Monday, May 28, 2018
chairs brains minds
Comics, like science fiction, can be a great source for philosophical thought experiments. Recently I’ve been re-reading one of the classic Marvel storylines from the 1970s, the “Headmen saga” from The Defenders, by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema. Gerber, who was among the best writers ever to have worked in comics, famously specialized in absurdist satire, and this storyline is a prime example. More to the present point, it contains an interesting twist on a scenario familiar from discussions of the philosophical problem of personal identity.
The Defenders, at this point in the series, include Dr. Strange, the Hulk, Valkyrie, Luke Cage – all of whom will be familiar to viewers of the Marvel movies and Netflix series – and Nighthawk (pictured at left above), a reformed criminal and heir to a fortune, who bankrolls the team. Staying with them is their friend Jack Norriss, the husband of Valkyrie – or rather, of Barbara Norriss, the woman whose body Valkyrie is occupying. (It’s complicated.)
Their nemeses the Headmen are basically a cabal of crackpot central planners who seek to remodel society so as to remove from it any element of arbitrariness or accident. Their leader is Dr. Arthur Nagan (also pictured above), a transplant surgeon whose head has been grafted on to the body of a gorilla. Assisting him is Dr. Jerry Morgan, a researcher in cell biology who accidentally shrunk the bones of his face so that the skin hangs droopily and grotesquely from it. Then there is Harvey Schlemerman, who goes by the alias Chondu the Mystic – a third-rate Dr. Strange wannabe whose incomplete mastery of sorcery never got him much farther than the carnival circuit. Rounding out the team is Ruby Thursday, a computer scientist who has replaced her head with a shape-shifting supercomputer that usually takes the form of a shiny red sphere, but is capable of taking on any other appearance or configuration she desires.
Competing with the Headmen for world domination is Nebulon, an extremely powerful Adonis-like extraterrestrial whose own scheme for takeover of the Earth involves masquerading as a balding middle-aged self-help guru. Teaming up with the Ludberdites, another extraterrestrial race – of reptilian scientist-philosophers who believe themselves obligated to bring inferior races to enlightenment – Nebulon founds the Celestial Mind Control human potential movement. The cult-like movement (whose members wear Bozo the Clown masks to represent the mediocre selves they hope to move beyond) soon gains a mass following, especially in France. There’s also a mysterious gun-toting elf who seems to have nothing to do with any of the parties to the conflict, but who randomly appears at various points in the story, shoots someone, then disappears.
Well, again, it’s complicated (and often pretty funny) – very “70s”-ish both in its weirdness and in the objects of its satire. Anyway, the part of the tale that primarily concerns us is this. In order to infiltrate the Defenders, the Headmen kidnap Nighthawk, remove his brain, and transplant Chondu’s brain into Nighthawk’s body. Nighthawk’s brain is then placed in a bowl of life-preserving chemicals – where, cut off from all sensory stimulation, it proceeds to hallucinate for a big chunk of the story. Eventually the Defenders figure out what is going on, and in order to trick the Headmen and retrieve Nighthawk’s brain, Dr. Strange casts a spell that transfers Jack Norriss’s mind into Chondu’s brain, which is still in Nighthawk’s body. Chondu’s mind is in turn transferred into the body of a fawn which the Hulk calls “Bambi” and had brought into the Defenders’ headquarters as a pet. Jack’s body, now mindless (but not lifeless), is left on a slab, awaiting the return of Jack’s mind once the scheme is completed.
Needless to say, there is a lot of fodder here for the philosopher interested in questions of identity. Some of the story elements involve scenarios familiar from the philosophical literature on personal identity: the transfer of consciousness from one body to another, the transplant of a brain from one body to another, the replacement of a brain with a computer, and the “brain in a vat” scenario. The idea of a human consciousness entering the body of an animal is also familiar from discussions of reincarnation. But Gerber adds a novel twist with the case of Jack’s mind in Chondu’s brain in Nighthawk’s body. Quite a mess!
Could a swap of bodily and non-bodily parts get any more complex than that? It could, with a scenario entertained by John Locke, which perhaps Gerber would have been tempted to incorporate into his story if he’d thought of it. In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke argues that personal identity cannot reduce to sameness of body over time, because it is at least possible in principle, he argues, for a person’s consciousness to jump from one body to another (as in his famous prince and cobbler scenario). But he argues that personal identity also cannot reduce to sameness of immaterial substance or soul over time, because (so Locke claims) a person’s consciousness could in principle jump from one immaterial substance to another just as it could jump from one body to another.
So, imagine a case where Dr. Strange first somehow transfers Jack’s consciousness into (say) the Hulk’s immaterial substance or soul, and then transfers that soul into Chondu’s brain which is in Nighthawk’s body. Then we’d have: Jack’s consciousness in the Hulk’s soul in Chondu’s brain in Nighthawk’s body. An even bigger mess! Who would the resulting person be? Locke’s answer, of course, would be that it is Jack. That is the point of his various thought experiments. He thinks that continuity of consciousness, rather than continuity of either a physical or non-physical substance, is the key to personal identity.
