Am I My Body?

Aside from the fact that Dr. Plantinga isn’t quite sure how many legs a beetle has–come on, eight, really?!?–I think he presents a really good argument against physicalism.

The argument runs something like this:

1.  If I am my Body, then anything possible with regard to me is also possible with regard to my body.

2.  It is possible that I exist when my body does not exist.

3.  It is not possible that my body exists when my body does not exist.

4.  Thus, “I exist without my body” is something possible with regard to me that is not possible with regard to my body.

5.  Therefore, I am not my body.

The argument demonstrates a discernible difference between the body and the self.  But does it matter that we are talking about mere possibilities here?  Plantinga’s point is that there is no possible world where a body exists without itself.  Yet, it does not seem logically impossible to imagine a possible world where the self exists without its body.  We take such stories to be supernatural, fantastical, or fictional, but not logically incoherent.  So, it seems reasonable to suppose the logical possibility of a disembodied self.

This means that proving an identity relationship between the self and the body requires a lot more than empirically proving a causal relationship between physical states and mental states.  One must also prove that it is logically incoherent to suppose that there are any possible worlds where the self is disembodied.  So it seems that while this burden is heavily placed upon the physicalist, the supernaturalist can merrily go along believing that she is her soul.  Right?

Not so fast, my friend Shaun Miller has pointed out to me that this argument, if anything, proves too much (Shaun was inspired by Shelly Kagan, ff about 43 min in for the appropriate part).  Kagan points out that we could imagine that the same body is possessed by different souls. His point is not that we are not our soul, but that our soul doesn’t seem sufficient to establish personal identity.  As far as I can tell, Shaun’s response to Plantinga is original, and quite difficult to overcome.  He points out that we could substitute just about anything in the argument, including the soul, and prove it to be non-identical with the self.  Does this mean that I am not my soul?!? My initial reaction to this was, “Well, it’s just not possible that I exist without my soul, since I am my soul.”  But now I’m guilty of special pleading.  This fallacious soul-ution is to stipulate that “soul” is simply defined as “self”.  But then we have just stipulated our way to victory, which is not very satisfying.  What would prevent the physicalist from stipulating “body” as “self”?  We’re back to square one.

Upon further reflection, I think the argument achieves something.  It proves that unless we have good reason to think that it’s not possible for X to exist when Y doesn’t exist, then we don’t have good reason to think X and Y are identical.   I have no good reason to think I am my body, because I think it is at least logically possible to be disembodied and survive.  But then I should be willing to bite the bullet and concede that I have no good reason to think I am my soul.  So be it.  I have no good reason to think I am my soul either.  As I said before, we could substitute just about anything for body–just about.  However, I cannot substitute “self”.  Whatever “self” is, it cannot both exist and not exist, at the same time, and in the same possible world!  So I do have good reason to think at least this…  I am myself.

But is this an adequate response?  Are there other problems with the argument that I am not mentioning here?

Posted on July 27, 2011, in Philosophy of Mind and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hey Dan,

    It seems to me that the original argument doesn’t prove anything, it just describes the dualist’s position. The fact that I can imagine myself without my body doesn’t entail the metaphysical possibility of their disjunction – just the epistemological possibility that, for all I know, they could be distinct (but maybe not). Epistemological possibility doesn’t really prove anything, though, so I have no good reason to accept 2.

    Hesperus, the evening star, and Phosphorus, the morning star, are necessarily identical. We could ask whether or not they were, we could doubt this identity, but given what we were pointing out with each name, they both refer to the same object – Venus. Now, I’m not sure that we can go so far as to say that the soul is identical with the body, but I’m not sure what the ground would be to say that they are possibly distinct in the sense needed for the argument.

    Any thoughts?


  2. Hey Michael,

    Thanks for the response! You raise an important distinction that the argument glosses over. Epistemological possibility and metaphysical possibility are not the same thing, as the Hesperus/Phosphorus example seems to imply. There are of course other examples. David Chalmers lays out several examples in his Does Conceivability Entail Possibility( However, Chalmers argues that there are certain forms of conceivability which are either strong guides to metaphysical possibility, or directly entail metaphysical possibility. He describes such conceivabilities as “ideally primary positive and negative conceivability”.

