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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What is 'personhood' for the naturalist?

The Winchester Mystery House,
reported to be haunted
As many have heard by now, one measure on the Mississippi ballot today asks voters to decide whether to redefine 'personhood' at the moment of fertilization of a cell (see report here). This seemed like a good time to explain the naturalist position on the matter.

What does 'personhood' mean for a naturalist?

Of course, I cannot speak for all naturalists, and I'm sure some may disagree with the following. But I can give the reader a view that is consistent with naturalism, and that is my view as a naturalist. Further, I believe the following, in general, to be in agreement with most naturalist views on the issue.

When all of us of any belief look at people, as life forms, we can see skin, muscles, bones, organs, a nervous system, brains, etc. We can see tissues, and we can look at them with instruments to see they're made out of small individual cells. We can see how these cells function, and we have discovered cells are made out of atoms, and know a good deal about how and why these atoms interact the way they do. When it comes to the actions of a human being, we can see that the activity of the brain has a great deal to do with them. We can look at cases of many varieties of unfortunate brain injuries, and see their effects on human personality, abilities, and consciousness.

We do not know every detail there is to know about all things in biology, but the overall picture of a functioning organism, including thoughts, personality, memories, and emotions, seems to have pretty convincingly come into focus through these discoveries. Does this mean an immaterial and invisible entity controlling these bodies is impossible? By the very nature of the claim, we can't know such a thing, and to say it's impossible would be unjustified. But we can at least all see and agree on the physical aspects of human functions that we do see.

Yet even the naturalist recognizes, in consciousness and personhood, there is obviously something there that is greater than the sum of its parts. The ancient Stoics distinguished between that which 'exists' and that which 'subsists'. While physical bodies exist, many things subsist via the relationships between them. In modern terms, we can consider subsisting phenomena to be those things which are a result of the complex interactions of components. These things consist of form, relationships, patterns, etc.

A wave is an example. A wave on water describes a relationship of interaction between particles. When we see an ocean wave move from left to right, nothing of material existence has actually moved in that direction at that distance, yet we can describe the motion and its effects mathematically. Something like an ecology, or a democracy, or capitalism are also examples of things which no one would say are supernatural, but yet are not physical objects you can hold in your hand. They are things that result from the complex interactions and relationships between their components. In scientific terms, these are called complex systems.

In complex systems theory, there is something called an emergent property. This is when components interact in such complex ways that they produce properties that don't exist among them individually, and these properties are said to be irreducible to the simple interactions between their components (in other words, greater than the sum of their parts). What's more, these emergent properties can be causal sources of their own, even creating a 'top-down' effect on the components out of which they are made.

As described in Plato's Dialogues, when discussing the nature of the soul with Socrates, a man named Simmias used an analogy to describe how he viewed the soul. He said the soul was like an attunement as produced by an instrument - existing as a result of the instrument's behavior, and ceasing to exist when the instrument is destroyed. Meanwhile, the Buddhists have a concept often translated as 'no-self' whereby they recognize that if we peel away our capacity of memory, feeling, thought, sensation, etc. that we will find there is no one single thing we can point to and say "that is me". Instead, we are the result of many aggregates operating in unison.

If we think of persons as beings capable of thought, memories, feelings, opinions, and a number of these features, it seems that Simmias and the Buddhists describe something very close to what we can all see in our modern understanding of the brain and biology. Personhood also seems, very well, to be like the kind of emergent property described by those who study complex systems like the brain. Just as 'democracy' is real, and results from the pattern of activity between individuals, a mind or person is also just as real, and results from the activities of the brain.

Spiritual naturalists hold life to be sacred, and persons to be supremely sacred. Yet, how do we know where the boundaries lie? To help illuminate the matter regarding the beginnings of life and personhood, let's look at how we handle the ending of life...

Regardless of whether we believe the person exists elsewhere or is gone, most of us recognize that a person is no longer present once their brain stops functioning. This is why no one is out there shooting morticians for embalming and burying the deceased. But consider an example where a person's brain has been completely destroyed, yet they are being kept 'alive' on machines. Here, the heart is beating, the cells of the body are replicating and living, nutrients are being used, the lungs are breathing, and so on. Yet, almost everyone would agree that to let this body die would not be a murder. Most cases of controversy in similar situations has been because some part of the brain was still functioning and there was debate over whether or not any person was there. But to keep a headless body alive on a machine? Most people would recognize this was simply tissue, even though it is human DNA and even though it is 'life'. So, even among those who believe in immaterial souls, there is some acceptance that the soul is only present while the brain is operating - at least at the end of life.