Is any of this really possible even in principle, though? That depends, of course, on the background metaphysics one brings to bear on the subject. The proposed scenario Locke added to the discussion (the jump of consciousness from one soul to another) in fact doesn’t really make any sense given the main traditional philosophical conceptions of the soul. Locke seems to think of a soul as a kind of vehicle or container with a separable content – namely various particular thoughts, memories, experiences, and the like. He supposes that this container might be emptied of its contents and new contents (or perhaps no contents at all?) put in place of them.
But that is not how Descartes (say) understands the soul. For Descartes, the soul is a res cogitans or thing that thinks, and that is its entire nature. That is to say, he doesn’t think of the soul as something that merely has thinking as an activity, but rather as something that just is thinking. There is nothing more to it than that. Hence there would, for him, be no sense to be made of somehow separating the thinking of (say) your soul from your soul itself, and putting some other thoughts into it. There is no gap between the soul and its activity or content by which this would be possible. Hence for Descartes, Locke’s scenario would be a non-starter.
Nor is it clear, in any case, what it would mean for a consciousness to jump from one soul to another. A thought, experience, memory, or the like is a kind of attribute of the person who has it. In this respect, at least, it is like a person’s being fat or being tall. Now, it makes no sense to think of your tallness or fatness jumping from you to another person. Of course, another person could have the same height as you and thus be as tall as you are. But that just means that your tallness and his tallness are similar, not that they are numerically identical. Even if he started out short and grew, and at the same time you shrank, that would not be a matter of your tallness jumping from you to him (whatever that would mean). It would just be a matter of your losing your tallness and his gaining his own tallness. In the same way, what would it mean for your memory of high school, or your personality trait of being short-tempered, to jump from your soul to his?
Even to common sense, the idea that a consciousness could jump from one soul to another sounds very weird. The commonsense notion of the soul – or at least, the notion familiar from modern pop culture (movies, etc.) – seems to identify it precisely with consciousness considered as a kind of substance in its own right. Descartes’ conception could be regarded as a refinement of this common conception. (There is another commonsense way of thinking about the soul, however – though perhaps more common in ancient times than in modern times – on which it is a kind of animating principle. Aristotle’s idea of the soul as the form of the body would be a philosophical refinement of this notion.)
Given that this is the usual commonsense understanding, it probably didn’t even occur to Gerber (who obviously wanted to make his scenario as weird and complicated as possible) to add a further, Lockean “soul swap” element to his Jack/Chondu/Nighthawk mashup. But what he does put into that mashup would certainly be possible from a Cartesian point of view. Descartes would say that what Dr. Strange did was causally to correlate Jack’s res cogitans with a bit of res extensa that had once been in Chondu’s body (viz. Chondu’s brain) but which is now in turn causally correlated with the bulk of the res extensa that is Nighthawk’s body. Chondu’s res cogitans, in turn, was causally correlated by Dr. Strange with the body of Bambi (the Hulk’s pet fawn).
(Just to make things more complicated, it might be worth noting that for Locke, it seems, the Chondu-to-Bambi switch would not be possible. The reason is that though Locke is a kind of property dualist, he thinks that matter must be “fitly disposed” before thought can be “superadded” to it. In other words, while a complex arrangement of matter is not a sufficient condition for a physical thing’s being able to think, it is in Locke’s view a necessary condition. Since Bambi is not a rational animal, I imagine Locke might say that her matter is not fitly disposed to be associated with thought, so that Chondu’s intellect could not come to be associated with it. See my book Locke for further discussion of Locke’s position.)
From an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view, much of what Gerber describes is not possible even in principle. For Aristotle and Aquinas, your soul is the form of your body, so that anything that had your soul would of necessity be your body (or at least part of your body – more on that qualification in a moment). Hence it would be impossible for Valkyrie’s soul to enter Barbara’s body (since Valkyrie’s soul is the form of Valkyrie’s body), or for Chondu’s soul to enter Bambi’s body (since Chondu’s soul, being the form of Chondu’s body, is the form of a human body), or for Jack’s soul to enter Chondu’s brain (since Jack’s soul, being the form of Jack’s body, could only ever be associated with Jack’s brain). Nor would it be possible for Jack’s body to survive in the absence of Jack’s soul. Given the A-T view of the soul, for the body to lose its soul is for it to lose the form of a living thing, and thus to cease being a living thing.
