Non-Human People

(First post to TAC.)

Time for a bit of Catholic applied to geekery! (Not to be confused with straight up Catholic Geekery, which is more the Holy Father’s area– does anyone doubt that he dearly loves thinking about, playing with and elaborating on Catholic theology? You just don’t end up writing THREE books on the life of Jesus without the love, intellectual interest and deep enjoyment of a geek for his geekdom.)

There’s something about Catholics and blogs that always ends up going into the old question of what makes a man– or, more correctly, a person. “Man” in this context would be a human, and there are several examples of people that aren’t humans– like most of the Trinity. Sadly, the topic usually comes up in terms of abortion; even the utterly simple-science-based reasoning that all humans are human and should be treated thus will bring out the attacks. (Amusingly, the line of attack is usually that someone is trying to force their religious beliefs on others, rather than an attempt to explain why a demonstrably human life is objectively different from, say, an adult human. The “bioethicist” Singer is famous for being open about valuing life in a utilitarian manner, but there aren’t many who will support that angle.[thank God])

Slowly looping around to the point, one of the topics that got me interested in Catholic blogs in the first place was the Catholic musing on what a “person” is; Jimmy Akin’s post on zombies was probably the first time I’d ever seen it discussed. (I think I actually found his writing while looking for a good site to explain to my driven-away-Catholic geek friends that D&D wasn’t antithetical to Catholicism.) I’d never heard anything about an organized Catholic theory of…well, much of anything, but that’s a different topic. I had– of course– seen a bit of Catholic theology on EWTN, but I seem to remember that I had the impression that theology was more focused on explicitly religious things, rather than theoretical musings.

Deathly dull and serious, not fun.

Option #2, that of a non-human, rational soul was very interesting to me, since– being a geek– I’d read a lot of stories with elves where a big to-do about how the local church (which always looks familiar) holds that non-Humans don’t have souls. Sometimes they go really anvilicious and have the dark-skinned, mystical non-local humans be counted as not being human. (Mercedies Lackey is really, really bad about this.) It hadn’t sounded right, since it was really obvious that the story-elves (usually repackaged Tolkien elves, with a smattering of some Irish legends) were people. Heck, half the time they could even have families with normal humans, and there are quarter-elves, or all magic-using humans have “elvish” blood, so they’re more a sub-group of humans than another species. (Homo Sapien Pointy-Eared-Magica, to riff off a similar notion?) It’s a staple of fantastic fiction to have a normal person that the reader can relate to meeting up and befriending– at the very least– nonhuman people, often with a sub-plot about how the people who don’t agree are misguided at best or evil at worst.

I pointed folks to the explanation for non-human people for a few years, and at some point a blog I ran into mentioned St Augustine’s definition of “man”. (That blogger has thought a bit on the matter of non-human intelligence and Catholicism.)

The author John Wright recently republished an article he wrote about space Christians and their impact on Catholicism– prefaced with the sly warning that “The Magisterium of the Church has yet to rule on the theological implications of intelligent extraterrestrials. Perhaps they are wisely awaiting for alien intelligent life to be discovered first.

Mr. Wright’s reason for re-publishing is actually what got me thinking on the subject again– one of my many peeves is being the established mythology of fandom that the Church would have mad issues with, well, pretty much anything that’s outside of the currently accepted mundane, or the “cool” parody of it. (It’s to the point where I half wonder if Laura K. Hamilton is making a really, really sneaky point… her first “Anita Blake” book mentions that the namesake character was born and raised Catholic, but switched because the Church said that doing what she does for a living is immoral and would lead to degeneration; umpteen books later, the series is…uh… rather notorious in fandom for breaking any moral reservation she expresses in a book or two, and the main character has become a sort of necromancer-vampire-wereanimal succubus.)

The most frequent reminder in every Catholic discussion I’ve seen about non-human, physical, rational beings is that charity requires that we assume those who show evidence of being a rational being have a soul. I don’t know if that’s supposed to jump out, or if it just jumps out because most explorations of the “what measure makes a man” question tend to either hand-wave things so that it comes out so that of course so and so is really a person, or utterly violate it. (Looking back, it would’ve been really nice if someone in a teaching position in my Catholic education had used that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where they almost decide that Data is StarFleet property that can be chopped up for research, not a person, as a launch block for the whole moral being discussion…or even just an abortion, ESCR or personhood type discussion…. Um, any moral discussion, launched for any reason, come to think of it.)

This sort of moral question is perfect for science fiction and fantasy– you can set up any variation on the theme that you want, play with it, use “what if” to your heart’s content. (This sometimes means that all a story does is tell you what the author wants you to think.) What if the non-humans look like humans, but live a lot longer? What if Neanderthals survived to the modern day? What if we can interbreed with aliens? What if we can’t? What if aliens– or dragons— are so mentally different that it’s hard to wrap your mind around their thought processes? What is the impact on dealing with a species that considers you food? (A question that’s sometimes touched on in vampire novels, usually either indirectly– by unstated emotional appeal that helps you not hate the mass murdering blood suckers– or simi-directly, by making the dividing line between good and bad vampires a question of who kills intelligent beings to survive.)

Somehow, though, these opportunities usually go by the wayside, both with pro apologists (a few exceptions like Jimmy, of course) and with just-people-who-are-Catholic. (As clumsy as I am, I managed to get folks thinking without being bored by working things like Natural Law into my character stories– or by choosing my Paladin’s god based on who was most compatible with Catholic theology, and playing that way.)

I can count on my fingers the number of fantastic fiction authors that are friendly to religion, let alone ones that work Catholic theology (or natural philosophy) into into the stories.

