Scholarly examination of what defines personhood in light of contemporary concepts in neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
Is human nature really only a collection of evolutionary adaptations and genetic mapping? Mittleman (Modern Jewish Thought/Jewish Theological Seminary; A Short History of Jewish Ethics: Conduct and Character in the Context of Covenant, 2012, etc.) believes Jewish teachings through the ages can help correct the wrongheaded notions of scientific “debunkers.” He looks at early biblical sources and the Midrash, in addition to contemporary philosophers and scientists like Peter Singer and Francis Crick, for a more integral definition of human nature: What makes us “special,” both as a part of nature and apart from it? One way to consider being human is the ability to speak about ourselves in the third person, as things, yet also in the first person, as sentient creatures of lived experience. Humans “hold on to both poles simultaneously,” and Mittleman believes deeply that it is wrong for science to diminish or reduce personhood to a set of particles or physical states. According to American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we gain our personhood ultimately through our relationship to God: “I am commanded, therefore I am.” This is the “manifest image” of ourselves that we recognize as being “self-motivating individuals.” From this derives our status as moral beings and rational beings, formed in the “image of God,” as delineated in Genesis. Mittleman emphasizes that classical Jewish thought rests on the wholeness of the individual and on its irreducible ethical aspect. Humans are conflicted because they have the capacity for evil, and the author looks in-depth at the role of free will. Another important aspect of personhood is our essential need for companionship and community—crucial for “human flourishing.” Ultimately, claims the author, we matter because we are able to act in perpetuating the good that is already intrinsic in life.
A somewhat recondite argument that gently elicits the dignity of human life.