I just read about this Japanese fisherman who, at the discovery that the tsunami was bearing down on his small island, decided to flee the island in an effort to save his boat. He knew that the tsunami would destroy every boat on the island, and that his community’s only chance of escaping isolation when he waters receded was to save his boat while the rest of the village fled to the hills. That meant steering his ship directly through the wave itself.
What touched me the most about the story is not his awesome selflessness and courage, but the fact that he bid farewell to the other boats in his little fleet as he departed, and apologized to them that he couldn’t save them all. I’m struck by what a Japanese quality this is. My favorite places in Japan are the Shinto shrines, usually built to honor natural features- A great tree, or a rock, or a beautiful view is often adorned with a Shinto honorary braid, or a little shrine built nearby. Ostensibly, these artifacts are intended to honor the Kami, or spirit or essence, that dwells within these natural forms. Another way of seeing the practice however, is that by honoring these forms, we’re personifying them.
I think we all feel a little self-conscious when we’re caught naming our cars, or talking to our computers when they’re acting flakey. It’s easy to dismiss the habit as juvenile, or simply a cute idiosyncracy. But I think that projected personification is what we all do, every moment of our lives, and is a key element in cognition itself.
There’s a basic function of the human mind that imagines what another mind is thinking. In children less than three years old, however it doesn’t seem to function very well. Beyond that, though, a child can simulate another person mentally, and make predictions about their thoughts and behavior. I think it can be argued that at a certain age we are suddenly able to ‘imbue’ another person with ‘personhood.’ In fact, there’s a specific region of the brain that activates during this imbuing, which can produce effects similar to reports of alien contact when artificially stimulated with magnetism. So what we do every time we meet a person, imagine what our spouse is really saying, negotiate with our pets, or pat our car on the dashboard for once again not getting us killed, is projecting personhood upon it.
I’d therefore argue that what this Japanese fisherman did with his boats is not simply touching, but the most obvious thing he could have done. If our minds are truly islands of consciousness encapsulated within opaque skulls with only a few electrical signals to keep it company, then projecting personhood is a very personal, fundamentally subjective process. I think there’s no difference between projecting personhood upon another human and projecting it on a cat, or a tree, or a boat.
I think all matter is alive and conscious. I think a rock occupies a rung on the same seamless spectrum of consciousness that we as humans enjoy the tip of. It makes perfect sense to me that under certain conditions, it would serve us to extend our umbrella of personhood to a rock, or a boat, making them in a real sense, people. It’s part of how we make sense of the world, and I think a key to understanding the mystical experience of subjective universal consciousness.
If I’m going to imbue personhood to my family, friends, pets, or editor, there’s no reason to stop there, other than mere convention. Isn’t that right, Mr. Toenail Clipper?