Personhood: Projection or Perception?

International Neuroethics Society Essay Winner, 2018


November 28, 2018

Each year the International Neuroethics Society (INS) holds a Student/Postdoc Essay Contest to promote interest in neuroethics among students and postdocs early in their academic careers. This the winner in the academic category; the winning essay in the science communication category is by Jean Ngoc Boulware.

 

 

By Elizabeth M. Ingram, North Carolina State University

Science in general aims to answer the questions we have about the world around us, how we fit into it, what we should do, and who we should become. Theories of evolution give an account for the genealogy of our traits, psychology explains our perceptions, physics identifies reality down to the smallest component, and so on. Even with all the advancements in theory and technology, there are still some unanswered questions. Among the most dire of all the questions is how to define personhood. Ironically, because of advancements in science, it is even more important to identify the concept of personhood. How we determine whether or not there is a person is relevant in various aspects of our life, but especially in cases concerning biomedical ethics. For example, determining whether a coma patient is a person is often criteria for determining whether to continue the patient's life support... but should it be? Personhood is an varied concept, something we use often but cannot clearly define. The ambiguity of personhood, and other features of personhood, lead Martha Farah and Andrea Heberlein (referred to as F&H from here on) to question the existence ofpersonhood. This essay purports to explain the reason for F&H's skepticism, and how they are led to the conclusion that personhood should be eliminated as a criterion for relevant cases concerning ethical dilemmas. In order to give a fair account of the argument F&H present for eliminating personhood as criteria, this paper will explain their position, as well as objections to the reasons for their contention. The paper is divided between presenting evidence for the argument that persuade F&H to develop their contention, and objections to the specific conclusions drawn from that evidence. Final words will summarize the main points so the reader may make an informed decision about using the concept of personhood in practical matters of great consequence.

The skepticism of personhood is influenced by the initial seeming ambiguity of personhood provided by several and various definitions. While some definitions offered are specific, pertaining to overt behaviors or mental capacities, they are also based on intuitions rather than evidence. Additionally, the specific mental capacities used to characterize personhood do not have clear boundaries themselves. Consciousness, self awareness, autobiographical memory, and other consistently used qualifications of personhood are not easily measured, and deterioration of these capacities occurs gradually. We might admit that both a coma patient and your sleeping grandma are unconscious, but we cannot declare so easily that they are not persons. Similarly, relatives of patients suffering from dementia comment on their personhood in vastly different ways, even though they all have some loss of auto biographical memory. In these cases, the challenge is determining in the gradual loss of auto biographical memory where "personhood" stops. Without clear indication of different degrees of mental capacities, using them to characterize the concept of personhood makes the definition project that much more unsuccessful. F&H believe the difficulty in determining the characteristics of personhood, and in developing a consistent and applicable definition, is reason to be skeptical of the objectivity of personhood. Rather than a property inherent in people that we perceive, F&H believe personhood to be more like a product of our mind projected out into the world, both in people and non-people. Before coming to this conclusion, F&H turn to indirect evidence which seems to suggest personhood lacks objectivity.

In search of evidence for the objectivity of  personhood, F&H refer to several studies of various mental components usually attributed to the understanding and perception of personhood. Among these components are facial recognition, recognition of human emotional states, and recognition of human body shapes. Each of these mechanisms seem isolated from other similar mechanisms. For example, mechanisms for the recognition of human body shapes and the recognition of objects or animal shapes are isolated from each other. This is seen in brain imaging of subjects tasked to study human silhouettes and animal silhouettes. To be isolated means the imaging shows activity in separate parts of the brain when the task is human oriented versus animal oriented. The evidence suggests these parts of the brain are involved solely in perceiving human characteristics. Because of their specialized nature, these parts of the brain are believed to have a role in perceiving or projecting personhood. Additional evidence can be drawn from developmental psychological studies that suggest intuitions about personhood is innate. Evidence for innateness comes from experiments regarding infant-gaze focus on face-like patterns, infant brain damage without evidence of plasticity, and autistic studies. If personhood was a perception that correlated with something objective in the world, that correlation would need to be learned through experience. The evidence from developmental psychology suggesting personhood is innate refutes the likelihood that intuitions about personhood are influenced by objective particulars in the world. Interestingly, the mechanisms for personhood detection also seem to respond both to human and non-human features, such as stick figures or emoticons. This suggests that the concept of personhood is projected to non-human entities, in addition to evidence of intuition refuting the objectivity of personhood.

