Part II: Abstracta

When I lived in Denver I took a part time job working at a fine arts gallery. It was a large gallery that carried a variety of art forms. We had paintings, sculptures, mixed media pieces and even a small section with local folk art. When I was alone in the gallery I’d run my hands over the sculptures, drinking in the absence of nothing, the weight of substance, the imminent divinity of curvatures in spacetime. I felt slightly guilty doing this until I met one of our sculpture artists. He saw me eyeing one of the pieces he had just unboxed for a sculpture show we were hosting that evening. He smiled, ran his finger over part of the sculpture and said knowingly, “See the garment lifting here in ecstasy, in triumph? You must touch this. You must feel it for yourself, like this.” I didn’t hesitate. As I ran my finger along the edge of the piece he added approvingly, “What are sculptures for if not to be braille for the soul?”


The sculpture in question was a remarkable piece: dead Jesus with a gossamer thin linen draped over his shoulders, the corner of it lifting skyward. The way the artist had so delicately immortalized ethereal joy and triumph in a medium like bronze was astounding. I’ve always cherished the fact that this artist understood, and so competently communicated, the fact that death itself —a perfectly ordinary fact of human life—was the triumph worth celebrating. It was Jesus’ death, after all, that inspired the people who loved him to tell stories that we still have today. This artist understood a fact that I spent a semester tying to teach my students (only somewhat successfully). For creatures like us, a person and a life are distinct metaphysical entities. A person is not identical to a life, and a life is not identical to the person who is its subject. The boundaries of a life can extend far beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of a biological being. By ‘a life’ I do not mean a soul or a spirit. I work within a purely physicalistic worldview. I mean something much more natural and basic.

Let’s begin with what it means to be a person. There are a number of philosophical theories about what makes something a person. What they all have in common, however, is the idea that a person instantiates a special kind of cognitive structure. There are a number of things that contribute to cognitive structure, but the elements that are most relevant to the present discussion are mental states. Specifically: mental states that are motivational in nature. The term ‘desire’ is often used to designate mental states whose primary function is to motivate agents to action. I am partial to the theory of personhood that was developed by Harry Frankfurt, so this is the one I will use. I do not think his theory is without flaws, but it will be sufficient to make the point I wish to make.

Frankfurt (1999) argues that there are necessary connections between being a person, caring, and loving. To begin, Frankfurt’s (1988) concept of a person is analyzable in terms of the structure of the will. A person is a special type of agent. All agents have first order desires (e.g. I desire to exercise), but only some of them have second order desires (e.g. A desire that: I desire to exercise). A second order desire is a desire whose content is a first order desire. Some agents have second order desires, but fewer of them have second order desires for effective first order desires. According to Frankfurt, an effective desire is “one that moves (or will or would move) a person all the way to action.” (1988: 14) This point is important because only effective desires constitute an agent’s will, and the will is the focal point in Frankfurt’s account of the concept of a person.

The general idea goes something like this. We all have basic desires for a lot of different things, but we only act on some of them. Further, we only want to act on some of them. For instance, perhaps I have a first order desire to smoke cigarettes but I also have a first order desire to be healthy. There are a number of ways to manage the conflict that arises from having competing desires. I can stop wanting either health or cigarettes. Or, I can decide not to act on my desire for cigarettes. If this is what I decide to do, then according to Frankfurt, my strategy might be to develop a second order desire to act on my desire for health. This, then, becomes the motivational state that actually causes subsequent actions. I may still want to smoke cigarettes, but it is not the desire that actually motivates my actions. If Frankfurt is right (or at least in the ballpark) only persons have the capacity for this level of motivational self-management. Why does any of this matter to understanding how a life is distinct from a person? Let me explain.

