Persons, Exobiology, Dolphin Beings, and Humans
On the improving of certain inaccurate dictionary definitions
Abstract: The common dictionary definitions of “person” and “human being” are provably flawed. The flawed definitions have in turn led to a great deal of social controversy. Scientists fully understand the importance of accurate communications, and clear definitions of words are crucial for accurate communications. If a definition is flawed, the flaw should be corrected. This article explains in detail why those definitions are flawed, and proposes corrections that could be used consistently in the future, for accurate communications.
Part One: Fiction and Perspective
Cawella entered the observation room and said, “Hello, Randwi; have the native land mammals improved during the most recent dechexade?”
“Hi; long time no see. As to your question, no, things are pretty much the same as they were 16 years ago. Planet-wide personhood remains elusive for them, because of cultures they developed that refuse to accept even their own modern data.”
Cawella did the equivalent of frowning, and asked, “What’s the population prognosis?”
“They passed 7 billion a couple years ago, and are still on-track to run into a resource-restriction that will drop their population by more than 80% a few dechexades from now. Probably by war, instead of the mass starvation most often associated with a Shumtallian Disaster. Since they have stockpiled large numbers of nuclear explosives, they might wipe themselves out entirely in that war.”
“Such a waste. Too bad we can’t help them.”
“You know the Ninth Test For Personhood as well as I, Cawella.
A candidate species that breeds like mindless animals, and also like mindless animals fails to recognize and act on the dangers of overpopulation, such that the candidate species then suffers massive populataion loss like mindless animals, is not a species truly superior to mindless animals.“
“I know. But I’ve heard that so do some of them –at least the part about recognizing and acting on the dangers of overpopulation. That’s why its too bad we can’t help at least that subset of them.”
“Nevertheless, we have rules. Any world that has its own natural biosphere is off-limits for colonization, regardless of the degree of development of life-forms in that biosphere. THEY, even including the subset you mentioned, mostly think that if a world doesn’t have inhabitants as sentient as themselves, it is ripe for colonizing. And that attitude, fundamentally, is a consequence of the mindless drive to breed like ordinary animals. If we helped them to control their breeding, they would think we are doing it so all those ripe worlds out there could be plucked by us, instead of them. Even on their own world they can see what happens when one sub-culture encourages breeding like mindless animals, while another sub-culture doesn’t. In the long run, the former will overwhelm the latter, and then they will set themselves up for a Shumtallian Disaster.”
“Yes, I know all the cultures of a world need to simultaneously embrace population control. Also, they are ignoring the fact that if a ripe world is left alone long enough, it could do what their own world did, in terms of producing several quite-intelligent species. Which reminds me, what’s the status of the intelligent sea mammals?”
“Some of them, the largest, aren’t quite as smart as their brain size suggests they could be. But there is another group of physically smaller and closely-related species that are quite smart. The largest species of that group, however, may be disqualified from person status, by failing the Master Race Test for personhood –they routinely eat members of the smaller species. On the other hand, the smaller species might be deliberately allowing that eating, as a way to control their own populaton. The sea environment makes it extraordinarily difficult for persons to develop tools for population control. We know the large and small species can communicate with each other, so perhaps the large species has permission to eat the smaller. And, we don’t yet know what keeps the population of the large species under control. If it is kept level by subsistence, that counts against them, even though, again, the sea environment makes it difficult for an intelligent species to develop tools to make a population food-wealthy. We are starting to think we need to go down there, make First Contact with the intelligent sea mammals, and ask them.”
“Okay, enough of all that. So much talk of breeding is stirring up my own mindless animal desires. Sometimes I ignore that itch, like any other true person, but it is always much more fun to scratch it, and I haven’t seen you in a long time. Shall we…?”
Tentacles began to entwine erotically. Some time later, Randwi looked at the resultant mass of fertilized eggs and commented, “Looks like maybe a dechex-cubed quantity. We R-strategists have such an easier time, qualifying for membership in the Cosmic Community, than K-strategists.”
