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Fr. 628

May 18, 2015

In a post published five years ago, one blogger makes note of the top ten philosophical issues for the 21st century, as elaborated in the 200th episode of “Philosopher Talk”. Of particular interest to those areas most often broached here are issues 3, 4, 9 and 10. To each of these issues will have been dedicated a short reflection in hopes of teasing out precisely what is at stake therein.

After having treated 3, 9 and 10 in the past year, we shall finish the four-part series this week with 3, stated as follows:

3. What is a person? With the rise of cloning, designer babies, and drugs that can alter one’s personality, enhance one’s memory, or make one smarter, we may be forced to rethink the very idea of human person. What exactly is a human person, when every aspect of our biological and genetic and psychological make-up can be manipulated at will? What, if any, part of a person is fixed and unchanging?

The wording of the question “What is a person?” presumes that there is an answer of general or universal extension, which can be given to this question. Further attention should first be given to the particular claims forming the question’s background.

1. With the rise of cloning, designer babies, and drugs that can alter one’s personality, enhance one’s memory, or make one smarter, we may be forced to rethink the very idea of a human person.

a. New technologies affect body and mind, i.e. organic composition or current arrangements and relations.

b. Current arrangements and relations of body and mind are, at least partly, constitutive of person and personhood as presently conceived.

c. New technology affects person and personhood.

2. What exactly is a human person, when every aspect of our biological and genetic and psychological make-up can be manipulated at will?

a. Person and personhood are partly defined by contemporary understanding of arrangements of biological, genetic and psychological factors.

b. These factors can be more or less manipulated at will and, by extension, made subject to one’s wishes.

c. Person and personhood can be more or less manipulated at will and, by extension, made subject to one’s wishes.

3. What, if any, part of a person is fixed and unchanging?

a. One identifies that which is partly unchanging and fixed.

b. One identifies traits of person and personhood.

c. Person and personhood are partly unchanging and fixed.

What problems might arise in this presentation of person and personhood?

I: It either overestimates the extent of future changes to organic make-up or underestimates the scope of past changes to that same make-up.

II: It contends that a person or personhood can be identified and defined, either completely or incompletely.

III: Person and personhood are ambiguous objects, stranded somewhere between the empirical and non-empirical.

To bring these back to the basic claims, Claim 1 goes somewhat untouched by objections (I-III). Certainly, a selective reading of (I) might call into question subclaim 1b.) (the possibility of affecting personhood) but its primary target remains Claim 2 (the extent to which personhood is affected). While (I) targets Claim 2, (II-III) take aim at Claim 3 in particular. Still, this mapping of claims and objections merits closer examination.

The overestimation clause of (I) is inadmissible from the moment that one grants even limited connection and interaction, on one hand, between organism, environment and character and, on the other, speech, thought and deed. This comes out all the more strongly when the above are viewed as instantiated networks of causal relations, for causal relations fall precisely under the sort of deterministic processes suggested in the presentation. In contrast, it is important to take seriously the underestimation clause as evolutionary and societal changes of the past may have had an impact on underlying conceptions of person and personhood comparable to those brought on by advances in contemporary technology. Regardless, it seems prudent to consider ongoing developments through a lens that is neither overly revolutionary nor conservative.

(III) poses larger problems in that the question concerns mostly empirical aspects of an object that resists merely empirical definition. Certainly, it would be unwise to postulate an explanatory gap from the beginning, but even the most complicated models and algorithms currently available encounter difficulties in accounting for the various factors that enter into the instantiated network that is person and personhood. The question remains a question precisely because one feels that, in spite of so many organic or environmental changes, some elements of person and personhood are left intact or not directly affected by said changes. In short, one might see in such intuition the unarticulated belief that something either escapes or resists deterministic processes.

(II) constitutes perhaps the largest objection to the question and follows in part from (III) for identification and definition require an object which is at least partly unambiguous, available or responsive to inquiry. The question then becomes how much and by what measure the object must be unambiguous, available and responsive for definition. Insofar as the “how much” presents itself as a distinction of degree, this first prong will prove a fruitless philosophical exercise. Indeed, the second stands as the more interesting of the two. By what measure is a definition good? More simply, what constitutes a good definition?
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