What is a person? That's the (huge) subject Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, addresses in this great interview at the appropriately named Big Questions. Scientists, Smith argues, are too ready to reduce real human experiences -- love, religion, values -- to biological or social processes, and as a result tend not to study them seriously. But the fact that those experiences come from somewhere doesn't mean that they don't exist in themselves:
Emergence says that reality exists and operates at multiple “levels” of being or complexity, each one of which is totally ontologically dependent upon the interactions of parts at lower levels, yet which through emergence possesses properties, characteristics, features, and capacities at its own level that do not exist at the lower levels. Essentially, new features of reality come into existence at “ascending” levels of reality that cannot be fully found and therefore explained with reference to the lower levels of reality which gave rise to them. Thus, reductionism fails. Personhood is emergent in this way. It depends entirely on the parts from which it emerges — bodies, brains, neural signals, material and social environments, and so on — but, once emergent, cannot be understood or explained through reductionistic accounts, such as reductive materialism. Personhood is, in this sense, sui generis. Certain views of science, again, may not like that kind of thinking or language. But that is the problem of those views of science, not a problem concerning what personhood actually is.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.