“Yes, we all know that the vast majority of our offspring must die, and they are also extremely easy to replace,” said Cawella. “As for this batch, into the biomass recycler with ’em.”
Part Two: Clarifying Some Points
In the preceding fictional scenario, a couple answers to the famous “Fermi Paradox” are offered. One is the notion that humans don’t qualify for membership in the “Cosmic Community” because we have yet to exhibit true species-wide mastery of our own biology. So many cultures think it is OK to do immunizations, and do organ transplants, and take drugs to prevent heart failure, and take vitamins to improve nutrition –while simultaneously and hypocritically claiming we must be slaves to reproductive biology, that the situation is provably ridiculous (the proof will be inferrable from the rest of this article).
Dechex (16)-cubed is 4096; if every human couple on Earth, throughout history, had had to raise that many offspring at once, as the result of each fertilization event, then the Law of Supply and Demand would have made it absolutely crystal-clear to humanity that offspring, no matter what the species, are only relatively valuable, not intrinsically valuable.
The “Ninth Test” was originated by this author, partly for the purpose of showing that a non-human intelligent species might have a different set personhood-tests than humans have so far devised (more on this later). Still, good science often begins with good questions, so, if humanity breeds itself into a Malthusian Catastrophe, is humanity really as superior to ordinary animals as it claims to be? The history of Easter Island proves the human species is not immune to falling into a low-population/subsistence-survival trap –and Island Earth is simply a bigger island, than Easter Island.
The part of the fictional scenario about not colonizing “ripe” worlds does not preclude exploring outer space and building habitats in many places. It is simply an extension of the well-known idea that natural ecologies should be respected, not destroyed. Also, considering that the Fermi Paradox talks about how a civilization could grow to encompass the whole Milky Way Galaxy, travelling at less than 10% of light-speed to do it, in only ten million years or so, which is a smallish fraction of the history of the Galaxy, consider the Earth getting occupied by alien beings ten million years ago, before even Australopithecus existed. The Earth would have been “ripe”, and if the alien beings acted like humans in destroying ecologies, humans would never have had a chance to begin to exist. So, *if* our existence can be attributed to a “leave other biospheres alone” Rule (2nd proposed answer to the Fermi Paradox), then shouldn’t we be willing to follow such a Rule, too?
The “Master Race” Test is deliberately ironic –any group that claims to be a Master Race automatically fails that Test for personhood. Such a claim is an invitation for everyone else in the whole Universe to gang up against them, and exterminate them, to prove them wrong. That Test is actually a variation on the theme of, “Persons are able to socially cooperate.” –our extraordinary ability to cooperate-at-will with strangers, such as often happens when someone starts work as a new business-employee, is one of the key aspects of our minds that contributes to making us superior to ordinary animals like, say, gorillas (imagine New York City crammed with 10 million gorillas instead of humans, and the entire city would erupt in violence, making ordinary human gang-fights a comparatively trivial phenomenon!). Note that in any proposed future that includes interactions with non-human intelligent extraterrestrial alien persons, that cooperation ability will be needed even more! Meanwhile, a “Master Race” group isn’t interested in cooperation; it wants everyone else to either be slaves, or be dead.
The larger and smaller species of quite-intelligent sea-mammals are killer whales and dolphins –killer whales do eat dolphins, and we have evidence that they can “speak” dolphin.
Note that any subsistence-level population could become food-wealthy by simply controlling/reducing its rate of mindless-animal reproduction. In one historical example for humanity, forced upon it from the outside, the Black Death in Europe killed about 1/3 of the population, after which 2/3 of the population controlled 3/3 of the total wealth of the continent (including food-production, of course). With a significant population freed for a time from subsistence-level activities, because of having that wealth, the Rennaissance began.
It can be noted (as an aside) that there exist plans regarding feeding a global population of 9 billion by the year 2050. However, two things can be pointed out regarding such plans: There is nothing in those plans to prevent population from continuing to grow, and the vast majority of the population at that time would probably be living at subsistence-level. How often is “quantity of human life” a socially superior thing, compared to “quality of human life”? (aside ends)
The octopus is one of the smartest animals in the sea, and it is an R-strategist (tends to have 20,000-100,000 offspring when it breeds). It is not difficult to imagine that somewhere out there in the vastness of the Universe, a longer-lived and more-social species of R-strategists could achieve human-level intelligence. Note that tentacles are not unique to sea-creatures (elephant trunks).