Because there is both evidence of human feature detection areas of the brain and innate detection for the features of personhood, F&H are led to conclude we have reason to be skeptical of the existence of personhood as an objective property in people (or non-people). Instead, this evidence, and evidence of the projection of personhood on to non-people, lends to the hypothesis that personhood is projected from the mind rather than perceived by it. If this is true, F&H want to suggest that personhood is not a concept that can be reliably implemented in our biomedical ethical practice. However, this next section of the paper will explain some objections to their contention and the supporting evidence which may persuade the reader otherwise. 

The first objection this paper explains refers to the interpretation of the evidence used to support F&H's hypothesis. For example, consider the brain imaging of isolated features F&H determined to be evidence for the projection, rather than perception, of "personhood characteristics." On one interpretation, this imaging suggests perception of an objective feature in the world, namely personhood. On another interpretation agreeing with F&H, the same imaging suggests there is development and projection of a mind-dependent feature not actually in the world. As a third possibility, the same imaging can be interpreted neither as evidence that there is projection of personhood, or the correct perception of personhood. Possibly personhood is an objective feature in the world, but humans do not perceive it correctly (partially or entirely).   From the evidence F&H refer to, we can conclude that either personhood is perceived in persons correctly, but projected into non-people, or personhood is entirely projected both in people and non-people, or personhood is not perceived correctly either in people or non-people.

Aside from the various interpretations of the evidence used to support their hypothesis, objections also pertain to the radical suggestion F&H make against the continued use of personhood in biomedical ethics. Objections to F&H's contention refer to the misuse of their explaining the personhood concept as an "illusion," (Roskies, 2007)  and that although personhood is not easily defined or seems to be a projection, that it does not follow that personhood is not an objective feature in the world. (Buford and Allhoff, 2007). F&H admit the logic from the second objection is sound but that, as a counterexample, we can assume that watching actors on a screen seems like a projection, but we wouldn't assume they are objective in the sense they are in front of us. Although it is possible the actors are objective and in front of us, it is unlikely (Farah and Heberlein, 2007b). Roskies' objection to the claim that personhood is an illusion suggests that there are illusory components of personhood as well as objective components, both which are separated by different functions of the brain for projecting and perceiving. (Roskies, 2007)  According to F&H, this distinction is not a distinction in the use of projection or perceiving personhood, as the outcome is a combination of both components (Farah and Heberlein, 2007b).  Another problem with accepting these two separate components for personhood is that it doesn't bring us closer to a consensus on defining the concept and being able to use it practically.

Farah's argument explains how concepts like personhood can be useful while not being a fundamental constituent of reality, and how brain imaging shows activity involved in projecting the concept of personhood. Whether or not personhood actually is a mind-dependent projection, Farah concludes that there is evidence enough to be skeptical of its objectivity, and the inconsistently defined concept of personhood should be eliminated as a criterion for relevant cases concerning ethical dilemmas. As a solution, F&H suggest that consciousness, or self awareness, is a better candidate for use in biomedical ethical concerns, such as determining whether life support should be continued for coma patients. According to F&H consciousness is easier to determine than personhood. (Farah and Heberlein, 2007b).  However, studies show the variance in definition of personhood also pertain to consciousness (DaSilveira et. al,2015). Similar to the objections against the various interpretations for personhood based on brain imaging, there are also variations on determining evidence for consciousness. (Pistoia et. al, 2016). As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, consciousness is one of the qualifications assigned to personhood which is not easily measured and occurs on a spectrum, with the range of consciousness between being awake and self aware, to being drowsy, asleep, and brain dead. Consciousness seems to have the same issues that F&H hold against personhood, but they don't come to the conclusion we should be skepticalScience in general aims to answer the questions we have about the world around us, how we fit into it, what we should do, and who we should become. Theories of evolution give an account for the genealogy of our traits, psychology explains our perceptions, physics identifies reality down to the smallest component, and so on. Even with all the advancements in theory and technology, there are still some unanswered questions. Among the most dire of all the questions is how to define personhood. Ironically, because of advancements in science, it is even more important to identify the concept of personhood. How we determine whether or not there is a person is relevant in various aspects of our life, but especially in cases concerning biomedical ethics. For example, determining whether a coma patient is a person is often criteria for determining whether to continue the patient's life support... but should it be? Personhood is an varied concept, something we use often but cannot clearly define. The ambiguity of personhood, and other features of personhood, lead Martha Farah and Andrea Heberlein (referred to as F&H from here on) to question the existence of personhood. This essay purports to explain the reason for F&H's skepticism, and how they are led to the conclusion that personhood should be eliminated as a criterion for relevant cases concerning ethical dilemmas. In order to give a fair account of the argument F&H present for eliminating personhood as criteria, this paper will explain their position, as well as objections to the reasons for their contention. The paper is divided between presenting evidence for the argument that persuade F&H to develop their contention, and objections to the specific conclusions drawn from that evidence. Final words will summarize the main points so the reader may make an informed decision about using the concept of personhood in practical matters of great consequence.

