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IntroductionAs I begin to write this article, I do not know where my thoughts will lead or what exactly it is that I want to say. I only know that the issue that I shall address: briefly "What does one mean by the human person?", has been bubbling about at the back of my mind for some time. It seems to me that there is a deep-set and general confusion about what "person" means and how the word should be used. I cannot help but wonder: first, if this confusion betrays a deeper ontological uncertainty or ambivalence; second, if it may have significant practical implications.
I shall begin by reviewing four sources of the meaning and significance of the word and concept "person", then discuss the relationship between the concepts of "mind" and "consciousness" and finally compare and contrast two alternate hypothesese relating to personhood.
DramaOriginally, the word [persona: Latin] meant a theatrical mask or dramatic role: a false or misleading front adopted by an actor to entertain an audience and/or portray a hero or god. We now use the word script in a similar way. Gay folk are often forced to adopt a heterosexual script in order to conform to conventional society. Sometimes they do so so very thoroughly that they almost forget their own reality and come to live the role that they have had forced upon them.
PsychologyIn secular usage, the phrase "the human person" is synonymous with "human nature". So one might say that "sexuality is an important aspect of the human person". The issue is further confused by the existence of the word personality, which is sometimes equated with person, as in "Socrates is a jolly person" which means the same as "Socrates has a jolly personality". If person and nature are radically different, then it is technically improper to apply the adjective describing an aspect of nature (i.e. personality) to the person.
TrinitarianismIn connection with Trinitarian doctrine: the three Divine Persons are equated with God's three under-standings [sub-stancia: Latin, hypo-stasis: Greek] of HimSelves, and contrasted with the single Being [Ousia: Greek] that Is God. So while there are three initiations, three causes, three beginnings, three purposes and three resolutions and endings: three doIngs in God, all divine activity that Is initiated, caused, purposed and resolved Is coherent and unitary.
The Tritheist heresy split the being of God, constituting each hypostasis as a self-sufficient and independent being-in-itself. The Sabellian or Modalist heresy saw each person as a mask behind which God hid: representing and revealing himself as he wished in one of three guises, as he acted in the World. This amounts to the notion that the three persons are not essential to God, but are only aspects of how he chooses to conduct his relationship with created being. As I have explained elsewhere, the Eastern Church; with its belief in the primacy of hypostasis, tended to view the Western Church; with its belief in the primacy of being, as Sabellian: just as the Western Church tended to suspect the East of Tritheism.
IncarnationalismIn connection with Incarnation doctrine: the single Person of Jesus is said to unite two natures, one Human and one Divine. Sometimes it is suggested that this unification is that of joint possession: so the Second Person of the UnDivided Trinity possesses and acts through two natures, each of which is a mode of operation. Sometimes it is suggested that the unification is that of synthesis or constitution: so the two natures come together either as or to form One Person, the God-Man Jesus Christ.
This dichotomy mirrors the ambiguity of ontological precedence:
I shall now explore the two alternate extreme accounts: first that the person is generated by or identical with the nature; second that the person is independent from and possesses the nature.
Mind and ConsciousnessI contend that "mind" and "consciousness" are not the same concept at all. My mind is an attribute of my nature, just as is my hand. I use either to effect certain actions.
On the one hand, as a Platonist, I find the idea that I am (my self is) the abiding patterning (or form) of my mind attractive: but what then of external violence (for example brain trauma) that disrupts, distorts, corrupts or destroys that patterning? On the other hand, I see no connection between such a patterning and my internal, personal, experience of consciousness, which is the issue at stake. To a degree I don't need to argue for the distinction between consciousness and mind. It is well recognized that one is unconscious of much of one's mental activity: hence the term "unconscious mind". Although an account of consciousness that makes it a property of part of the mind is formally possible, I am not interested in this: because it makes no connection with my own experience of consciousness.
I find it quite impossible to express what I mean by consciousness. The best I can do is to try and elicit a reaction of recognition from anyone that I discuss this matter with. It is all to do with words like "I", "me", and "mine", somewhat related to the words "self", and "aware" and to a still lesser extent "know" and "feel": for me, these last words are suspiciously related more to Mind rather than Consciousness. I suspect that a living and thinking being that was not conscious would not have need of such words as these. The passive grammatical form would always suffice, there being no awareness to hang a sense of causality upon.
