One Person, Indivisible
Updated: Nov 15
It is sometimes held that philosophy is remote from real life, but this view is mistaken. Here are several examples of philosophy in action:
Women who starve themselves to conform to an unrealistic ideal of beauty.
Businesspeople who never exercise, live on carbs and caffeine, and drive themselves to heart attacks.
People who have promiscuous sex without emotional attachments.
Brainy people whose emotions are stilted and who dissociate from their bodies, their surroundings, and other people.
It may not seem so, but these people have a philosophical problem. While they probably did not acquire their beliefs by studying philosophy textbooks, their ideas are baked into everyday concepts, potentially creating a template for their developmental issues. Perhaps they were taught such ideas by their parents or their church. Their philosophy might be wordless, but it's still philosophy.
Over the centuries, it has commonly been held that a human being is a divided being. According to many preachers of religion, you are a soul temporarily domiciled in a body. According to many philosophers since René Descartes (1596–1650), you are an immaterial mind mysteriously in communication with the machine that is your body. According to most modern scientists, you are a brain, and your body is again no more than an appliance. Then to make it interesting, some modern philosophers have spilled a lot of ink arguing that your mind (whatever that is) is just an aspect of your brain, with your body once again just an appliance. Each of my examples above falls victim to one of these theories, splitting consciousness from body.
What all such thinkers claim is that we are each a "house divided." I reject this view. My theory is that a person is a unit that must be regarded as a living whole, conscious and bodily but in no sense a mind, brain, or soul + a body. There is no crack running down your middle. You are one person, indivisible.
Theories on this subject have enormous repercussions. Your thinking, your emotions, your vitality and sexuality, even your ability to dance and your sense of humor all to some extent depend on how you view yourself—not on how you intellectually affirm ideas as abstractions but how you live them. In this essay, we will focus on issues of mind and brain—the so-called mind-body problem—returning to several other variants in later essays.
The solution I favor to this problem is that there is no mind-body problem. It has no solution, only a dissolution. I propose a radical rethinking of the matter. The traditional notion of a person cannot be salvaged by adjusting or tinkering. What is needed is a reconceptualization of phenomena from the ground up. Concepts such as mind, brain, body, seeing, feeling, and intending must be revisited, and I offer a fundamentally different description of human beings. Because traditional theories since Descartes regard a person as having two elements—a mind or brain and a body—they fall under the umbrella term "dualism." I am attempting to extinguish all forms of dualism in the field known as the philosophy of mind. I call my theory "personal holism" because it claims that a person is a whole, not a divided being.
Dualistic beliefs, whether explicit or implicit, give rise to or support certain psychological actions. Wherever there is dualism there is almost inevitably a conflict between what is thought of as the mind, brain, or soul and the body. One might try to dissociate from or block input from the body, feelings, “outer world,” and/or other people. Or one might try to control these to excess, attempting to establish the mind as a tyrant. Or one might try to "live in one's head" and treat ideas and other people as mere ideas to ponder or items for entertainment, with no connection to the real world. Or one might hate or be ashamed of natural bodily functions or desires. Or one might treat sexual desire as separate from intimacy because one identifies with an animalistic body. Such actions are implementations of dualism. Of course, the separation of mind and body does not become real because one believes in it, but one can live as if it were real. In this specific sense, philosophy and psychology are two sides of the same coin.
I'm not sure whether, in Western culture at least, one could commit these psychological actions without the support of at least implicit dualism, but I suppose it is possible. Such actions could be simply a manifestation of non-intellectual personal issues. Conversely, certain developmental issues might lead one to postulate certain philosophical theories. That sounds like something Nietzsche would say, and he would probably be right. How often this happens is an open question not to be settled by philosophers.
I am confident, however, that a deep encounter with a philosophy like personal holism can suggest a better way to manage one's life, regardless of whether one previously held dualist views, even implicit ones. Holism offers ways to name the aspects of one's self and to choose to bring them into proper relationships in order to resolve developmental issues. Furthermore, one needn’t live merely as if holism were true because the theory, as I will try to show, is true, and healthy psychological actions follow from getting in touch with the reality of it. For example, while a sedentary lifestyle might not derive from dualist beliefs, an encounter with holism can foster greater appreciation for the joys of using the whole self, physical and mental, leading to greater physical activity. This is a therapeutic benefit of philosophy. However, let me add a strong caveat: I do not mean to reduce psychiatric disorders to philosophical errors. I am talking only of subclinical versions of these problems. Good philosophy is therapeutic but it is no substitute for therapy.
This leads me to outline my approach to philosophy. In my opinion, the best philosophy stays as close to immediate experience as possible. Even when complex and abstract, things should still feel natural. As we go along, I will provide some proofs, but much of the time, I will simply point where I think you should look, offer interpretations, and move false ideas from view. In my opinion, those doing philosophy should engage in less abstract thinking and more thoughtful looking because abstract thinking often goes in the wrong direction—too much top-down from arbitrary concepts and too little bottom-up from experience. Hopefully, this pattern can be overcome, and the theory presented in this essay will help readers return to their natural feelings of wholeness.
1. What is a Person?
Throughout this essay, I use the word "person" to denote a human being regarded as an indivisible whole. In a way, I aim to return to a child's unsullied, commonsense point of view, but it takes a lot of looking and thinking to attain and retain such a perspective as an adult. I offer my definition of "person" at the beginning of this essay to clarify why I make the points I do. The reasons for my definition's criteria, however, will only become apparent as I make these points. We will revisit the definition near the end.
Here's the definition. According to holism, a person is a conceptually conscious physical entity, alive and moving in a world of other directly perceived entities and people. Perhaps this includes too many criteria for a true definition. Perhaps it is more of a summary. To me, however, it is more than an abstraction; it is a passionate affirmation of a way of being.
You could consider it an elaboration of Aristotle's immortal definition of man as "the rational animal." But I think his definition requires expansion and contextualization to scrape off the errors of the millennia.
I am far from the first thinker to consider human beings as indivisible units. The extremely influential French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61) and Dutch priest Wilhelmus Luijpen (1922–80) both conveyed the idea that "persons are their bodies," by which they did not mean the materialist idea that persons are unconscious things but that mental processes could not be separated from physical selves. American philosopher and theologian William Poteat (1919–2000) refers to a person as a "mindbody," while some alternative health traditions refer to a "bodymind." Several thinkers refer to the "embodied self." Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982) attacked the soul/body dichotomy, which she mostly regarded as a religious doctrine. No doubt there are others with whom I share some fundamental ideas. Holism is not a marginal position, although it has never been as common as the various forms of dualism.
