Institute of Philosophy
Biological Identity Conference
The Great Unifier
David S. Oderberg
An organism is a paradigm of an individual substance. As such, it is a unified entity distinguished metaphysically both from parts of organisms and the larger entities to which some organisms belong. Unity, however, cannot be taken for granted. There is a 'unity problem': assuming organisms have essences, what holds together the constituents of those essences? I argue that nothing less than Aristotelian substantial form will do, contrasting the hylemorphic solution with the important approach of Hoffman and Rosenkrantz to biological unity. I then apply hylemorphism to difficult cases that
might be thought to challenge the idea that organisms have a special ontological status in virtue of their peculiar unity.
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. The conference seeks to connect these two hitherto largely separate debates so as to put future metaphysical allusions to biological identity on more solid grounds and, at the same time, to raise awareness for the metaphysical implications of the empirically founded models of biological identity developed in philosophy of biology.