|A most peculiar book.|
Just as the cult of Boston was respectability and that of New York was success, Late Modern Philadelphians were concerned with avoiding risk. Thus, one simply did not chuck it all and head off to California but stayed with the tried-and-true. There is much to recommend this attitude. Cutting Edge fails far more often than State-of-the-Art, and one need only say the words "Experimental Literature" or "Progressive Education" to understand the risks involved. But to be safe includes being safe in one's own opinions, and that makes contrary speech an intolerable threat to one's safety. We can see that the wider Kulture today has been largely Philadelphianized. Disagreement is treated as if it were aggression.
But we digress. My larger point, aside from the one under my hat, is that there are several common tropes in the discussion of person that bear examination.
The Footprints of Person.The question posed was
"Objectively, when does a person become a person?"Leaving aside the phraseology, one of the responses was
"Heart beat and or brain activity."My question might have been: "Well, which is it?" Since these two things do not start simultaneously, what is the ontological status of a being with a heart beat but lacking brain activity versus that of a being exhibiting brain activity but lacking a heart beat? But the topic host did engage to point out that logically a patient whose heart is stopped by a surgeon during a medical procedure would then cease to be a person, and asked what was it in the nature of "heart beat" that entailed "personhood"?
This confused the first commentator, who responded that
I'm not saying it "equals" a person, but it's as good a rule of thumb for establishing the beginning of personhood as I can think of.There is something incoherent about this. If being a person entails having a heartbeat, then lack of heartbeat must mean no person. Modus tollens. IF P then HB, and NO-HB, implies NO-P.
His response was
Heart activity or brain waves is the marker for the onset/existence of personhood, as far as I'm concerned. If we need a litmus test, this one seems undeniable, clean cut, and easy to confirm.In other words, the keys are under the lamppost because we can see better there. But whether X exists should have nothing to do with whether and when we can detect it. The existence of the dodo did not depend on its discovery by humans.
He then noted that
I said either (heart activity or brain waves) determines when personhood begins; I haven't commented at all about personhood's definition.And this is a real problem. How can you say when something begins if you don't know what that something is? One may as well as when the wishniak begins.
Is That Your Agenda Showing Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?
Perhaps the most puzzling comment was this one. After another commentator suggested that a person began with conception, a respondent replied:
There are other (legitimate) reasons to question personhood's onset right at conception. I don't want the door open to denying someone contraception, for example.This reveals two things. First, that "objective" criteria may reflect subjective politics. He was less concerned with reaching a true definition than with whether that definition enabled pre-approved behaviors. Heart beats and brain waves are safely past the contraceptive issue.
The second thing it reveals is the peril of having no definition of "person" before deciding on its onset. Contraception has nothing to do with whether a person begins at conception. If there actually has been contraception, then there has been no conception and no person has come into existence. It may be he was using "contraception" as a euphemism for "abortion," but TOF remembers when this equation was vigorously resisted on the left. The price of growing old, one supposes. One remembers the old pravda in the face of the new.
This is very much a fruit of the Postmodern Ages, in which Truth is equated with Power. As Nietzsche said, "The criterion of truth resides in the heightening of the feeling of power." (Will to Power #534) If it makes you feel empowered, then it is true "for you." This Avicennian "doctrine of the double-truth" was condemned in the Middle Ages, which concluded quite logically that Truth was One. But it is making a comeback as the Modern Ages draw to a close. Funny (in a sad sort of way) that it be posed to a question asking for objective criteria, because when there are multiple truths, there is no Truth. Hence, the Russian's ironic use of pravda (truth) and Pravda (the newspaper). When they asked "what is today's Pravda?" they also asked "what is today's truth?"
Das Kriterium der Wahrheit
liegt in der Steigerung
Straws, to Break the Camel's Back
Other respondents in the discussion added all sorts of irrelevancies:
- self aware and mentally cognitive (is there another sort of cognition?)
- higher cognitive function, a key sign of personhood.
- Higher brain function is linked with just about all of the other signs of personhood, like sense of self and the ability to communicate.
- Personhood is dependent upon higher thoughts patterns and cognitive function.
- Even a newborn infant isn't a person. They can't communicate, and in their first few months of life they can't even recognize themselves in a mirror.
