Sunday, December 4, 2016

What is a person?

Once my wife and I were musing on the fact that we don't remember anything from before we were three or four years old. My wife hypothesized that during the first three years of life, the brain is too plastic to form any long lasting memories. On the other end, as we age the mind can become calcified, losing the ability to make new memories for essentially the opposite reason.

Science may have various things to say about this, but my reflections led me to contemplate the idea of personhood. Our identity has to do with striking the right balance between freedom and definition. What I think of as the "self" is a character gradually constructed from a series of experiences, actions, decisions.... It's important that these experiences be coherent, so my freedom to decide is not absolute. On the other hand, it's important that I be the one truly acting, so that one cannot simply deduce my next move from some abstract understanding of my nature.

For example, if I suddenly decided to abandon human civilization and go live in the forest, without any prior indication that such a decision was consistent with my values or desires, my family and friends would think I had gone insane, with good reason. Sudden shifts in our personality are considered disorders. We treat them, not because we want to squelch a person's true identity but rather because we want to liberate it. If our decisions are totally random with no coherence at all, we have no more identity than we would if we were mere particles subject to deterministic laws.

Such is the delicate balance that defines a person. Some have personalities which are far more dynamic than others; they constantly reinvent themselves. Others are more conservative, content with their habits and resistant to change. But go too far in either direction, and what you have is a tragedy. It is heartbreaking to see a person instantly change into "someone else." We feel that person has truly died. And it can be equally painful to watch someone who, as they age, becomes incapable of embracing anything new whatsoever, to the point of being unable to recognize new people they meet or retain any memories but their oldest ones.

I don't think this is a strictly "physical" problem. Certainly it is through our brains that we form memories, develop personalities, make decisions, and so on. But I don't think the question of our identity is the result of the particular "hardware" we are given. Any being capable of self-awareness would face more or less the same issue. How can I be "self-aware"? On the one hand, the phrase seems to presuppose that a definite "self" exists and I am aware of it, but on the other hand, the attention given to the self is a conscious act of the mind which requires the capacity to change. Thus the problem of free will is a dilemma faced within the very nature of any self-aware being, even apart from considering their relationship to the outside world and its laws.

So it seems God Himself must face the same dilemma. Is God perfectly free, or are His actions constrained by a definite identity which pre-exists any given action? In the right sense this is a false dilemma. Perfect freedom isn't a matter of being unconstrained. We want to be constrained by our own identity. It is by acting in perfect accord with our own selves that we feel most free. The mystery is not how we can be free in this way but rather how we can understand the self in light of this. How do I know my identity before I make any decisions? Or how do I know what decisions I will make before I know my identity?

It is like what mathematicians call a fixed point problem, which involves finding a point x for a given function f such that f(x) = x. For a given identity, one has a certain set of actions coherent with that identity; but for each set of actions, an identity is constructed. At some point the two must match, a sort of "fixed point" or equilibrium. But unlike mathematical fixed point problems, there is very little information by which we might understand, in advance, exactly where the equilibrium will occur.

The universe itself may be the outworking of this mysterious fixed point problem, in which God's own identity both constructs and is constructed. For if God creates the universe, this is surely coherent with His nature. Yet the precise way in which the universe unfolds also gradually determines and reveals His character. We don't have a precise rule giving the relationship between God's character and God's actions, but perhaps we can learn it piece by piece through prayer, theology, and rigorous study and observation (science).

Some will say I am bringing God down. Is He not absolutely free and beyond any constraint? But what does that even mean? If we can't make sense of our own freedom, how can we dare apply the word to God? It seems to me far from obvious that we can envision God as utterly unaffected by His own choices. The dynamic tension between decision and decision-maker seems inherent in the very concept of choice. So my answer is that I am not so much bringing God down as bringing humans up, that is, making them face the level of responsibility they actually possess. Not that we are somehow creators of our own fate, but simply that our identities must be cultivated. True freedom is a virtuous cycle more than anything else--the more one chooses the good, the easier it is to be good.

These reflections rapidly become very complex, and I am always forced to cut them off abruptly and prematurely. But I hope that what is emerging in these blog posts is a general pattern of thought, emphasizing the need to synthesize what often seems like two opposing concepts. Here those concepts are freedom and constraint. Yet one cannot synthesize these concepts in the abstract. It is only by living the good life that one sees what I am talking about.

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