Meditation on Persons

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.

Meditation on Persons was originally published on Meandering home


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.

was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Value

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.

Meditation on Value was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Hope

We sit and pretend we are terminally ill. We breathe calmly. What is hope? What do we make of the bonmot that ‘hope dies last’ if we are lost in a desert without the prospect of water? And isn’t the human condition hopeless ‘in the end’, if we presuppose a rough understanding of hope as the desire that something that we identify as pleasurable will be the case in the future? Doesn’t the ultimate nihilism, if we buy into it, undermine all discourse of the temporary affair that is our hoping?

Without hope life would be maddening. We would lose our orientation and ambition, and society would fall apart. So from a pragmatic point of view there can be no doubt about the value of hope. What about the theoretical operation that discounts all hope because there is no ultimate hope, in much the same way as fanatical relativists discount all truths because they think there is no ultimate truth? I don’t think it is legitimate. In the beginning of this meditation we pretended we were terminally ill, but we did not lose hope.

What can we hope for? Comfort, status, security? What does it mean to hope something while you are fully aware that it is insignificant in the light of eternity? Doesn’t such hope require the courage of a madman? Doesn’t humanity, once it acquired a penchant for staring into its own abyss – require the courage of a madman?

Or would not even the most outspoken and acerbic atheists among us ultimately find solace in the idea that our ‘having been there’ is in some form the expression of a principle that will last for all eternity? That our lives (and, more depressingly, those of our children) have been ‘for nothing’, but that at least they share a celestial common ancestor with an unknown something, some sort of cosmic anthropic principle as established by the physicist David Deutsch?

We breathe slowly and listen to the buzzing of the fly of futility on our back. We smile at each other because we have once again realized that we need each other to swat the flies on our backs.

Artwork by Ian Bourgeot

Meditation on Hope was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Equality

We breathe the same air. That statement is already beginning to be problematic if you live in one of China’s heavily polluted cities and you can’t afford to escape to the relatively unspoilt countryside. You can’t afford to buy Canadian air in a bottle, shipped to you by a special company. Let’s breathe some air before we continue. Equality is a wonderfully artificial concept, but it is often understood in a rather idiosyncratic way.

Some right-wing populists distinguish equality of opportunity from equality of outcome. They argue that left-wing policies cancel out the differences caused by the hard work and perseverance of some, rather than the differences caused by the lack of opportunities or disability. More principally, they would argue that equality is not something that can be enforced.

For the religious right, equality is an abstract, absolute and ‘untouchable’ value. At life’s edges, this is turned into an intuitive moral argument by pro-life activists or people who oppose euthanasia. Perhaps precisely because equality is such a sacred and abstract value for them, they don’t feel good about ethical debates about redistribution that seem to quantify people’s value. If equality is something that can be manufactured, as the liberal mind believes, it becomes a mundane and fragile balance, rather than the equality ‘under god’ (who is the ultimate guarantor of justice, at Judgment Day).

We breathe and wonder once more about the complexity of this concept. We see it translated and dismissed as ‘sameness’, or embraced as the rationale of solidarity. We all agree that people should be treated the same by the law, more precisely, that the law should have already spelled out any differences before a trial, and further that such differences don’t pertain to things like race or sex, but could pertain to things like wealth or mental health (for example to determine the degree of punishment).

We feel compelled to come up with a technical, legalistic definition. We want to spell out our intuition of equality, but might lose sight of the actual practice of equality. We can for example write mathematically about representative democracy and ‘one person one vote’ while forgetting the messiness of the influences of moneyed interests on politics.

Equality, we should perhaps admit, doesn’t exist. It is an important article of secular faith. It is a transcendental condition of rational debate that prima facie, the value of your opinion is the same as the value of mine. I will need to give a reason to show the superiority of my opinion, authority won’t do. Perhaps rational debate is the best we have to celebrate the value of equality.

Meditation on Equality was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Time

Let’s take some five second breaths to begin. Maybe even a ten second breath. We will breathe a finite number of breaths in our lifetime and it is less than one billion. Being aware of this fact is supposed to make us value every single one. We understand the present moment as the nexus of past and future, time as a linear system of coordinates, a rather boring line that we experience as straight and endless, even if general relativity tells us it can bend in exotic ways if stretched.

We are all alive at the same time. We share this extraordinary intimacy without much wonder. Geographically, we are almost never together, yet temporally, our paths always coincide. We are ‘Zeitgenossen’ (contemporaries), but that never seems to generate the kind of solidarity we feel for people who live in (were born in, whose grandparents were born in…) the same country as we do. The reason is that there is nobody around who is not a contemporary.

This might be a compelling reason to read history books. The temporal distance to the Greek, the Romans, the Ming, the Aztecs, could make us feel united in our own historical place, ‘against’ the older peoples. It turns the coordinate system of time into something meaningful, a way to distinguish ourselves, a way to become aware of our unique moment.

Solidarity between contemporaries doesn’t seem to bear an intimate relation with the concept of time itself. Breathe calmly. This solidarity is the celebration of simultaneousness. We wonder why an infinite number of events can happen at the same time and be visible for each other. We think of a sort of spiritual gratitude for the fact that we are thrown together in the same moment. It is a relatively simple exercise for a human mind to find such gratitude. When reflecting on time, we want to reach this idea of gratitude. Breathe out calmly, we have the same seconds.

Artwork by Ian Bourgeot

Meditation on Time was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Happiness

We begin with music. It is our intention to influence our own happiness. Breathe calmly. Imagine you have full control over your hormonal levels and neurotransmitters, especially oxytocin and dopamine. Would you keep them at a constant, optimal level so you can experience the most happiness that is physiologically possible. A standard response to that is that our physiology doesn’t work that way. We can’t engineer our happiness like that, we would become like heroin addicts.

We keep listening to the music and become aware how it does influence our neuronal response. It’s as good as it gets. Happiness is an experience, so it has a duration, a beginning and an end. We know there is an important difference between evaluated happiness (after the fact) and the experience of happiness as it happens. Reflecting on happiness makes us aware of its fleeting quality, it humbles us with respect to what we strive for. What can we hope? How ambitious can we get when it comes to happiness?

We breathe. It somehow doesn’t sound right to call happiness an ambition. In our culture, it is supposed to be a by-product of something else, some achievement. This social side of happiness requires that we don’t consume it like apathetic junkies. When we talk about happiness, we mean respectful happiness, or socially accepted happiness. Essentially, this is the happiness that can serve as an example for other people. The public image of happiness plays an important rule in the social bonding of large groups.

In our complex world, we can register other people’s happiness, even when they are far outside of our social environment. We envy them sometimes, and we get anxious. The key to sustained happiness might be a relatively small but meaningful community of people who can understand each other’s happiness. Rather than jealousy, we would feel pride if our neighbor is a little happier than we are. Rather than feeling miserable, we feel invigorated and motivated. Such is my intuition of a happy coexistence of human beings. We are still listening to the music, and we are sharing a breath to end this meditation.

Meditation on Happiness was originally published on Meandering home