However, I believe I have something unique to offer in this wide field. Most of the theories I mention seem at least slightly “off.” The technical versions of holism seem too remote and often don't explore examples or ramifications clearly. Although they do deal with practices, the alternative health versions seem poorly grounded in solid theory and often rely on vague, almost mystical ideas such as "energy." Religious holists ultimately use holism to describe Jesus as God-become-man, which to my mind, defeats the purpose of holist theorizing, which is to eliminate the idea of a separable "spirit." I think my compact theory provides a reasonable amount of rigor and comprehensiveness along with commonsense and usefulness. All I ask is that the reader give me a chance.
2. A Noun or an Adjective?
The common adoption of a dualist view of a person is understandable. A car-and-driver metaphorical model is plausible. Furthermore, I seem to remain the same, even as my body ages, so the two must be separate. However, I think a holistic outlook can, with some work, address these matters.
My dissolution of the mind-body problem is not technical or scientific. It's not even the result of long arguments. In my opinion, dispelling the mind-body problem depends on the correct conceptualization of the situation, almost on correct grammar. I say that there is no mind-body problem, first of all, because there is no such thing as "mind." To forestall understandable scoffing, let me be clear: I am not claiming that people are not conscious or self-aware or that they have no private thoughts. Those positions are espoused by a school of thought known as eliminative materialism, which is patently absurd.
I mean what I said literally: there is no such thing as mind, except in the loose sense that every existent is a "thing." A mind is not an entity, a thing that can be non-derivatively referred to with a noun. The point is easier to see if we consider the concept of consciousness first. There is no such entity as consciousness. The word is only the noun form of the primary concept of "conscious," which is a quality denoted by an adjective. It is merely a matter of grammatical convenience to cast "conscious-ness" in the form of a noun (i.e., to treat it like an entity). It is like trying to separate the roundness of a billiard ball from the ball itself. You can do so as an abstraction but not in reality.
The case of "mind" is somewhat different. It is not the noun form of an adjective. The word really is a noun, but it does not denote an actual entity. When people go looking for minds, they are seeking a thing that is nothing but "pure" consciousness. Descartes called it res cogitans—the "thinking thing." Most people view the mind as more than just thinking, however, often including feelings and decision-making power, but they still want to say, "I am my mind" (or brain or maybe soul) and "I am not my body," which is a part of the world external to the mind, the part of the world that Descartes called res extensa or “extended stuff.”
To state my position as plainly as possible: Rather than saying that a person has a mind or is a mind, I say that a person is conscious. A human being is a unitary person, not a twofold "ghost in the machine," to use Gilbert Ryle's phrase. If you allow yourself to think without preconceptions, you can see that there is no ghost and no machine. There's just you—a conscious, living, physical entity. The thinking thing is extended stuff. Look where you will, but there's no non-physical mind to be found. The idea of a mind is appealing for several reasons, but I think these can be addressed. For example, some people think of the mind as the "inner you" in the "inner world." We will examine this notion below.
Sometimes parents explain the concept of mind (or soul) to a child by saying that it's the thinking and feeling part of her, as opposed to her body, that makes her what she really is. She is not her arms and legs but that thing inside her chest (or maybe head). No doubt such parents are trying to communicate the idea of an "inner you," but I think using the language of parts is a bad idea that almost inevitably leads to dualism. When a child asks what makes her what she is, the right answer is that she is the person who does all the things she does: thinking, feeling, running, playing, breathing, eating, and smiling. She is the whole living, moving package. I would pick her up, swing her around, and say, "What makes you what you are is YOU!" One could explain that the difference between her and a rock is that she is alive and conscious while the rock is not, but these should be treated as holistic qualities. Parents should never encourage a child to dissociate from her physicality (her body) in favor of an abstract "essence" like mind or soul. Moving is as much what a person does as thinking and feeling. Parents should not encourage dualism but vitality in all their children's activities.
So, what, if anything, is a body? A body in the physical sense is a living three-dimensional entity with mass. It is made of matter (which we understand to some extent). One could say with Kuijpen and Merlau-Ponty that "I am my body" (i.e., I am a conscious, living, physical entity). But while I have no problem with claiming I am bodily or corporeal (both adjectives, not nouns), the traditional concept of "body" (a noun) as an appliance of the immaterial mind or soul or of the material brain makes the "I am my body" formulation suspect because it continues to suggest the traditional division of consciousness and body. I find it better to dispense with talk of minds and bodies (in the non-metaphorical sense), instead proposing, as my definition does, that a person is a conscious, living, physical entity. We can, of course, still use the term "body" to refer to our physical aspect, as in "I feel my emotions mostly in my body," or to refer to the part of a person below the head. And of course metaphors of mind and body are OK as long as they are used carefully and one does not let oneself be seduced by them.
(By the way, I am not committing to the idea that matter is fundamentally three-dimensional and mass-y. I am only speaking in the terms that reflect how we normally experience it. Its ultimate constitution is irrelevant to my theory.)
If I am right, referring to a literal body as a separable part of a person is as inappropriate as referring to consciousness as a separable part of a person. The proper metaphysical unit of humanity is a whole conscious, living, physical being. Our mental and physical aspects cannot be separated except as an abstraction. I am not a mind, soul, or brain, and I do not "have a body" in the literal sense. I truly am one person, indivisible, a self entire.
I am a sensing self; a thinking self; a feeling self; a walking, talking, loving, eating, breathing self. These are all things I do; they are not things that parts of me do. My mind does not do them. My body is not willed to do them. I do them. These activities are my whole being living and moving. My sense of self, my strength and grace, my rational awareness, my emotions, my vitality—all should suffuse my whole person: my arms, my legs, my torso, my genitals, my face, my scalp, my emotions, my intuitions, my reason. I own it all. I am presence, and I should be able to radiate presence into a world that is present to me.
Some might think that words like "suffuse" and "presence" do not sound philosophical. I would respond that we often don't have words for the actions we need to perform and therefore must resort to somewhat poetic language to capture the psychological action that embodies the philosophical realization. I believe such words offer helpful guidance if one can relax a narrow, intense intellectual focus to follow them.
Try it. Let go. You won't lose control. You can always check the results with more intellectual scrutiny later. Relax and let your awareness and warmth suffuse your whole person until you feel the oneness of presence. I am here. The key in this process, as in so many matters of self-realization, is to make it happen and allow it to happen at the same time.
The holistic mini-meditation I am describing is designed to help you begin to erase the boundaries that centuries of ill-begotten thought have carved between your "mind" and your "body." There are many disciplines, collectively known as "bodywork"—some better grounded than others—that may help this process, but I do not know enough to endorse any of them. I do know this, however: the type of dualism we are discussing, if followed to its lived conclusions, will cut you off from your parts. Your body will be “over there,” flat, merely a tool. Holism, if lived (and not merely intellectually affirmed), will help you feel fully alive.