However, the Chondu-to-Nighthawk brain swap does not seem impossible in principle from an A-T point of view. It would seem to be continuous with heart transplants, lung transplants, etc. Chondu, in effect, would be getting a full-body transplant. The scenario does, however, raise interesting questions about how to work out the details of the A-T position. Nighthawk’s soul is the form of his body. More precisely, it is a substantial form, that which makes the matter of Nighthawk’s body to be a substance of the kind it is. Now, immediately after Nighthawk’s brain is removed from the body, it is clear enough that the same soul (Nighthawk’s) is still giving form to the matter that makes up his body, even though the matter has now been severed into two parts (the brain and the rest of the body). This is like the case where a finger or the like is severed and then reattached surgically. The circumstances are not the normal ones by which a soul gives form to the matter of the body, but the same principle applies even though the parts are separated. Nor does the fact of there being two spatially separated bits of matter show that there are now two substances, because the severed finger is not a complete substance in the first place. It is ordered to the rest of the body. That is its natural home, as it were, and its identity conditions reflect that fact even when it is unnaturally separated from it.
But the Chondu brain swap complicates things. Once Chondu’s brain is attached to Nighthawk’s body and starts to control it, whose soul is giving form to the matter of Nighthawk’s body? Chondu’s or Nighthawk’s? I am inclined to say that it depends on whether the body resists the transplant and on how long the brain stays in this new body. Suppose the body resists the transplant and/or that the brain does not stay in the body long enough for the surgical wounds fully to heal or the integration to become complete and natural. In that case I would argue, tentatively, that it is still Nighthawk’s soul that is giving form to the matter of the body, even though Nighthawk’s brain is in a bowl somewhere and the body has got someone else’s brain in it. For it is at this point still essentially functioning like Nighthawk’s body rather than Chondu’s body (by resisting the transplanted brain and/or not integrating smoothly with it).
Suppose, however, that the transplant “takes,” the wounds heal, and the integration becomes smooth, “second nature” as it were. Then I would say that Chondu’s brain would in that case essentially have assimilated Nighthawk’s body to itself, in something remotely analogous to the way the body integrates food into itself after a meal. And in that case Chondu’s soul would effectively take over the job of giving form to the matter that had once been Nighthawk’s body.
Perhaps an even trickier case is Ruby Thursday. Again, she has replaced her head (and thus her brain) with a malleable computer. The rest of the original body remains, however. (And Ruby is actually quite an attractive woman – well, apart, that is, from having a head like a red bowling ball.)
Now, on the one hand, from an A-T point of view, computers cannot be said to think, in part because a thinking thing is a kind of natural substance, and a computer is not a natural substance, but a kind of artifact. So, you might conclude from that that strictly speaking, Ruby post-transplant no longer really exists – that what is left is essentially a body artificially kept alive and controlled by an unconscious, unthinking mechanism.
However, the A-T position does not rule out the possibility of prosthetic organs being integrated into a body, as in the case of an artificial heart. It’s hard to see why that would not include artificial neural parts, such as computer components integrated into a brain in order to restore lost functionality. On the A-T view, after a heart transplant you would remain the same person – the same soul-body composite – after the transplant as you were before, and the A-T view would also imply that this situation would not change if what you received was a transplant of artificial neural structures rather than an artificial heart.
So far, so good. But the Ruby Thursday example is harder to interpret. On the one hand, you could argue that since most of her original body remains, what has happened is that the same organism (namely the human being or rational animal Ruby Thursday) survives the transplant, and that the artificial computer brain is analogous to an artificial heart. Ruby, on this interpretation, would still be a conscious, rational creature, merely using a prosthetic organ to take in information about her body and the external environment, to generate perceptual experiences and phantasms that her intellect can abstract from, and so forth.
On the other hand, as my treatment of the Chondu-Nighthawk example indicates, the brain does seem to be more central to the organism than other body parts are, so that one could argue instead that with the original brain completely destroyed, Ruby’s spherical replacement is not properly thought of as a prosthetic, but just as an unliving mechanism. The rest of Ruby’s body, on this interpretation, would be analogous to a kidney or heart that has been removed from a corpse and kept alive. No one thinks that keeping a kidney or heart alive suffices to keep the person alive. And on the interpretation of the Ruby Thursday example that I’m now entertaining, the part of Ruby’s body that survives the loss of her original brain and head is like the kidney or heart. It isn’t really her anymore.
I’ll leave that interpretive issue unresolved for now. And I haven’t even mentioned how much weirder the Chondu situation gets later in the story. While his brain is in Nighthawk’s body, Nagan and the other Headmen decide radically to alter Chondu’s body, giving him a unicorn horn, a serpentine tongue, gigantic bird-like legs and bat-like wings, and a bundle of lampreys in place of each arm. The motive, apparently, was to see how far Nagan could push his transplant techniques. Naturally, Chondu was not thrilled about this upon awakening after the surgery that restored his brain to this modified body!
In case any readers are interested, the Defenders-Headmen saga has been collected in a one-volume hardcover edition, and is also available in a very cheap Kindle version.