Monthly Archives: November 2011

Commentary: The Politics of Personhood

Mississippi voters recently voted down Amendment 26, a constitutional amendment which would have defined fertilized eggs as persons. [1] Completely independent of its intended purpose – to outlaw abortion – the failure of this measure is a positive outcome for Mississippi and the American people. Amendment 26, which was advanced by the ‘Personhood Mississippi’ movement, was logically unsound, flew in the face of scientific evidence, and would have had several unpalatable side effects if passed. Its passage would have set a negative precedent for state politics. This commentary will focus on the logical aspects of Personhood Mississippi’s goal, ignoring all other aspects, substantial as they are.

Logical Considerations Regarding Personhood

Amendment 26 aimed to define a fertilized egg as a person. What is a person? Despite over twenty-five hundred years of debate, no one is exactly sure. But what is sure is that a person is a thing which has hopes, dreams, and fears, and which experiences all other such mental states. It is in virtue of our unique ability to experience such states that we are widely supposed to be persons, and if there are ever silicon-based or martian organisms, they too shall be persons in virtue of the fact that they experience the full range of mental states, if indeed they do.

The problem with defining a fertilized egg as a person is that a fertilized egg has no mental life whatever. It does not even have the barest prerequisites for mental life, which includes a functioning nervous system and a sufficiently developed brain. Indeed, the brain and spinal cord do not even begin to form until the embryonic stage of pregnancy, which itself begins five weeks after conception. [2] Personhood Mississippi is thus wrongheaded to even suggest that a fertilized egg is equivalent to a human with a full-blown mental life.

Logically, there are other ways to formulate an anti-abortion proposal. One highly unintuitive method is to insist that what we are is the human organism – the thing which begins to form after the egg is fertilized, continues to grow until it has a mental life, lives a life outside the womb, and which can subsequently enter into a vegetative state, losing its mental life once again. This would mean that we are not persons after all, but the underlying organism which makes a person with a mental life possible. (Cognitive science suggests that the thing experiencing the rich mental life is a sort of software on the hardware of the brain. The human organism can persist even without that software: see the case of humans in a vegetative state with their core cognitive functions rendered impossible due to brain damage. The organism can persist without the person). To kill oneself would just be to kill a human organism – that a person would die as well would just be an incidental fact of the matter.

Any anti-abortion campaign based upon such logic would be right to insist that abortion is wrong, since abortion does kill human organisms. It kills what we are, if the above logic is sound. That the egg would be designated a person would simply be a pragmatic consideration: the law would require it (the law assumes that we are persons). But such a campaign would be a hard roe to hoe: the intuitive idea that we are all people and that mental life is indispensable for our existence runs deep in all of us. The ‘organism’ approach to banning abortion is for all intents and purposes unviable.

Another approach, probably more in line with Personhood Mississippi’s worldview, is to say that a person is a soul of sorts. The Personhood Mississippi website includes a page of testimonials of how God is working through the movement to save lives. [3] A virtually ubiquitous ancillary belief for religious persons is that we are souls – immaterial things which exist for a time inside the human body, but will continue to exist after the body ceases to be.

Unfortunately, this view fails the test of logic: if we are souls that will survive the death of the body, then by definition the person inside a fertilized egg (mysteries of how God deposits the soul into the egg and how the soul and egg interact aside) will not be killed by an abortion. The person will continue on into the next phase of existence, whatever that might be. In fact, if this view is correct, no one has ever been killed: what we thought were deaths throughout history were merely merely the destruction of the temporary habitation of the soul. Talk of souls and religiosity cannot justify the position that it is wrong to kill fertilized eggs.


The proposal to define a fertilized egg as a person does not make sense, whether one is an evangelical Christian, a diehard Atheist, or somewhere inbetween – if a person is a thing with a mental life, then the egg is definitively not a person; but if one accedes to the religious worldview of Personhood Mississippi then the egg is still not a person. It is merely the temporary shell which houses the person in this world. And if the person is such a soul, then it will persist through the death of the body, thus rendering abortion not at all akin to killing persons. But if that is the case, then the sole reason underwriting Personhood Mississippi’s mission – to save lives – is removed from the picture.

The only logically sensible justification for supposing that destroying fertilized eggs is wrong is to suggest that we are the human organism, and not the person with the rich mental life. But this approach is complex and highly unintuitive: it cuts against the grain of common sense (despite its being logical validity) and is unlikely to garner much support in a generally religious society such as the United States.