3. The Matter of a Person
The intertwinement of the mental and physical aspects of a person gets even more complicated when considering that conscious activity involves and is supported by myriad preconscious, unconscious, subconscious, and non-conscious processes, all taking place within a living, physical entity. These activities cannot be untangled from the rest of the organism, just as the nerves that coil around muscles, gut, and brain cannot be untangled. The conscious organism ultimately works as a functional unit despite—in fact, because of—its specialized parts and modules. To be conscious means to be working on all "levels," if we can call them that, at the same time. You could think of a person as a layer cake, except the layers shade into one another. These layered processes are you down to the bottom, and you should own them all. Anything less is dissociation.
Dualism emerges from an attempt to skim the top layer off the cake. It claims that a person is just a pure that-which-is-conscious in this sense. The concept of "mind" is a placeholder for this otherwise vacuous notion. But Descartes was wrong to believe that one could be a mere "thinking thing." The view of holism is that the that-which-is-conscious” but the “that” in question is a whole person. Many philosophical conundrums stem from an attempt to skim off the top layer.
An example of the shading of layers is the phenomenon of the "felt sense." Philosopher-psychologist Eugene Gendlin pioneered work on making explicit what are normally vaguely perceived intuitions, usually felt in the chest or belly. I think we can safely regard what he labeled the felt sense as the shading between mental and physical processes. The structure of cognition revealed by his focusing technique lends credence to the claim that there is no separable top layer.
Consider my simplified example of the layer cake: Here I sit typing. I am focusing on what I am writing. I have a felt sense of what I want to say. I have a preconscious awareness of grammar and spelling. I am unconsciously synthesizing ideas. I am half aware of my posture. I have programmed my finger motions and associated them with letters and words. I don't have to think about breathing, though I can if need be. I hold tensions in my muscles that reflect and affect my thoughts and feelings and which I can work to release. Meanwhile, my cells and kidneys continue to function on their own, although they can be affected by the stress hormones that I can partially control consciously. Most of this can happen or be affected somewhat consciously, but the more conscious parts depend on the less conscious parts, and indeed, most of the processes in me are non-conscious. It is futile to single out one layer as real consciousness. I the whole can focus on different layers at different times, including focusing on what I am writing and feel that I am a pure that-which-is-conscious, but that feeling arises from selective attention by the whole; it does not prove the existence of "mind."
As far as we know, consciousness is a property of matter organized in certain ways. We are conscious matter. Some people claim that a person cannot be a material entity because matter cannot be conscious. That is mere prejudice. We see conscious matter all the time. Those who deny the obvious are just trying to define the possibility out of existence.
I resist saying that the bits of matter in a person, whether atoms or neurons, "cause" consciousness because that would suggest that the parts and the whole can be separated. Instead, I say that the parts simply are conscious qua whole. The whole is truly more than the sum of its parts. Of course, the atoms in us can do things that atoms in test tubes cannot, but that doesn't indicate that human beings are more than atoms so much as it indicates that we don't know everything there is to know about atoms. The existence of consciousness proves that our physics is incomplete. The existence of free will, which I will not defend here, proves that physics is even more incomplete. (My belief in free will is why I am not a materialist, even though I think we are made of matter.)
Maybe there is some as yet unknown form of matter or energy that interacts with currently known forms to give rise to consciousness. There would still be no reason to invoke non-material "spirits," whether natural or supernatural, to explain awareness. Such an invocation without unequivocal evidence seems to me a return to dualism. It is the job of science to figure out how consciousness happens. Philosophy just points out that it does happen, and that is the limit of its responsibility.
How physical (neural) events can cause conscious events is a puzzle that drives many philosophers crazy, but what drives them even crazier is how consciousness, which they take to be a flitting, filmy thing, can cause physical events, such as bodily motion. Some offer an explanation in terms of "downward causation” of the mental to the physical, which is little more than a phrase. Others, throwing in the towel, assert that consciousness does not cause anything: only neural events exist, and consciousness is at most a side effect, like the heat emitted by an engine. This doctrine, known as epiphenomenalism, claims that we only feel like we cause things. It's mere coincidence that our perception of agency aligns with patterns of action. The theory requires complete skimming of the "top layer" and unbelievably coincidental events. What are the odds?
(Note: Some experiments suggest that brain action precedes conscious recognition of intention but I believe they have been improperly interpreted. I address these experiments in my monograph Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris.)
My reply to the claim that consciousness does not cause actions is that the notion is in some sense correct. Consciousness as such does not cause our actions because conscious-ness, which is not a thing, doesn't act at all; people do. I act consciously. Now the adjective becomes an adverb. I, a person in the world, see a glass of water, a thing in the world. I decide to drink the water and therefore go get it. There is no extra layer here that needs explaining by philosophy. There is no mysterious, flitting, filmy, almost mystical, thing doing the work because it's I, the organism entire, that does the work in the world. Once again, one can't treat consciousness as the "top layer" and peel it off to act on its own. My action is me-as-whole acting. This may seem like common sense, but many philosophers and non-philosophers get it wrong—for example, by introducing the notion of representations of the world in the brain. More on that later.
Thanks to a misconceptualization of consciousness and a misplaced emphasis on science, many modern philosophers are obsessed with brains. Instead of Descartes' mind-body dualism, they advocate mind-brain dualism, brain-body dualism, or the like. I find this misguided. Brains should not get this much attention, at least not in philosophy. While the brain is clearly the seat of personal identity, brains don't see and touch; persons with eyes and skin and brains see and touch. The whole package is conscious. The parts function as a unit, and they are all kept alive by the same organic processes. Dividing them is arbitrary. Saying the consciousness is purely a function of the brain is like saying circulation is purely a function of the heart. I am not a brain any more than I am a mind. I am definitely not a brain barricaded in a control room any more than I am a mind drifting in another dimension.
Some argue that while you would retain consciousness and personal identity after having a limb amputated, you wouldn't if you lost your brain, so the brain is therefore the real you and the body just an appendage. I agree that the brain is the sine qua non of awareness. But while it is true that the brain is the nervous system’s central organ, it is also true that if you lost, for example, your hands, you would likewise lose part of your consciousness, namely the ability to feel with them. Furthermore, you would no longer be a grasping being or a caressing being. These would be substantial changes in your identity. You would have continuity of memory and personal identity, but you would no longer be the person you had been. Furthermore, the complete brain is not indispensable to personal identity, as we lose brain cells all the time without losing continuity of awareness. It's a bit messy, but it seems accurate to say that the right package is the entire person, not just the brain.
In addition, my brain is not aware in isolation from the rest of me; it is not merely taking snapshots. To see, I must dance my eyes over my environment. I must turn my head. I must walk around to get perspective. I must touch to get scale and understand texture. My whole person—not just the brain—is involved in normal seeing, and analogous activities are necessary for the other senses. As philosopher/neuroscientist Alva Noë would say, we need to get out of our heads.
