OLSON VS. BAKER

As much as the Late Larry and Very Late Larry views are intuitively attractive, to the extent that they save us from having to believe we were once little specks of unconscious organic matter, they’re also quite puzzling. Eric Olson, who supports the Very Early View, points out how odd it is to suppose there was a precursor of Larry in your uterus all along, but around the time of birth, when a rudimentary first-person perspective starts to kick in, a new entity—Larry- the-self—emerges. How could that be? Why would that be? In his view, these questions don’t have good answers.

One way that it could be is if dualism were true: if consciousness or a rudimentary first-person perspective resided in an immaterial entity—a soul. If a soul somehow gets connected to the fetus, one might think Larry is that soul. So a new entity exists at birth, roughly, because there is literally a new entity on the scene. Where there was once only a body (the fetus), there is now a body attached to a soul, and Larry is that soul, or perhaps that body-soul combination. Unfortunately (for this story about when Larry starts to exist), souls are deeply problematic. How do they latch on to physical things? How do the happenings in a soul have an impact on physical events? Where do souls reside before they latch on to bodies? What are they made of? None of these questions have good answers. For that reason, souls are part of the history of philosophy and religion and still present in the popular imagination, but have almost no fans among contemporary philosophers. Baker does not, in fact, endorse the David Copperfield view out of a belief in dualism.

Here is the story that Baker tells. As the fetus develops, the brain grows by leaps and bounds (on average, 250,000 neurons are born per minute over the nine months of gestation). At some point, the necessary physical changes take place so that the fetal brain can consciously feel sensations. After more time, the powers of the brain grow more sophisticated and there comes to be a rudimentary first- person perspective, one with the potential to become full-blown. At that point, which Baker sees as taking place around the time of birth, a new entity exists. Enter: Larry, who is essentially a person. Of course, the fetal organism that was developing for nine months doesn’t vanish. Rather, Baker thinks that the organism persists, but begins to constitute Larry when it starts to have a conscious first- person perspective.

Baker explains what is meant by “constitution” by talking about statues and lumps of clay. A lump of clay could exist continuously for ten years, but constitute a statue of a cat only during the fifth year. Imagine the pliable clay is formed into a statue by a sculptor on January first of the fifth year and then squashed back into a pancake shape on December thirty-first. In the fifth year, we might say that a new entity exists—the cat statue—though of course it exists by courtesy of the lump of clay. The statue doesn’t replace the clay, but it is rather constituted by the clay. Baker uses the same concepts to talk about the emergence of a new person. The fetus is an organism that continuously exists starting long before birth and will go on existing after birth. But Larry has a different entry point than the organism does: he exists beginning when that organism has the right properties to start constituting a person.

Olson’s view is certainly far simpler. He thinks that Larry exists very early on and develops ever greater complexity throughout your pregnancy, until at some point he acquires the property of being a person. That’s not an ontological turning point—not a moment when a new entity springs into existence. But a simpler view is not necessarily better, Baker implies. What’s unacceptable to her is that, were Larry to exist early on, before he’s a person, there would be a "not yet a person” phase of his life. That would mean that human persons are, at their core, mere animals or mere organisms. We are persons for most of our lives, but not for all of our lives. Our person- hood is something that can come and go, like being a mother or an adult or a lawyer; personhood becomes, says Baker, "just an ontologically insignificant property of certain organisms.” On Baker’s own account, by contrast, persons are always persons, throughout their lifespans, and never mere organisms or animals (though they are constituted by organisms or animals). The view that Larry exists very early, before he is a person—says Baker—doesn’t do justice to our specialness, which consists in our being persons with first- person perspectives (rudimentary or full-blown) essentially and therefore as long as we exist.

Some will share Baker’s concerns about what we are, but I don’t. I’m not troubled by the idea that I was once a nonperson, like I was once a nonadult, a nonmother, and a nonphilosopher. An attribute can be very important to me without my having to think I couldn’t exist without it. And there is certainly specialness in being the kind of entity that is inherently programmed to become a person with a first-person perspective; most things are not that kind of entity. Larry is still pretty amazing if he is an organism that spends only most of its lifespan having consciousness, thoughts, desires, hopes, and dreams. If he is essentially an animal, he is a very special animal.

Of course there are far more points of debate between Olson and Baker—their books and articles should be consulted for the full picture. But let’s now go on to a question about the earliest days of pregnancy.

 
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