The skepticism of personhood is influenced by the initial seeming ambiguity of personhood provided by several and various definitions. While some definitions offered are specific, pertaining to overt behaviors or mental capacities, they are also based on intuitions rather than evidence. Additionally, the specific mental capacities used to characterize personhood do not have clear boundaries themselves. Consciousness, self awareness, autobiographical memory, and other consistently used qualifications of personhood are not easily measured, and deterioration of these capacities occurs gradually. We might admit that both a coma patient and your sleeping grandma are unconscious, but we cannot declare so easily that they are not persons. Similarly, relatives of patients suffering from dementia comment on their personhood in vastly different ways, even though they all have some loss of auto biographical memory. In these cases, the challenge is determining in the gradual loss of auto biographical memory where "personhood" stops. Without clear indication of different degrees of mental capacities, using them to characterize the concept of personhood makes the definition project that much more unsuccessful. F&H believe the difficulty in determining the characteristics of personhood, and in developing a consistent and applicable definition, is reason to be skeptical of the objectivity of personhood. Rather than a property inherent in people that we perceive, F&H believe personhood to be more like a product of our mind projected out into the world, both in people and non-people. Before coming to this conclusion, F&H turn to indirect evidence which seems to suggest personhood lacks objectivity.

In search of evidence for the objectivity of  personhood, F&H refer to several studies of various mental components usually attributed to the understanding and perception of personhood. Among these components are facial recognition, recognition of human emotional states, and recognition of human body shapes. Each of these mechanisms seem isolated from other similar mechanisms. For example, mechanisms for the recognition of human body shapes and the recognition of objects or animal shapes are isolated from each other. This is seen in brain imaging of subjects tasked to study human silhouettes and animal silhouettes. To be isolated means the imaging shows activity in separate parts of the brain when the task is human oriented versus animal oriented. The evidence suggests these parts of the brain are involved solely in perceiving human characteristics. Because of their specialized nature, these parts of the brain are believed to have a role in perceiving or projecting personhood. Additional evidence can be drawn from developmental psychological studies that suggest intuitions about personhood is innate. Evidence for innateness comes from experiments regarding infant-gaze focus on face-like patterns, infant brain damage without evidence of plasticity, and autistic studies. If personhood was a perception that correlated with something objective in the world, that correlation would need to be learned through experience. The evidence from developmental psychology suggesting personhood is innate refutes the likelihood that intuitions about personhood are influenced by objective particulars in the world. Interestingly, the mechanisms for personhood detection also seem to respond both to human and non-human features, such as stick figures or emoticons. This suggests that the concept of personhood is projected to non-human entities, in addition to evidence of intuition refuting the objectivity of personhood.

Because there is both evidence of human feature detection areas of the brain and innate detection for the features of personhood, F&H are led to conclude we have reason to be skeptical of the existence of personhood as an objective property in people (or non-people). Instead, this evidence, and evidence of the projection of personhood on to non-people, lends to the hypothesis that personhood is projected from the mind rather than perceived by it. If this is true, F&H want to suggest that personhood is not a concept that can be reliably implemented in our biomedical ethical practice. However, this next section of the paper will explain some objections to their contention and the supporting evidence which may persuade the reader otherwise.  