Part Three: The Faulty Definition of “person”
Before getting to the main part of this Section, it first should be noted that we are not responsible for dictionary-definitions that come down to us from prior eras in which humanity was less knowledgeable that it is today. Dictionaries only record how words are used; they do not mandate particular word-usages. Thus “ain’t” can be found in many English dictionaries, despite the efforts of many generations of English teachers. So, today, we should pay attention to today’s more-complete knowledge, when we use words (and eventually dictionaries will record the corrected usage). Pluto, for example, was demoted to “dwarf planet” status as a result of the acquisition of previously unknown information.
In various existing dictionaries the word “person” has two definitions that are of particular significance for this article. One is “a rational being”, which obviously could apply to extraterrestrial alien intelligences, and the other is “a human being”. In either case the word “being” appears, which has its own (several) definitions, of course. One of them relates to existence; anything that exists possesses “being”. Thus, per that definition, along with the rational-being definition of “person”, any rational thing that exists would qualify. Unfortunately, we know that electronic computers can be extremely rational, without in the least qualifying as persons (although it is common knowledge that much research is getting done to create computers that would qualify as persons). Therefore it would be erroneous to use that definition of “being” to define a person.
Another definition of “being” refers to the concept of “person”, and we can’t use that, either, in the definition of “person” (as in, “a person is a rational person”), because definitions are not supposed to be self-referential. We really need an accurate definition of “person” that can be correctly applied anywhere in the Universe, to distinguish that type of individual from ordinary animal-class entities (including today’s computers and robots).
While seeking various characteristics that modern scientists have investigated, in their efforts to define the generic differences between an ordinary animal and a person, these eight items have been identified:
Persons are self-aware.
Persons have Free Will.
Persons can do "time binding".
Persons are able to understand the concept of "the future".
Persons are able to manipulate abstractions rationally.
Persons can exhibit conscious creativity.
Persons are able to mentally place themselves into the situations of other entities.
Persons are individuals who transcend their organic individuality in conscious social participation. (Sir Julian Huxley)
Several things about that list can immediately be pointed out:
1. The listed items are all abilities that minds can exhibit. Any human knowledgeable enough can easily prove to self that a person is a mind, not a body. Simply note that modern medical technology has ability to keep a brain-dead human body alive, and also has the ability to keep a severed head alive –and consider this question: “If you suffered a decaptitation accident, but rescuers arrived in time, do you want them to save your body, or save your head, to save you-the-person?” That question’s answer, all by iteslf, should be proof that there is a flaw in the dictionary definition of “person”!
2. Persons will exhibit more than just one of those characteristics. An adult octopus, for example, is smart enough to be self-aware, but it is still not a person.
3. If artificial intelligences can one day qualify as persons, then the word “organic” in the eighth test will have to be removed. Perhaps, if well-programmed with characteristics of persons, humanity need not fear them –they could be as willing to cooperate with us, as we are willing to cooperate with each other. We would simply need to be freely willing to cooperate with them, also. No “Master Race” Prejudice allowed!
The title of this article uses the word “exobiology” to include entities that exist entirely outside of the concept of “biology”, while another word, “xenobiology”, merely references “strange” (including “alien”) biology, True Artificial Intelligences could correctly be classed as having an essence of “exobiology”. And just for fun, consider children’s comic books featuring “Casper the friendly ghost” –any child would consider Casper a person, but any biologist would cringe thinking about how Casper exists, much less qualifies as a person. Also, ordinary Science Fiction has offered yet other reasons why the word “exobiology” can be useful.
4. The list may be incomplete. Elsewhere in the Universe, other intelligences creating lists of personhood characterists could have identified additional items. The “Ninth Test” previously mentioned in this article was given that number specifically because the above list only contains eight items. Also, consider that one species might specify a unique characteristic that it exhibits, but other intelligent species don’t. For example, a species that is telepathic might think humans don’t qualify as persons.
