The Mereological Fallacy Revisited
Understanding Of A Classic Logical Fallacy Is Needed Now More Then Ever
Authors note: I am reposting a piece I wrote some time ago discussing the mereological fallacy. In that article I used the example of head transplantation to try and illuminate the concepts involved. It is quite short and to the point.
Head Transplantation and the Mereological Fallacy
I recently posted a comment discussing my views on the current state of cognitive neuroscience and neurophilosophy. In it I attacked the position of many modern practitioners in these fields by citing the so called “mereological” fallacy. This logical position grows naturally out of the philosophical tradition of Wittgenstein and has been adopted by a few brave neurophilosophers. In The Philosophical Foundations of Modern Neuroscience B&H systematically deconstruct the arguments of cognitive neuroscience and expose the logical contradictions at the heart of some of the most mainstream. Simply put the mereological fallacy shows the logical contradictions inherent in assigning states of consciousness to a part of a being rather than to its whole. Specifically they demonstrate that attempting to locate consciousness in parts of the brain is doomed to failure. Logic dictates that a brain, while necessary to the condition of consciousness, is not alone sufficient to be IN a state of consciousness.
Some have argued that the possibility of head/brain transplantation cuts at the heart of such a view. They say that since it is scientifically possible (in theory at least) to transplant the head of a living human or other being onto that of another the mereological fallacy fails. After all if a whole, intact being is required to experience consciousness how could that being being torn asunder and reconstructed, alive and conscious exist with(in) another’s body. How could a being survive such a radical transition to a new body if the “person” his/her “conciousness” was not located in the head/brain. Putting aside the technical issues (which are legion) associated with achieving a successful head/brain transplant, I think the case of head transplantation, bolsters rather than undercuts the mereological argument.
The idea that we are considering only head transplantation rather than head removal and “hooking up to computers” say suggests that a whole human body is a necessary condition for “life”. Some have suggested the future possibility of “downloading” our consciousness to a computer and/or the Internet but such thinking is still in the realm of science fiction. To my knowledge no “serious” scientist has even begun the earliest of studies showing how such a fantastical result might be accomplished. This is not the case with head transplantation. Work has already been completed and published demonstrating the possibility and animal experiments have proven its feasibility albeit with gruesome and alway fatal outcomes.
The unacknowledged assumption among the few researchers in this field has always been, and continues to be, that the ultimate outcome of head transplantation must be a fully reconstituted human being, a whole person. Although this new “person” would have an entirely alien body he/she would still exist as a whole single unit. This fully aligns with the mereological position. A person is not a conscious person unless they exist as a whole. A brain/head removed from a body simply cannot be described as/function as a conscious being.