Laying the Foundation
In this chapter, we’ll use the versatile LEGO minifigure to introduce three major themes, questions, and problems tackled in the “philosophy of the human person.” We’ll begin with the question of just what parts are involved in making a human person. After that, we’ll consider the problems surrounding any individual’s continued existence over time, and we’ll end by discussing the philosophical view according to which our own acts of decision-making and imaginative creation are the very things that make us who and what we are. The cheerful yellow LEGO minifig presents a wonderful tool for exploring the human person, who similarly appears unique within the complicated systems of reality.
Gathering the Right Pieces
Like the entire LEGO system, the ingenuity of the minifigure lies in its construction out of numerous interchangeable pieces. Although the variation of styles for these simple components has grown exponentially over the course of LEGO’s history, the basic combination used to bring them together has remained largely unchanged. By swapping out different standardized pieces for the legs, torso, head, and hairpiece, builders can construct individual characters to place within the inventive creations (often referred to as “My Own Creations” or “MOCs”).
Just what, exactly, gives these characters their respective individuality? The same interchangeability that allows for so many permutations on the classic LEGO minifig also obscures the features that distinguish one LEGO character from another. For instance, say you recognize a particular female character (we’ll call her “Eliza”) by the fact that her minifigure has the black-colored ponytail hairpiece. Now suppose that you pick up another black-colored ponytail hairpiece and you use it on a brand new minifig (whom we’ll call “Beth”). Obviously, Eliza and Beth will be distinguished from one another by differences in their remaining pieces, but what if no such differences are present? If both Eliza and Beth are made up of duplicate copies of the same pieces, can we really claim that there are two different characters represented instead of two copies of the same individual character?
One of the core problems plaguing any examination of the philosophy of the human person is the foundational question of just what goes into making a specific person. While we certainly encounter many different individuals in our day-to-day experiences, the systematic explanation of this phenomenon is one that has baffled thinkers for generations. The obvious answer, as it also seems to be with our minifig creations Eliza and Beth, is to focus on the distinguishing characteristics that separate one person from another. Though infinitely more complex when dealing with living human persons, the same basic method of separating individuals based on component elements such as hairstyle, facial expression, and other such attributes seems to hold true.
This simplistic response falls apart, however, when we encounter individuals who are physically identical, like identical twins. Even when considering friends who are merely similar in several aspects, we see how difficult it can be to separate the one from the other. While there most certainly is a difference between identical individuals, our normal methods for differentiating them are useless and we are forced to dig deeper for what we really mean when we separate one person from another.
Our quandary here is tied into the philosophical concept of “super- venience.” This can be logically summed up by the phrase, “There cannot be an A-difference without a B-difference,” which proclaims that if one object (“A”) supervenes on another (“B”), then any change in the one is going to necessarily entail a similar change in the other.2 If our minifigure creation Eliza “supervenes” on the component pieces that were used to build her, then swapping out any of those pieces will result in Eliza changing in that way as well. Replace the generic blue legs piece with the Pirate-themed peg-leg piece and Eliza will similarly go from having two legs in blue to sporting a fashionable wooden leg, ready for life on the high seas. While these examples make it sound relatively minor and straightforward, supervenience is quite the big deal, as it unites separate attributes with the same type of necessity found in mathematical truths like “2 + 2 = 4” or the Pythagorean Theorem.3
Human persons, like LEGO minifigures, certainly supervene on the parts that compose them. Whether it be a small change like getting a shorter haircut or a major one like amputating a limb, changes to our physical makeup also impact who we are as persons. The problem arises when we reduce human existence to this relation, believing that there is nothing more to a person than the physical parts that make them up and the changes that occur to those parts. There is nothing inherently wrong with identifying someone based on a defining characteristic like a certain style of hair, memorable scar, or unique manner of speaking, but reducing who that person is to such malleable physical characteristics is a gross injustice to their nature as a human person. It might be fine and, perhaps, unavoidable to categorize and differentiate people based on their personal physical traits, but such traits are a kind of “shortcut” used to describe their identity, not their actual identity itself. Physical characteristics are, indeed, a part of the equation, but they cannot be the end-all explanation for what defines a particular individual as who they are.
Interestingly, this conclusion also seems to hold true for LEGO minifigs, as there doesn’t seem to be any inherent reason why two minifigs composed of all the same components could not, in fact, represent two distinct characters. We’ll return to this idea, but for now, we must investigate further the central concept of identity.