5. The list may be more-than-complete. Consider the possibility that an entity could qualify enough as a person, if, for example, it possesses five of the above characteristics –and, possibly, which five might not matter. Sush a variation of the definition of “person” could allow nontelepathic humans to qualify (if a telepathy ability was added to the list). On the other hand, what if one or more of the characteristics was deemed absolutely critical, like the Ninth Test in the fictional scenario? The minimal group of characteristics needed, for some entity to qualify as a person, would then need to always include the most-critical characteristics.
This article exists partly to encourage appropriate scientists to seriously work on creating a Universally Applicable definition of “person”, which in theory would eventually find its way into ordinary dictionaries. After that, when the phrase “rational being” gets used in a conversation, it will be very easy to point out that while an ordinary computer might be rational and qualify for the “existence” definition of “being”, it won’t qualify as a person. That is, an ordinary computer can be called a “rational being” entity but not a “rational being” person. No “definition conflation” allowed!
Part Four: Consistency in Definitions
While not common, plenty of ordinary conversations have included such phrases as “intelligent being”, “extraterrestrial being”, and “alien being”. Can anyone doubt that persons were being discussed in those conversations? Meanwhile consider some other phrases, like “cat being”, “dog being”, and “bear being”. Such phrase just don’t appear in ordinary conversations, although they do sometimes appear in Science Fiction stories, as highly intelligent entities that happen to resemble cats or dogs or bears…persons, in other words!
It should be clear that, culture-wide and almost unconsciously, when the word “being” is a noun, it is getting used to mean “person” –and other words, like “alien” or “bear”, are simply adjectives distinguishing some aspect of one type of person from another. When the word “being” doesn’t appear as a noun, a word like “bear” simply references an ordinary animal organism.
Now think about the word “alien” all by itself. It is fairly common for the word to be synonymous with the phrase “alien being”, an alien person, but that is not always the case. There have been a number of movies  with the word “alien” in the title, and in those movies, a certain type of extraterrestrial alien entity was portrayed as a fast and strong and clever animal, but not a person.
After the definition of the word “person” is formalized, then we will need to encourage the usage of phrases like “alien being” only when whenever the word “being” gets use to reference personhood, and discourage the use of that phrase when mere-animal aliens are referenced. To point at any random alien entity and call it an “alien being” will not automatically make it qualify as a person!
So now let us think about the word “dolphin” and the phrase “dolphin being”. For many centuries dolphins have been known to be clever animals, but in recent decades evidence has been accumulating that they might qualify as persons. So much evidence for it has been gathered, in fact, that not long ago the nation of India formally declared that they should be treated as respectfully as ordinary human persons. It is not unreasonable to think that if more favoring evidence is gathered in the future, then other nations may follow India’s lead.
Logically, the more we can show that dolphins qualify as persons, the more they would deserve to be called “dolphin beings”, just to be consistent with the earlier parts of this article.
Part Five: The Faulty Definition of “human being”
We must first ignore the previously-presented efforts to correct usages of phrases that contain the word “being”, in beginning this Section, because we want to focus on existing dictionary definitions, to reveal the flaw(s). So, the first relevant definition getting examined here is “person” –there are some folks who use the phrase “human being” and “person” so interchange-ably that one might think that those folks would not accept any other definition of “person” (like “a rational being”).
Next, the other main definition of “human being” refers to the species Homo Sapiens. We should now be able to see a very obvious opportunity for definition-conflation or equivocating. There are not very many words or phrases in the English language that have two different noun-definitions. One of them is “bean”, which can refer to a plant-seed, or to someone’s head. In normal conversations the two meanings of “bean” are almost always kept distinct –but when typical conversations include the phrase “human being”, both definitions are always simultaneously referenced. Even though it can be a mistake that can interfere with accurate communications!
