This entry is likely to look a bit different from my previous ones. I’m typing it, one-handed, on my phone. My other arm is wrapped around my daughter. So, there may be some spelling mistakes, and it may take me weeks to finish these thoughts. But I still think its valuable and important to think them, and try to write them down.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sense of self and personal identity again, as I spend a year on maternity leave taking care of my new family member. Normally, when one talks about the issue of personhood with infants, one immediately jumps to talking about abortion. Infants are legal persons. So, often the abortion debate in public discourse centers on the question of when, exactly, the status of personhood should be conferred on the fetus/newborn/infant, and why precisely at that point. But that isn’t why I’ve been thinking about selfhood and personhood lately. The legal definition of a person is black and white. Laws allow little room for shades of grey. And I am not convinced that personhood should carry the weight it does in the abortion debate. As my undergraduate meta-ethics teacher Dr. John Baker argued: some persons can rightfully be killed, and some non-persons deserve our protection. In other words, personhood doesn’t settle the question of the ethics of abortion at all. And it isn’t where my interest lies, anyway.
I’m curious about what to think, metaphysically, about the self. Not about ramifications of a baby being a person or not, but of what we can learn about personhood by thinking about infants. Daniel Dennett argued in his book “Consciousness Explained” that selves are an illusion. He claims that we create selves the way a spider weaves a web, or a beaver builds a dam. Of course one might think that this raises the question of who or what is doing the creating. Dennett’s point in referring to the spider and the beaver is that no one has to consciously being doing the creating. Spiders don’t have to be cognisant of what they are doing to create a web. Likewise, no one has to be cognisant of creating a self. Spiders spin webs. We spin selves. No agency or personhood required.
But, I think it’s just as important to note that webs and dams are not illusions. . . at least not in any traditional sense of the word. Webs, dams, money, jobs, titles, buildings, roads and culture illustrate powerfully that things that are created (whether consciously or not) have the power to shape reality. Ideas are real, and they really matter. The idea of the self, of personhood, does shape reality, even if it’s created.
But there is something distinct about ideas and the reality they shape. Ian Hacking argues in several places, but most clearly in his book “The Social Construction of What?” that reality can helpfully be understood by dividing it into two categories: indifferent kinds of things, and interactive kinds of things. Rocks are an example of the former. Hacking argues that a rock doesn’t know or care what you call it. But people do know, and likely will care. Take the whole category of being a person. To be a person is to have rights and responsibilities. Being labelled as a person may well change one’s opportunities, attitude, and whole perspective. And being denied such a label also has an effect. The Persons Case in Canada illustrates this well. And it also illustrates how it is that interactive kinds interact. The categories change us, and we change them. This is not simply legal, (though, in the Persons Case it was legal) it’s metaphysical. Categories organise our reality. Changing categories has the power to reshape our very selves, as Hacking argues in his book “Rewriting the Soul.”
Recognising interactive kinds, or recognising the self as a category we created rather than a given we found, allows us to see that it can be recreated, or perhaps even discarded entirely. And this idea of the disappearing discrete self is what I’ve been thinking about as I watch my daughter grow. Hindu philosophy, like Dennett (though with different aims and implications) argues that the self is an illusion. Really, atman (the self) is Brahman (reality). Really, there is no separation between me and you. The separation, our unique personhood, is the illusion. This is “tat tvam asi,” or ‘you are that’.
This Hindu idea is not an easy one to grasp, and is particularly hard for western philosophers to accept. (Indeed, in Eastern philosophy there are differing opinions on exactly what tat tvam asi means. See here for a short discussion of two different interpretations of the idea.) There are quantifiable and qualitative differences between me, you, and my daughter (to say nothing of the rest of reality). Leibniz’s Identity of Indescernibles is demonstrably not met. We are not indiscernible from, and so cannot be identical with, reality.
And yet. . . and yet my child and I are one being. Or, rather, we were. She grew inside me. She was a part of me–not a discrete self at all. As much my flesh and blood as any other part of my body. After birth I was fortunate enough to find breastfeeding relatively easy, and so every part of her growing body came from mine. In a very literal sense there was no separation. Every molecule of her being had once been a part of my own physical existence. Continuous. Connected.
And yet. . . and yet we are not one and the same. We have manifestly different goals and desires (a fact made all too apparent at 3am, or even now as I pick this out one-handed on my phone while my baby sleeps in my other arm). And the human condition lies between us. I don’t know what she is thinking, or feeling a lot of the time. I don’t know what the world looks like to her. And it is hard to think of this separation as an illusion when it results in sleepless nights and frustrated afternoons. It feels all too real.
And therein lie my current thoughts. When I think of the path that has led me to where I am now, with an arm wrapped around a little living breathing being who was once a part of me and is still continuous with me, I can believe that the self is an illusion. I can believe that there is no meaningful difference between myself and her, that there is no discrete self at all. But, when I wonder at what on earth is making her giggle, or cry, or wrinkle her nose, the idea of personhood seems all too real.
Maybe the answer is that personhood is best understood as a sort of grey and fuzzy indistinct demarcation. The difference between me and her is a bit murky, like the difference between the ocean and the shore. There is a difference, and at times it is easy to see, but where exactly the ocean starts and the shoreline stops is a continuous negotiation. My daughter and I meet, and part, overlap and separate. And I suppose this negotiation will continue for the rest of my life, as she and I discover what kind of person she will be. And since she is neither entirely separate from myself, or the rest of humanity, nor entirely identical to us, it matters how we think about her self. If the self is, in part, a category we create that affects us rather than a pre-existing demarcation we discover, then we collectively are shaping each other as we recreate and reinterpret what personhood means, who counts as a person (and why), who does not (and why not) and how such decisions are made.
Since none of us is entirely separate from, nor entirely identical with, each other, it matters whether we think of personal identity as a sharp dividing line between me and you, or a grey and murky negotiation.
In my own culture, there seems to be an emphasis on discrete separation from birth (or earlier, in the case of some pro-life arguments) to death (and generally beyond). We are individuals, and we preserve that individuality to the grave. We don’t want our molecules to mix with the rest of reality. We are sealed off, encased in concrete vaults, buried in caskets, and marked neatly with headstones. Filed away. Individuals. We deny the origin of our molecules and do not allow them to return to the earth.
But we know this is a fiction. This is the way we are creating the self now. This is the story of personhood we are telling. It is the web we are spinning. And if Hacking is right, we are affecting ourselves with this story. We are reshaping our reality into one that sees the ocean and the shore as two distinct things, and denies the murky messiness of it all.
Here, in the throws of new motherhood, it is hard to deny the messiness of it all. And it’s hard not to ponder what the benefits, and even more urgently what the costs are, of spinning this web of personhood in which I refuse to acknowledge the truth staring me in the face.
She is her own person. And she is a mystery to me.
And yet. . . and yet. . .
She is me. I am that.