What is a Person?

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Pixabay – CC0 Public Domain

How would you know that a person was a person, if they didn’t come in human form? This is one of the questions that David Lahti, Professor of Biology at Queens College in New York, asked in his lecture on Biology and Personhood at the Faraday Institute this summer. As I said in last week’s post, this isn’t the sort of thing that bothers most people every day. But to appreciate the full wonder of what it means to be human, to interact with intelligent animals, or take part in ethical debates, personhood needs to be defined. This subject is a minefield, but as someone with qualifications in both biology and philosophy, Lahti was well equipped to navigate it. Here are just some of the thoughts that he shared.  Continue reading

The Emergence of Human Consciousness

© Leandro Cavinatto, http://www.sxc.hu

Why do we ascribe dignity and moral worth to human beings? At least part of the reason is because we can see beyond our physical makeup to qualities such as consciousness and the ability to make decisions. We are fantastically complicated biological systems, but we are more than our molecules: we are persons, and our conscious experiences are wonderfully real.

Last week the philosopher Tim O’Connor spoke at the Faraday Institute on The Emergence of Human Persons. Emergence is a fascinating area of research, and a controversial one. Although emergence is a philosophical argument, it has important implications for science.

O’Connor began his seminar by explaining where the idea of emergence came from. Continue reading

Deepest Wonder

© Shilpin Patel, freeimages.com

There are two kinds of wonder. You may well experience the first when you look at the night sky on a clear and moonless night. The universe is vast, beautiful, and at times incomprehensible. The other kind of wonder can be experienced when someone studies something scientifically: a complex and highly ordered process analysed and understood. I mentioned last week that Ernst Mach didn’t believe in wonder. It was the first kind of wonder that he didn’t believe in: the kind that comes from ignorance and is dispelled by knowledge – a process that can lead to disillusionment. But as Einstein pointed out, when one explores phenomena scientifically the wonder only deepens as the order and complexity in a system reveals itself.

Maggie Boden, Professor in Cognitive Science and Informatics, has described the journey from ignorant to informed wonder. Continue reading