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August 11th, 2008

Limbs and Limps and Persons and Bodies

I was thinking again about Ryle’s response to Descartes’ argument that minds are immaterial. Ryle, I think, takes Descartes to be making the following inference.

(1a) My mind is not identical to any physical part of me.
(2a) My mind is a part of me.
(3a) So, my mind is a non-physical part of me.
(4a) So, there are non-physical things.

And Ryle thinks that’s a bad argument, one whose badness can be seen by considering the following argument. (Imagine, for the sake of this argument, that I have a limp.)

(1b) My limp is not identical to any physical part of me.
(2b) My limp is a part of me.
(3b) So, my limp is a non-physical part of me.
(4b) So, there are non-physical things.

Clearly the latter argument breaks down. (4b) is pretty clearly not supported by this inference, and Ryle thinks (3b) isn’t either. The problem is that Descartes thinks that I have a mind is like I have a limb, whereas it is really like I have a limp. We possess things other than parts; in particular we possess attributes. These include limps and minds.

This is a way we can reject Descartes without worrying about the modal argument Descartes offers for (1a). Indeed, we can accept (1a). And, in a sense, Ryle does. He certainly thinks it is not true that my mind is a physical part of me, but perhaps as a category mistake the negation of this isn’t true either. No matter; (1a) at least gets a truth across whether it is literally true or not.

I tend to think Ryle is basically correct about all of this. The Australian tradition (represented by Smart, Lewis and Jackson) I think says that Ryle concedes too much to Descartes, and he shouldn’t concede (1a). Determining whether that’s right I think would rely on a large cost-benefit analysis of the different ways Smart and Ryle think about minds, which is obviously too big for a blog post. But here might be another reason to think Ryle was on the right track.

It seems to me that even if (5) were true, (6) would be in some way defective.

(5) I have a limp.
(6) My body has a limp.

(6) sounds like a category mistake to me. That is, it sounds like it isn’t true. If that’s true, it follows immediately by Leibniz’s law that I’m not identical to my body.

The kind of move I’m making here is similar to the move Kit Fine has been making over recent years, arguing for the non-identity of (what’s usually thought of) a thing and what it is composed of without looking at modal or temporal properties of the thing. But what’s nice, I think, about this example is that makes the non-identity point without suggesting any particularly odd metaphysics. We don’t get a sense that there are spooks of any kind by thinking about limps.

I’m inclined to take the difference between (5) and (6) as more evidence for the view I independently favour, namely that people are really events. I’m the event of this body having certain dynamic features. When the event that is me ends, my body will (in all probability) survive, but it will lose those dynamic features. My body isn’t an event, so I can’t be identical to it. Unless we regard events as too metaphysically spooky to contemplate, having people be distinct from bodies isn’t any kind of spooky view.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

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One Response to “Limbs and Limps and Persons and Bodies”

  1. Daniel Nolan says:

    Wow, maybe it’s an Australian affliction – I’m very tempted to think that people are events too. Though I suspect for quite different reasons – and since I am inclined to think that human bodies are also events, I must be more thorough-going than you are.

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