Now, looking at the beginning of life, we see a form that is coming into being gradually. Amidst this form is a brain which eventually begins functioning (I believe at around 8 weeks). Though even its first functioning stages do not have the kind of function we have been able to associate with what we would call a 'person' in the sense of a being that can have thoughts, feelings, experiences, ideas, and so on. The first kinds of brain functions to form are the simple systems that even insects have, which regulate heart operations and so on. In an injured adult, we would not consider these to be a 'person' if deciding to keep them on life support. However, the emergence of this property called personhood is fuzzy, but we can at least compare the point before brain activity to the headless body on a ventilator, quite easily.

For those who do not assume there to be extra invisible forces present, this implies that pre-brain activity tissues are just that - tissue, with no person existing. I would therefore expect most naturalists to disagree with the notion of defining personhood as beginning with fertilization of a single cell.

This is not to say that the matter of how we treat such things should be made flippantly. Many may bring up the issue of 'potentiality'. Yet, even before fertilization there is potentiality if we do or don't perform various tasks. And, were our technology sufficient, every shed skin cell becomes a 'potential' person, so potentiality is a somewhat unconvincing measure. Rather - because potentiality exists throughout all situations, even in the thought of having children - all of the process is to be approached with reverence. This includes not only whether or not to carry a child to term, but whether or not to become pregnant in the first place, and much more. It is fitting and beautiful that mothers and fathers look on the unborn with love and caring, even at the earliest stages. But this is a different quality that does not necessarily mean that what they care for in the beginning is currently the person they hope it to become - a special and important quality nonetheless.

To the naturalist, saying there can be a 'person' without a high-functioning brain, is much like saying there can be a 'democracy' without a population of people. Again, by the very nature of the claim, an immaterial soul is not disprovable and we could never know if an immeasurable thing exists or not. But those who claim there is a person that must be protected which inhabits a single simple cell, are in the same logical boat as someone who argues before the state that houses where someone has died must be forbidden from being demolished because there is a disembrained 'person' still existing in the house. Can we prove a house is not haunted? No, and we cannot prove a cell is not haunted either.

But if some of us desire to legally protect either the house, or the cell, then the burden is upon them to show that it is inhabited by an invisible entity somehow existing apart from a physical brain. The reason the burden of proof is theirs, is because such laws impose on the free activity of other citizens. And, in a free democracy, any law which imposes restrictions on others, must be shown via publicly available means to be necessary to protect the rights of others - and the first step is showing that there is indeed an 'other' to protect in the first place.

Now, as to whether corporations are persons - that's a-whole-nother article :)

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  1. Daniel,

    I think this is a very good response to a rather ridiculous piece of legislation. I think you weaken it a bit, though, by the statement "Spiritual naturalists hold life to be sacred, and persons to be supremely sacred. Yet, how do we know where the boundaries lie?"

    Nothing in naturalism can support the argument that "sacred" is an objective category. Further, if one really believed that "all" life is sacred, I think it would commit one to something like ahimsa, the non-harming of all creatures. And ahimsa would commit one to a strong position against both abortion and meat eating (actually any kind of eating). It would be like a marriage of PETA and the anti-abortion forces -- scary.

    We may certainly value life deeply, but a naturalistic view of life also recognizes that death is essential to the process of life. This sober recognition that death is a part of life puts us in a little better position to address a variety of issues.

  2. "Nothing in naturalism can support the argument that "sacred" is an objective category"

    Please re-read :)
    I did not write, "life is sacred", I wrote, "spiritual naturalists HOLD life to be sacred" - a subjective disposition, not an objective category.

    "Sacred", in a naturalistic framework must refer to the original etymology which means "set apart as special" which implies someone to whom it is special, and someone who does the 'setting aside' - a subjective phenomenon.

    "Further, if one really believed that "all" life is sacred, I think it would commit one to something like ahimsa..."

    There is a distinction between saying "all life [forms, individually] are sacred [and therefore must be kept alive by all means]" and saying "life [as a phenomenon in the universe] is sacred".

    The opposite of life is not death, it is lifelessness. Rather, life is a process that involves the continuous cycle of birth and death. Thus, birth and death are two ends of a cyclical process, and that process is called 'life'. This is true at the sub-cellular, cellular, tissue, organism, and ecosystem levels.

    "...a naturalistic view of life also recognizes that death is essential to the process of life..."

    Agreed. But we do not kill life flippantly, and take matters of birth and death with reverence and importance if we are *spiritual* naturalists (and not barbaric naturalists, murderous naturalists, or mere naturalists, etc). This is what I mean by 'holding life sacred'.

    Sorry for my lack of clarity and thanks again for reading! :)