I don't downplay the importance of the brain or the immense insight recent brain research has given us into ourselves. I am speaking on the fundamental philosophical level—a pre-technical, extremely general, introspective level of lived experience that lays out the basic architecture of phenomena. For example, philosophy done right doesn't need to study brain-damaged people to know that we are not brains, but nor should it do armchair science or deny that which has been discovered scientifically. It can, however, suggest interpretations of scientific discoveries and point out inconsistencies or failures of method.
5. Leaving the Control Room
We can now discuss some of the technical foundations of holism and the implications of holism versus dualism. This material may not seem relevant to daily existence, but I think you will find that it is. These foundations have to do with the relationship between holism and perceptual realism.
Realism is the claim is that one directly perceives the objects in one's perceptual field. For example, if under normal conditions I seem to see an apple, then it is in fact an apple that I see, not a representation or image of an apple, nor just a red patch. Furthermore, I don't have to infer the presence of the physical object: it is simply there for me. The apple as I see it is in no sense "in my head," even though my eyes and brain interact with the apple and the light it reflects to shape how the apple appears to me. Appearance is not the same as representation, and processing does not disqualify the experience of direct perception. There are challenges to the idea of perceptual realism, and simplistic versions of it (such as so-called naive realism, a theory that holds among other things that colors are intrinsic qualities of objects apart from the eye that sees them) can easily be invalidated, but I think that philosopher David Kelley has worked out a sophisticated and valid theory on the subject.
Many philosophers, including Descartes, are not realists, believing instead that only ideas about or representations of the world are directly accessible to us. As Descartes wrote in a letter, “I am certain that I can have no knowledge of what is outside me except by means of the ideas I have within me.” Some believe that what we apprehend are disconnected sense data, such as patches of red and itches. All agree that we cannot be sure that outer things or other people even exist. Descartes arrived at dualism by doubting the possibility of knowing the outside world until he believed that he could know only that he was a "thinking thing" with the body and external world being mere ideas. I propose cutting off Descartes' universal doubt at the root by arguing (via Kelley) that doubting our perception of the given is unjustified, leaving no question of whittling down the self to a mere mind.
Descartes and his more scientific followers would say that we perceive only representations of the world that the bodily senses transmit to the "control room" and that as such, there is a fundamental divide between the entity in the control room (the mind in Descartes' case but usually the brain in today's versions) and the world outside it, which includes the cameras, probes, and microphones that transmit these representations. These cameras, probes, and microphones are the sense organs, regarded as parts of the body, which for dualists, fundamentally means "outside the true self." Furthermore, some claim that we don't even know whether a world exists outside the control room because all we get are pictures of it. You can see why those who believe this might feel disconnected from the physical world and other people. This theory is an invitation to intellectualize one’s experiences.
Realism and holism mutually support each other in two ways. First, Descartes arrived at his idea that the mind is separate from the body by doubting the existence of the outer world and body until all that was left was the doubter, the thinking thing. This thing is removed from physical reality, which is only known through representations of it transmitted to the thinking thing by the bodily senses. Realism derails this argument by not allowing it to get started. The existence of the world and the body is beyond doubt because direct knowledge of reality can be established by experience and argument. Furthermore, realism is the default hypothesis because doubt should never be the first move in the knowledge game. Even doubt must have a foundation. It is not legitimate to doubt our way to a mind independent of the body as Descartes does.
Second, realism claims that we do not perceive by means of representations but by direct contact between the knowing self and the world. This claim means that there is nothing inside a person that the senses provide representations to, which means that there is no thinking thing—no mind or isolated brain inside or associated with me that is the "real" me. I am directly aware of my person as a being with mass and extension, and my perception is clearly rooted in those qualities. I touch and see in relation to my body and my perception of its mass, extension, and location. My hands, eyes, and all the rest—in dynamic motion—perceive myself and other things in the world. We have said before that the real self is that-which-is-conscious. By that criterion, the perceiving self is the real self. But that self is not pure consciousness. What exists is a person in the world, me out to the edges.
Similarly, holism leaves no room for representations because they require a division between the sense organs and the part that receives information (i.e., the mind, the brain, or even the soul). No such division is observable. The sensory part of me does not stand between the essential me and the world. Holism argues that the sense organs and body are integral parts of me that with my brain, constitute my person and thus put me in immediate contact with the world (realism again). They are not mere tools of my "mind" or brain. As Luijpen says, "My ears are 'I who hear'" (p. 35). My perceptions of things and other people are direct, and I—a living entity with mass and extension—am sharing space in the world with those things, people, and their mass and extension. Again, my definition of a person reflects this conceptualization.
The self-in-the-control-room model suffers from two fatal flaws. First, it pushes the mystery of awareness back one remove. For the dualist/representationalist, perception is either processed by the sense organs or is direct from the world but not both. For this school of thought, unprocessed direct perception would be magic. And since the theorists in question quite sensibly don't believe in magic (i.e., something that happens without a natural process), they cannot believe in direct awareness. Cameras, microphones, thermal sensors, and the like can only produce representations of reality, like television for the mind or brain.
The problem is that somebody (an internal homunculus or "little person") must be "watching" the inner television without needing another iteration of cameras, microphones, etc. The alternative is to theorize a second-order television watched by the homunculus of the homunculus, thus generating a television image of a television image. This necessarily leads to a third-order homunculus watching a third-order television, and the pattern continues infinitely unless we posit a homunculus who is directly aware without a natural process (i.e., by magic). This is the so-called homunculus fallacy, which invalidates any argument that leads to it. Either the representationalist/dualist model generates an infinite regress or it requires magic. Either way, it is invalidated.
Of course, we still need a model to explain perception's relation to the world. We have proved that it cannot be representational, and experience and argument indicate that we generally perceive the world accurately. So, what if we challenge the representationalist/dualist premise by claiming that valid and direct awareness inextricably does involve processing—because it doesn't happen by magic? Then we can stop at the first "skin," which is the person being aware as a whole by dint of having sense organs and a brain but not by using sense organs to convey representations to a mind or brain. My eyes do not stand between me and the world. Rather, my eyes are "I who see." Once again, we acknowledge that consciousness is never pure or magical but part of an organismic system of processes. I, the whole, physical person in the world, am conscious. (I should add that because the processes of cognition are not magic and have limits, they are subject to some distortions, such as optical illusions. Obviously, these do not invalidate realism because we know they are illusions and because our understanding would have to be accurate on the whole for us to even grasp the difference between accuracy and distortion.)
I should mention, and this is perhaps little more than an aside, that there are some theists who believe in both a soul and realism. However, such belief entails a gap between the sense organs and brain on the one hand and the soul on the other, as the soul is by definition a non-material thing. Such a gap can only be bridged by magic, as one would expect in a supernatural worldview.
