A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Getting Personal

A most peculiar book.
Highly recommended
On another site there is an on-going dialogue of the deaf regarding the nature of person and when this personhood comes into existence.  By this I mean not that various commentators are arguing with one another, or even arguing past one another; but that most commentators are content to post their own opinion and then ignore anything else that gets said.  This peculiar reluctance to engage is related I think to what John Lukacs once called the Philadelphia cult of safety. 

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. 
Das Kriterium der Wahrheit
liegt in der Steigerung
des Machtgefühls.
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?"
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. 

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.
What reacting to a mirror reflection has to do with personhood is never made clear.  Does this mean a blind man is not a person? 
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 Personable
Originally 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

A person is, per Boethius, naturæ rationalis individua substantia, an individual substance of a rational nature, where individua substantia signifies to Thomas substantia, completa, per se subsistens, separata ab aliia, i.e., a substance, complete, subsisting per se, existing apart from others.  A substance is a union of matter and form.  A human being is therefore a substance. 
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. 
  1. Being.  Does it have existence?  This is easily checked for material being, which is all that concerns us for now.  
  2. Human.  Is it modern H. sap.?  This can be checked by DNA testing.
  3. 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

General relativity tells us that time is "just another dimension" of a four-dimensional spacetime manifold.  What we see as an individual today is only a three-dimensional cross section of a four dimensional being, a single "slice," as it were.  The continuity of the being along the t-axis is no different than its continuity along the x-, y-, or z-axis.  The "you" of five years ago is no less a part of you than your big toe.  And it makes no sense to declare that one segment of this four-dimensional being is not a part of the being any more than it does to exclude your big toe because it is not "sentient."  It's all part of the one same being. 
Woo-hoo!  It's all one big 4-D being!


  1. This could be helpful --- but those of the other side will soon protest:

    The Unborn isn't complete due to lack of brainwaves, &c! Even your definition fails! Therefore, the Unborn as Unperson is not at all Orwellian!

    I wonder if a better word than "complete" is needed.


    On a related point, here's a good way to highlight the completeness, and perhaps better than the abstraction of DNA: "But for birth, only time and nutrients separate conception from adulthood."

    1. Ja, from a general relativity viewpoint they are separated only by a little distance on the t-dimension. They are simply two points on a continuum, distinct only in the way that the toe is distinct from the nose.

      completa means that "it must form a complete nature," not that all potentialities have been realized. After all, a prepubescent child is still incomplete and lacks a faculty which, from a Darwinian point of view is far more important than being able to do ordinary differential equations. Something that does not form a complete nature would be something which is only a part of something else and does not function naturally unless it is incorporated into that something else. For example, an organ or a tissue.

    2. What's a way to distinguish those with fatal pre-natal defects, &c., as human? Would it help to say that these folks are ontologically directed toward a specific end, even if they are personally impeded somehow?

      On a digression, perhaps we could consider whether a similar line of thought would be a proper defense of allowing sterile men and women to participate in the form of marriage without allowing man and man or woman and woman.

  2. Questions as to completeness, sentience, etc are specious with regards to "personhood,"- a birth defect can deprive an individual of limbs and organs, and we still call them people. The cemeteries are full of no-longer-sentient dead "people." From a purely biological standpoint, the person comes into existence at conception; everything else is politics. You are spot on- ""objective" criteria may reflect subjective politics." Most people aren't really interested in determining a scientific basis for when "personhood" happens; they're interested in defining it according to their personal conscience and/or comfort level. I admit, I'm guilty of this, too- any attempt that results in denying an individual's humanity, at any stage of life, makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

  3. "1) Objectively, when does a person become a person?

    2) Heart beat and or brain activity.

    3) 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"?

    The person who was a person, then wasn’t a person (by either ‘criterion’), then was a person.

  4. "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."

    Further, "the contraceptive issue" is itself a hed-herring; it's not the availability of contaception he wishes to protect from moral scrutiny, but rather abortion.

    Admitting the truth that every conceived human being is already a human person does not imply a duty to gratuitously conceive humqan beings. But, it does imply the duty to not abort/murder them.

  5. "Does it exist apart from others? Is the DNA distinct from other human instantiations?"

    I have identical twin sisters. They have the same DNA. I assure you, they have been separate and distinct human persons since at least birth. Even in the pictures taken of them in hospital immediately they were washed and dressed, those who know them can tell them apart.

  6. If you ever want to induce vapors in such arguments, point out that they lack the higher cognative functions as soon as they fall asleep.

  7. "Does it exist apart from others? Is the DNA distinct from other human instantiations?"

    There must be some way of putting it without bringing in DNA.
    The DNA was unknown to the ancients and medievals. How did they formulate this condition then?
    As in the comment above, the use of DNA has problems.
    And frankly, it is too reductive to reduce the essence of a human being to its DNA.

    1. The life is in the blood, which is something the ancients knew real well.

  8. I've wondered if the thought exercise "what if I'm wrong and the other guy is right?" is helpful when dealing with these questions.

    If those who err on the side of personhood for all human beings are wrong, well when it comes to abortion and euthenasia they are guilty of being busy-bodies and exhibiting very poor social graces and possibly, (at the extreme end of things), causing psycological stress by inducing needless guilt, etc.

    On the other hand, if those who scrutinize and contest the personhood of certain human beings in favor of an ethic of short-term convenience are wrong...well, in that case they find themselves apologists for murder at the least and enablers for genocide at the worst.

    It seems kind of simple here. In a society that is increasingly claiming that we can't really "know" anything, (particularly the "truth"), and is staking its merit on ethical relativism...given this uncertainty, and given the choice of showing bad manners or being complicit in murder, wouldn't bad manners be the safer choice?

    I understand that my point is still more one of consequentialism than actually getting at the actual substance of that matter, but in a utilitarian society, is it a helpful point?

    1. In a utilitarian society, does anyone care about manners? Well, no. But neither would anyone in a utilitarian society care about persons (useless persons) no matter how small.

  9. Mike:

    This is very much a fruit of the Postmodern Ages, in which Truth is equated with Power.... 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 thing is, I read this post right after reading John C Wright attempt to converse with the Context-Free Grammar Generating Machine. In the comments, I see that the Context-Free Grammar Generating Machine appears to be increasingly admitting that the position it is programmed to state implies that truth and logic are relative and subjective (or, at least, it generated verbiage that would have that meaning were it uttered by a person and not merely a context-free grammar generating machine). Unfortunately, like the Alex Rosenberg Machine, it seems programmed to embrace the lunatic implications rather than to see them as a reductio ad absurdum of the position it is programmed to state, but I still see this as relative (ha!) progress.

    What I think is interesting is that in all these cases, the Post-Modernist/deconstructionist/subjectivist/relativist conclusion is driven by a supposedly just-the-facts-ma'am commitment to hard-headed objectivity and scientific realism. Post-Modernism doesn't just follow from Modernism as a social phenomenon, as if (so the story goes) intellectuals just got weary of all that suffocating and sterile "scientific objectivity" and decided to avail themselves of fuzzy magical thinking for a while. It follows from Modernism by logical necessity, as Post-Modernists follow the logic of the Modernists' own reductionist materialism further than the Modernists themselves did.

    1. I would suggest reading Jonah Goldberg's newest book, in light of the third paragraph.

    2. The Tyranny Of Cliches you mean? I've been thinking about getting it, cause I've heard good things about it. Broadly speaking, what does Jonah say about this particular topic?

    3. Yes.
      There's an entire chapter on the history and genesis of branding whatever one wants as the "objective" goal. Know how something is built makes it easier to take apart.


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