Up close and personal

This image features the head of an extra-terrestrial lifeform superimposed on 'Vitruvian Man', a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)This image features the head of an extra-terrestrial lifeform superimposed on 'Vitruvian Man', a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)
The nature of interactions between persons is determined by the extent to which one person believes another is a person.

In the apartheid years in South Africa, for example, the Dutch Reformed Church rationalised the harsh treatment of black people (“non-whites”) on the basis that they have no souls, do not qualify for salvation, and therefore should not be treated as persons. This twisted logic was frequently included by Dutch Reformed Church ministers in their Sunday sermons to the volk.

Slavery is another example. As the property of the slave-owner, slaves were (and in some places still are) used, abused, bought, sold, burnt, broken and disposed of as if they were pieces of furniture. Clearly, a slave is not a person in the eyes of the slave-owner.

Dictionary.com lists a number of different meanings of “person” including “…a human being as distinguished from an animal or a thing.” “Person” can also mean “a self-conscious or rational being (in the philosophical sense)”, or “a group of human beings, a corporation, a partnership, an estate, or other legal entity (artificial person or juristic person) recognized by law as having rights and duties.”

So an animal can never be a person, according to at least one dictionary. Of course, the Indian government would disagree, having declared dolphins to be non-human persons.

There are many different definitions of “person” but they all belong under either (but not both) of the following two headings:

  • Every person is a human.
  • Every human is a person.

If all persons are human, then a dolphin could never be a person, nor could an alien from outer space, no matter how intelligent or technologically sophisticated.

If all humans are persons, is a newborn baby a person? A newborn baby has no personality and is unable to use language.

Is a brain-damaged human in a “vegetative state” a person?

Is a psychopath a person? A psychopath uses language and technology and can masquerade as a person, but has no conscience, no emotional intelligence, and no capacity for empathy. Was Hitler a person? Stalin? Pol Pot?

A human who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder) can be a person, but is each of that person’s identities a fully fledged person in their own right? Is there such a thing as a “fractional person”? Or are persons like integers, always whole?

Orson Scott Card’s Hierarchy of Exclusion is a useful framework in which to think about personhood. The hierarchy includes members of one’s own species but from another world or culture (“framling”), and strangers from another species (“ramen”) who are capable of communicating with members of one’s own species, to list just two items in the Hierarchy. Check it out for yourself.

Can a group of people be a person? Can a nation be a person? A city?

In his poem “Natural music” Robinson Jeffers’ suggests that “...if we were strong enough to listen without divisions of desire and terror to the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger-smitten cities, those voices also would be found...”

In his book “Primitive Mythology” Joseph Campbell discusses the public performance of religious rituals, including ceremonies that “continue for many nights, many days, uniting the villagers in a fused being that is not biological, essentially, but a living spirit---with numerous heads, many eyes, many voices, numerous feet pounding the Earth---lifted even out of temporality and translated into the no-place, no-time, no-when, no-where of the mythological age, which is here and now.”

Another example from Campbell’s work concerns instinctive (unlearned and unlearnable) behaviours such as the mad frantic dash of newly hatched turtles from the dangers of the sand dunes to the relative safety of the sea.

As Campbell points out, instinctive behaviours triggered by external factors enable an animal to respond to circumstances not experienced before. But the entity responding to the trigger factor is not the individual “...since the individual has no previous knowledge of the object to which it is reacting. The recognizing and responding subject is, rather, some sort of trans- or super-individual, inhabiting and moving the living creature.”

In similar vein, one can imagine that standing behind each species of living creature is a shadowy, non-corporeal person existing outside of time and space: the genius of the genus as it were.

How about the planet herself? Is Gaia a person? Is the god named Jehovah a person? Is/was Jesus? The ancients saw their gods as people, with personalities, needs and wants, parents, strengths and weaknesses, even birthdays.

Fraught with nested sets and sub-sets, the gestalt of personhood can be drawn as a Venn diagram showing (at least conceptually) multiple persons existing through and across each other at multiple angles, levels, or dimensions of engagement, as in the earlier example of Campbell’s villagers and the “fused being” born of their shared purpose.

In my view, there is no satisfactory definition of personhood. I don’t know of any bundle of attributes the presence of which reliably and unambiguously signifies personhood. The following list, however, is not a bad starting point for analysis and discussion:

  • agency/intentionality
  • capacity for abstract thought
  • capacity for experiencing complex emotions
  • language use
  • self-awareness
  • integrity (ie whole, unfragmented and contained within a boundary).
Note though that these attributes can validly be applied to things that are not persons. The metaphorical nature of language means there can be no attributes exclusive to personhood at all times in all places under all circumstances. Every cell of the body, for instance, has the integrity of being contained within a membrane (= boundary) separating the cell from the rest of the universe. But a cell is not a person. (Or is it?)

Nor does language use necessarily qualify something as a person. Computers use language to communicate with each other and with computer users. But computers are not persons (not yet anyway). Primates have been observed (and trained) to use language, but as to whether those primates are persons in my view remains an open question.

Oh, and I almost forgot to identify the biggest person of all: the entity known by many names and titles, including Everything.


