Resisting the Remnant-Person Problem


Some opponents of animalism have offered a relatively new worry: the remnant-person problem. After presenting the problem, I lay out several responses and show why they are either problematic or come with too many theoretical costs. I then present my own response to the problem, which unlike the other responses, it is one that can be adopted by animalists of any stripe. What I hope to show is that some of the key assumptions of the remnant-person problem can be rejected, and thus, the remnant-person problem should be seen as posing no threat to animalism.

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  1. 1.

    Well-known proponents of animalism include van Inwagen (1990), Olson (1997), and Snowdon (2014). Some animalists treat the relation designated by “are” as identity (Bailey 2015); however, Olson (2015a) argues that adding the claim of numerical identity yields a less perspicuous characterization of animalism.

  2. 2.

    Notable presentations of this objection are found in Olson (2015b, 2016), Parfit (2012), and Johnston (2007, 2016).

  3. 3.

    This follows closely to Olson (2015b): 5 typescript. Given (ii), this definition would rule out Madden’s view since the remnant-person would count as an organism. However, I stick with Olson’s definition given Olson’s influence in this discussion, though noting that Madden’s account would require a different definition than the one provided. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  4. 4.

    Olson (2016) claims that there is no adequate solution for the animalist, but he argues that the remnant-person problem is problematic for rival views such as the Constitution View.

  5. 5.

    Another reason for denying the existence of the proper parts of organisms comes from the rejection of the Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached parts, cf. van Inwagen (1981) and Olson (1995).

  6. 6.

    cf. Bailey (2014), Madden 2015, 2016b and Yang (2015).

  7. 7.

    In fact, it is common for proponents of an Aristotelian or Thomistic framework to distinguish between substances and accidental unities—both of which would count as objects in the contemporary sense.

  8. 8.

    Toner does reject Creation and Destruction (and so presumably would also reject Creation* and Destruction*), and we will turn to his discussion of that in the next section.

  9. 9.

    This at least seems to be the view of Stump (2006a) and perhaps Rea (2011).

  10. 10.

    Moreover, accidental animalism results in concord with the Lockean Transplant Intuition, thereby resolving two worries against animalism.

  11. 11.

    Olson (2016) raises another problem for accidental animalism, claiming that it is committed to having an organism be outlived by its own biological life.

  12. 12.

    While I do not find the theoretical cost of accidental animalism as worrisome as those who, like Olson, claim that we are animals essentially, I am inclined to accept the claim that we are animals essentially provided that we understand essences along the lines somewhat similar to the Thomistic view explained in footnote 15.

  13. 13.

    No doubt that this claim is contentious and some may argue that the cerebrum does not exhibit more human-animal-characteristic activities than the cerebrum-less organism laying on the operating table, especially since the latter will still be capable of breathing, growing, ageing, digesting, fighting infection, etc. I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  14. 14.

    For another version of animalism that is also “psychologically serious” (i.e., that it takes psychological states/capacities as a condition for persistence), though in a significantly different way, see Sharpe (2015).

  15. 15.

    There is one more way of denying (1) that I can think of but which has not yet been advanced. In short, it would be to adopt a Thomistic version of essentialism, as laid out by Jeff Brower (2014). Consider a typical view of essentialism:

    • (E)If x is essentially F, then x is non-contingently F.

    Brower claims that (E) would be rejected by Aquinas in favor of the following:

    • (TE)If x is essentially F, and F-ness is x’s primary nature, then x is non-contingently disposed to be F.

    Now (TE) permits that something that is essentially an animal can be, temporarily, a non-animal—provided that it is disposed to being an animal (the example here would be the substantial form, viz. the soul of a human person).

    I suspect that this can be brought to service in denying (1), such that the animal can essentially be an animal while not existing as an animal for a time (and it seems plausible that a cerebrum might be construed as being “disposed to being an animal”). However, this view also comes with its own theoretical cost, viz. the acceptance of (TE) and the rejection of the widely held (E).

  16. 16.

    The acceptance of the no substantial part thesis also falls out from Toner’s commitment to Thomistic hylomorphism, which includes the unicity thesis concerning substantial forms.

  17. 17.

    It may be argued that anti-animalists would only regard Creation as obvious insofar as they accept something like the general principle against creating a new substance, and hence, a criticism of the general principle may be a criticism against Creation (thanks to Stephan Blatti for pointing this out). I suppose it depends on what a specific anti-animalist would actually say, though I take it that those who have the worm-fission intuitions can reject the general principle while accepting Creation.

  18. 18.

    Of course, there have been criticisms raised against such an approach, one in particular is the violation of the “only x and y principle,” which states that whether x = y should only depend on facts concerning x and y. And there are other worries too: which successor (in the case of successful symmetrical fission) has ownership claim to the original person’s property? Which successor is married to the original person’s spouse? Now non-branching psychological theorists have responded to these worries. But what I hope is clear is the fact that animalists who reject the remnant-person problem by denying Creation or (*) are not in any worse position than non-branching psychological continuity theorists. Moreover, the remnant-person problem loses some of its appeal given that (*) appears to conflict with non-animalist theories of personal persistence.

  19. 19.

    My aim has been to resist accepting Creation without incurring additional theoretical commitments onto the minimal animalist thesis. However, there is another reason to reject this alleged justification for Creation if one accepts content externalism and the possibility of remote speech (i.e., speaking at a distance) as I do. Recently, Madden (2011) argues that in a case of a cerebrum transplant, the person who emerges and utters sentences with the first-person indexical has the original (now cerebrum-less) animal as the referent—i.e., the thinker is the cerebrum-less animal lying on the operating table because the preponderance of that person’s beliefs will be true only if the original animal is the thinker. However, for context externalists, there can be a referential shift (as in the case of the use of “water” for someone who is abducted to twin-earth and stays there long enough interacting with twin-water) such that at some long enough time after the transplant, the use of “I” will refer to the new animal (i.e., the recipient of the transplant). This would then involve a case in which a new person comes into existence without any intrinsic changes.

  20. 20.

    Of course, one drawback to this view is that it involves a robust conception of personhood that not everyone will accept and so falls into a similar worry that was raised against the response to the remnant person problem that relies upon Boethius’ account of persons

  21. 21.

    Proponents of corruptionist hylomorphism include Pasnau (2002) and Toner (2011).

  22. 22.

    Some proponents of hylomorphism claim that human persons do survive with their separated soul without being identical to it, cf. Stump (2006b) and Eberl (2009).

  23. 23.

    van Dyke (2015) suggests that this is a problem, which she labels the “two-persons problem” for Aquinas. However, it is only a problem if one accepts Creation (or some analogue principle).

  24. 24.

    Many thanks to Stephan Blatti for this point and for pushing me to expand on this concern against Creation.


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Many thanks to Andrew Bailey, Stephan Blatti, Stephen T. Davis, Scott Davison, Paul Draper, and Jeremy Skrzypek for their helpful comments and criticisms on an earlier draft.

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Correspondence to Eric Yang.

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Yang, E. Resisting the Remnant-Person Problem. Acta Anal 35, 389–404 (2020).

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