Sense and SensibilityIt is one thing to sense something: to see or hear it. It is quite another to be aware of it. A camera detects and forms a representation of "what is out there", but it is not aware of what it senses and records. Similarly a tape recorder. I doubt that the ant Nest is aware: though it may be! The brain of a human being who has been rendered profoundly unconscious by anaesthesia responds to external stimuli (such as a "click" sounded in the ear), and this response can be measured by EEG equipment. To misuse Plato's parable of the cave: whether or not there is a conscious observer staring at the wall of the cave; the shadows of things passing by the cave mouth still lie upon it - this is knowledge in the abstract ["Objective Knowledge" K.R. Popper]. Only if a conscious observer is present is there any awareness.
Awareness does not imply reaction or recognition and certainly is not identifiable with either. Awareness is not behavioural. It can be entirely passive: as in certain distressing medical conditions; or uncomprehending: as in a new-born infant, and so not amenable to any interrogation or external experimentation at all. It such situations it still exists, and is potentially be of the most profound significance. Consider the case of someone paralysed by a partially effective anaesthetic regime and then operated on. The fact that there is no reaction to the surgery is of no consequence: the only thing that matters is the agony undergone by the conscious patient!
Note that I am not stressing self-consciousness properly so called in this discussion. I don't think this is important. Once an entity is conscious, becoming conscious of its self is just a (fascinating) technical matter of self-reference. Without a self to be conscious of and a consciousness to be conscious with, one cannot be self-conscious. However, "self" and "consciousness" adequately constitute the "self-consciousness": nothing else is required.
It occurs to me that "the self" might be a good name for the model-idea of the mind that the mind has of the mind: but I can't envisage how this model idea is any more "aware" than any other.
I am What I amThe idea that my person is entirely derivative of my nature, is an attractive hypothesis from the point of view of scientific method. It asserts that two potentially different and diverse concepts are in fact one and the same. This means that there is less to explain: that the world is a simpler place than it might otherwise be. It therefore means that the account of reality generated is easier to falsify. The difference between the ideas that the person is an instance of a nature and that the person is generated by an instance of a nature is insignificant. If nature necessarily results in person, then person is a characteristic of nature and, at most, the distinction is one of abstraction.
Leaving aside the matter of consciousness, and self-consciousness, I think the hypothesis "person and particular nature are interchangeable concepts" could be an adequate basis for describing human reality. My human nature comprises my living body and my mind (or intellectual soul). On the current hypothesis, I - my person - is identical with my nature, hence I can say "I am body and soul", or better "I am an ensouled body". Similarly "Jesus is both human: body and soul; and divine."
The computer hardware/software analogyComputer hardware supports software. Though they are different kinds of thing, the software is nothing more than a certain behaviour of the hardware. Certainly, this behaviour has a significance which can only be appreciated, interpreted and understood in a wider context. Nevertheless, whether the behaviour is understood or not by an external observer; it remains, so far as the computer is concerned, programmed activity. The computer hardware neither specifies nor gives rise to any particular software, but is open to external definition. In other words, it can be possessed by any number of demons, processes or programs. Moreover, the software is transferable from one computer to another without any loss of identity. Nevertheless, the software has no independent subsistence. It is utterly dependent on the hardware for its existence, which is nothing more than a certain behaviour of the hardware.
My conscious mind is comparable to a piece of "user application" software running on a computer. My sub-conscious mind is comparable to the "operating system" that supports the application software. A major difference between mind and conventional software is that mental algorithms (both conscious and unconscious) are adaptive and self modifying. We do not learn just by accumulating data, but more significantly by letting experience modulate our mental processes themselves. I don't think that our conscious minds are a single process (in a unix sense), but many complementary, competing and interacting processes. Sometimes, as when we fall in love; or suffer from certain (other ?) mental disorders, one processes comes to dominate our minds, and we become obsessed or captivated by a pathological compulsion or delusion.
Conscious and UnconsciousIt is instructive to note that as soon as I "left aside the matter of consciousness", I reintroduced it (at least by name) as the demarcation between the two parts of the human mind: the conscious and unconscious. It is difficult to understand how application software: the conscious mind, differs significantly from system software: the unconscious mind. In principle, the former might consist of nothing more than organizations of the latter: lots of "system calls".