The first objection this paper explains refers to the interpretation of the evidence used to support F&H's hypothesis. For example, consider the brain imaging of isolated features F&H determined to be evidence for the projection, rather than perception, of "personhood characteristics." On one interpretation, this imaging suggests perception of an objective feature in the world, namely personhood. On another interpretation agreeing with F&H, the same imaging suggests there is development and projection of a mind-dependent feature not actually in the world. As a third possibility, the same imaging can be interpreted neither as evidence that there is projection of personhood, or the correct perception of personhood. Possibly personhood is an objective feature in the world, but humans do not perceive it correctly (partially or entirely).   From the evidence F&H refer to, we can conclude that either personhood is perceived in persons correctly, but projected into non-people, or personhood is entirely projected both in people and non-people, or personhood is not perceived correctly either in people or non-people.

Aside from the various interpretations of the evidence used to support their hypothesis, objections also pertain to the radical suggestion F&H make against the continued use of personhood in biomedical ethics. Objections to F&H's contention refer to the misuse of their explaining the personhood concept as an "illusion," (Roskies, 2007)  and that although personhood is not easily defined or seems to be a projection, that it does not follow that personhood is not an objective feature in the world. (Buford and Allhoff, 2007). F&H admit the logic from the second objection is sound but that, as a counterexample, we can assume that watching actors on a screen seems like a projection, but we wouldn't assume they are objective in the sense they are in front of us. Although it is possible the actors are objective and in front of us, it is unlikely (Farah and Heberlein, 2007b). Roskies' objection to the claim that personhood is an illusion suggests that there are illusory components of personhood as well as objective components, both which are separated by different functions of the brain for projecting and perceiving. (Roskies, 2007)  According to F&H, this distinction is not a distinction in the use of projection or perceiving personhood, as the outcome is a combination of both components (Farah and Heberlein, 2007b).  Another problem with accepting these two separate components for personhood is that it doesn't bring us closer to a consensus on defining the concept and being able to use it practically. 

Farah's argument explains how concepts like personhood can be useful while not being a fundamental constituent of reality, and how brain imaging shows activity involved in projecting the concept of personhood. Whether or not personhood actually is a mind-dependent projection, Farah concludes that there is evidence enough to be skeptical of its objectivity, and the inconsistently defined concept of personhood should be eliminated as a criterion for relevant cases concerning ethical dilemmas. As a solution, F&H suggest that consciousness, or self awareness, is a better candidate for use in biomedical ethical concerns, such as determining whether life support should be continued for coma patients. According to F&H consciousness is easier to determine than personhood. (Farah and Heberlein, 2007b).  However, studies show the variance in definition of personhood also pertain to consciousness (DaSilveira et. al,2015). Similar to the objections against the various interpretations for personhood based on brain imaging, there are also variations on determining evidence for consciousness. (Pistoia et. al, 2016). As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, consciousness is one of the qualifications assigned to personhood which is not easily measured and occurs on a spectrum, with the range of consciousness between being awake and self aware, to being drowsy, asleep, and brain dead. Consciousness seems to have the same issues that F&H hold against personhood, but they don't come to the conclusion we should be skeptical for the existence of consciousness. It seems that whether personhood, or consciousness, are or are not objective features in the world, we need these concepts linked with other more empirically established concepts to continue ethically sound biomedical practice. 

References

Buford, C., & Allhoff, F. (2007). Neuroscience and Metaphysics (Redux). The American Journal of Bioethics, 7(1), 58-60. doi:10.1080/15265160601064272

DaSilveira, A., DeSouza, M. L., & Gomes, W. B. (2015). Self-consciousness concept and assessment in self-report measures. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 930. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00930

Farah, M. J., & Heberlein, A. S. (2007a). Personhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating? The American Journal of Bioethics, 7(1), 37-48. doi:10.1080/15265160601064199

Farah, M. J., & Heberlein, A. S. (2007b). Response to Open Peer Commentaries on “Personhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating?”: Getting Personal. The American Journal of Bioethics, 7(1), W1-W4. doi:10.1080/15265160601150352

Pistoia, F., Sacco, S., Stewart, J., Sara, M., & Carolei, A. (2016). Disorders of consciousness: Painless or painful conditions?-evidence from neuroimaging studies. Brain Sciences, 6(4), 47-n/a. doi:doi:http://dx.doi.org.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/10.3390/brainsci6040047

Roskies, A. L. (2007). The Illusion of Personhood. The American Journal of Bioethics, 7(1), 55-57. doi:10.1080/15265160601064256