Those who would define a fertilized egg as a person do not have reason on their side. Their only recourse, then, is to rely upon rhetoric and emotional appeals. Opponents should point out as often as they are able — since there are likely more ‘Personhood’ movements in the wings — that the position makes no sense scientifically, philosophically, religiously, or logically.


Leave a comment

Filed under Commentaries

Article Summary: “The Nature of Mental States” by Hilary Putnam


Putnam presents a version of functionalism – a position in the philosophy of mind which says that mental states can be defined in terms of their causal roles – as an empirical hypothesis worthy of investigation, especially in light of what he sees as the problems facing the identity theory of mind and behaviorism. Central to Putnam’s conception are the notions of the Turing Machine and of
a Probabilistic Automaton. A Turing Machine is a hypothetical device proposed by Alan Turing which computes various tasks in a deterministic fashion, given certain instructions and given a machine table which specifies how various states of the machine relate to one another and to inputs. (Readers are encouraged to investigate the machine more fully if they want the technical details. The points to understand are that the machine computes deterministically, and that it has its behavior entirely produced by input and states which ’react’ to the input in a specific fashion, producing computations and transitioning to other states automatically). A Probabilistic Automaton, meanwhile, is very similar to a Turing Machine, except that the transitions between states produced by input are determined
probabilistically rather than with certainty.

Putnam first addresses whether the question “Is Pain a brain state?” is meaningful at all. Putnam in quick succession defuses the objections to the thesis that the question has merit. One such objection is that pain cannot be a brain state because we can know we are in pain and simultaneously not know that we are in brain state ’S’. But this objection also applies to us knowing that there is heat in the oven: we can know that the oven is hot without knowing
that its mean molecular kinetic energy is high, despite the fact that heat just is mean molecular kinetic energy. He further argues that the notion of Pain being a brain state is at least intelligible, if not necessarily true, just as other, successful empirical reductions (e.g., water being reduced to H20) have been intelligible.

Two objections remain. The first states that the proposed reduction of Pain (and other mental states) to a brain state cannot be successfully engaged unless both things in the reduction are associated with a spatio-temporal area, and the spatio-temporal area is one and the same for both things. Putnam thinks this is wrongheaded and gives a counterexample: the reflected image off of a
mirror is merely reflected light, despite the fact that the image can at times appear behind the mirror. That is to say, empirical reduction is successful (the image is merely reflected light) despite the two things not sharing a spatio-temporal area.

The last objection states that, at best, brain states can be correlated with mental states, but never said to be equivalent to them. The predictions yielded from saying that the brain state and the mental event are correlated are equivalent to those which are yielded when we say that the state is the mental event, and there is thus no principled way of preferring the one over the other. Putnam agrees with this in a sense, but says that the two different views enable/prevent certain empirical questions from being asked. So there is a meaningful difference between the two stances. For example, if we assume that identity obtains, the question “What makes the pain accompany the brain state?” is rendered meaningless.

With objections to the very idea of reduction of mental to physical dealt with, Putnam presents his model of functionalism. The model deploys the concepts detailed above: the Turing Machine and the Probabilistic Automaton. The idea is that mental states are functional roles within a system, where a system is (in the case of humans) a Turing Machine with a probabilistic transfer between
various states. Putnam denotes the complete functional profile of a system – a complete account of all states and their probabilistic relations with one another and with sensory input – as the description of the system. Further, the behavior of the system is understandable without knowing how the system is realized. In other words, the mind can be understood perfectly well without understanding the particulars of the physical-chemical brain states which realize the mind’s functions.

Putnam admits that his model is vague on the details: the model says nothing, in fact, about how the functional states are to be defined (e.g., what does it take for an organism to be ’in pain’?), nor does it say how exactly the functional states relate to stimuli. Nonetheless, Putnam thinks his model is advantageous over the identity theory of mind because it presents researchers with an em-
pirical research program which is less vague, and easier to carry out, than any research program under the auspices of the identity theory. Putnam then espouses the virtue of his functionalism over the identity theory in more depth, but also its virtues over behaviorism.

Putnam thinks his functionalism presents a more tractable research agenda because in the case of the identity theory, there must be a singular physical-chemical structure which is, say, pain. If identity theory is true, then researchers will have to find the exact same physical-chemical structure in all the creatures which feel pain, and not find it in creatures which do not feel pain. Putnam admits that this is possible, but thinks that identifying a functional profile which is a commonality to all the organisms is more reasonable than trying to identify the exact same physical structure in all pain-feeling organisms.