First, value. Some things are objectively worth desiring. Justice, equality, kindness, cooperation, loving relationships, etc. are things we typically think of as things that everyone ought to desire. If something is objectively worth desiring, the value of the object of desire is independent of facts about the individuals who do the desiring. Other things, however, are only subjectively worth desiring. If something is only subjectively worth desiring, its value depends on facts about the individuals who do the desiring. So, for instance, I might desire to own a BMW, but owning a BMW is not something everyone should desire. It is not objectively valuable/worth desiring. This desire is dependent on facts about me (namely, that driving fast cars gives me pleasure).

Second, abstract structure. Motivational states like desires satisfy functional roles in our plans and projects. When you desire something and decide to be motivated by that desire, there are more and less effective ways of achieving the desired end. Means-end reasoning, something we all engage in quite naturally, is the process of taking stock of what resources you have or can acquire (means) to employ in achieving the desired end. The more temporally extended a project, the more complicated a plan can get. Getting ice cream is a much less sophisticated plan than earning a PhD or achieving social justice.

Individual plans can also mesh with the plans of others. In fact, the coordination of plans to achieve joint ends is something humans spend an inordinate amount of time doing. We are social creatures and our lives are intimately intertwined with the lives of others. In theory, you can abstract both individual and joint plans and translate them into implementation strategies that any relevantly similar system can deploy. Plans are like computer programs in this way. Large organizations with multiple chapters across a broad geographic area often operate in this way. They have a single plan that is implemented by multiple, individual chapters.

A person’s life, in the way that I’m using the notion of a life, consists in what they do. An intuitive way of understanding this is to think of a person who spends all day, every day, just sitting in front of a TV drinking beer. Most of us would be inclined to say this person does not have much of a life. The people we extol as having lives are people who have projects that they are actively engaged with (let’s count relationships as a type of project for simplicity). Lives have different dimensions depending on the kinds of projects with which their subjects are engaged. A life that is constructed of only subjectively valuable pursuits will likely end when the biological entity who is the subject of that life ends. A life that is constructed of more objectively valuable pursuits is likely to extend far beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of the biological entity who is the subject of that life. Why is this the case?

Think again about the structure of a life—the plans and projects codified in an abstract form—that can be implemented in any relevantly similar system. If that plan is constructed of only subjectively valuable goals and plans to achieve those goals, you will be hard-pressed to find another system that is capable of implementing it. Individuals are too unique. If, however, the abstract structure of a life is largely constructed of objectively valuable goals and plans to achieve those goals, the statistical likelihood of finding a relevantly similar system to implement it is greatly increased so long as there are others out there who actually desire what is objectively valuable. Fortunately, in this world, there are.

Here’s a real life example to help illustrate the point. Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in July of 2016. Before he was recklessly gunned down, Philado was a nutrition services supervisor at an elementary school. Philando was known for using his own money to pay off the lunch debts of disadvantaged students so they could eat. After his death, friends and family launched a fundraising campaign to continue Philando’s work. They succeeded in raising over $75,000 to pay of student lunch debts across St. Paul, Minnesota. We say that such actions are undertaken as a means of honoring loved ones who have passed. What, exactly, do we mean by ‘honoring’? The word ‘honor’ has multiple definitions, but the one that interests me is the verb form. To honor is to fulfill an agreement. A future-oriented plan that involves multiple agents and beneficiaries is very much like an agreement. When Philando died, his projects could have died with him, but they didn’t. People stepped in and took over his projects because they recognized the objective value in what he was doing. When they did this, they extended Philando’s life beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of his biological being.

Some of you are surely wondering what any of this has to do with my brother. I’ll tell you. When you are very motivationally intertwined with another person, it’s like you are living the same life. When one of you loses the ability to desire things that are objectively worth desiring, a terrible wound opens up. When the sick person is desperately trying to maintain control of their life and there you are, hanging precariously on one side of a wound they keep attempting to fix, you’re in a very dangerous position. Either you let them re-shape your shared life into something they find subjectively worthwhile, or you resist. If you resist, you die.

I resisted.


Stay tuned for part 3.


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