Mind, Models and IdeasOur immediate awareness is of "ideas". We are not conscious of how these ideas arise or evolve, except that we have ideas about how they might do so. We are conscious of the fact (have the idea) that "one plus one is two", but have no awareness of how we "have ideas" in the first place. Ideas are themselves largely self-contained (though contextual) subjective or internal models of objective or external reality. Ideas are bits of mind. The mind is nothing other than interacting aggregates of ideas.
This suggests a demarcation between the conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious mind is the set of currently active models of external reality; the unconscious mind is the set of inactive models (awaiting trigger by some interrupt condition) plus the support soft- and firm-ware that services and regulates them. These system utilities are not about objective reality, though they are indispensable as a support and basis for modelling it. They are, as it were, the mataphysics behind the physics.
Unfortunately, this demarcation is obviously false. In order to ride a bicycle, one develops a "balancing by steering" model. At first one is conscious of making use of the model, but it rapidly fades into the unconscious, even while it is being called upon! Perhaps a better demarcation would be on the basis not of activity but of malleability. The consciousness mind would then consist of those active models of external reality that are presently open to revision. Consciousness would then be coextensive with mental revision and adaptation: what we normally call "learning".
SleepIn slumber, no models are active in the sense that they are being used either to predict or organize and interpret external sense stimuli. Hence a sleeper is unconscious, by definition. I suppose that in dreams, some ideas are active in the improper sense that the models are being put through their paces: being tested for distinguishably pathological behaviour and corrections applied if such is detected. This, then would be how nightmares arise and suggests why they are so frightening: a nightmare is an incipient instability or other pathology in one of our models of reality. This is why sleep is so important: without it ideas can mutate dangerously without opportunity for correction. Simply put, sleep deprivation drives one mad. Amusingly, I write this after a very bad night's sleep.
PersonalityOn this account of reality, my personality is the characteristic behaviour of the set of ideas (mental models of external reality) that makes up my mind. It is rather like the impulse response (or Green's) function of a linear system. Of course, being a highly non-linear system, the mind cannot have anything like an "impulse response" properly speaking. Nevertheless, someone is kind or cruel; generous or mean; imaginative or legalistic, as the balance of their judgement tends to favour certain outcomes. So, if it is my "nature always to have mercy", then my personality: the habit or bias of my mind, is part of my nature.
What I am is not Who I amThe alternative view is less tidy, but its untidiness makes it richer and more open to the spiritual. It attempts to distinguish between who and what I am. On this account, while in one sense Socrates was male; Greek; wise and homosexual: in another he was none of these. These are all characteristics of the specific human nature that he possessed and graced the world with. They are what he was, not who he was. As the hemlock that the Athenian Democrats forced him to drink deadened first his body and then his mind and finally killed him altogether, as his noble personality guttered and died: he was no less (the hypostasis) Socrates, though he was no longer the person (in the informal sense) that he once was. That person: his specific human nature, was the sum total of his virtue and activity. It was extinguished as he died. The person (hypostasis) Socrates: the subject who loved and was loved and then betrayed; who believed and was believed, was not changed by the poison that he drank, neither was he diminished by death: though in death he lost the human faculties of action.
There are two different interpretations to be put on what I have just said:
DualismIt is important to note that I am not saying that the person (the spiritual hypostasis: either consciousness or particularizing form) is important while the personality (persona: the mental part of a particular material nature) is unimportant. Nor that the former is prior and the latter subservient. Platonists are often accused of "dualism": for idealizing the spiritual and decrying the material. Such is not my intention. It should be clear that all of the activity attributable to Socrates is activity of his nature: that all those characteristics of Socrates that endear him to us are characteristics of his nature. Socrates is a good and nobel person only because he has a good and nobel nature. As hypostasis he is mere potentiality: only when united to the nature proper to himself does he become actual to us.
It might even seem that the person is a cypher: all that we know of someone is an impression of their nature, their personality. Their inner spiritual identity is forever hidden from us. Nevertheless, it is vital to Socrates that he is who he is as well as what he is. If he were not aware, he could not will and so direct his nature to act - in accordance with its intrinsic characteristics.
