What is a Person?

Start with a whole human being. Someone you know well, a friend, parent, spouse, cousin, uncle, yourself even, it doesn’t really matter as long as you know that individual well enough that you can, with some confidence, describe them in extensive detail. Now, who are they? what are they? Where do they begin and end? Every one of those probably smacks of bullshit trickster philosophy and you’d be justifiably right if that is how you choose to respond, but humor me for a moment.

So you’ve got your person in mind. Think about them, what makes them them, the person you know or have known, imagine them whole, and now imagine that they’ve lost an index finger. No, this is not some kind of thought exercise in the sadism of interrogation or violence of combat, just imagine that one day this person woke up and the finger was gone, painlessly, bloodlessly, vanished.

I would assume that you still consider this to be the same individual, despite the minor loss of a pointer.

But the next day an arm disappears, same as the finger, no pain no blood no warning, just gone into the ether. Probably still the same person, maybe? But the next morning a synapse in their brain does a disappearing act, and the morning after that a small part of the frontal lobe makes its own break.

Are we a collection of atoms, by virtue of whose unique arrangement we derive an identity, manifest ourselves’? I think that is a clearly disproven hypothesis. Are we then our brains or emotions or some kind of matrix of nerve and muscle? I don’t put much faith in that either, people have lost nearly entire hemispheres of their brain removed or rendered a cognitive wasteland yet have continued to function and interact in a fashion nearly or completely identical to their pre-disaster selves.

So perhaps identity, what makes me me and you you is a percentage of some kind. If I started shutting down muscle, bone, and neuron function in my own body there would be a threshold at some point where ‘I’ that annoyingly common pronoun would cease to be. But again, here, this idea that what defines our individual identities is some form of magical ratio between original self and current self is fairly nonsensical. I was a little over 7 pounds when I was born and weigh over 200 now, there is a lot of extra me thats been accumulating since birth.

The easy and obvious answer is that we are never the same person, that just like time, each moment means a different individual, a person transmuted imperceptibly into somebody else, discovering only after the aggregation of uncounted and unnoticed minute alterations that they are indeed different. But I think thats a bullshit answer too in some ways. If we’re all changing all the time at near constant rate then the relative effect is nothing. That is a generalization never intended to describe all situations, but regardless,’constant change’ pretty much renders itself irrelevant.

I like to think that we, in the collective, all of us, are defined not self-objectively, but by the interaction of our self conceived identities with those of others. I perceive you, you perceive me, we all spin a giant tapestry of preconceptions based on experience or extrapolated from experience that aids our passage across this mortal coil, and somewhere betwixt the two (or three?) our identity lives. It’s a proven, irrefutable fact of life that human beings subjected to extreme isolation quickly collapse into violent insanity. We have to have others, the action/reaction/counterreaction framework of human to human contact, even with all its supposition and inaccuracy and misunderstanding to even begin to have a clue who we, I, you, us is. I would not exist without the affirmation of another human that I in fact did exist. So we are all an indeterminate blend of what we imagine ourselves to be and what everyone else imagines us to be, my notions of self informed by the way I perceive others perceive me, their idea of who I am informed by perceptions of how I perceive them perceiving me.

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5 comments

  1. cassiebehle

    Chuck Palahniuk said that “I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.”

    I honestly do think that events and how we react toward them are the everchanging constant to who we are. Some people in the midst of a crisis choose to shut down, while others prevail and become stronger. This either allows people to adapt to change or stay the same, but never at the same rate.

    That being said, how people react to the world around them depends a lot on their genetic traits and their upbringing. I think that gets back to what you said about human perception. A fundamental example of that – say that based on great genes, you are outwardly beautiful. People are drawn to beauty, and it’s oftentimes easier for a good looking person to succeed in this world; regardless of the fact that the person is an absolute ass isn’t relevent upon first glance. One’s perception of that person would automatically be positive, until they were proven otherwise. The problem with perception is that it is so easily wrong. Then again, that’s not important since perceptions, wrong or right, still continue to shape overall opinions.

    It reminds me of Jim Gaffigan’s first stand up: If you’re on a bus and a beautiful person smiles at you, you’d most likely think, “Hey, what a nice person.” But if an ugly person smiles at you, you’d think “What does HE want?! Get away, creeper.”

    You know, more or less.

    If we are automatically wired with characteristics of past generations, then we are more likely to react in certain situations based on past trends. Example: Your father is an alcoholic; if placed in the right environment with the right circumstances, it’s likely that you could become an alcoholic.

    We are inherently what our 23 ribbons of chromosomes decide we are. But free will and the ability to choose how we respond to the world around us are also pivotal in shaping us.

    I agree with your notion of perception, but I think there is a lot more to it than that. What that might be, hell if I know. I’m still trying to figure out who I am!

    My two cents, for what they’re worth. I DO know that I’m no philosopher!

  2. devin howard

    I definitely agree with you that genetics is by far the most important determinant regarding the organism named Devin Howard, and that my genetic information is in large part responsible for almost all of my behavior and my physiology, but that remains true even if I am the only human left.

    I guess what I’m talking about is…….well, for example, there isn’t anybody left at IBM who is as old as the company, yet the company has an identity that exists externally, composed of the expectations and ideas of employees and non-employees. I wish I could articulate it better but beyond the organism and behavior that my biology determines (and I am a complete believer in biological determinism, I’m not a metaphysicist or anything), my ‘identity’ or the idea of ‘Devin’ is something determined by the interaction of expression and expectation. How I express myself, how people perceive those expressions, and the expectations which are then built upon those perceptions.

    I am definitely NOT a philosopher either, btw, haha.

    • devin howard

      Haha, communicative success! And by the way, do you think theres any chance you could share with me the secrets of freelance writing? Such as: gaining entry, soliciting jobs, etc.? Probably too much for a quick answer, and I realize we don’t really know each other, but I’d really enjoy writing in some form or fashion (I think) and am kind of curious about how people actually go about becoming writers, so if you have any advice for a starry eyed amateur feel free to dispense knowledge.

    • devin howard

      i mean, not to radically change the topic of discussion or anything

      On Mon, Apr 18, 2011 at 1:37 PM, devin howard wrote: > Haha, communicative success! And by the way, do you think theres any > chance you could share with me the secrets of freelance writing? Such > as: gaining entry, soliciting jobs, etc.? Probably too much for a > quick answer, and I realize we don’t really know each other, but I’d > really enjoy writing in some form or fashion (I think) and am kind of > curious about how people actually go about becoming writers, so if you > have any advice for a starry eyed amateur feel free to dispense > knowledge. >

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