I think the fact that vision is considered the primary sense contributes to the confusion over issues of perception. Descartes' own diagram of dualism/representationalism depicts eyes projecting images onto the pineal gland, which Descartes regarded as the link between the immaterial mind and material body. Since we often see pictures of objects, sometimes projected on a screen, it is easy to imagine that perception works this way.
But if we regard touch as the primary sense—which in fact it is—the Cartesian model becomes less tenable. To perceive a ball in our hands, we would have to imagine the skin thrusting something like a statue at the mind, which breaks down the idea of an interiority in perception. This variation of the model strains credulity.
The first flaw in the control-room model was that it pushed back the “mystery” on consciousness one remove. The second flaw is that it over-complexifies action. Why do we need a homunculus at all? Instead of theorizing a little man inside the control room, watching viewscreens and pressing buttons and pulling levers to make the body move, why not grant that the whole person is capable of such vision and motion? Why not cut out the middleman and simplify the situation? The homunculus perishes by Occam's razor.
Some philosophers do not speak in terms of literal images transmitted by sense organs. Some go so far as to say that we can't be sure we have sense organs at all. They claim that our experience is consistent with the possibility that a person is a brain in a nutrient vat being fed supercomputer-generated nerve stimulation by an evil scientist.
This scenario cannot be taken seriously. It is arbitrary and self-stultifying, even as a thought experiment. On its own terms, this claim has no justification for postulating the existence of brains or scientists or computers since we only know about brains and the rest by perceiving them in the real world. The thinkable is not the possible, and science fiction is not philosophy.
But, these philosophers might reply, our experiences really do come from nerve stimulation. The remainder of the chain of causation is dispensable. I agree up to the word "dispensable." Our experience comes from real objects affecting the sense organs that in turn generate nerve stimuli. This gives rise to consciousness of a real-world object. Again, it's not magic. But it is the whole chain of causation that gives rise to direct perception. Direct perception and processed perception are not antithetical. What is magic are evil scientists with supercomputers and brains in nutrient vats. It is invalid to present arbitrary scenarios, asking one to take them seriously and rule them out. We must start with the given and build a worldview on a solid foundation. The given is that there is a world for us and that we are in it. Taking science fiction for philosophy engenders playing around with ideas that one should approach in a more sober fashion.
(If I may digress, this approach to philosophy is itself a kind of dualism. Such thinking holds that all ideas are created equal because they exist merely as things in a mind disconnected from the world. One notion is thus as good as any other. As such, thinking about them becomes a kind of game. This phenomenon is similar to an inappropriate sense of humor that accepts joking about anything, even others' suffering, because it's all just in your mind. How can you take things seriously if at some level, you don't even believe they are real? Humor is play, of course, but living in the real world sets boundaries on the game, just as it should set limits on theorizing. Lived experience is both the starting point and the end of a proper philosophy. Though indispensable, ideas are mere tools. If they become your world, you will be a dualist cut off from reality and other people.)
To distill this part of my theory to its essence, I would say: representationalism and dualism imply each other as do realism and holism. Representationalism and dualism both set the mind or brain apart from the sensory body and the world, the existence of which I can only hope to infer through images or sensations. Realism and holism both set an indivisible me in direct contact with the world. The first pair traps me inside, watching endless TV reruns, while the second liberates me to explore the universe. Now you see why my definition of "person" includes directly perceiving things and people.
In sum, according to personal holism, the boundary between self and non-self does not lie between my brain or mind and my sensory body, with a possible world way over there somewhere. The boundary between self and non-self is my skin. I touch the world, and it touches me. I touch other people, and they touch me. I am not a mind isolated from my body. I feel my feelings as part of me. I am not isolated from the wonders of the world, nor from the work of my hands, nor from the joy of embracing other human beings.
Experiencing oneself as a being in the world is the basis of love of self, reality, and other people. It is the absolute foundation of authenticity, as opposed to living in one's head and merely acting out a life in a virtual world. Authenticity requires the courage to be in the real world, exposed and vulnerable, but the rewards are immeasurable.
Authenticity also requires courage in another way: to attain it, you must accept mortality and abandon the fairy tales of an afterlife for the soul or mind. A lot of dualist thinking comes from the fear of death and the refusal to accept that living means aging and perishing. Embrace life in all its finitude, for to exist is to be finite. A drop of poignancy makes the joy that much sweeter.
What I am describing may sound too abstract to have relevance for a non-philosopher, but I do not believe this is true. Many people, from what I have observed, feel that the world and/or their body is unreal. They exist in a dreamlike state or sometimes a state of anxious withdrawal, thinking, if I don't live in the real world, it can't hurt me. This pattern may not always arise from avoidance; it may be as simple as being out of touch with one's feelings or feeling awkward "in one's skin," but the feeling of unreality remains.
You might believe that people don't reach these states by way of philosophical reasoning, but maybe they implicitly do. Isn't withdrawing from the world the psychological equivalent of Descartes' doubting everything? Isn't the person who withdraws trying to become a mere thinking thing? Doesn't feeling awkward or unintegrated with one's body make a person feel unwhole and out of touch with the world? I argue that in retreating from the world, one uses the notion of mind, even if not thinking of it and that if feeling very awkward, one is probably experiencing their conscious and bodily aspects as not forming a whole. These philosophical concepts may exist in everyday people's non-intellectual thought, even if they don't use the words. And, of course, the explicit philosophical concepts are floating around in the cultural air to be used—or fought—implicitly or explicitly.
Every significant philosophical idea has, for better or worse, a corresponding psychological action. When for the better, an idea can light a path out of a psychological cul-de-sac. If you really let the truth of a philosophical idea sink in and feel your way through your particular life issues, you might see the way to a better life. I am not suggesting that this process can replace therapy or medication, but it seems a reasonable adjunct to them. And, of course, many people do not need therapy but only to clarify their thinking, which is what philosophy is for. I speak from my own experience when I say that following philosophical arguments has made me feel more present and whole.
I think I have done some plausible proving and pointing, but now it is time for you to do some work. Go outside. Listen to the breeze whispering in the leaves and feel it on your face. Walk on a trail. Look into the woods and into the eyes of your companion. Stop thinking about philosophy for a few minutes and be where you are, where you are. Focus on the feeling of all of you being present and the world being present to you. Focus, but do so in a relaxed and gentle way. Don't impose your routine concepts on the experience. Later, you can think about philosophy again, but when you do, use your lived reality as your starting point, building new concepts and testing existing ones against it.
What I'm describing may sound like mindfulness meditation, but it's not an episodic focus on just one thing, such as breathing, but a continuous adjustment of your manner of being. You bring your psychological actions into harmony with reality. I continually make small adjustments, but I do my major reset every day in the shower. I reach out and think and feel: This is all real! I am alive! The water and the tiles and the shower curtain and the light and I myself are right here, and I can touch and see them filling space. I feel vitality and joy at my own existence, my thinking and emotions as clear and brisk as the water. I am present in a world that is present to me!
