is that if the vitalicist has a good account of what counts as part of a living organism, nothing prevents the somaticist from adopting an analogous account appropriately modified in the shape of the historical-dependence view.
For more information on craniotomy see Jandial et al. (2011). Other examples involving temporary removal of body parts include skin grafting involving an autograft, in which skin taken from a different location of the individual’s body is transplanted in a different location, and nerve grafting, in which nerves from one part of an individual’s body are transplanted into a different location.
Olson does not specify how he construes the relation between predicates, concepts and properties. I do not wish to assume any particular view about their relation here. All Olson needs to assume is that if the concept of an organism is disjunctive, or if the property is disjunctive, then the persistence conditions that apply to things falling under that concept, or instantiating the property, are likely to also have disjunctive persistence conditions. If this assumption is false, it’s all the worse for Olson’s argument.
I’m not assuming that necessarily coextensive predicates stand for the same property, but it’s plausible that these two predicates do. If you disagree, you can replace it with an example according to your theoretical leanings.
Another virtue of the preceding defense of somaticism is that it bypasses the following, related problems. One reason to accept vitalicism is that there are various asymmetries between living organisms and corpses. For example, Hershenov (2009) suggests that whereas a living organism may assimilate various parts in a particular way, which may involve incorporating these parts into the organism’s metabolic processes, a corpse cannot do so (see Hershenov 2009; Laporte 2009 for a discussion of the significance of these asymmetries). While some have tried to argue that we can brush away these asymmetries by appealing to some higher principle that both living organisms and corpses obey (Laporte 2009), we can bypass the need to specify such a principle by showing that these asymmetries do not undermine the naturalness of the property that the persistence conditions track.
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I would like to thank Berit Brogaard, Simon Evnine, Amy Kind, David Mark Kovacs, Mark Rowlands, Amie Thomasson, anonymous referees, and audiences at the “Animals and Death” conference at the University of Leeds and at the 2015 “Ontology and Metaontology” summer school at the Central European University for helpful feedback and comments on earlier versions of this paper. Special thanks to Rumya Sundaram for helpful discussions and insights about biology.
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Tzinman, R. Is Romeo dead? On the persistence of organisms. Synthese 195, 4081–4105 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1409-9