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mgeorge said...

One race enslaving another is almost understandable. What about Indians, Chinese, Africans, etc. enslaving their own kind. They used clever labels such as low-caste, serf and indentured labourer. Irish ("urged" to emigrate by a Potato Famine with no food relief) were received in the land of the free as full humans (1.0 unlike blacks who were 0.33) but could not vote etc. When they became full humans, the Italians replaced them. Elsewhere, again by withholding food in a famine, the Empire drove desperate Indians to S. Africa. Except for a few revolutionaries like Ghandi and MLKing, few saw through the double-talk of religion and "democracy".

"The recognizing and responding subject is, rather, some sort of trans- or super-individual, inhabiting and moving the living creature." - We can see this as another example of "morphic resonance", a hypothesis applicable to (a) the synthesis of new compounds (b) biological ontogeny and mitosis (c) convergent evolution in form or behaviour between two diverse taxonomic groups (d) the rise in frequency of successful forms or behaviours.

We have a spectrum of intensity in emotion. That reality probably serves us well as a species. A prof. of neurology found out that he had the same distortions of the brain as killers on death row. The problem is not emotion or its lack but the resulting empathy or related self-control.

We cannot consider the rights of other beings (including primates or the Earth) because of (a) the taste for meat (and lack of ready, synthetic alternatives) (b) dogma on the dominion of man (not woman). I don't mention this because I consider animal rights a priority. We are just too devious. Our beliefs are self-serving.

Awareness is overrated, as I mentioned in another comment. Neuroscience indicates that the natural conviction of personal consciousness is a delusion based on dualism [Susan Blackmore, 2015].

masterymistery said...

Hi mgeorge,

Perhaps Morphic resonance is related to, or part of, or a synonym for, or results from quantum entanglement. Which itself is perhaps related to, or springs from "advaita non-dualism", which holds that there is only one thing in existence / one kind of thing: consciousness. Which is maybe a different kind of non-dualism than that which Susan Blackmore has in mind. I speculate (without having read any of her work) that she refers to the non-dualism that holds that the only thing in existence is matter/energy, and that personal consciousness is a mere "epiphenomenon". Well that may be so, but even if consciousness is an illusion, it's a real illusion: the illusion really exists! Sheldrake would be opposed to that kind of reductionist paradigm.

Thanks for your comments -- incisive as ever.

mgeorge said...

As I mentioned in Evolution of Ideas, modern slavery is more subtle. There is human trafficking providing about $0.5 trillion a year, driven by globalisation, tyranny and wars. The rest is quite legal, including slavery of wage, debt, addiction and "intellectual property." Fascists in government promote these by selectively intervening in the "free" market or refraining.

Are the worshippers of Mammon taking themselves too seriously, not taking our collective predicament seriously enough, both, or none of the above?

masterymistery said...

Hi mgeorge,

yes it is rather depressing, I try not to think too much about it. But to answer your question I'd have to say, all of the above. And then some! But it goes beyond Mammon. We're dealing with Moloch-worshippers these days! Perhaps part of it is a dogged belief that technology will save the day. Or the elites know something we worker-bees don't. Or they have a death-wish. We'll find out soon enough. Thanks for your comments.

mgeorge said...

I have scarce understanding of Susan Blackmore's argument - or whether she is using her own twist to non-duality. I would have expected her to pick duality instead.

To me, words like duality and immanent are not too different from political spin: far removed from the terrible, growing, tangible concerns of the masses today that the propaganda blitz machine suppresses. Such terms "make my eyes glaze over," perhaps wondering what is being marketed. Having said that, I too enjoy vapid doodling in abstractions - to some extent. E.g. I know advanced maths is beyond me. This is a matter of proclivity which I have written on.

The 2008 constitution of Equador is the first to recognise enforceable Rights of Nature. Some scientific types speculate that the oceans - including its life forms that we recognise - consitutes the oldest living thing. So, general accceptance of the possibility of embedded, wildly different consiousness is growing. Cosmologists and science fiction afficionados welcome this - a return to the past - but it goes against egoism and displeases the high priests of Moloch.

masterymistery said...

For me words like "duality" and "immanent" are battered signposts to places nobody visits any more or even knows they existed in the first place. I visit those places out of perhaps misguided loyalty to an intellectual/cultural regime that has been unable to stem the barbarian invasions and waits helplessly for the final conflagration that will destroy evrything. Vapid doodling in abstractions is how I keep the fear at bay: fear that this is all there is and all there will ever be.
Interesting place, Ecuador. Their protection of Julian Assange from the wrath of the United States, for no apparent benefit, suggests that at least some independent decision-making is still possible, even if the quality of the decisions is debatabkle.

mgeorge said...

Thus we return to the core. We are all groping for "relevance (acceptance, significance, permanence) and meaning." The only difference is that some conceal fear with dogma. Let me repeat this quote:

"I have approximate answers, possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything. I do not feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose. Most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge."
- Prof. Richard Feynman, 1999

masterymistery said...

mgeorge, Feynman is my favourite physicist! And I think it was Socrates who said the wisest man is he who realizes how little he knows, or words to that effect. Thanks for your comments.