The question: What is a person? is more complex than it appears. Indeed, when we recognize the complexity of the question, and forget our assumption that a person should be a human being. We can no longer thing of a picture of homo sapiens, Vitruvian Man or his slightly obese contemporary counterpart, so the concept of a “person” becomes enigmatic.
What about: the bearer of something? The bearer of free will, or rights, or responsibilities? But this is begging the question. A person is recognized as a person when he is considered the bearer of these dignities. Francis Fukuyama writes about this in his recent book on “Identity”, following Hegel that history is the dialectical play of recognition, resulting in the liberal democratic society at the famous “end” of history. Philosophy in this sense is translating common sense into notions, not investigating some underlying substance.
Such “substance” is the domain of metaphysics and it seems dangerous to let that discipline decide what (who!) counts as a person and who doesn’t. This theoretical question will become extremely relevant of course in the impending era of artificial intelligence. As soon as “chatbots” portray the characteristics of personhood and manage to obfuscate the algorithmic origin of their utterance, we can expect action groups advocating a bill of rights for these computer programs. The right to live, for example, translates into a right not to be shut down.
Machines have to pass the Turing test, or generate enough doubt so we have to assume they could pass, in order to be considered persons. The ability to have a human-like conversation appears to be the only criterion for personhood. This seems to excludes other animals. I would argue that we should be as benevolent as we could be in our interpretation of what we count as a conversation. We talk to our companion animals or pets, and there sure is mutual understanding. Some animals also partake in the life of the mind. And just to be on the safe side, why don’t we include them all and assign them some sense of personhood, and a right to life, dignity and the pursuit of happiness?
Judging if we are dealing with a person becomes the responsible task of other persons, in which they give their best effort to discern symptoms of personhood. We are generous with personhood.
By the corner forecourt of the Shell station the man eating ribs from a paper bag lets a crutch dangle on one elbow, as he picks his way through want and circumstance, under the gloaming, the overpass, beyond the river’s abstract mass.
A light like fine quartz inside concrete ghosts our day. Low rise houses shelter amongst apartment blocks hunkering from the bomb blasts which preserved them –Bang!– like a camera flash. Here’s your landscape.
Late spring but winter has returned, freakish and grey, an old friend talking about jobs and money, a scavenge for work. Boys aim bikes down pavements with thin-eyed accuracy. Or else they strut hands pushed into undershorts
or they walk, shout and fumble eat sweets and pledge their eternities to the craziest of quests. Two young girls play in the dust blown across plane trees and scrambled time, the pollen filaments mixed with…
We breathe calmly. The word purpose agitates. Propos, to ‘put forth’ says the etymology. We are familiar with a hierarchy of purposes. At the end of a curious child’s inquisitive series of “why?” every adult will resort to “just because”. The purpose of growing up is to contribute to society. The purpose of society is to make people live happy lives. The purpose of happy lives is to conform our creator’s vision. The purpose of our creator is to put forth the beingness of being. The purpose of being is – will you finally shut up?
According to Aristotle, purpose is a baked-in feature of its carrier (causa finalis). Bicycles, arrows, forks are purposeful objects. Purpose is a metaphysical quality that goes beyond our consensus: we can’t change the purpose of a bicycle or a fork by voting, we can only abuse the objects. Such metaphysical thinking sounds dangerously naive. There is no inscription in a tool of its maker’s purpose, it has to be recognized and explained every time someone new uses it. We could think of the tool as the artifact plus the story that is passed along with it. When we refer to a “fork”, we mean the toothy object plus the story of its purpose.
When we talk about our mind, we mean the mesmerizing firework of neurons that happens in our brain plus the story of its purpose. Our minds, however, have developed to set their own purpose. They are the most versatile “tools” we know. This means, we can’t learn anything from comparisons to less versatile tools.
Our mind puts itself forth, proposes itself. We have an intuitive concept of mental health, of an inquisitive, curious, critical mind that cannot see purpose on its own horizon, but can act as the anchor of purpose for much of what we do in life. The mind’s own purpose is an enigma that we intentionally create, our mind is the authority that implicitly claims to be the purpose of being. It is the knot in the loose end of purpose that keeps the rope from unraveling.
Hence, the purpose of the mind is itself. Some philosopher might draw that conclusion. We count a few more breaths. We visualize our thoughts. We see them dancing. “Mind” becomes a universal organizing principle, detached from our persons. We reluctantly accept that principle as the ultimate purpose. It is just a regulative idea – nothing to be afraid of.
What do we mean when we say of something that it has value? And isn’t all our speaking inherently evaluating? Isn’t every utterance we make freely, an assignment of value? Isn’t it much more elegant if we consider ourselves living in a ‘soup’ of value, rather than in a generally valueless world, in which we occasionally elevate some special things as valuable?
Let’s breathe calmly as usual. This is a meditation, not a treatise. Value is a powerful abstraction. Quantified value is the premise of economic activity and qualified value underpins all other human interaction.
Here, I understand value as receiving attention. In this sense we turn everything we look at into something valuable. It is not an ontological trick. We think of value this way because we can’t find another meaningful distinction. In other words, we deconstruct the distinctions that were made in order to ‘save’ value. This is sympathetic when we talk about the value of material items. When we take on the special value of life and living beings, we seem to be in trouble. We don’t want to apply the same concept of value to the life of a child, and a stone. We can look at the stone all we want – it should never be valuable in the same way as the child.
I’m afraid we won’t find the ontological key to some sort of higher-level value of conscious or sentient life. The best we can do is becoming aware of our evaluation, of the way we attribute value to whom and what we encounter. In the example of the stone, when we do look at it for many generations, shave off some oddities and build a museum around it for good measure, we call it Unesco Cultural Heritage and indeed condemn those who destroy it in the strongest possible words. I am referring to the 2001 destruction of Buddha of Bamiyan statues by the Taliban.
We try to understand value. Not any specific value, but the gesture of giving-value in itself. We tell the story of a world in which we are surrounded by value and highlight some at the expense of others, but never relegate them to a domain of no value. We communicate values implicitly (by merely focusing our attention on something) and explicitly (by capturing it in words). Perhaps authenticity is the alignment of our implicit and explicit ways of gesturing values.
Being Wrong is a well-written account of our understanding of error. The author points out how central error is for all aspects of cultural proress. It is not an academic treatise, but still gives the history of thinking about scientific and religious truth a fair treatment, by mentioning for example St. Augustine’s fallor ergo sum, expressed an entire millennium before Descartes. It gives the beautiful definition of the French Larousse dictionary from the 1600s: Error is “a vagabondage of the imagination, of the mind that is not subject to any rule.”
The book references the idea of household philosophy names like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, but its real strength and appeal are the many well-researched anecdotes. Being deceived by our senses is illustrated by the story of captain Ross and the phenomenon of a superior mirage; there is the story of the Millenarians who thought the world would end in 1844 (and how they behaved as it the apocalypse didn’t happen); there is the story of a woman losing faith twice and an apt description of the emotional twilight zone in between; there is Abdul Rahman who converted from Islam to Christianity (losing everything), or Alan Greenspan, who after the financial crisis of 2008 found the courage to admit his entire way of thinking was wrong. We also find a gripping crime story of innocent prisoners who are eventually released on the basis of dna-evidence. The author documents the ultimate deception of divorce by visiting a celebrity divorce lawyer. The wealth of anecdotes makes this book an entertainining and interesting read. I learned that it takes courage to be wrong in the right way.