Persons and embodiment, Part 2

N. Kirsch, J. Jeffrey, A. Putman & P. Zeiger

“Without people, nothing explains anything.” (Ossorio, 1966/1995, p. 33).

In the last post about the conceptual relationship between Persons and Embodiment, our conclusion was that “biological mechanisms have ‘meaning’ or significance because we understand them as providing for what people do.”

In this post and the next (or so), we’ll explore this a bit more.

One implication of the above noted conclusion is that descriptions of person characteristics and descriptions of neurological embodiment must conform to each other conceptually and empirically.

Biological mechanisms can only be identified and understood to be what they are because we, as observers, first identify and describe behaviors that, in turn, can be demonstrated to be associated with biological capacities (i.e., mechanisms). The appeal of this conceptual reversal (that is, a reversal from language that often treats HNE as primary) is that because we are able to describe persons and their worlds, we also understand that persons and their worlds entail or require that the neurological embodiment be of a certain kind. By saying this, we don’t mean that the neurological embodiment must be one specific kind, but that the neurological embodiment must be whatever it has to be (i.e., sufficient) to provide for persons as we know them to be.

To state this more succinctly: human neurological embodiment provides for people to be as we know them to be, while people as we know them to be requires that the embodiment be of a kind that provides for people as we know them to be.

This is a helpful tautologial reminder, much in the spirit of Ossorio’s Maxims (Ossorio, 2013, Place).

Observers cannot at the same time claim that their description of a behavior, or a range of behaviors, or of a person, is conceptually complete, while also claiming a neurological embodiment that cannot provide the capacity for that behavior. For example, an observer cannot present a comprehensive conceptual description of empathy, while claiming that empathy is nothing more than the action of mirror neurons, since in the world of persons we see that empathy is more than merely mimicking another’s movements (e.g., observations of empathic behavior indicate that it also includes seeing the significance of a state of affairs from another person’s perspective, seeing the reasons they have for acting as they do, and perhaps expressing that understanding with compassion). Mirror neurons may or not be a necessary part of the embodied “systems” that provide for empathy, but if they are, they are only a component. One or the other of these descriptions is therefore wrong. If observers are right about mirror neurons, then it can’t possibly be that they’re right about empathy. If observers are right about empathy, then it can’t possibly be that they’re right about any restricted neurological embodiment they claim as providing for empathy.

In contrast to some conclusions that the world of embodiment and the world of behaviors are conceptually distinct, this formulation instead reminds us that the two worlds are inextricably woven together conceptually. There are no persons without a sufficient embodiment. There is no human neurological embodiment that cannot be sufficient for persons.

Let’s look at another example of how this might “play out” in the course of ordinary genetics research. A behavioral geneticist might first observe in the world of Persons that there are identical twins who behave identically in many circumstances, but in others they behave very differently. Since these differences are unexpected, given what the behavioral geneticist already knows about monozygotic twins, the discrepancies are therefore also interesting. The behavioral geneticist might then ask, “Is there something I don’t yet know about genetics that might be associated with these unexpected behaviors?” Or, “Could it be that these discrepancies have nothing to do with genetics at all, but instead reflect different learning histories, or differences in the in utero environment, or something else”. It is only because the behavioral discrepancy was first observed that the geneticist even thinks to ask about the possibility of a genetic mechanism that hadn’t been previously considered. That mechanism, if found, examined and understood, can then be said to be the genetic provision for the discrepant behavior or the genetic change that limits one of the twin’s capacities to engage in a specific behavior. If not found, the results are equally informative.

To summarize: (a) there are no behaviors (or abilities) without the embodied capacity for that behavior; (b) different behaviors are or are not possible given different embodiments, but (c) the embodiment can only be understood by first recognizing and describing behaviors in the world of Persons. In this sense, there is a fundamental association between Persons and embodiment, with each necessary for a full conceptual description of Persons.

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