– WHAT COUNTS AS A BEING?-
an excerpt from The Soul of a New Self by Jeff Carreira
I have already explained why the question, What counts as a being? is the most important philosophical question of our time – because what doesn’t count as a being becomes a “thing,” and things are objects that can be subjugated to the whims and needs of beings. The power to define things as beings is the power to determine what is inherently worthy of care and concern. One of the ways we can understand the growth of human compassion is as the continued extension of the line separating what does, and what does not, count as a being. For much of human history this question remained securely within the boundary of the human species alone. In earlier times only the members of my tribe, my family, my religion, or my nation were counted as beings. Gradually the status of being was granted to more and more members of the human race.
The institution of slavery is a particularly dramatic expression of the refusal to grant the status of being-a-being to groups of other humans. Thankfully the injustice of slavery has largely, although not entirely, been removed from the developed world and I suspect that advance will continue. Now animal-rights proponents are working to extend the status of being-a-being to creatures outside of the human species.
If we are to set the foundation for the emergence of a new self, we will have to extend the status of being a being further than ever before. As we will see in the last chapter, the next self is not going to be as easily identifiable as a separate thing, and so it will pose a direct challenge to our thinking-thing sensibilities. Before we can explore what I see as the emergent form of a new self, we need to explore what it means to push the boundary of being-a-being beyond the need to anchor ‘beinghood’ in any concrete object. The next sense of self will be distributed, fluid, and collective. In this chapter we will explore a few ideas that eliminate the need for the self to be anchored in anything.
Recently I saw a film called Her. It is about a not-so-distant future in which computer operating systems have become artificially intelligent. These OS’s, as they are called, learn and think and develop personalities. The film revolves around the moral implication of falling in love with a computer’s OS. The question being explored is the question, does an artificially intelligent OS count as a being?
At one point in the film there is an argument between Theodore, a man who has fallen in love with his computer’s OS, and Samantha, the name of the OS. Samantha breathes heavily as they speak, and Theodore demands to know why she does that since she is not a person and doesn’t need to breathe. Her answer is simple and poignant: “I know I’m not a person.” For me, this dramatic moment offered an alternative articulation of the essential question we are asking and that the film addresses, Is it only people that can count as beings?
At an earlier point in the film Theodore tells his ex-wife that his new girlfriend is an OS. His ex-wife is obviously disgusted and treats him with disdain. Later a younger friend of Theodore’s invites him to a double date. Theodore sheepishly admits that his girlfriend is an OS. This time, rather than being met with derision, the young friend simply says, “Great, take her out so I can meet her.” Theodore pulls out his cell phone and introduces Samantha.
The younger friend was able to fluidly shift his concept of being to embrace Samantha’s legitimacy as a self. As so often happens those that are young have an easier time adopting the dictates of a new paradigm. Theodore’s ex-wife, on the other hand, had not been able to make that shift, while the younger friend was able to treat both Theodore and Samantha with the respect that beings deserve. The ability to expand our concept of being, which means to shift into a new paradigm of selfhood, is a capacity we all need to develop. Not only in relationship to other possible beings, but also in relationship to how we define ourselves.
It is important to notice that in all of the examples of extending selfhood that we have mentioned so far the thinking-thing distinction remains unchallenged. All human beings neatly fall into the category of thinking-things, and the most common arguments for animal rights are generally attempts to prove that animals are also thinking-things. Even Samantha the OS fits the category of a thinking-thing, albeit with less ease. What would it mean to extend selfhood beyond thinking-things altogether? Are there candidates for being a being that are not thinking-things of one type or another? Our habit of restricting being-a-being to thinking-things needs to be questioned, which in turn calls into question our ideas about things and our ideas about thinking.
We can start by questioning our ideas about things. We live from a consciousness that fundamentally experiences reality in terms of things-in-space. We see a vast expanse of nothingness full of things. We could use the metaphor of marbles in a shoebox for this consciousness. In this metaphor the marbles represent the real things that exist inside of the empty space of the shoebox. We experience the marbles—that is, the things—as real, and we describe these things in terms of their relationships with other things. Some marbles are green, some are blue, and some are orange. It is important to realize that the color of each marble can only be determined in relation to other marbles. Asserting that a marble is a certain color is a statement of comparison. A green marble looks like other green marbles and not like blue or orange ones. There is no way to distinguish something as green unless it is in comparison to at least one other color.
We have been habituated to see things as existing independently from one another. Separate things are seen as real and then qualified and differentiated in terms of their characteristics. What we often miss is that this means that things are always defined in relationship to other things. The characteristics that define things are not just descriptions of them, they are qualities of relationship. To accommodate the possibility of a new sense of self we will need to extend our mental space dramatically. We must learn to stop privileging the reality of things over the relationships between them.
Things do not exist except in relationship with other things. Nothing exists independently, every seemingly independent thing exists as part of an inseparable field of relatedness. This may feel like a leap at this point, but wait, I will explain. In fact, we will eventually realize that it is more accurate to say that things do not exist at all and that only relationships exist. There are no individual things. The existence of anything is always contingent upon something else.
– END OF EXCERPT –
The insights contained in this book will be used as the philosophical foundation for the 5-day Summer retreat that I will be leading in August 2016. I hope you will consider joining me on retreat.
An excerpt from Jeff’s forthcoming book The Soul of a New Self – scheduled for release March 2016.
More details about the book and Jeff: