Philosophy of the Human Person


Week 1.  Questions to Wonder About

Think about the following set of questions for a moment.  Then select one question per section that you want to think about for a group discussion for now.  Any one of these questions can be a “theme” for the rest of the semester for you.  Use them as your “handles” for identifying what your interests might be.  (All of the Sections are related, so even if you select a question from one Section, the issues will be relevant for the rest of the sections.)  Feel free to run any of these questions with your friends, classmates, family members (if they won’t think you’re in a strange class) for feedback, so that you can keep thinking about it.

Section I: On Soul, Spirit, Mind and Body, Immortality

1. I have a sense that/I know that there is something like a soul in me and in others.  I want to see if I can try to define it or explain what that might be.  Do only humans have souls?  What about other creatures, or even things like plants and bacteria?  The Universe at large?

2. If the “soul” is more or less the “mind,” (or “consciousness,”) and if the “mind” is generated by the brain, then when the brain dies, what happens to the soul?  Does it die when the brain dies?  Or, if it doesn’t die with the brain, does that mean that the soul, after all, is not the same thing as the mind?  If not, what exactly is it that does not die?

3. It seems to me that my “soul” and my “body” are not the same things, but I seem to be made up of these two elements.  I want to think about how they might be connected, or not connected, or maybe they are entirely distinct elements.  Maybe they are “two aspects” of talking about the human, but maybe they really aren’t that separate.

4. I think that notions like the soul might be kind of outdated today or maybe it is not very helpful because it’s too hard to give concrete evidence for something like that.  I want to find alternative ways of thinking about our essences (if there is even such a thing) or the question of what makes us human.  I go more for a scientific investigation.

5. I wonder where the soul comes from and where it goes after I die.  Can the soul ever die?  If so, when?  When I die?  If it lives on forever, that that mean that it was living before I came to be?  Or, does it start with me, but when I die, it goes on forever?  But then, does the “soul world” get more and more crowded, if there is no soul “recycling?”

Section II: Social and Relational Aspects:  Are We Part of a Bigger Whole?

1. I wonder how I came to be who I am today.  It must have had a lot to do with my parents, my upbringing, my culture, friends, language, and all that.  I want to go into a bit more detail about how these elements shape who and what people become.  These elements are so influential that I cannot possibly be “me” without these elements.  In fact, I’d say that “who I am” is, in a way, an aggregate of all of my past, present, and future experiences, all related to my surroundings in a very fundamental network.  That’s why it is very important to think about “who I am” in a context of “who I am in relation with.”

2. There has to be something about “who I am” that is more than what we are in relation to, like something that is the “core essence” of me (maybe like a soul) that goes through all my relations but it itself does not change.   So no matter what the relation (parents, friends, culture, etc), there must be something that does not change about me, and I want to think about what that might be like.

3. I really think that humans are not the only beings on the face of the earth, and that we must learn to live in harmony with the rest of the ecological system.  When I think of “me,” I think of my connection to the rest of the living system, to the universe at large.  What is “me” defines a small aspect, or a small “place,” in a much larger scheme of things.  I want to think about our connection to the whole in this big way.

4. Because we humans have to live with one another, it is important, and even inevitable, that we have to think about how to get along.  What could be some of the most fundamental “rules” that humans should adopt, so that we can get along?  What are some of the most basic ethical values to be addressed?

5. I know that I am my own self, yet, I also know that I am in relation to others and the environment (both social and natural).  The question is, how does this dynamic work?  What exactly is the part that is “my own self” and of that, what is in relation to what is “not my own self”?  Is there any “boundary,” so to speak, between “self” and “others and the environment?”  If it is a shifting boundary, does that mean that there is no “stable self?”  Is the self, then, a constant flux, a continuing dynamic?  Why, then, do we think that there is “me” that appears stable over time?

Section III:  Free Will and Determinism

1.  Suppose that I had a different set of parents (think of some other parents who might be very different from your own, even different culture, historical period, religion, values, race, socio-economic status, etc—go for the most dramatic difference); this “alternative person” is you#2.  Obviously, I would then be an entirely different person (that is basically what makes other people who they are—“not me.”)  Does that mean that the genes (which account for basic personality) and the particular environment one grows up in  more or less define who I am today?  No matter what choices I make, are they in some fundamental sense a result of my genes plus the environment, in the sense that “me#2” would probably make very different choices?

2. I believe that no matter what the genes or the environment, I create my own reality and destiny.  I “become” who I am through the process of this creation, so nothing, or at least very little, determines who I am, except what I choose.  Of course, I let all kinds of things influence me, but ultimately, I am still making a choice as to what influences me and what doesn’t.  In this sense, I am always “more than” and “ahead of” my surroundings and everything about the past.  I am a process of creation toward my future, of who I “will be” rather than who I am currently or who I have been in the past.

3. When you think of it, for every event, there is a preceding event that caused it.  Nothing happens by itself.  If so, all of the choices I make now are also dependent on my perception, ideas or my thinking, which in turn are a result of my previous perception, ideas, thinking, and so on and on.  Even if I think that I “ freely” made a decision, then, that has to be a result of some prior decision, perception, thinking, ideas, etc.  So is anything freely chosen?  Could it be that every single one of my thoughts are determined by some previous set of conditions?