Consider a brain-dead human adult body being kept alive with modern medical technology. A living adult human body is always a member of the H.Sapiens species. But when the brain is dead, both the scientific data and Legal Precedent declare that the person aspect of that otherwise-alive human body is dead. The phrase “human being” can only have one of its definitions applied to that member of the H.Sapiens species! The common-usage equivocation of definitions of “human being” is proved flawed, because always simultaneously referencing both definitions won’t let the phrase be accurate with respect to situations occurring more frequently in recent decades, thanks to modern medical progress.
The close association of “person” with “human being” does not need to be problematic. If the two-word phrase was simply always acknowledged to be a two-word phrase, then, per the earlier parts of this article, the phrase would obviously and only reference a human type of being/person. Not only does that freely and unprejudicially allow other types of beings/persons to be discussed, such as dolphin beings (if dolphins are finally/irrefutably proved to qualify as persons), it also gives us an easy way to talk about humans that are not simultaneously persons, such as brain-dead adults on full life-support. After all, the single word “human”, when used as a noun, all-by-itself references a member of the H.Sapiens species!
The proposed correction to the flawed definition is quite simple: The phrase “human being” should never be used to reference physical membership of various entities in the H.Sapiens species, and should only be used to reference persons —minds— that happen to have H.Sapiens bodies. Why does one ever really need to use the two-word phrase “human being” to refer to the physical body when the single word “human” is quite adequate, and one might not know in advance if there is an associated person/mind? Such precision in speech, regarding “human” and “human being”, would be consistent with the earlier distinction regarding “alien” and “alien being”, plus future scenarios that include both machines (like today’s robots) and “machine beings” (future robots that are also independently-acting True Artificial Intelligences).
Finally, the question arises, “During human development, when do persons, minds, become associated with human bodies?” The answer to that question appears to be related to the discovery of various facts about “feral children”. There is a widespread assumption that, for most humans, the full development of the mind occurs as naturally and inevitably as full normal physical development –and that assumption is proved wrong by the existence of feral children! It is extremely important that young humans experience a mentally highly-stimulating environment during their early years. If they never receive it, then they never become more than feral. They will only be clever animals, lacking most of the personhood characteristics listed earlier. The answer to the question, based on testings done of typically-developing young humans, is that most would qualify as persons by their third birthdays. Many articles about feral children can be found on the Internet, and many of them talk about “what it means to be human” without getting into specifics. It is obvious, however, that those articles are trying to equate “human” and “person” –and stumbling because of flawed definitons!
1. Fermi Paradox
2. Explanation of the Law of Supply and Demand
3. Explanation of Malthusian Catastrophe
4. History of Easter Island
5. Personhood associated with the ability to cooperate
6. A recent Scientific American article on human cooperation
7. A fictional peaceful interaction between human beings and several alien beings.
8. Another fictional peaceful scene with several alien beings.
9. Killer whales can speak dolphin
10. About the bubonic plague
11. An invitation to study the feudal system
12. The start of the Rennaissance
13. Feeding 9 billion in 2050
14. About octopus intelligence
15. About R-strategy and K-strategy
16. Fictional intelligent R- strategists
17. Dictionaries record word-usage
18. Why Pluto got demoted
19. Persons are self-aware
20. Persons have Free Will
21. Persons can do “time binding“
22. Persons are able to understand the concept of “the future“
23. Persons are able to manipulate abstractions rationally
24. Persons can exhibit conscious creativity
25. Persons are able to mentally place themselves into the situations of other entities
26. Persons are individuals who transcend their organic individuality in conscious social participation. (Sir Julian Huxley)
27. Fearing artificial intelligences
28. Fictional electrical alien being in Original Star Trek episode: “Metamorphosis”
29. Fictional alien beings made of plasma living inside the Sun
30. Definition-conflation is also known as “equivocation”
31. Fictional bearlike alien beings
32. Several movies featured this type of fictional alien, which only displayed the intelligence of a clever animal.
33. The fictional alien in the movie “Dark Star” is only an animal
34. India declares dolphins to be persons
35. Full life-support is becoming common, toward the end of life
36. Precedent and “pulling the plug”
37. About feral children
38. About acquiring the ability to rationally manipulate abstractions
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