Awareness and WillThe crux of identity is (self-)awareness and (free) choice. The mind/personality/will mediates the world to the self and the self to the world. In both directions it imposes its own bias or spin on the impetus it is given. We see the world in terms of edges of objects because our retinas and optical cortex are preconfigured to detect and emphasize (straight) lines. We perceive faces in arrangements of shapes because we are especially interested in faces and pre-disposed to see them even where they do not objectively exist. Similarly, we hear rhythms because our ears hunt them out in preference to random sequences. We interpret the words and actions of others in terms of our past experiences: projecting motivations and extrapolating outcomes.
When we decide to act, our decisions are flavoured by the relative importance and detailed significance we give to various factors: our personal security; the pleasure or pain anticipated; the long term effect on inter-personal relationships and so on. This is where our choices are either well ordered or disordered. Our decisions are also affected by other mental characteristics or habits (vices and virtues) like impetuosity, compassion, complacency, trust, cynicism or credulity. As we act, our actions are limited by our capabilities: for example, our propensity to fumble; stutter; forget a minus sign, guess, imagine and inspire.
The importance of the personality is in the successfulness of this two way mediation between the object (external reality) and the subject (internal reality). Both realities are in a sense more important than the intermediary that allows them to communicate, but (quite apart from the fact that for another person, Socrates' personality is a part of external, objective, reality) the personality or mind is in a sense just as important. This is first because without it there can be no representation of the Object, and second because it is the only means by which the Subject can act. Without his nature and personality, Socrates is no-thing; without his person Socrates is no-one.
Person, Soul and SpiritSoul is another problematic word. The soul is said to be immortal: so it would seem to be the self-identity or person; yet Jesus is said to have a human soul, but be a divine person: not a human being at all. This suggest that the soul is equivalent to the mind and will, which I do not believe to be any more immortal than the body. Moreover, according to the schoolmen, all living creatures have souls. These are the principles of their life, their Aristotelian substances: yet except for human beings, they also teach that all living creatures have material souls. Only the human soul is supposed to be spiritual and so immortal. Finally, the Church teaches that each individual human being is infused with a human soul, specially created by God, "para phusin", quite apart from the biological procreative process.
Soul and MindI suggest that soul should, generally speaking, be understood as synonymous with mind in its widest sense: the brain processes that constitute our reason, conscience, will and memory. This allows one to say both that Jesus had a human soul and that all living creatures have souls. It also means that all souls are material. They are nothing other than the coherent and significant behaviour of neural systems: but note the word significant. The soul-behaviour is not adequately interpretable apart from its context and purpose or finality. The human soul can, inaccurately, be described as spiritual in as far as it is associated with and somehow linked to the conscious human person or spirit.
"'Into thy hands I commend my spirit' [Ps 30:5], etc. The soul he treats as an opponent. As for the body, the saints made little account of it. Fearing to be wounded by deceivers he commends his spirit to God, speaking of His providential powers as His 'hands.' The Saviour too, when nailed to the cross, made use of this saying. Spirit is a term Scripture sometimes uses for the mind; as when insisting that a virgin should be holy, 'in spirit and in body' [1Cor 7:34]. Sometimes it employs the term for the soul or life, for instance in James, 'As the body apart from the spirit is dead' [Jas 2:26]. And sometimes for the consciousness which is associated with life, as in the words, 'No one knoweth the things of a man save the spirit that dwelleth in him' [1Cor 2:11]. The passage before us may be understood in the three senses. He speaks of having been ransomed by God from his enemies as though he had been taken captive."
What difference does the spirit make?The question then arises: "What behaviour, if any, can be attributed to the influence of the spiritual consciousness, hypostasis or person on the material mind-soul?" If no specific and testable answer can be given, it would seem that the notion of a spiritual consciousness is redundant. However, it may be that the point of view of the conscious individual is hopelessly clouded. For Socrates, volition and consciousness are so central to and confused with the material activity of his mind-soul that it may be impossible for him to discern where one starts and the other stops, or better how they merge and interact.
