Institute of Philosophy
Biological Identity Conference
Biological identity and personal identity
Anne Sophie Meincke
Animalism is no longer a negligible outsider view within the debate on personal identity. Instead, the claim that human persons are biological entities, i.e., organisms, and that therefore their synchronic and diachronic identity conditions have to be spelled out in purely biological terms has become increasingly popular among metaphysicians, about to supersede the hitherto predominant psychological stance on personal identity. It is time to review the biological approach to personal identity by having a closer look at the concept of biological identity it operates with. What does it mean to say that personal identity is biological identity? I shall argue that the answer given by animalism actually is either at odds with important empirical facts about organisms as studied in biology and reflected in the philosophy of biology or, else, uninformative in a way that renders animalism dismissible as a mere platitude. All presumably informative accounts of biological identity offered by animalists so far turn out to ultimately rest upon ideas of the organism as a well-individuated substance-like particular whose identity is determined by some intrinsic essential principle; ideas which are seriously challenged by recent studies in symbiosis and the evolution of multi-cellular organisms as well as by insights from systems biology in the dynamical and environment-dependent character of organisms.
If we still, as I think we should, do want to say more than that persons are organisms and therefore have the identity conditions of organisms whatever these might be, we will have to seek for an alternative understanding of biological identity. I shall conclude with briefly outlining such an alternative view which faces the challenges from the latest research in biology and the philosophy of biology head-on by adopting a process ontological framework and which at the same time, by taking seriously the holistic theory of cognition deriving from systems biological models of the organism, overcomes the latent dualist view of human persons manifest in the antagonism between biological and psychological theories of personal identity.
Recent debates in metaphysics on personal identity and material constitution have seen a rise of theories which appeal to a biological understanding of identity. So-called animalists claim that the puzzles of standard psychological theories of personal identity can be avoided by the insight that we are essentially animals or organisms rather than persons and that the necessary and sufficient conditions of our identity over time therefore are purely biological in character. Moreover, it has been argued (most famously by Peter van Inwagen) that if there are any composite objects at all in the world, then these are those studied by biology. According to this view, there are no inanimate things like stones or cars, strictly speaking, as these turn out to be just collections of particles; but there are living organisms, due to a special unity making them each one rather than many.
It is time to investigate whether, and if so how, the concept of biological identity can indeed serve the functions metaphysicians attribute to it. For that purpose, the conference will aim to confront the metaphysical motives for proposing biological conceptions of identity, diachronic as well as synchronic, with the scientifically informed research on biological identity which has been carried out within the philosophy of biology but which so far has been little noticed by the metaphysics community.