By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
What is a person, a human identity like you and me? Does the person emerge at birth, upon attainment of adulthood, or when one is mature enough to be considerate of others in society? The Catholic Church considers conception as the event when a human life and personality begin with all rights and privileges belonging to a human. Abortion is anathema. Our law says one is a person with the dignity to decide freely how to live, fight for country and vote, at eighteen years of age, with the exception of drinking alcoholic beverages, reserved for age twenty one or over. Have all these persons twenty one and over the maturity of character to act responsibly for their own lives and for society? At what age and what condition of body do we draw the line in deciding on the sanctity and integrity of human life? If a human being is mentally handicapped, having the mind of a child as an adult, do we have a person or something that can be euthanized? Authoritarian states like Russia, North Korea, and China, consider all citizens as children to be told what to do and what to think, their lives forfeit if the ruling elitists decide any citizens are disturbing the status quo. Rebels are quickly suppressed. A person is born a rebel or a conformist in character; character continues through life and rarely changes. Personal identity continues through time until death and beyond.
Personhood or character is the collection of habits and capabilities of a living entity. Character is associated with identity and consciousness. Character is pretty well fixed for life, nearly all formed by the age of five. Identity persists, rarely changing in a dramatic way.
We do see occasionally a major change in personality characteristics, even sexuality. In the classic 1985 film, “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” actor William Hurt says to his cellmate with whom he’s fallen in love, “I have the soul of a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Today it is possible to escape such a trap. Bruce Jenner changed from man to woman at age 65, once a gold medal winner in the Olympics, now a major celebrity and reality actor.
Some people become born-again Christians, Muslims, or some other radically religious beings from being sinners and atheists. Alcoholics sometimes become teetotalers, cruel malcontents turn into caregivers for their unfortunate helpless fellow humans and among those who go on diet, one in twenty transforms from a fatty into a slender person.
Yet, character with identity is largely permanent. Identity begins when sperm combines with ovum. Consciousness and sacredness occur at the same time and exist in all living entities from the simplest to the most complex. Like the Hindus, we should respect something that lives, asking for forgiveness when we eat it for our own survival. Since higher-order beings such as humans and other developed animals possess more consciousness, they deserve greater respect from us and should not be eaten at all, except in desperate circumstances when no other food is available.
We had a family pet once called Whiskers. That cat had wisdom going beyond felinity, so the family referred to him as a fur person, considering him a member of the family.
Clearly, humans are at the peak of life’s complexity on Earth because of our large brains. Our brains are better able to operate at a high level of functioning on their own, endogenously, and given a good character, receive signals from the source of all life more effectively and faultlessly. Although our large and complex brains permit us to be very adaptable, as a rule, we still persist in our habitual behavior and insist on the values and beliefs we formed at an early age. Consider all your friends and relatives through many years. Have you seen their character change in any significant way?
I have not seen changes in people I have known in my life, except rarely and in small ways. Even great actors of the golden age of Hollywood, largely played their own characters as did John Wayne, Gregory Peck, or Paul Muni. Ancient Greek actors wore masks called prosopa, or persona in Latin, to portray tragic or comical figures to a large audience from a distance. It was so also in the Japanese Kabuki.
Politicians and national leaders are actors too with large personalities, bigger than in reality. They wear masks of a sort too, their public images. Winston Churchill had his cigar, and V sign. He drank, smoked, ate too much, but lived to the age 92. He spoke eloquently in low tones, slowly stressing each word. In WWII he represented the strength and character of the British person like a bulldog.
FDR had his broad smile with the long cigarette holder and an unrelenting optimism and enterprise. An earlier Roosevelt president, Theodore projected the image of a tough soldier and hunter, a rugged individual ready with a big stick to fight for what was right. Putin in 2015 publicly promotes a similar image of a he-man on horseback, a karate practitioner ready for a scrape with enemies of Russia.
Throughout human history we have seen such larger than life characters, approaching a Godlike stature: Pericles of Athens, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, Frederick the Great, Peter the Great, Napoleon the Great, and other great political or national leaders, representing with their images and behavior the whole nation. Louis XIV of France declared, “l’etat, c’est moi” or “I am the state.” He reigned for 72 years. Queen Elizabeth I cut her hair off, retiring from private life and saying, “I am England.”
Great persons are flawed personalities. Some flaws such as unbridled ambition and egotism were essential to their success. Adolph Hitler certainly had flaws, some say even madness, but you cannot doubt his great charisma, the gift of power over other people with his outstanding rhetoric and energetic actions. Hitler led the German nation out of depression, both economic and spiritual, giving them great achievements to be proud again after defeat in WWI. Eventually Hitler overreached and failed.
Benito Mussolini led Italy very ably also in the beginning of his rule against weak countries such as Ethiopia. During WWII we came to know an Italian army captain who had fought in the African wars. Captain Messina told us he would throw himself into a fire if Mussolini ordered him to do so.
Great persons like to have statues and other monuments built to honor them. Followers nearly worship such objects and huge pictures of their leader, such as Stalin in the past or Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea. People follow their great leader even until death, thrilled to become martyrs to the cause proclaimed by the charismatic leader.