    Of particular interest is Chalmer’s appendix, where he endorses a version of the argument Plantinga provides in the Youtube video. However, Chalmer’s argument ends not with the denial of physicalism, but with the disjunction:

    Either materialism is false, or panprotopsychism is true.

    He goes on to say:

    We need only note that if [panprotopsycism] is a sort of physicalism, it is a quite unusual sort, and one that many physicalists do not accept. In many ways, it has more in common with nonmaterialist views, in virtue of its postulation of fundamental protophenomenal properties whose nature is not revealed to us by physical theory.

    In an upcoming post, I’d like to address the issue of whether physicalism has a meaningful definition at all. However, I think that if panprotopsycism is a form of physicalism, then there is no reason to suppose supernaturalism is not a form of physicalism as well. Physicalism would just seem to be a stand-in term for “what really exists”.

    Either way, we have a very good argument against most forms of physicalism here. To push Chalmers argument into the flat-out denial of physicalism, it looks like we need only deny that panprotophysicalism is true. It least that is how I am understanding his disjunction.

  3. I haven’t taken modal logic, so you’ll have to forgive me. But shouldn’t the conclusion say “Therefore, I am possibly not my body?”

    Going along with Michael’s idea of Venus, I was thinking water. H20 necessarily is water. This is considered a metaphysically necessary relation, but how do we know this? It can only be known through an empirical investigation. If dualism is simply an analytical truth, then you may have something. But how can we tell if the truth of dualism is analytical or empirical? In other words, if the relation of mind and body is like that of water and H2O, then a priori methods are insufficient to prove what needs to be proved.

    I’ve got other issues, but it deals with a linguistic route, but since it’s probably beyond the scope of your post, I won’t mention it.

  4. Hey Shaun,

    Plantinga’s point is to draw out a difference between the body and self such that the identity claim made by physicalists is proved false. If I am possibly not my body, then I am not my body. This is because it is impossible that my body not be my body. The possibility is, according to Plantinga, something which can be said of me, but cannot be said of my body.

    Chalmers discusses the example of H2O in his paper. He refers to it as a secondary possibility, contrasting it with primary possibilities. Michael’s example of the morning and evening star fits with primary-impossibility since it is a priori impossible that the morning star not be the same as the evening star. That is, each name is used to refer to the same object, but there is no empirical fact that requires these two distinct names to be used to refer to the object. The water example, though, is a little different. Chalmers explains that “water is H2O” is a secondary possibility in that it is not judged to be true a priori but a posteriori. But in a possible world where water is XYZ, this judgment would not obtain. Thus, the sense in which we say “it is not possible that water not be H2O” is different from the sense in which we say “it is not possible that the morning star be the evening star”.

    According to Chalmers, the water example does not do irreparable damage to the mind/body argument, but only opens up a loophole where something like panprotopsychism can slip in. He writes:

    And even if this is false, Q’s primary intension can be seen as the secondary intension of some other truth Q’, which stands to Q roughly as “watery stuff” stands to “water”. As long as P has the same primary and secondary intension, then the primary possibility of P&~Q will entail the secondary possibility of P&~Q’, which will itself entail the falsity of materialism.

    A loophole emerges: it is not clear that P has the same primary and secondary intension. It can reasonably be argued that physical concepts have their reference fixed by some dispositional role, but refer to an underlying categorical property. If so, their primary intensions pick out whatever plays a certain role in the world (irrespective of categorical nature), while their secondary intensions pick out instances of a certain categorical property (irrespective of its role). If so, the purported “zombie world” in which the primary intension of P&~Q holds may be a world in which the secondary intension of P is false, so we cannot infer the secondary possibility of P&~Q (or P&~Q’).

    However, this loophole opens up only a small space for the materialist. Consider the conceived world W, in which the primary intension of P&~Q holds. Because the primary intension of P holds, this world must be structurally-dispositionally isomorphic to the actual world, with the same patterns of microphysical causal roles being played. If P’s secondary intension fails, it can only be because these microphysical causal roles have different categorical bases in W (or just possibly, no categorical bases at all). This difference is the only microphysical difference between our world and W. If physicalism is true, it is this difference that is responsible for the presence of consciousness in our world and its absence in W.

    We might ask why does just panprotopsychism slip in. He gives an argument for that, but I am not sure how strong it is.

  5. Odoh, Jude Chigbo

    Thanks… Philosophy of mind student, University of Nigeria Nsukka… Educating, especially the five lines argument!

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