Institute of Philosophy
Biological Identity Conference
Metaphysics and the problem of biological individuality
Eric T. Olson
Discussions of biological individuality appear to concern the metaphysics of organisms. Yet these discussions typically ignore the substantial literature on the metaphysics of material things (or of any other metaphysical sort that organisms might belong to). This means that philosophers of biology are bound to make assumptions that many metaphysicians think they have strong reasons to reject, without being aware that these assumptions are in any way controversial. (Some philosophers of biology do not even seem to be aware that they are making metaphysical assumptions.) I don’t want to argue for or against any particular claim about the metaphysics of material things. I will argue that the way to formulate the problem of biological individuality, and the sort of thing that would count as a solution to it, depend on what metaphysical background claims are assumed. And the usual metaphysical assumptions clash with the most common formulations.
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.