getting personal

1579 drawing of the great chain of being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica ChristianaYou've probably heard the expression "it takes a big person to apologise". But what does "person" mean, exactly?

This is not a hair-splitting, nit-picking scholastic debate of interest only to academics in ivory towers. "Personhood" is an important concept lurking beneath the relationships that people have with each other.

The nature of interactions between people is to a large extent defined by the extent that one believes the other is a person. (Some dogs are people and some people are dogs. But if unconditional love is a mark of enlightenment, then many so-called animals are more enlightened than many so-called people!)

In the early apartheid years in South Africa, for example, the Dutch Reformed Church rationalised the harsh treatment of "non-whites" via the proposition that they have no souls, do not qualify for salvation, and therefore should not be treated as people. This proposition was sometimes preached by Dutch Reformed Church ministers as part of their Sunday sermons to the volk.

Another example: Slavery. As the property of the slave-owner, slaves were (and in some places still are) used, abused, bought, sold, burnt, broken and disposed of in the same way as a piece of furniture may be disposed of.

Dictionary.com lists a number of different meanings of "person" including:

  • a human being as distinguished from an animal or a thing
  • a self-conscious or rational being (in the philosophical sense)
  • a character, part, or role, as in a play or story
  • 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.

Complicated. But you can sort the various meanings into two broad categories, as follows.

PROPOSITION 1: All persons are human. The implication is that an alien from outer space would not qualify as a person. But what if the alien were intelligent and able and willing to understand terrestrial languages and communicate with humans? What if the intelligent, able and willing alien were to have cosmetic surgery to resemble a human being, physically? Plus an intensive learning program to completely familiarise zirself with the cultural and sociological aspects of being human?

PROPOSITION 2: All humans are persons. What about totally brain-damaged humans ("...in a persistent vegetative state...") unable to think, speak or move of their own accord? What about psychopaths---supposedly sentient entities, but with no conscience, no awareness of emotions, and no capacity for empathy? Creatures who are monstrously cruel and evil and think nothing of torturing and slaughtering large numbers of people without compunction or pity? Was Hitler a person? Stalin? Pol Pot?

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 who are capable of communication and peaceful coexistence with Homo sapiens ("ramen"), to list just two items in the Hierarchy. Check it out for yourself. And while you're at it, consider the following candidates for personhood.

In the future, could an advanced artificial intelligence that scores top marks on the Turing Test be a person?

Can a nation be a person? A city? Yes, according to Robinson Jeffers as expressed in his poem "Natural music":

"...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...

Can a group of people be a person? Possibly, according to Joseph Campbell in "Primitive Mythology". Concerning the public performance of religious rituals Campbell rites:

" The ceremonies 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."

The above-mentioned villagers perform the rites and rituals that arise/emerge from their shared belief structures. In "modern" times, every Saturday or Sunday or during a particular month, or under particular circumstances millions of people continue to attend and/or participate in the performance of rites and rituals emerging from their belief structures.

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. Or, to raise it up a level: the genius of the genus.

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.

Is the person the whole, or the parts? Or both, by virtue of the bundling paradigm implicit in the concept of holons?

Is the form of a flesh and blood person defined by the body, or the cells of the body? The cells, or the molecules comprising the cells? The molecules, or the atoms comprising the molecules? The atoms, or the sub-atomic particles comprising the atoms? The sub-atomic particles, or the particles comprising the sub-atomic particles?

The reductionist sees only the parts. The holist sees the parts and the whole and the emergent qualities of the whole. The reductionist has a problem with emergent qualities because they tend to vanish at high resolutions, ie a sharp focus on the very small.

Ken Wilbur's reinterpretation of the ancient concept of Scala Naturae, the great chain of being, provides a potential bridge between reductionism and holism.

What is a person? In my view, there is no satisfactory definition. 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, language use, self awareness, and integrity (in the sense of being whole, unfragmented and contained within a boundary, eg skin [!]). 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.

As Humpty Dumpty says, "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less...". In similar vein, a person is anything that a language user says is a person, neither more nor less. A person is anything that is treated as a person by a language user, neither more nor less.

It often happens that a language-user applies a label (uses a word) to more or fewer or different things than those to which another language-user applies the same label (word). It's called "disagreeing". But it's really just different styles of labelling.