Putnam extends his previous point to apply to the identity theory’s application to all mental states (and not just pain). Indeed, identity theorists have argued that all mental states are merely brain states. Putnam thinks this is almost certainly false, because in order for all mental states to be brain states, the entire physical-chemical structure of all organisms who experience such mental states will have to be the same. And Putnam thinks that this is most unreasonable: if even a single mental state is found to be experienced in another creature, and that creature has a different physical correlate of the mental state than any other creature, then the identity theory is false.

Putnam then advances reasons for his theory. The first is that we identity mental states in creatures in light of their behavior, and the commonality in behavior across organisms suggests a similar functional organization, but not a similar physical-chemical organization. This fact is Prima facie evidence for functionalism. Further, we tend to identity mental states in organisms based upon the behaviors they produce and the transitions into other states which they presage. So, we identity ’thirstiness’ partly by the fact that it tends to produce a certain behavior, which then tends to transition the system to another state, namely, ’not needing liquid anymore.’ And this fact about how we delimit mental states from one another suggests the appropriateness of a functional approach to such states.

Putnam then compares the functional approach to behaviorism, another
theory of identifying mental states. In the case of behaviorism, the mental states are defined as a behavior, or disposition to behave, on the part of an organism. Putnam gives a reason for supposing behaviorism is not particularly advantageous: despite the fact that we identify mental states by using behavior, this fact does nothing at all to suggest that the mental state actually is the behavior. At the time the article was written, behaviorism was facing serious conceptual difficulties (from which it would never recover), and Putnam (as he recognizes) is thus able to recite these difficulties. One is that it seems impossible to identity a behavioral disposition without referencing the concept one is attempting to define. So when the disposition of pain is defined, one must say something to the effect of ’pain is a disposition of X to behave as if X were in pain.’ In contrast, a functionalist can simply identity a functional state which pain can then be equated to. Further, there can be animals (or persons, if you wish!) who show no difference in behavior and yet are experiencing different mental states. A person X might be in pain and yet be suppressing their pain behavior, whereas a person Y may be in excruciating pain and yet have their motor nerves cut so that they cannot engage in pain behavior. And so pain is not the behavior in either case; it is something else.

Putnam concludes by reiterating methodological reasons for accepting a functional approach to mental states: One, the functional approach precludes certain questions from being asked (e.g., “Why does pain always accompany functional state S?”); two, the functional approach actually explains the behavior in question, rather than identifying mere correlations, and third, laws of psychology can be developed once an organism’s description (in Putnam’s sense) is known and a mental state is identified with a functional state.

Logical Outline

Primary Argument: Functionalism is preferable to the identity theory and behaviorism as a theory of mental states

1. Either functionalism, the identity theory, or behaviorism is the preferable theory of mental states.*

2. The identity theory is not a preferable theory of mental states.

S1. For the identity theory to be viable, a mental state needs to have
the exact same physical correlate in all organisms which experience that mental state.
S2. Very probably, organisms experience the same mental state with
different physical correlates of the same state.
S3. Therefore, the identity theory is probably not viable. [S1,S2]

3. Behaviorism is not a preferable theory of mental states.

S1. For behaviorism to be viable, one must be able to define mental
state dispositions without referencing the mental state itself, and thus
avoid circularity.

S2. It is not possible to define a mental state disposition without
referencing the mental state in question, and thus avoid circularity.

S3. Therefore, behaviorism is not viable. [S1,S2]

4. Therefore, functionalism is the preferable theory of mental states. [1,2]
5. There exist reasons for adopting functionalism, independent of the problems of the identity theory and behaviorism.

S1. A theory of mental states which enables a robust research pro-
gram is to be preferred.*
S2. Functionalism provides a reasonable commonality to identify
among organisms – functional states.
S3. Functionalism successfully prevents a number of questions from
being asked (questions which can waste researchers time).
S4. Functionalism – through its description of organisms’ functional
profiles plus identifications of mental states with functional states – promises to provide laws of psychology.
S5. Therefore, functionalism enables the most viable research pro-
gram [S2-S4].
S6. Therefore, functionalism is preferrable. [S5,S1]

6. Therefore, functionalism is preferable over the identity theory and over
behaviorism as a theory of mental states, and there are reasons to adopt
it independent of the other theories’ difficulties. [5,6]

*Asterisks denote enthymemes, or ‘suppressed premises.’ All these are are assumptions which must be made in order to make the explicitly stated argument work.


Filed under Article Summaries