Are those unable to work ordinary differential equations lacking in "higher thought patterns" or is it only those who cannot do algebra?
What of those who cannot communicate, being blind, deaf, and dumb? Or who cannot communicate because they are unable to frame a logical argument, as so many on the Internet?
What exactly is "higher cognitive function" and how high must it be? What gauge do we use to measure the height of cognitive function? Is it calibrated? How does this differ from "higher brain function"? Which is it to be?
And those newborns had better watch out. Though whether they fail to recognize themselves in a mirror or simply fail to recognize reflections, how does an outsider know what they do or don't recognize?
Faithful Reader will notice a commonality here, what Mary Midgley called the "cult of the cerebral." It is the desire of those proud of their brains (though often with little enough cause) to regard other mortals with contempt. If personhood is contingent on the height of one's cognitive function, then surely those with higher cognition are "more" of a person than those with lower.
Seen in this light, the recent and not-so-recent efforts to derogate the cognitive functions of Those Who Are Not Like Us seem like the first steps toward depriving them of Personhood. Nelly-bar-the-door! They wouldn't do that, though. Would they?
But the effort to pile up the definition of person with extra requirements always amounts to a desire to exclude others, usually the poorer or less articulate Others, the Untermenschen.
|So how many persons do|
we set the table for?
Being PersonableOriginally meaning the mask work by actors, the term persona was extended by synecdoche to the role being played, and then by analogos to a role played on the stage of life. It was defined early in Western Civilization, hammered out in long debates about the nature of the hypostases of the Father, Son, and Spirit, so that those unfamiliar with Western Civilization - pretty much everyone nowadays - may not know and spout such nonsense as person is subjective or that it is undefined.
But TOF (I hear you say) does not "natura rationalis" mean the same thing as "higher cognitive functions"? Well, not exactly. Rational means simply
a) intellect: the ability to abstract concepts from sense perceptions; that is, as Aristotle said, to not only recognize flesh but to recognize what-flesh-is; and
b) volition: the ability to desire the concepts produced by the intellect.
This is not a very high bar. It might be impaired by genetic error, etc., but an accident does not obliterate the essence. Humans are also bipedal by nature, but no one ceases to be human because they have lost a leg to accident or to genetic or congenital failures or because the legs have not yet developed in morphogenesis. The same is true of being rational by nature.In modern terms, a "substance of a rational nature" is therefore a "human being." We will leave kzinti, hobbits, and angels aside for now, but will note that Augustine included alien beings as metaphysically human even if they were not biologically human and that in the course of evolution there must have once been creatures that were biologically human without being metaphysically human. Hence,
a "person" is an individual human being.Now, this can be easily verified in objective terms.
- Being. Does it have existence? This is easily checked for material being, which is all that concerns us for now.
- Human. Is it modern H. sap.? This can be checked by DNA testing.
- Individual. This divides into three mutually reinforcing questions:
- Does it exist apart from others? Is the DNA distinct from other human instantiations?
- Is it complete? That is, is it the whole ball of wax or only a part of something else, like a fingernail or an elbow? In biological terms: Is it an organism or an organ?
- Does it subsist per se? That is, does it contain the principle of its own growth and development? Does it "self-assemble" or is it frankensteined out of otherwise disparate parts?
Note: being an individual is not the same thing as being independent. Otherwise, we'd have to exclude fetuses and welfare recipients. All organisms are dependent on others for food and such. But that Sally Smith depends on a government program to supply her food, or that her unborn baby depends on her to do the same, does not deprive either of their individuality. (Nor for that matter that Jenny Jump depends on some distant farmer for her food. That's why ecology is called a "web" and individual humans exist in a "society.")
In any case, the question of "when does a person begin to exist?" now boils down to "when does an individual human being begin to exist?" The answer will be left as an exercise to Faithful Reader. But be careful. If you try to tweak this to exclude those whom you wish to exclude, you often find that logically you have excluded others as well. Frost's dictum about building walls applies: be careful what you are walling in and walling out.
General Relativity and the 'Hood
|Cross sections in the t-dimension of a four-dimensional being, |
incl. elder, adult, adolescent, toddler, infant, fetus, embryo
|Woo-hoo! It's all one big 4-D being!|