A good shower is one of the most profound benefits of a good philosophy. Reclaim reality and you can wash away the errors of the centuries.
6. Holism and the Inner World
Matters are not so simple, of course. I think the best objection to my holist theory is that we experience something we could fairly call an "inner world” in which there dwells an inner person (i.e., a mind). There is both an easy and hard version of this objection. The easy version is that we have a visual point of view from inside our heads, so it makes metaphorical sense to say that we look outward from our inner vantage point. This doesn't seem like a significant objection. Mere geometry should not be the basis of a philosophical theory. We are not minds peeking out of the windows of our eyes.
More important is the fact that we have private thoughts and feelings that others cannot hear or see so that it again makes metaphorical sense to say these thoughts and feelings are inside us, experienced by something like a homunculus.
I respond that the thing that thinks and feels in private is the whole person, a conscious living physical being. It's not a separable part. The private self is not a "mind." It is just a self. To be a self (i.e., a conscious and self-conscious being) means to be a private self because, as American philosopher John Searle would say, consciousness is irreducibly subjective. There is a famous philosophical essay by Thomas Nagel called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” which tries to understand bats’ subjective experience and ends up conceding that we can never know what it is to fly by sonar, etc.. Well, there will always be something that it is like to be you that cannot be perceived from the outside. While it may be tempting to identify the thing that is alone in the inner world as the true self and to reify it, once again, this is incorrect because there's really just you. In other words, subjective, invisible goings-on do not a mind make. The fact that one's subjective thoughts and feelings are invisible to others does not mean that there is an invisible thinker/feeler inside you or associated with you. It just means that your subjectivity is private. That's what subjectivity means.
I don't want to appeal to evolutionary psychology, which I think is largely speculative, but it makes sense that animals would evolve “inner” faculties that piggyback on the “outer” faculties of perception. For example, visual imagination and memory are quasi-visual experiences, and an "inner voice" and auditory memory are quasi-auditory experiences. Instead of calling this theater the "inner world," which is misleading, we could call it a "fictive experience." Of course, these quasi-perceptual experiences are necessarily private activities and experiences of the self, even more so than regular perception, which connects to a public world. But we need not postulate an inner eye or inner ear to explain imagination.
Likewise, our other mental faculties seem to piggyback on more real-world faculties. Thoughts can be about real things, but we can separate the thought from the object once we pass a certain stage of development. Our memories are not of things currently present. Our plans are only of things perhaps to come. Our feelings are relative to our values and not things found in the world, although this can be hard to see. Our conceptual categories are not givens, although this too can be difficult to see. The piggybacking of the fictive experience on our perception of the objective world is what enables reason and our other sophisticated mental faculties. The activities in the fictive space accompany perception in the objective world, but we must always remember which is primary.
It is tempting to divide the world into a mind that lives amongst its fictive artifacts and a world that is outside this mind, including the body and external reality. However, I think that this is exactly backwards. The bodily, perceiving self in the directly known objective world is the given. The fictive experience is derivative. One of the triumphs of philosophy is to differentiate fictive experience from the objective world without subordinating the latter to the former, as Descartes, Kant, and many other philosophers have done.
Furthermore, it is mistaken to cleanly bud off an inner mental self from the external one that includes the body. The things we do mentally are too involved with the physical. The felt sense, moods, and emotions are largely experienced as physical feelings. While the traditional and incorrect view considers mind "pure consciousness," the layers of the cake, to say it once again, shade into one another. When we quietly contemplate our own self-awareness, we are not directly aware of some abstracted consciousness but rather activities and states of our person: our breathing, our proprioception, our felt sense, the effort of our cognitive focus and the way in which it makes awareness coalesce—in short, the background hum of our personal being. It is from this experience that the idea of pure awareness is abstracted. The notion that we can be aware of our awareness without any perceptual content is self-contradictory because awareness must be awareness of something, and perception is our connection to reality. Awareness of only awareness is vacuous except as an abstraction. This position is an artificial notion of how the self works that depends on intellectualization and excessive withdrawal into one's head.
I think it is this combination of privacy (invisibility from the outside) and fictiveness (not literally in this world) that gives rise to the notion of an internal mind that is separate from the body. And when people are taught concepts of mind or soul, it’s game over. Think of the little girl again: what were her parents trying to show her? That she has an inner mind (i.e., a pure consciousness) within her, apart from her perceptual body. But there is nothing in consciousness that is not grounded in perception. We can retreat into the fictive world when we need to concentrate, but our baseline position should always be to push out into the real world.
7. A Word about Zombies
Some dualists wonder whether other people are really conscious or are just "zombies," the term used by many philosophers. Their puzzlement is due to their belief that consciousness is inside people rather than an attribute of the whole. Following this thinking, I can only see the machine that is your body, not the real you (Luijpen, p. 154).
This seems to me another misconceptualization. I am not a machine, and since you are like me, there is no reason to think you are either. Even if you are lying to me and I don't know your private thoughts, we still share a world at the perceptual level and conceptual references to that world, and I am with you there. If this were not the case, being inappropriately touched would not be so disturbing. It is not rational to feel traumatized if someone parks their car too close to yours.
Maybe someday we'll have to agonize over whether androids might be conscious or are just “zombies,” but we haven't had to so far, and perhaps by the time they could fool us on their own initiative and not as puppets of their programmers, they will be conscious in their own way.
Dualism—in theory but mercifully not always in practice—isolates people from one another, each in his own philosophical capsule. If you live in your head, you could end up treating others as mere characters in your narrative, characters without their own separate existence, concerns, and feelings. You might use them to support or generate your own feelings of drama, titillation, amusement, pathos, superiority, etc. This is one of the most insidious effects of dualism. Holism, on the other hand, encourages you to live in the real world and see other people as the three-dimensional beings they are, rather than as mere pixels on a screen.
As a corollary to its worse side, dualism has historically led to a bad kind of objectivity (i.e., detachment and reductionism). Objectivity is, of course, a powerful tool that has led to great advances in science and medicine since the time of Descartes. But there are right and wrong ways to be objective. Holism permits us to be in touch with the world, rather than feeling alienated from it, and to feel empathy for others, all while still using reason, because holism holds that we can share an emotional space as well as physical and conceptual spaces.
8. Motion and Intention
Most dualist theories of the self do not account for the motion of persons in the world. According to them you are just a thinking thing floating in space. They consider everything input, like watching a movie. Most works on philosophy of mind that I have examined discuss consciousness but not action. At best, dualist theories assert that the brain "plans a voluntary action and then commands the muscles to move" (a view criticized by J. J. Gibson quoted in Noe, p. 149). As a counter to this command theory, I propose that our conscious intentions to move are in our movements, in the same way my consciousness pervades my bodily self. Prior, purely mental, intentions as such do not cause actions. Rather, the conscious physical entity moves. In a sense, it is misleading to say, "I move my arm." This statement is not philosophically parallel to "I move my pen," though it uses the same grammatical construction. Perhaps it would be clearer to simply speak of what I am “using” my arm for: “I am reaching for my cup.” Here the grammar is that of me doing something, rather than using my arm as a crane.