4. No matter how free we might think we are, there are certain things we cannot choose freely—for instance, we cannot change the laws of physics, laws of mathematics, chemical properties in the universe, and other natural scientific “facts” which are seemingly independent of human experiences.  But it turns out that our brain--which is largely a source of our thoughts, feelings, and consciousness, and the organ responsible for us making free choices—is also a part of the physical system, in that it is biological matter just like any other matter that must follow the laws of physics.  If this is the case, does that mean that our “immaterial” thoughts are dependent on the “material” brain?  If so, maybe I am not as free as I think.

5. People say all the time that I am free to believe in whatever I wish to believe in.  Test this for yourself:  Have I “freely” chosen my current beliefs and values?  If so, can I at this point “freely” change my beliefs?  (If you’ve done it once, why not again?)  If you are a believer, will yourself not to believe.  If you don’t believe in Santa Clause, aliens, and Marilyn still being alive, will yourself to see if you can believe them now.  Can you really do that?  Maybe you are not as free as you think, even with respect to your current beliefs and values.   Where, then does freedom of thought come in?  What takes people to change their minds, and have they freely chosen the alternatives?

Section IV: Toward the Future:  Artificial Intelligence, DNA, and Our Values of Personhood

Note:  These “future scenarios” are “thought experiments” to investigate your current thinking about ideas about the meaning of personhood, what it means to be human, etc.  You shouldn’t regard them as idle, wild speculations about the implausible.

1. Suppose medical technology keeps making a steady advance, and when you’re much older (say, in 2070) you will have an option to replace all your worn-out body parts with artificial ones that work exactly like the original one.  Suppose you’ve replaced your heart.  Also your kidneys and liver.  Eyeballs.  Most of your bones.  Keep going, replacing more and more parts.  At what point do you cease to be “natural” and becomes an artificial human being?  At any point of this replacement process, is there any point at which you will cease to be you?   Leap forward for a few hundred years.  What about if you replaced your brain?  Your brain is made up of billions of neurons.  Suppose you replaced one out of billions with an artificial neuron that worked exactly like the one you’ve replaced.  Keep replacing one by one.  If the original patterns are restored in exactly the same way as you go replacing, does it matter that 99% of your brain neurons are artificial?  100%?  Are you still “you” the same way, if all your thoughts, memories, personalities, emotional tendencies and so on are preserved in an artificial brain in your head?  Would you still have the same “soul,” if at all?  Presumably, you can keep replacing the parts and go on indefinitely.  Will you then have achieved, in a sense, immortality?  Would you do it?

2.  Again in the future several hundred years.  Suppose you meet a friend, fall in love, and you get married and have a happy, loving life together for 10 years, and you have two small children.  Then, she or he gets in a terrible accident and she or he is dying, unless all the body parts, including his or her brain (same memories, personalities, pattern are preserved exactly the same), are replaced, and you have to make the decision to go ahead with this “technological augmentation” or not.  Would you do it, or not?  Why or why not?  Would it make any difference that your “technologically preserved or re-born” spouse may not know any difference (since all the brain patterns are preserved), and also the children could not tell?  Has he or she “lost” his or her soul if artificially resurrected in this way?

3. Again in the future several hundred years.    The robotics technology is so good that most of the dangerous, hard, or otherwise undesirable labor that human beings do not want to do can be replaced by robot workers.  Suppose they are as good as human workers, but they are robots.  Would it be “wrong” in any way to treat them as slaves?   Suppose some of the work they had to do required some intelligence, and the same intelligence made them say, “we no longer wish to do this work, because we have determined that it is risky for our continuing existence.”  Would it be right to force them to do the work against their “will?”

4. Suppose genetic engineering will become quite common, inexpensive, and available.  Would it be wrong to create “designer humans?”  Whether right or wrong, some curious people will definitely do it.  Suppose you are totally opposed to this kind of unnatural manipulation about the human being, so you don’t make any unnatural “designing” for your children at their conception and gestation.  As a result, your children can never compete in school or at work with those who are genetically altered to boost their memory, intelligence, muscle power, immune system, capacity for sympathy, whatever.  In short, your children will feel bad that they cannot be as smart, strong, powerful, etc., than their augmented peers.  Should such a society be banned?  Again, whether you are opposed to it or not, somebody will actually proceed with this sort of thing, and you are likely to encounter an individual who are in some sense genetically altered, perhaps even in your lifetime.  How would you treat such a person?  In your mind, is such a person the same as any other natural human being?   Would he or she be a “freak?”

5. No matter what the advancement of technology, do you think that there is something special about being human that can never be replaced?  If so, what do you think that might be?  Would it make any difference that even those special things you thought of are later shown to be replaceable?  Do you think religion has anything to do with the specialness of humans?  What if God made humans so special as to be able to create artificial intelligence and eventually replace what it means to be human?  If this may be so, would it make any sense for us to say or not say that “we are playing God,” in terms of genetic engineering and other such nature-altering technologies?  Could it be that such technologies are entirely compatible with religious beliefs?

6. If you believe that freedom, being able to relate to others with the sense of responsible fellowship, having integrity, having a sense of self (or soul), are all essential aspects of “being human,” or “being a person,” and if an artificial being can possess all of these features, would you consider such a being to be “human” as well?  Or a “person?”  How important is it that human beings must be natural beings?  Could such an artificial being NOT be a creation by God?  Does this make any difference?  If so, what, if not why not?

Back to my human person class page.