A science-fiction story, read decades ago and author/title long since forgotten, wrestled with the question: What defines a person?

Is it the physical shape of the body? The ancestral line of descent? The DNA? The brain structure? The learned social/cultural heritage of a civilization, plus some or all all of the above?

And if space-alien ultra-chemists used raw materials to fabricate a precise copy of a human, would it then be a human? If they simulated a human's thought processes accurately enough in some hyper-computer and loaded it with a human's personality, would that artificial intelligence then be a human? And would other humans then have the moral obligation to rescue and defend that constructed entity?

These are fascinating philosophical questions, especially since they invert and predate much of the current debate on what isn't a human being, e.g. in the context of abortion, euthanasia, etc.

The old sf story began by quoting a poetic fragment that has stuck in my memory banks over the years:

To men a man is but a mind. Who cares what face he carries or what form he wears?

Sounds possibly profound. But recently I looked for it again and, thanks to the miraculous power of today's search engines, I found the source: Ambrose Bierce's famously cynical Devil's Dictionary.

The lines I remembered turn out to be a wisely-selected couplet from the beginning of a piece of doggerel in the definition of the word "absent", attributed by Bierce to "Jogo Tyree" (is that a made-up name?). The entry in its entirety reads:

ABSENT, adj. Peculiarly exposed to the tooth of detraction; vilifed; hopelessly in the wrong; superseded in the consideration and affection of another.

To men a man is but a mind. Who cares
What face he carries or what form he wears?
But woman's body is the woman. O,
Stay thou, my sweetheart, and do never go,
But heed the warning words the sage hath said:
A woman absent is a woman dead.
Jogo Tyree

Rather less profound than I had thought; or perhaps the science-fiction author (or his editor? was it John W. Campbell?) did a rather better job than I had thought when s/he springboarded off that fragment to write a speculative fantasy ...

(see also CollegeCollage1 (29 Sep 2000), PlasticMemory (10 Jul 2001), HalfRememberedWorlds (18 Feb 2002), SomethingToSay (13 Apr 2002), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicMind - TopicPersonalHistory - TopicPoetry - 2003-05-08

(correlates: WorthRemembering2, True Gentleman, WritInWater, ...)