The following unsatisfactory trivial response can be made: "The influence of the spiritual consciousness on the mind is manifested by the inordinate amount of philosophical writing (such as this very document) concerning its very self!" If people were not conscious, or if their consciousnesses could not affect their behaviour, they wouldn't spend any time debating what it means to be conscious!
A return to self-consciousnessEarlier in this essay, I dismissed self-conciousness as not very important. This was because I took it to mean exactly what its name might give one to think it meant: the consciousness of the self of itself. In fact this is not really what it means. When it is realised what self-consciousness truly is, it becomes altogether more significant.
All that the self is directly conciouss of is its own mind. If it is conscious of anything else, this is a mediated consciousness at best; the self is only directly aware of mental representations and models of reality. Now, if a subject is truely self-concious (as opposed to merely cognescent of the fact that it has a mind, which is not at all the same thing) then the mind must contain some (very limited and inadequate) model or representation of the consciousness. If the origin of this model is the same as that of all other ideas: a need to explain, account for and predict certain identifiable phenomena, then the fact that a subject is self-conscious corroborates the hypothesis that their consciousness or spirit is a cause of mental events. Hence, self-consciousness (or a profession of self-consciousness) is itself indicative of the existence of the spirit.
How does the spirit affect the soul?Although this is all true, it is not enough. The questions: "How does the consciousness come to influence behaviour?" and "What matters other than debate about itself does the consciousness or person affect?" arise. One can presume that the answer to the second is "Almost everything", and I suggest that the answer to the former is "By biasing the decision making mechanism that is already part of the material mind by providing a spiritual input alongside material sense data". Still this is unsatisfactory.
The co-processor analogy.Perhaps the issue is one of magnitude. It may be true that the human brain-mind is capable in principle of all the kinds of behaviour characteristic of human beings, but not of the level of sophistication that in fact human beings attain. In this case the "spritual soul" would be analogous to a "co-processor" in a computer, which does the arithmetically intensive calculations; leaving the physical mind, to handle the problem of interfacing with the body.
I don't like this hypothesis. It strikes me as rather baroque and artificial. It introduces a physical/spiritual redundancy or duplication that I find aesthetically displeasing. Obviously, my personal likes and dislikes are not proper grounds for dismissing this hypothesis! It does, after all, have the virtue of being somewhat testable. Assuming that the higher primates do not have spiritual souls (which I acknowledge is an unwarranted assumption) it tends to follow that the level of sophistication of their thought processes and ethics should be hugely below that of human beings: quite out of proportion with the difference in brain complexity. Personally, I doubt that this is true, and I therefore tend to the conclusion that either the higher primates also have spiritual souls or that the "spiritual soul" does not act as a co-processor for the brain.
The programmer analogy.This picture can be turned on its head. Instead of seeing the "spirtual-soul" as a helper for the "brain-mind", it can be conceived of as its "applications programmer" or "user". In this view, the spirit is the source of questions and ultimate significance, setting, guiding and modifying the priorities and objectives of the mind. It makes the most high-level judgements and decisions, leaving lower-level and habitual questions to the "brain-mind" proper; which it has already programmed and adjusted to suit its common-place needs. This account is fine as far as it goes, my only problem with it is that as I write it I am more convinced that I am decribing the demarcation between the higher functions of the cerebral cortex and the lower functions of more primitive parts of the brain.
EmergenceA more satisfactory solution would be along the lines that the consciousness emerged from the self-referential mental process. I do not believe that this would involve any derogation from ethical autonomy or loss of free-will.
