Generally speaking, an entity is referred to as a Person if he/she/it has a rich mental life in which they are capable of regarding themselves conceptually in both the third and first person. While this may be a “good enough” description in most circumstances, it fails to distinguish, as a fact-of-the-matter, between Persons and non-persons in all cases. For example, while the reader of this text is likely a Person, and the computer on which I’ve written it is (hopefully) not, what about a dolphin? The definition above could certainly be construed to include dolphins and, in fact, a wide variety of higher-order mammalian life. While I have no problem with idea of dolphin-personhood, it would be nice to know for certain whether or not Douglas Adams was right and dolphins are, in fact, trying to tell us something.
Interestingly, an often ignored consequence of this notion of personhood is that, while all known instances of Persons are human, not all humans are Persons. A fetus does not meet the criteria because it lacks the ‘rich mental life’ our definition requires. Neither does a human suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease or someone in a persistent vegetative state. This despite the fact that they are all living human beings. Moreover, if we accept this definition of personhood, then we must also accept the fact that what we identify ourselves as (i.e. as Persons) is not a function our being human, but an attribute of manner in which our human parts relate.
To date, the lack of an adequate understanding of the manner in which our parts relate (specifically the mind and body), has made the problem of personhood particularly intractable. Consequently, we don’t have answer to the question what exactly am I referring to when I use the word “I”? Given that we place so much importance on the rights and welfare of Persons, it seems to me a fundamental task to know exactly what one is.
Fortunately, a promising theory called Emergence may be our salvation. It describes how systems can engender distinct, more complex, processes that are irreducible to their basal constituents. In a nutshell, something that’s Emergent is more than the sum of its parts.
If the Emergentists are correct and the mind is, in fact, an emergent property of the body, there may yet be a way to answer questions about personhood in a fact-of-the-matter fashion. I use computers to study Emergence with the hope of better understanding what makes us Persons.