Meanwhile, I was the only practicing Catholic in my geek group in no small part because the rest had been told that such things were against Church teaching. (Other factors: they’d never been introduced to any of the reasoning behind various teachings, or even been told that there was reasoning; different people had told them different things were binding, and none had offered justifications. The Harry Potter/B16 thing is an example of the sort of thing that seriously damaged their childhood faith. “Helpful” relatives that saw “Mazes and Monsters” and went straight into a mode Darwin commented on before.)

I’d bet that anime has done more to make geeky folks, ones who could so easily become as fascinated with Catholicism as our Pope is, sympathetic to Catholicism than…well… actual Catholics have done. Blogging is (maybe?) changing that, slowly, and it’s hard to figure out the right sort of touch to use when talking about religion. Thankfully, geekdom is pretty forgiving if you’re obviously a fanboy about a topic. I sincerely believe that if we could just folks to listen to what the Church teaches, a lot of those geeks would end up being great apologists.

Cross-posted to The American Catholic. (Don’t bother reading the comments past the first three or five on this one– there’s nothing there. Warning for those who know TAC and thus expect really good comment sections.)


8 thoughts on “Non-Human People”

  1. Of course, 'Data' is a person, because he is a human being. I don't mean that the actor is a human being, I mean that the character is a human being whom the script calls a “robot”.

    The point is this: there will never be a robot/computer program which is a person/rational being. Computation, which is just counting, is not thinking … and, computers don't even compute/count; they mere;y simulate counting and computing.

  2. You may be right, but if we assume that then we can't ever prove it. Luckily, we do have examples of non-human persons, so we don't end up with “person” just being another word for “human.” (however one ends up defining it)

  3. If you make it part of the definition, it is an assumption. Talking logic, not reality– the “no true Scotsman” fallacy may 100% accurate, and we know the 'slippery slope' argument is true, but both are bad assumptions.

  4. I explained *why* it is that a computer program can never be a person … and in response, you accuse me of not reasoning.

    Is there some reason that I should spend any more of my time trying to discuss anything with you?

  5. *sigh* No, Ilion, I pointed out that you can't use a base assumption to prove the assumption. That's a circular argument.

    If your definition of person requires fitting your definition of thinking, and your definition of thinking categorically removes artificial sources from consideration, then your definition of person categorically excludes artificial sources and can't be used to prove artificial sources aren't persons.

    It's sort of like irrational numbers, or trying to prove “1+1=2.” Just because something can be constructed in a logical formula doesn't mean it's possible.

    The special definition is simply not needed– if you're right, then “rational” is sufficient, and it can be shown in the format; if you're wrong, it can be shown. One of my logic teacher's favorite practices was to have practice problems where the logical answer from the formula was factually wrong.

    Data is a good example– it only works because it's fiction. I don't think that a computer will ever manage to sufficiently mimic a human to pass as a moral being… but, if some how managed it, then what? Simple charity and caution in my own knowledge would demand that I treat him as a moral being, even if it seemed logically impossible.

  6. *sigh* yourself —

    Noìli: I don't think Kit is a human baby, I have reason to believe she's a canine baby, a puppy.

    Foxfier: Don't be silly! Puppies have characteristics X, Y, and Z. Kit doesn’t have any of these characteristics; therefore, Kit cannot be a puppy.

    Noìli: You’re begging the question. Since you cannot give me a good reason to disbelieve the proposition that Kit is a puppy, I have the right to go on believing and asserting that she is.

    Foxfier: What?! Did you pay any attention to what you just said?

    The “No True Scotsman fallacy” is itself a fallacy; and it’s deliberate. Its sole purpose is to use an example of a badly-formed definition so as to (selectively, as convenient) deny all definitions.

  7. Not quite– I'd have to define Kit as “not a puppy” to match your original definition. So more like:
    Noìli: “Kit is a dog baby.”
    Foxfier: “Kit is a human baby and only a human baby–a dog can't be a human, by definition.”
    Noìli: “You can't logically prove something by definition!”
    Foxfier: “…that doesn't make any sense.
    Noìli: “Logic doesn't have to make sense. To prove Kit isn't a puppy, you have to define puppy, then show she doesn't have the characteristics, and you can't define “human” as “not anything else.””

    To rephrase my side of it, into the puppy argument:
    Noìli: “What if I say is a puppy? It's obvious she can't be a puppy, she's a human.”
    Foxfier: “Kit isn't a puppy because puppies have to be baby dogs, and she isn't a dog.”
    Noìli: “That's a ridiculously round-about way of proving it–obviously she's not a dog if she's a human.”
    Foxfier: “Yeah, I can't think of any way that you'd end up with a dog that's also a human, but if you define human as 'a human and nothing something else' then you can't use it to prove 'not something else.' If there's no way that a human can also be something else, then the simple definition works; if there's somehow something that is both human and a dog, then the mistake can be corrected.”

    (Not the most flowing of dialogs, and for me that's saying something.)

    Maybe a better example would be how a lot of folks claim Christians are hypocritical about “Christian terrorists,” because we'll sometimes blame Islam for Muslim terrorists.
    “Christian terrorists” aren't not good Christians because they happen to be the same religion as the folks who say they're not genuine Christians, they're not good Christians because they're acting in direct conflict with Christian beliefs. Those Muslim terrorists who act in keeping with their version of Islam, on the other hand, may be objectionable to other believers, but so long as they are in keeping with the beliefs of their group, they're still Muslim terrorists.
    Christian isn't defined as “not a terrorist,” it just includes things that are not compatible with terrorist actions, such as trying to kill innocents.
    If a group of Islam that excluded terrorist actions came into influence, then they could say “those terrorists are no Muslims, no matter what they say- we have to respect and protect life, and they are trying to kill little kids.”

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