"Spirit is awareness, intelligence, recollection. It requires no dogmas, as does animal faith or the art of living. Human morality, for the spirit, is but the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals. Spirit itself is not human; it may spring up in any life; it may detach itself from any provincialism; as it exists in all nations and religions, so it may exist in all animals, and who knows in how many undreamt of beings, and in the midst of what worlds? It might flourish, as the Stoics felt, even in the face of chaos, except that chaos could not sustain the animal life, the psyche, which spirit requires for its organ. From the existence of spirit a psychologist may therefore argue back to the existence - at least local and temporary - of some cosmos of organized matter: but this dependence of mind on body is a lesson taught by natural philosophy, when natural philosophy is sound; it is not a free or evident requirement of spirit in its first deliverance. On the contrary, the body which is the matrix and cradle of spirit in time, seems a stumbling-block to it in its spontaneous career; and a rather long discipline and much chastening hardly persuade this supernatural nurseling that it is really so domestic, and that it borrows its existence from a poor, busy, precarious animal life; or that the natural rhythms, pauses, and synthetic reactions of that life are the ground of its native affinity with the eternal." [George Santayana: "Platonism and the Spiritual Life"]However, for the life of me, I cannot see how this allows for my acute experience of actually being conscious! It seems to me that there is an ontological leap from the concept of mind to that of consciousness or spirit. Unlike the gap that used to exist in our perception between animate and inanimate matter, this is not one that can be at all described in terms of behaviour. The "characteristics of life" that I was taught in high school: "movement, reproduction, respiration, nutrition, excretion" are all phenomenologies. This list is a basis on which a definition, account and understanding of what Life is can be erected. A similar list might be concocted to represent the "characteristics of mind" (I shall refrain), and again, an account can be set out of what Mind is. In contrast, I suggest that no such list exists for consciousness. The characteristic of the consciousness is to be conscious: that is all. This is no help whatever as a guide as to how a theory of consciousness might be put together.
The typical worker in this field tends to ignore this disjuncture and simply treat of "the problem of mind". They presume, without question or justification, that if this was completely solved, then so would be the mystery of the human person. I sympathize with this response to what I perceive to be a daunting problem, but I do not accept that it is wise. Moreover, I suspect that it is both harmful to the ethical character of work undertaken on this basis and will tend to hinder technical progress in the field.
The memory and the self.It is impossible to conceive of self-consciousness in the absence of memory. For me to have an idea of my self, it is necessary to know that this self is a persistent entity, else as soon as I had grasped that "I am", the "am" would have become "was" and be forgotten. To an extent, my idea of myself is caught up in the memories that I have of my life story. I know that "that was me, back then" because I remember those things happening to me. Nevertheless, I am not my memory, still less my memories of me. The fact that memory is necessary for me to know that I am does not imply that it is necessary for me to be who I am. My consciousness is somehow sequential and only exists in the present (whatever that is!) my memory only serves to corroborate my self-identity by bringing the past to bear on the present: making records of past events part of present reality.
Consciousness has got something to do with time. Indeed. it is the origin of the concept of "now". Without an observer, all times are equivalent in a Relativistic Minkowskian Block Universe. Unfortunately, this observation doesn't help us. Time is almost as mysterious a concept as consciousness! Perhaps when Physics provides us with a better understanding of what time is and why it seems to flow, we will be in a better state to understand our own conscious understandings. On the other hand, it is possible that it will be an advance in metaphysics that will give the clue to how we should account for time.
Consciousness is all to do with observation. Whether one accepts or rejects the Copenhaganist view of Quantum Mechanics (in which reality is not objective but depends crucially on the observer), it remains true that awareness requires a conscious knower. Truth requires a Subject that learnS, as well as an Object that is learned Of, but even truth: correspondence between idea and reality, is not right opinion (ortho-doxy) unless the subject is some-one, not some-thing, and so can hold an opinion.
Gender IssuesIt is a moot question as to whether gender is associated with the person or the nature. I am quite happy to say that "I am male", but doubt that this is a constitutive statement about myself. I rather suspect that my maleness is not much more significant than the fact that I am right-handed. On the other hand, one must listen to the testimony of those who identify as transgendered. I understand such people to say that they distinctly perceive themselves to be of one gender emotionally, psychologically and/or mentally while knowing themselves to be physiologically the other gender. Clearly, this establishes the fact that there are at least two levels at which the concept of gender applies. One is certainly the physiological: what primary and secondary sexual characteristics does the body of this person posses? The other might be at the level of the conscious person. This would make gender a spiritual issue and would offer a potential justification for the Church's present teaching on the impossibility of the ordination of women. On the other hand, there is no need to adopt this hypothesis. It is sufficient, it seems to me, to hypothesize that self-identification as male or female occurs as part of the mental process. As a gay man, I am convinced that this is where my sexual orientation lies. I do no believe that my sexuality is determinant of me as a person, it is just a very important part of my personality: my nature. To what extent gender identification and sexual orientation are genetic and/or environmental is immaterial, once established they are substantially immutable.