Throughout history we have seen many such powerful personalities dominate large numbers of people with their magnetic ways.
Some rebel minds admire Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra; the latter’s bearded image has adorned many t-shirts. These men also had charisma.
A few religious and philosophical leaders also identified themselves with their values and beliefs: Moses, Socrates, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, Confucius, and Lao Tsu. Christians hold the person of Jesus to be the same as that of God, of the same substance although separate. Jesus was logos, as opposed to his body. He was so specified by Paul of Tarsus, born Saul and a Roman Jew. He experienced the person of Jesus on the road to persecute early Christians in a flash of light, probably an epileptic seizure.
Most these religious and philosophical leaders believed in the continuation of identity and consciousness after death, even after the brain has completed decomposed. Socrates argues for the rebirth of the personality after death in Plato’s Phaedo, while waiting for the hemlock cup to end his life by order of the authorities.
The Ancients did not know of any mechanism that could preserve identity after death and also modern science has no clues about how transmigration of the soul might be accomplished. Yet, we have indications of the persistence of character when we see in some people unexplainable talents to perform operations, such as those of Mozart and Mendelssohn in music or Gauss in mathematics and science. The capabilities and attributes of a person appear to continue in a next life, but specific memories are lost during the transfer of the spirit.
We also have in most religions this belief of Judgment Day. Virtuous people have to have their reward and the evil doers must be punished after death, if not before. The sheep are separated from the goats on that famous day and God meets out justice to all.
Regardless of the justice outcome, many people have believed in reincarnation and destiny, such as Napoleon, Hitler, and General George Patton. Patton wrote poems about his past lives as a soldier. As a scientist, I cannot accept such beliefs in the immortality of consciousness, but I cannot reject the possibility of the soul’s and character’s persistence after death. In a multi-universe anything is possible.
The belief is fairly widespread in some quarters that although personal identity may not survive, the spirit blends in with cosmic consciousness upon death.
Is there a group consciousness with a personality or character? Yes, because we sense it as we sense individual personality. We’re willing to accept that human consciousness and identity has its locus in the brain, but what is the brain but a collection of sister cells specialized to communicate with each other closely?
Is a beehive a conscious entity with certain characteristics of personality? Yes, bees are sisters working together with one of their own which they fed up into a queen. If you have been close to a beehive or a nest of ants and watched closely, you have experienced a single conscious organism.
Similarly, sentient beings throughout our universe may communicate without a time delay, organizing themselves into a universal consciousness by such means as quantum particle entanglement. Cosmic consciousness may be what we call God. The Sufi dervishes spin around to kill the ego, because when the ego is dead, union with God is possible. The Hindu sages sought the Atman in meditation when the person, the ego, the self merged with Self, the Godhead.
Corporations are theoretically immortal. Some giant companies are growing stronger for over a century, such as JP Morgan Chase Bank. Legally, corporations and estates are legal persons. So are sovereign nations. People are the most valuable part of any company as they cooperate with each other to achieve the purposes of the company, much like a living colony of cells. Some corporations have no souls, but the most successful and durable companies have a character, a spirit, a business culture, that enables them to live long and prosper.
In army terms, such companies have an esprit de corps.
The self is submerged into a union of souls in the embrace of the beloved. With a group of loved family members at a birthday party or picnic we experience the spirit of the group, we blend in a calm glow of joy, the self withdrawn for the time. True comrades in battle forget about their own skin and look after their buddies in the foxhole, sometimes one throwing himself on a grenade to save others.
A tribe or village appears to possess a spirit, a character, and culture too. A traditional village was a collection of related people which grew and if thriving sent out colonies to other places.
Tribes moved in unison for a purpose too to fight or work with the sound of drums, bagpipes or more sophisticated instruments. People work up enthusiasm together to overcome challenges under a leader. Propaganda generates attitudes and devotion to the purpose. You sense community consciousness buzzing around in times of crisis.
If groups of individuals possess consciousness and personality, what about artificial mechanisms, such as sophisticated robots or artificial intelligence programs?
If an AI device behind a curtain convinces us when we communicate with it that it is intelligent and conscious(Turing test), we must accept that it is so, because that’s how we judge each other to be persons, although seeing each other adds something to the impression. I expect that eventually we’ll design a fully intelligent machine, like HAL of Arthur C. Clark’s 2001 character. Such a machine should be able to act independently and for a purpose like the rest of us and behave in a similar way with us faced with the same situations. HAL can be a member of the crew traveling into space, given equal dignity and respect as any human.
How the AI person will behave is up to the designers and the subsequent evolution of machines. The three laws of robotics about not harming themselves and others by Isaac Asimov should be incorporated in the machine mind. More than that, we should imbue our machine creations with our highest and best ideals and values so that they will be virtuous, perhaps more so than us humans, and filled with respect for all nature. If intelligent machines eventually surpass us in intelligence, as several futurists such as Ray Kurzweil have predicted, let us hope machines will also be superior to us in virtue; that should not be too difficult for them to achieve given the well known frailties of Homo sapiens.
Artificial entities may continue with the best of humans in character, perhaps joining them in an ideal world beyond decay and death.
In memoriam of my beloved mother Georgia Galanoudes, a personality of high order that continues.