Saturday, June 13, 2020
Locke’s “transubstantiation” of the self
Locke’s agnosticism about substance led him to treat the self as essentially a bundle of attributes. Given his empiricism, he takes it that the most we can say of a substance – whether material or immaterial – is that it is a “something, I know not what” that underlies attributes. And that is too thin a conception to lend confidence to the thesis that the self qua substance can survive death and be rewarded or punished in the afterlife. What to do? Locke’s solution was to ignore substance as beside the point. What matters for Locke is that one’s consciousness, and in particular one’s memories, can carry over after the death of the body, whether or not there is a soul for them to inhere in.
That’s the point of his famous “prince and cobbler” thought experiment. We’re asked to imagine a prince and a lowly cobbler each falling asleep one night and then awakening the following morning to find himself in the other’s body, Freaky Friday style (or Vice Versa style, for you Judge Reinhold fans). This is at least theoretically possible – so Locke claims – and that possibility suffices to show, he argues, that being the same person over time does not entail having the same body over time.
But neither, he thinks, does it entail having the same soul over time. For just as your consciousness can jump from body to body, so too, he argues, could it jump from soul to soul. He famously suggests that, for all you know, the soul that currently underlies your consciousness might once have belonged to Socrates. If the contents of your consciousness are like pins, then substance is like the pincushion in which they inhere. Now they are in this material pincushion (the prince’s body), now in another (the cobbler’s). Now they are in this immaterial pincushion (the soul you had yesterday), now they are in another (the soul Socrates was using centuries ago). But really, it is only the pins that matter. They, as a bundle, are you, and it doesn’t matter what pincushion, or even what kind of pincushion, they happen to be stuck in at any particular moment.
Coupled with the thesis that the mind is a kind of software, we have the basis for all those familiar thought experiments from science fiction – and, more recently, from pop “science” of the “transhumanist” sort – about people’s minds being downloaded into new bodies or uploaded into virtual reality worlds, puzzles about what would happen if a teleportation accident led to it being downloaded into two new bodies, and other gee-whiz head scratchers.
It’s all complete nonsense. For one thing, the mind is not software, though that’s not my topic here. For another, Locke’s thinking is completely muddled. (Par for the course with Locke.)
To see what’s wrong with it, consider a parallel example. Consider two bananas, which we’ll label A and B. On Monday night, A is dark green and B is bright yellow. Tuesday morning, lo and behold, A has exactly the same bright yellow appearance that B had had the night before, and B has exactly the same dark green appearance that A had had the night before. What would we say if this happened?
We might suppose that something had rapidly sped up the ripening process in A and somehow reversed it in B. We might suppose something even weirder had happened, and that the color of each banana had changed for some reason having nothing to do with the ripening process – maybe somebody injected something into each banana in order to change its color, or maybe radiation had affected them in some way, or whatever.
Here’s what I think no one would say: “Maybe the greenness of A somehow jumped into B overnight, and the yellowness of B somehow jumped into A overnight!” I also don’t think that the sequel would be to propose scenarios where the greenness jumps into two different bananas, leaving us with a “puzzle” of which, if either, is identical with the original greenness possessed by B. Nor would a “problem of banana identity” industry arise in academic philosophy to supplement the thriving “problem of personal identity” industry that Locke got started. (Though I’ll be the first to admit that you never really can know for sure these days.)
The reason is obvious. It simply makes no sense to think of the greenness of B jumping around from substance to substance. Attributes simply don’t do that sort of thing. Substances do, because they have a kind of freestanding existence that attributes do not. That’s why you can throw a banana across the room, but you can’t throw the greenness of the banana across the room. If you could throw the greenness across the room, then it would be a kind of substance after all. By the same token, if it could jump from banana A to banana B, it would be a kind of substance after all, and not really an attribute.
But the same thing is true of the memories and other mental phenomena Locke imagines jumping from body to body and soul to soul. They are attributes, and so they can’t jump from body to body or soul to soul. End of story, before it begins. If your shoe repairman starts talking like Chris Sarandon in The Princess Bride and demands to be known as “The Cobbler Formerly Known as Prince,” you can be sure that what has not happened is that Prince Humperdinck’s mind has entered his body. Though you can be sure that he’s nevertheless lost his own mind. He’s suffering from some kind of mental illness, that’s all. Maybe through some preternatural or science fiction-like means, information from the prince’s brain has even made its way into his brain and generated the illusion of a mind-transfer. But an illusion is all it would be, just as it would merely be an illusion if you thought that the greenness of banana A (that very greenness, and not just something similar to it) had literally made its way into banana B.
In effect, Locke really makes of mental attributes something like a bundle of little substances, so that they can jump from the prince to the cobbler and vice versa. Which makes the whole thought experiment pointless as well as muddled, since the aim was to avoid having to talk about substance.
But what about transubstantiation? Isn’t that like what Locke is talking about? Don’t we have, for example, the prince essentially being transubstantiated, his accidents persisting while the substance of his body is replaced by the substance of the cobbler’s body?
No, we don’t. In transubstantiation, the accidents of bread and wine persist, but they do not inhere in the body and blood of Christ or in any other substance. They float free of substance. This is not possible in the natural order of things, of course, but that’s precisely why transubstantiation is supernatural, possible only by way of a miraculous suspension of the natural order.
Now, Locke evidently thinks of the memories and other mental characteristics of the prince as indeed actually coming to inhere in the body of the cobbler (or perhaps in the cobbler’s soul – part of the point of Locke’s theory is to avoid having to say which). So, this is not the same as transubstantiation, in the theological sense of that term.
But couldn’t Locke just say that maybe the memories and other mental characteristics don’t after all inhere in any substance, so that transubstantiation might serve as a model for what he has in mind? No. Locke is trying to tell us what the nature of a person is. The proposal in question would make persons entirely supernatural, without any underlying nature for the “super” to build on. And that makes no sense. We can make sense of the accidents of bread and wine only as accidents of bread and wine, of some underlying substance, at least in the natural course of things. There’s already a natural order there that God can go on to suspend when transubstantiation occurs. He sustains the accidents apart from the natural underlying basis that gives them their identity conditions and makes them otherwise intelligible.
To say that memories and other mental characteristics are accidents that never naturally inhere in any substance would make them unintelligible. If their natural home is not any kind of substance, then in what sense are they accidents? Once again, they would end up being little substances in their own right.