Saturday, November 14, 2015

What Does It Mean To Be a Person? (Preliminary Thoughts)

There is an ontological problem associated with defining what it means to be a "person." Being a human person could mean having the capacity for a specific range of intentional states, and intentionality is here defined as object-directedness or object-aboutness. John Searle distinguishes between three kinds of intentionality: original, derived, and metaphorical aboutness. A thought could be intentional insofar as it is about one's beloved or one's consciousness might be directed toward--or be about--God.

It's also possible that the capacity for self-referentiality adequately defines personhood (i.e., I have the ability to think and reference myself by using a first-person singular pronoun); however, persons are also constituted by relations (according to Kevin Corcoran).

One traditional definition of personhood has also been "individual substance of a rational nature" (Boethius, et al). But it seems that this definition of "person" might not work unless one nuances the definiens. What does it mean to be an individual, to be a substance, and to be or have a rational nature? Is it possible to consider babies as persons based on this classical definition?

Maybe another defining criterion that we could suggest for the word "person" is incommunicability. That is to say, a person is unique or cannot be reproduced without loss of personhood (i.e., cloning). One's own personhood is not something that can be shared or communicated.

Whatever a suitable definition of "human person" turns out to be, it seems that a Christian must view personhood through the lens of Genesis 1:26.


Sean Killackey said...

My mind goes to the abortion debate. For it is clear, save to the naive, that the child is human, for what else could it be, yet does it have a right to life? The question of whether it is a person or not is really a question of whether it has a right to life, so personhood in that context is really just whether it has a right to life.

The arguments against calling them "persons" is uncompellig, for the function/form and viability of the child (single cell to birth) all describe that life, but what logical relationship does that have to do with whether it has a right to that life? The external factors, supposed woman's rights, reason for conception (e.g., consensual sex, rape or incest) and the health of the mother are external of the life, so how could they describe whether the child has a right to life if they hardly if at all even describe that life? Even when pro-lifers say that abortions are sometimes in strenuous circumstances justified, they do not say that the child has no right to life, but that such right has to give way to what they view as a more pressing right. (I won't tell anyone if it is ever justifiable to have an abortion, but I will add that only in tubal or ectopic pregnacies (where the embryo is in the Fallopian tube) is the child doomed without any hope of survival - given our current medical knowledge - but in now case is the mother ever doomed without a chance to survive.)

I feel the fact that they are human gives them a right to life, even if they are not fully developed (to assign it later given the generally used arguments also threatens to become contradictory given the fact that humans lose function and form and external viability all the time, and to me it is only natural that the right to life comes hand in hand with that life).

Of course, atheists may go on to say that there is nothing special about human life, and there is no absolute right to life. This, and the accompanying nihlist view seems to be the natural conclusion of atheism. But we know that God values life, but human life above all other physical forms ("you are worth more than many sparrows"). And to that we would agree, accept (often) when the cell is just conceived or the child has not developed a mind, or other such form. We believe in a God who has absolute standards and he has given humans a right to life, and even while we forfit it toward God, not sinful human can go around and just kill people without due cause. So, human life is inheritly more valuable than animal life.

It may seem arbitary, but if it is, why is murder wrong? It is harmful, but why are harmful things wrong? Morality, is not decided, of course, in the sense that it hasn't always existed, for it has been with God and comes from his perfect nature. And he decides that humans are to oversee the earth, not cats or dogs, so a human embryo is superior. Further, it will - aside from inherited imperfection - develop a mind superior to all other creations aside from fellow humans. (These last points I feel are the primary meaning of "God's Imgae" for we are ontologicaly like God in that we posses a mind and also functionally like him and that we steward his creation.)

So the fact that we bear, or rather are the image of God, even if we cannot in our imperfect state and undeveloped state, live up to that FULLY, we still have a right to life. No one human has the stewardship of the earth, but humanity does. Humankind was created in God's image, so it follows that all humans are in God's image, regardless of their current state. As long as it is human it has a right to life and is a person.

Duncan said...

Genesis 5:3 is interesting. What image would this be?

Edgar Foster said...

Sean: to my knowledge, the Hebrew Bible doesn't explicitly clarify in what sense humans were created in the image of God. However, Colossians 3:10 implies that we exist in God's image, in that we reflect his moral, rational, and spiritual nature. There may be other ways in which we image God.

Duncan: Adam was made in God's image--his sin did not undo that fact. So if Adam was made in God's image, would not his son or any daughters he bore also be made in the same image? Gen 5:3 might also suggest that his son was produced in his father's likeness.

Duncan said...


I just have a feeling that the usage at 5:3 has more significance since demooth is used in 5:1 between god and man & as per my understanding of Hebrew this will be more a description of function rather than form.

The "our image" seems more probably referring to the Ruach & the awfawr (which I am inclined to think is the organisms of the soil) combined. Gen 2:7 - note, also bara in Genesis 1:7.

This also is claimed only for Seth (not for Abel) - since the term tselem is only used in 4 verses in Genesis.

Imaging allows 1:26.

Duncan said...

Recent scholarship has noted logical weaknesses in the idea that “likeness” (דְּמוּת , demuth) requires “image” (צֶלֶם , tselem) to be understood in visual terms. Since the terms are not always paired, it cannot be said that one is necessary to communicate the other. It also suggests that their meanings are not completely synonymous.
Clines argued that variation between the prepositions and nouns might have deliberate intent and communicate something about the meaning of the image of God:

“When the reference is to the image of God and not to Adam’s image (Gen 5:3), the preposition with צֶלֶם (tselem) is always בְְּּ (b). This could be accidental, but we suggest that it is not. Genesis 5:1 and 5:3 do not speak of the transmission of the divine image (for it belongs to man as such, and so cannot be transmitted …) … but of Seth’s likeness to Adam.… Adam was made ‘in the likeness’ (which is the same thing as ‘according to the likeness’) of God. Thus verse 1 has בדמות (bdmwt), and not בצלם (btslm). Seth is not Adam’s image, but only like Adam’s shape; so verse 3 has not בצלמו (btslmw), but כצלמו (ktslmw). Thus, Genesis 1:26 is not to be interpreted by Gen 5:1, 3, but vice versa” (Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” 78n117).

There does not appear to be any secure exegetical link between Gen 1:26 and Exod 20:4. The vocabulary differs, and the commandment fails to ground the prohibition in the narrative about humankind’s creation.
The Image as a Physical Attribute. The image of God is often defined as an ability dependent on the human brain, including:
• Intelligence
• Rationality
• Emotions
• Volitional will
• Consciousness
• Sentience
• The ability to communicate.
Many of these options are coherent, but defining the image of God in any of these ways fails exegetically and creates a problem for beginning of life and end of life ethics:
• All are not equally present among all human beings.
• All are not present in all human beings at all times.
• Some are not unique to human beings.

Duncan said...

On the cutting edge:-

Mental capacity may be in some way dependent on bacteria.

Duncan said...

Duncan said...

"It has recently become evident that such microbiota, specifically within the gut, can greatly influence many physiological parameters, including cognitive functions, such as learning, memory and decision making processes. Human microbiota is a diverse and dynamic ecosystem, which has evolved in a mutualistic relationship with its host. "

Unfortunately nearly all the academic journals on this subject slant it toward evolutionary conclusions but this is all about the data, not their conclusions and suppositions.

Duncan said...

The image seems to be alluded to in Exo 20:7 - You will will not represent the character of Jehovah falsely.