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How essential is the human person?


The western notion of the human person can be traced back to the Stoics who defined the human person as equipped with a rational nature. Cicero used the term “person” as a generic characterization and as a mark of individuality which cannot easily be communicated to other persons.  “Person” identifies what a human being is, namely, a rational being and thus a moral subject accountable for his or her deeds.  The Stoic tradition was encapsulated in the later definition by the Christian philosopher Boethius (48–524) who, in his treatise On the Two Natures: Against Eutyches, defined a person as “the individual substance of a rational nature.”   Human personhood is the capacity for rational discernment present in an individual human being.   The word “person” contains the Latin “sonare” which can be translated as “to sound” and the prefix “per” which can be translated as “through.”  The word “person” therefore means “to sound through.”  Boethius was aware of the concept of person as a theater mask through which sound comes forth amplifying the actor’s voice (per–sonare). It is unclear, however, if the word “person” actually had this Latin root as suggested by Boethius or was imported from the Persian word persu (also meaning a mask).  What is conveyed in the word “person” is relationality; a person is defined not by what someone does (that is, function) rather by who one is related to (for example, the character in a play). Hence, personhood is manifest in relationality.

From fixed autonomy to deep interconnectedness 

Despite the root meaning of person as relational, the emphasis on individuality and rationality defined the human person up until the 20th century.  The human person was marked by a fixed essence, a higher order of being than other creatures with a dignity of perfection, as Thomas Aquinas noted (Summa theologiae 1.29.3). The term “individual” gained prominence with the rise of modern science and technology. The invention of the printing press, Cartesian philosophy’s “turn to the subject,” and the Reformation all emphasized the ability of the mental over the material, spirit over matter. The person was an individual center of thought, one who could read, interpret and freely respond.  The Newtonian mechanistic world furthered a sense of autonomy of the individual, one related to other individuals according to established laws.

The two pillars of twentieth century science that have influenced the meaning of the human person are evolution and quantum physics.  Evolution means that nature does not operate according to fixed laws but to the dynamic interplay of law, chance and deep time.   Quantum physics indicates that reality is a vast unified sea of matter and energy, two facets of the same universal process.  Matter is not composed of basic building blocks but complicated webs of relations.  Modern science transforms our understanding of personhood from fixed autonomy to deep interconnectedness.

Evolution, posthumanity, and transhumanism

Today, the human person, considered in light of modern science, can no longer be identified with perfect fixed being, since there are no fixed essences in evolution. Rather, nature is incomplete and subject to ongoing creativity.  The human person is not a ready-made fact but the outflow of billions of years of evolution, beginning with cosmogenesis (13.7 billion years ago), and the billions of years that led to biogenesis.  Evolution is a process which means that, given a sufficient amount of time and the right conditions, new species, such as homo sapiens, can emerge in nature.  Humans are integrally part of evolution and emerge with a level of intelligence and consciousness that allows us to stand apart and reflect on the process itself.  From the point of science, the human person is more like an eddy in a stream than a perfect creature of nature.  Neuroscience, for example, reveals the plasticity of the human brain in relation to the environment and the interplay between mind, brain and culture.

What is less certain is whether the human person is the apex of biological evolution or a transitional species in evolution.  Advocates of posthumanity maintain that the human person will become extinct in the not too distant future.  Transhumanists believe that technology will enhance and perfect the human person, enabling us to transcend the biological limits of suffering, aging and death.  A new posthuman species is on the horizon, aptly called techno sapiens, with a new digitized body, free and unconstrained by the physical and temporal limitations of the flesh.  Is the human person sacred?  Or is transhumanism part of God’s ongoing creative action?  These are questions that must be engaged for the future of humankind.

Ilia Delio, OSF is a Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center and Director of Catholic Studies at Georgetown University. Delio’s research concentrates in science and religion, with a focus on transhumanism, nature and ecology, and evolutionary theology. Her book, The Emergent Christ (Orbis, 2011) explores the meaning of Christian faith in light of evolution. Her new book The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love (Orbis, 2013) will be released this spring.

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