The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word person as: “A human being regarded as an individual.” This would seem to be a satisfactory and encompassing definition, for what other “persons” has anyone ever known? Yet as we enter an increasingly technological age, with the advent of artificial intelligence, the possibility for discovery of intelligent alien life, and the rapidly approaching technological singularity, it is possible that our perceptions of humanity will be (and may already have been) effectively challenged. To the point: Is being human a proper prerequisite for personhood? Should our perceptions of what constitutes humanity now differ from our perceptions of what it means to be a person?
These questions lead us to address the mind/body problem, and ultimately bring us to more finely grained queries. Is a human body actually necessary for one to be a person? How much of a human body? Is a physical human brain a demanding requirement? What about consciousness? What separates human consciousness from other forms of awareness? If alien life demonstrates intelligence and cognition equal to our own – or even if it doesn’t – are those individuals “people?” Will machines ever attain our level of cognition, and perhaps thusly, recognition as persons themselves?
One of mankind’s deepest queries has been, what is it that makes us what we are? What is our defining attribute? For the vast majority of our time on Earth, the idea that a person is a human being with a human brain in a human body experiencing human consciousness permeates our theology, our philosophy, and our science — despite the inability to succinctly define ‘human consciousness’ to begin with.
This may explain why certain subjects of horror and science fiction fascinate us. Members of an intelligent alien race, whether intending to help us or eat us, are presented as having consciousness and wills of their own – but would these alien beings qualify as persons? The vampires, ghosts, and mummies of horror folklore are obviously not fully human (or even alive, for that matter) — is it their departure from our definition of personhood that makes them scary? And what of the autonomous robots and self-aware computers of science fiction? These entities are not far from moving from subjects of creative literature to bonafide science fact. Where is the line drawn for humanity, if it does not end with our bodies, our physical brains or our DNA, and should personhood share that same distinction?
Religious belief holds many examples of humanity extended to deific proportions, or in reverse, a deity extending itself to become one with mankind. Arjuna rides into battle on a chariot driven by Krishna; Jesus is tried by men and hung on a cross to die; the Buddha either attains nirvana as a human being or is dharmakaya, born into humanity for its benefit. The crossing over of mankind from the divine (or vice versa) only seems to further place human personhood in bas-relief; there is a perceived border, a barrier, between humanity and what extends beyond it, or falls short of it. Should we encounter entities we perceive to be beyond us, be they artificial or natural, are we obligated then to reconsider our definitions of humanity, and therefore personhood? Are we obligated already, knowing those possibilities exist?
The original series of essays on the mind/body problem had four parts. Four long, often rambling parts, chock full of philosophical jargon. The reason for the jargon is simple; concepts in philosophy can often be complex, and rather than writing the same sixteen words over and over to express a given thought, one uses jargon. The word “psychology,” for example, is in a way a type of jargon; imagine my typing “the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context” time and again.
But I also recognize most people have little-to-no experience with philosophical jargon. Words used in a philosophical context often have different definitions than they would in a coffee-clutch conversation. To give an unrelated example, I cringe when I hear someone say that evolution is “only a theory.” There is a clear difference between a scientific theory and a hunch, and this usage demonstrates that the very phrase “scientific theory” is indeed a form of jargon.
In reworking those essays I endeavor to avoid such philosophical double-talk, and when it’s unavoidable I will provide links to the word for definition (as I’ve done in this very post) so that the reader isn’t lost or otherwise misled. I’m much more interested in asking readers to consider these deeper concepts — questions related to who we are, why we perceive as we do, and how we define our reality — than I am in showing off my unbridled and verbose utilization of ornate verbiage [/wink].
The next posts on the mind/body problem will not appear consecutively but between other pressing and important essays, because it will take time for me to dismember and reconstruct the original posts, and because I want to write about other topics in the meantime. I hope I can depend on your patience and understanding while I decompose those former etchings, and encourage you to hang tight in the meantime.