A prior intention to move is not an intention in the effective sense but merely a necessary preparation or plan for the intended action. No amount of prior intention will make you do something until you "just do it." In this respect, the Nike ads are correct: just thinking about doing something will never make you do it. All deliberate action is ultimately spontaneous, by which I don't mean impulsive or thoughtless. Spontaneity may be deliberate, as when a brain surgeon works meticulously to make her incisions, but when all is said and done, she makes them.
People who learn to act most of the time without commands, just by understanding and doing, are very fortunate indeed. I do not mean this in an anti-intellectual sense. It might take years of thinking and practicing before one can act in the moment without much thinking. Playing music comes to mind. But we could also be talking about natural and graceful action on the fly, which may result from especially well-integrated layers of the human cake (e.g., conscious, preconscious, unconscious) that allow one to act intuitively without much planning. Once again, I'm advocating getting out of your head, even if doing so takes a lot of in-head preparation. One way or another, the real, effective intention is contemporaneous with the action, or more exactly, it is the leading edge of the action of the whole.
Note, however, that intentions-in-action need not be bare physical motions. When I intend to pass a car while driving, I am not merely intending motions of my hands and feet; I am intending to pass the other car. I am probably not even especially aware of my hands and feet. It is an interesting question for psychology just how long an intended action can continue without the intender stopping and planning anew. Intention, properly understood, and movement are only asunder when something is wrong with the system, such as physical or psychological paralysis.
We do not inhabit a world of input to and output from the mind or brain. We move as conscious physical beings in a world of directly known things and other people. I am not just watching these things on television; I am walking among them, touching them, etc. (More of my definition of "person" here.) Motion is integral to the self, and we move with our whole beings. This is true even when we speak of specific body parts. I don’t “use” my hands to grasp or my feet to walk. Rather "My grasping hands are 'I who grasp,' my feet are 'I who walk,'" and so forth (Luijpen, p. 35).
The fundamental function of being conscious is to facilitate an organism's intelligent action at whatever level of intelligence it has. The reason for this function is that we must navigate and manipulate the world to stay alive. Mortality—or to put it more affirmatively, life—is what gets the whole process going. Consciousness does not exist as an end in itself, as some philosophers seem to believe when they treat it as outside any practical, social, or emotional context.
While we’re on the subject of motion, we should discuss how dualism negatively impacts our physicality. The problem is its excessive intellectualization of life. Please don't get me wrong; I am not preaching an anti-intellectualist sermon. I am rather intellectual myself. I am saying only that living too much in one's head has a bad effect on one's physical life.
Ideally, walking, running, swimming, playing sports, and so forth should be pleasant, graceful, and engrossing, because they involve the whole person. One should arrange one's life to do enough of such activities to be physically and emotionally healthy, never sacrificing them to the mental demands of work or to sedentary activities such as reading or watching TV. Unfortunately, one cannot live as a whole all the time. Sometimes, you must memorize irregular verbs in your head or let the doctor work on your body, but these are deviations, however necessary, from what should be the norm.
For me, the ends of the wholeness spectrum are dancing and writing. Dancing, even if the steps must be learned and initially feel unnatural, is an act of joyful motion, experienced as a spontaneous flow state, a realization of my conscious and bodily wholeness. Even writing, as I can attest, is not all in the head if you reach out to reality with your words and are mindful of your workstation and posture. Writing can be a way to physically project yourself into the world, especially when your ideas are grounded in reality. My eyes and head, my hands and arms, my reason and feelings—all are "I who write."
For many people, the most important example of physicality is sex. Sex can be a big problem for dualists, some of whom are deeply ambivalent about themselves as sensual and sexual beings. They might feel guilty because they believe the their sensuality is a lowly thing, or they might feel sex is an indulgence separate from the soul or mind.
A larger problem might be that dualists believe the body has its own separable agenda, pleasures, and needs apart from the mind or soul. To vary the old saying, "Lust is blind." This belief can lead people to regard their sexuality as either a tool to be used or a master to be obeyed, rather than as a capability of the whole. Combining this with the "zombie" problem can create an unhealthy, even debased, situation in which one uses one’s partners with no concern for their feelings. By contrast, the holist ideal in relationships is not based on sex per se but on sexual intimacy, an encounter between two whole selves at all levels, with both sensuality and love pervading the self.
The same awkward dislocation that makes it hard for people to dance well may make them clumsy or non-empathetic in bed. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that dualism impedes sensuality, making men more phallocentric and women perhaps more non-orgasmic, but this is pure speculation, as I am definitely not a man of the world however much I try to live in it!
One final factor I want to discuss regarding sexuality is parenthood. Sex and parenthood are connected, after all, though since rational beings are not pawns of biology, people can separate them. I don't know much about parenthood, as I have spent little time around pregnant women and people with children. My impression is that motherhood tends a woman away from dualism, unless she is seriously in the grip of religion. I suspect that philosophy would have taken a different historical turn if more of it had been written by mothers than by unencumbered men, but this is mere conjecture.
9. Rationality and Feelings
For human beings, action is conceptual. We use words. We form abstractions. We make generalizations. Hopefully, we make plans. Traditionally, this is called "rationality," but that term bothers some people because they think people do not act rationally much of the time. However, since even halfway-functional people use concepts, we can instead call it "conceptual consciousness." Let me mention, however, that when I talk about reason, I am not talking about contemplation as its fundamental or highest form (as Aristotle seems to) because that is not the primary function of consciousness. Rather, sustaining life is. Contemplation is only one part, albeit an important one, of human life. Once again, it is necessary to get people out of their heads.
I take a somewhat different view of rationality from many other thinkers. I believe that the self is realized by the practice of a special kind of reason. Here is my summary of this practice from another essay:
[W]ith the proper preparation, [it] should come naturally: Stay focused, centered, and present. Feel your feelings and let them permeate you. Listen to your gut but don't give it the last word. Breathe calmly. Use your head. Use common sense, logic, and intuition. Use curiosity and empathy. Use your whole self, for it is the whole person that knows—and lives—the whole, not just a part, not even the part inside your skull. This practice, this manner of existence, goes beyond verbal logic alone—as essential as that is—to what I call robust rationality.
Many of the elements of robust rationality can be construed as having a bodily aspect. As such dualism encourages persons to discount these elements and rely on a detached and decentered form of reason. I am in no way arguing against reason in favor of “subjectivity.” What I am saying is that the whole self is involved in cognition. That is holism.
