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Why I have no hands

By E.T. Olson


[FIRST PARAGRAPH] Consider the following argument for the claim that there are no hands--or feet\ud or ears or any other arbitrary parts of human beings.\ud \ud \ud Premise One: I am the only rational, conscious being--for short, the only person--\ud now sitting in this chair.\ud \ud \ud Trust me: my chair isn't big enough for two. You may doubt that every rational,\ud conscious being is a person; perhaps there are beings that mistakenly believe\ud themselves to be people. If so, read ‘rational, conscious being’ or the like for\ud 'person'.\ud \ud \ud Premise Two: Anything that would be rational and conscious in one environment\ud could not fail to be rational or conscious in another environment\ud without differing internally in some way.\ud \ud \ud Nothing can fail to be rational or conscious merely by having the wrong relational\ud properties. All philosophers of mind except perhaps dualists and eliminative\ud materialists make this assumption. The content of someone's intentional states\ud might be sensitive to her surroundings: on Twin Earth there may be someone\ud whose mind is just like yours except that your thoughts about water correspond in\ud him or her to thoughts about something else, if the colourless, potable liquid called\ud 'water' on Twin Earth is not H2O but a substance with a different chemical\ud composition. But unless mental features are not caused by physical ones, that being\ud could hardly fail to be rational or conscious at all, if you are rational and conscious.\ud \ud \ud Premise Three: If there is such a thing as my hand, there is also such a thing as my\ud "hand-complement": an object made up or composed of just\ud those parts of me that don't share a part with my hand. [1]\ud \ud \ud If my hand exists, then "the rest of me but for my hand" exists as well. (I assume\ud that I am a material object, and that my hand, if it existed, would be a part of me.)\ud 2\ud This is just to say that there is nothing ontologically special about hands: saying that\ud there are hands but no hand-complements would be as arbitrary as saying that\ud there are hands but no feet. Any reasonable ontology of material objects that gives\ud us hands gives us hand-complements as well. This might sound less than obvious\ud because 'hand' is a familiar, compact word of ordinary English, while 'handcomplement'\ud is philosophical jargon. But that is an accidental feature of our\ud language, and presumably reflects our interest in hands and our lack of interest in\ud hand-complements. There is no reason to suppose that it has any ontological\ud significance. Consider that 'cheir' in ancient Greek and 'manus' in Latin, the words\ud that dictionaries translate as 'hand', actually meant something that included eight or\ud ten inches of forearm. Strictly speaking, the ancient Greeks and Romans had no\ud word for what we call hands. But that does not imply that they disagreed with us\ud about what material objects there are

Year: 1995
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