Are We Real: Defining Personhood

July 9, 2014

Whenever we are speaking of persons in a way that implies that they are entities-in-themselves and not merely a collection of physical and psychical events which happen to be related, we attribute to them not only a special metaphysical status but intrinsic worth (this happens in the context of anything of moral concern; it is the reason people regard it objectively wrong to kill or rape someone, and not merely a convention or an naturally-selected for instinct). The intrinsic worth of persons is a premise that, whether it is a longstanding ideology or an innate conviction, underlies so many of our beliefs by which we guide ourselves and yet cannot be validly argued for–at least not on grounds everyone would accept.

I am inclined to think this premise is in fact a comforting, self-affirming ideology, and that if we look to the observations of biology, psychology, neurology, etc, personhood comes out as a practical but artificial construct. Followed to its conclusions, a thoroughly scientific understanding of our selves eliminates persons from our worldviews. And if we are honest with ourselves, it might be that we should come to such conclusions, one of them being: that we are machines; we are not “real” in the sense we think we are.

It is important to consider the consequences of this view.

Once we’ve fragmented what we used to treat as a single entity into several ongoing events–continuity of consciousness, neural activity, psychological processes (the last of these reaffirming a truly conscious and interpretative dimension to mental activity, but an activity which is nonetheless governed by laws)–the word “person” no longer really holds any ontological weight any more than a car, which is not an entity in its own right but a concept to describe the sum of several physical parts and processes (e.g. a bunch of materials formed into shapes, within which all kinds of fluids flow and combust, etc). Without the ontological weight placed on persons as real entities in themselves, there is no grounding for the value placed on art’s influence on affect, nor for affects themselves, nor for authenticity, nor will, nor for that matter any values.* The meaning of intrinsic value is lost when personhood is disposed of, or if it is possible to argue for intrinsic value, we cannot participate in it.

It is important to consider whether there is something in the phenomena we call “persons” which cannot be reduced to what science, psychology and the like ultimately reduce them to. This is something I will think about in upcoming posts. Besides the immediately self-evident, i.e. consciousness and the existence of psychological states, and the scientifically observed, e.g. neurons, there is another aspect of human existence which may escape reduction and therefore suggest another force at work in these phenomena.

*All other ethical values can fall under will, since it is only within the context of free choice that striving after moral excellence has its value. It is indeed, the choosing of what is recognized as virtuous or right that gives the right and the virtuous their value.


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