As you might have inferred, personal holism does not divide reason from emotions or from feelings more generally. We saw this when discussing Eugene Gendlin's idea of the "felt sense," which one might call a form of intuition. There are many other kinds of feelings of which I'll list just three: (1) inborn desires for security, love, mastery of skills, novelty, knowledge (experienced as curiosity), etc.; (2) emotions, strictly speaking, such as love, anger, and fear, which follow from automatized values in our encounters with pertinent situations; and (3) socially connective feelings, such as empathy, compassion, and shame. One could build an ethics based on integrating these feelings with the objective requirements of living, and I have attempted to do so in another essay.
Dualism affects people's emotions. This is a subtle subject, and I'm not sure I'm up to the task of exploring it. From what I have read, the kind of living in one's head that dualism encourages in some people makes it difficult for emotions to flow naturally. The “command” structure of intention blocks feelings from the body—and here I mean the literal body, the part of a person below the head. One can become so busy pushing out that it's hard for feelings to swim upstream, creating constant muscle tension. The Cartesian "thinking thing," which is locked in with its thoughts, intellectualizes emotions. Part of this problem seems to be, once again, an attempt by the self-as-mind to exercise tyrannical control, in this case to deny one's situation and feelings for what they are at present, instead of working to change them in a natural fashion. All these phenomena can be implementations of dualistic thinking or psychological actions that can be rationalized by dualistic thinking. The conflict between reason and emotion seems to be a variation of the recurring mind-body conflict.
Another problem for some dualists when it comes to emotions is that they identify with the "body" and discount the "mind," which leads to feelings being regarded as irrational, almost animalistic, often with terrible consequences for flourishing, relationships, and ethical living.
In the holist view, one should accept feelings and let them suffuse one. This doesn't mean being impulsive or uncritical. It means being thoughtful and spontaneous. It means embracing one's nature as a feeling being. We are not Vulcans like Mr. Spock.
10. Revisiting the Definition
Let's revisit my definition now that we have covered all its criteria. According to holism, a person is a conceptually conscious physical entity, alive and moving in a world of other directly perceived entities and people. Perhaps this is more a summary or a manifesto than a definition, but I believe it is useful in the same way a definition is (i.e., as a way to include and exclude that which should be included and excluded). For example, it includes human beings of all races and genders. In fact, race and gender aren't even part of the definition. It excludes immaterial "spirits," such as ghosts and God. It also excludes the lower animals, except perhaps for those that might be shown to be conceptually conscious. It excludes artificial intelligence or the mind as software that might be uploaded into another device (i.e., another body or computer).
Mine is not the traditional definition of a human being, which in Aristotle's formulation is "a rational animal." While Aristotle's definition is similar to mine and certainly more compact, I expand his words at the risk of making my definition wordy or even somewhat redundant to clear away the misconceptualizations of the millennia.
If you want it stated another way, we can do so taxonomically: I am an existent. I am a physical entity. I am a living physical entity. I am a conscious, living physical entity. I am a conceptually conscious, living physical entity. I think nesting the qualities in this manner makes it even easier to see that dualism makes no sense. Of course, it still boils down to "rational animal," but I find it helpful to distinguish each species from the genus to which it belongs.
We could quibble about my definition by asking questions such as the following: Is a person in a non-conscious vegetative state still a person? Is a person on life support even alive? Does a quadriplegic who cannot move qualify as a person under my definition? It might seem like evasiveness, but I would respond that these are all marginal cases and that my definition is valid because it applies to normal examples of persons. My definition need not account for conceptual outliers for it to be valid.
My definition of a human person owes nothing to scientific experiments, philosophical speculations, or religious revelations. It is based on close-to-the ground observations. I have tried to trace the process by which such observations are built, but readers must go over it on their own to see whether it is plausible.
While the holistic definition precedes any possible scientific definition of a human being, it is silent on matters such as the effects of evolution on cognition and built-in preferences. However, claims about evolution and its effects depend on the general reliability of our perception to establish that evolution is a real phenomenon. Philosophy is the foundation of all theorizing. And while philosophy lays down certain general preconditions for later knowledge about the nature of reality and reason, I am not proposing armchair science. Holism is the philosophy of given experience and given experience only.
Although a definition usually functions to place the defined into a conceptual hierarchy, it can also function as an identification or clarification of the concept. I have attempted to reconceptualize the concept of a person from the ground up. It seems to me that this redefined concept not only helps address the problems of abstract philosophy but also reveals a better philosophy—not just a better philosophy to live by as an abstract guide but a better philosophy to live, all the way down. This is the proper purpose of philosophy, in my view. The point of all of this sifting is to help human beings feel alive, whole, and vibrantly in touch with reality and other people, not just intellectually satisfied.
Perhaps some readers will consider my definition of a person obvious. I congratulate those who do, but it will not be obvious to everybody, and in any case, it bears making explicit. I've given some thought to the usefulness of my definition. It is not something I would recite, even in my head. But when I read it and let it sink in, thinking concretely about each part, it helps me make sense of myself. I feel my presence as a real being, disowning nothing—self, through and through—out in a real and present world of things and other people, all of which can be explored and—potentially—loved. If I accept the definition, letting it in instead of just examining it at arm's length, it functions—for me, at least—as a daily epiphany.
My theory is just a sketch, of course. Much would have to be filled in before it could be fully validated, and if I were a scholar with decades to master the literature, I would try to provide more context and support for my ideas. I believe, however, that I have developed a good layperson's account of my thesis. I think I have made the plausible claims that a person is an indivisible unit rather than a compound of mind or brain and body and that many ancient philosophical—and practical—problems are dissolved by this way of looking at ourselves.
It took me forty years of thinking, on and off, to write this essay. Readers who have gotten this far might wonder why I have put so much time and effort into writing it. I did so in part because I see in my and other people's lives an unhealthy and tragic division. Many people are cut off from the world, their physicality and feelings, their reason, other people, and their innocence. Some people have blunted feelings that they try to sharpen with alcohol, snarky humor, promiscuity, cruelty, or dangerous thrills. And some people tragically cannot dance.
Perhaps you don't need a theory like personal holism. Maybe you have always felt as undivided as you really are. I hope so. But if you do need it, I believe it can assist you in expanding your feelings of selfhood so that they permeate your whole person, with nothing walled off, cut off, or cast away. This could help kindle a kind of wholeheartedness that can foster greater excitement about the possibilities of human life. Thinking, feeling, creating, moving, loving, eating, and choosing wonder could all be experienced with simultaneous zeal and serenity because you would experience yourself as what you fundamentally are: a presence in a world that is present to you. And when you look into another person's eyes, you will know that you are really there with them, peering into the deep well of each other's being.
Personal holism is not merely an abstract theory but a way of living in the world. It is my hope, dear reader, that living it will help you as much as it has helped me.