Saturday, October 9, 2010

Bodies, Animals, and Minds 1

One of the things that medieval philosophers debated was this: how many substantial forms do material substances (especially human beings) have? This is known as the controversy over the plurality of forms. The debate can seem rather abstract and archaic, what with all the matter and form stuff. It may be abstract, but it’s not at all archaic. It still occupies philosophers today. In this series of posts, I want to introduce the topic in a way which I hope will make the basic problems and issues clear. So here goes.

One way into the debate is to think about this question: what exactly is a human being, or perhaps even a (human) person? Most of us would agree that we have bodies, we are all living animals, and we have minds. But which of those is crucial for being a (human) person? All of them? Just one of them? Some combination of them? Or perhaps none of them at all?

To help bring the issue into focus, consider the following. Sometimes people suffer severe head trauma, and as a result, they lapse into a vegetative state. Sometimes the damage is so bad that they require life support. They need machines to keep the heart beating and the lungs breathing.

What do we want to say about the person then? When I have my students deal with this question, many of them start off by arguing that when the mental activity stops, the person stops too, so to speak. And that suggests that the body is not that important for personhood. ‘It’s the mind that matters’, my students tell me.

But we can further push the point. Philosophers sometimes hypothesize about science-fiction sorts of scenarios, one of which is brain transplants. Imagine if we could take my mind --- all of its abilities, knowledge, memories, personal quirks, and so on --- and then transfer it into another body. Where would I be then? Would I go with my mind into the next body, or would I have left an important part of me behind in the old body?

In the next post, I’ll start digging into how the scholastics dealt with these sorts of questions.

No comments: