Friday, 22 October 2010


right, stepping aside from fantasy and scifi for a moment, lets take a look at persons.

Is to be human a gift? Is it… special? Are we, in some way higher than every other life form? If so, what makes us so special? Is it our ability to invent and to create, what sets us apart? Or maybe, it’s our personhood. The fact that we are persons, we have characteristics that define it, and we have established what it is to be a person. We… understand. But what about your loving and caring dog, he has emotions and little quirks that set him apart from other dogs, surly he’s a person? But how do you know that he isn’t just “caring” because you give him food, which his body tells him he needs, he doesn’t understand why you give him food, or were it comes from, when you scold him he won’t know why or understand why. He… it, is not a person. Or… is he?
When talking about animal persons, we need to be careful. We have a habit of going around and giving random animal human traits and linguistic skills, a good example of this are the Disney films. But actual and real animals can’t communicate in a dialect we can pick up, however they can be taught to speak... in a sense, the chimpanzee Washoe for example learnt 250 signs to communicate with. This was only achieved as she was bribed with food and treats to learn the signs.
With language use, comes in my view the next essential criteria for person hood, self-awareness, most animals are not self aware. We can do tests to prove this, but sometimes, these tests prove otherwise.  In 1977 an experiment conducted by Gordon Gallup was carried out with Chimps, Gallup introduced mirrors to the chimps, after a few das the chimps were able to recognise themselves in the mirror. Gallup then marked the Chimps above their eye brow.  When the Chimps saw their reflection they saw this mark and actively tried to get rid of this mark. This, it seems is irrefutable evidence that these Chimps have self awareness.
So Chimps so far have self-awareness it seems and language skills...looking pretty person like so far... let’s see if other animals from the same family can reflect, upon themselves or others.
In 1960 an experiment placed a monkey in a cage and was taught that when a chain was pulled the monkey got food, the monkey picked this up and another monkey was placed in another cage. The first monkey could see the other but not vice versa.  Now this time when the monkey pulled the chain he still got food but the other monkey was hit with an electric shock.  After observing this a few times the monkey stopped pulling the chain for food, and went for long periods of time rather than giving the other monkey an electric shock. This suggests that the monkeys can reflect on others feelings so, they can sympathise with one another, and rationalise, the monkey is rationalising that if I pull this chain that monkey is  going to get hurt... so therefore I won’t do it. This is showing a level of social understanding, rationality and the ability to reflect on others feelings... a remarkable feat for a “mere animal”
Now putting animals aside for a minute, Machines, cold, heartless, thoughtless, or maybe, understanding, rational and self-aware? Machines of today, can in no circumstances be called persons, some would say, the laptop I’m working on now is possessing the keys I type in but isn’t understanding what I’m actually writing. Searle’s Chinese room backs this up, he wants us to imagine you’re in a room, pieces of paper are dropped into the room, the symbols mean nothing to you however, you have with you a sophisticated manual, that tells you what to do, the manual tells you  what symbols to pass out when certain symbols are passed in.  Theses “symbols” are sentences in Chinese, the ones going in are questions, the ones going out are answers. To a Chinese person looking into the room, they would think that you understand Chinese as you are answering all of the questions correctly. However this is not the case as you are only processing what you see, you do not understand it.  This is that modern day computers are said to do. But in future maybe computers will understand... maybe, AI may be as intelligent as us. 

Chimps the linguistic champions, Monkeys the benevolent beings, machines... calculating or maybe just processing masters, When saying only humans can be persons, we are saying that nothing, not even aliens that could have completely different set of attributes attached to there personhood, can be persons, that we as humans are only allowed the right to have the incredible status of a person.  But this is for a reason, we can’t start handing out personhood “badges” to any anima/machine that starts to look like they possess the characteristics of person, or we might just start belittling its meaning.  

what are your comments and quires? do you think that animals can be persons? or is it a attribute olly we can have? 

1 comment:

  1. A person is a label we place on a human. Everything has a capability to show the attributes required for personhood, humans are not unique.

    Its all about the degree of personhood. Some may be more advanced in some areas, others less so.