Thursday, July 31, 2008

Presuming Personhood

Watching WALL-E, the best thing at the cinema this summer (and a decent argument against slavish adherence to 700-year-old authority), I suddenly noticed how the humans in it (who resembled jelly-beans) were just cartoons.
......It had been easy to see the cartoon robots as robots to begin with, and as WALL-E clowned around he was touching, e.g. when watching a video of realistic humans, and imitating them. But when the cartoon captain saw the same video I suddenly noticed how he was less than the blob he was in the film (which at that point in the film, he was transcending) and was an ‘it,’ was just lines and colours; and so I became involuntarily aware that I was just watching cartoons (fortunately only fleetingly aware). That dissociation being quasi-trippy, I winded up recalling how we naturally presume that something is a fellow person, when we are young.
......When we grow up, we may think of that as naive, as wrong; but is it? It is not that we ever apply positive criteria for personhood; we rather learn when things fail to be people. Inanimate things fail by being unconscious, and some animals may fail by being amoral, for example. The problem is that if we could know enough about the mechanical or random sources of anyone’s behaviour, we would stop thinking of that one as a person (fortunately we would blink, and involuntarily represume personhood, whatever we knew).
......I’m left wondering if we should define ‘person’ so, what do you think? If atheism is true, we would (probably) have evolved some vague and fluid criteria for personhood, and if theism then the fundamental entity is (probably) a perfect person, and personhood an objectively indefinable primitive (for us).

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