Oh, and I almost forgot to identify the biggest person of all: the entity known by many names and titles, including Everything-That-Is (ETI).

Next on the agenda is a very slippery topic, closely related to personhood: "selfhood". Watch this space.

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Nessa said...

I think we should be nice to everything/being just in case they are persons.

13 Characters from Rose and Prince Brendan

masterymistery said...

Nessa, I agree. Even though it's a bit like "being good" not necessarily for its own sake but instead on the off-chance there is a heaven,. Thanks for your comment.

Alice Audrey said...

I think being self aware has to be an import part of identification of personhood. So a city could be a person if a city can be self aware.

masterymistery said...

Excellent point, Alice, and I totally agree. Leveraging the leeway provided by the metaphorical nature of language, could we say, for instance, that a City's media---newspapers, journals, radio stations, etc---when they report on the City itself, comprise the City's self-awareness?

Or even that the cells and/or neurons (people) in the corpus of the City taken together in a gestaltish way, comprise the City's self-awareness?

After all, electrical patterns flickering across the neural networks in the human brain, comprise self-awareness. And it is incorrect to say that the whole burden of thought is carried by just one or a handful of neurons. So can we not apply that principle to Cities? That people in ensemble are the City's self awaresness.

Thanks for your commment.

ghostseeker said...

I do think that once someone has committed atrocities, they become sub-human and should not be afforded the same rights as others. I also think that the deities are personifications of powerful energies in the Universe. But the one thing I know for sure is that at 250 pounds, I am a big person, whether I apologize or not.

masterymistery said...

Hi ghostseeker, what you say about deities makes very good sense. [So much so that I'm going to turn this comment into a post.] And to that you can add the deification or more strictly reification of forces and fields, as in physics.

The attitude or aspect or posture of the physicist towards powerful energies in the Universe such as Gravity or Electromagnetism is similar in many ways to that as might be adopted by a worshiper of a deity eg Pikne the God of Lightning in Estonian mythology. Or Thor. Or Xolotl. Or Jehovah. There's no shortage of thunder and lightning, or wrathfulness, that's for sure.

Nor can anyone claim zir posture towards reality or zir belief system is the absolutely exclusively superior or correct or right one under all circumstances, at all times. Leaving the door open for for the possibility that a particular belief system may be 'better' in some sense in some circumstances at some times in some places for some people. After all, there is only one Absolute in the Universe, the Universe zirself. Everything else is relative, generally relative, which is even more relative that specially relative.

entangle meant shows the similarities in the respective postures of the atheist (as proxy for the physicist), polytheist and monotheist toward such qualities as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. Eg the physicist's take on omnipotence: there are forces and powers in the universe, such as gravity, the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism, and others. All of the powers in the universe, taken together, are all of the powers in the universe. There are no powers outside the universe. There is no power outside the universe. Nothing is outside the universe (except nothing). The universe is omnipotent.

Thanks for your comment --- you do strike me as a big person.

weirsdo said...

From a phenomenological point of view, I suppose a person is someone to whom one ascribes personhood. In general, I'm happy to see the circle of beings to whom personhood is ascribed increasing. Besides the possibilities you mention, whales and higher primates now seem to be candidates for personhood in some circles. I disagree, however, with those who honor potential or latent personhood in the nonviable fetus or the braindead, and with those who would extend personhood down the evolutionary ladder.

masterymistery said...

Hi weirsdo, your point about ascribing personhood is well taken: like so many words/qualities, meaning is in the mouth, (or mind) of the speaker (meaning-maker).

It's the prerogative of anyone with a labelling machine to affix labels.

I'll buy whales, dolphins and higher primates. Some parrots are said to be borderline.

I'm not feeling very personable this morning, having had 2 hours sleep last night.

Thanks for your comment.

cordieb said...

I'm really enjoying this series on language - has me thinking how language is so um, um, what word should I use.... perhaps, person-al ... What is a person? Depend's on the observer, and no two can observe exactly alike, at least I don't think so. Super cool, mind bending, thought evoking article as always!

PLL, C.

masterymistery said...

cordieb, thanks for your comments. Perhaps one of the qualities of being a person is the ability to give and receive compliments!