Persons and the Natural Order
Baker (Lynne Rudder)
Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) & Zimmerman (Dean) - Persons: Human and Divine
Paper - Abstract

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Authors Citing this Paper: Baker (Lynne Rudder)


  1. Lynne Rudder Baker is responding to the fact that, when Christians emphasize the dignity and value of human persons, they often find the source of this dignity in the assumption that persons have immaterial souls or libertarian freedom.
  2. In this Chapter, Baker briefly canvases some reasons to doubt that human persons have either immaterial souls or libertarian freedom, and then presents a view of human persons that locates the dignity and value of persons elsewhere: in the property of inwardness made possible by a first-person perspective.
  3. She defends a distinctive, broadly materialistic approach to the dignity of human persons; and argues that it is congenial to the most important aspects of Christian teaching about our nature.

Author’s Introduction2
  1. We human persons have an abiding interest in understanding what kind of beings we are. However, it is not obvious how to attain such an understanding. Traditional analytic metaphysicians start with a priori accounts of the most general, abstract features of the world — e.g., accounts of properties and particulars — features that, they claim, in no way depend upon us or our activity. Such accounts are formulated in abstraction from what is already known about persons and other things, and are used as constraints on metaphysical investigation of everything else. So, if we accept traditional metaphysics, we should be prepared to yield to abstruse pronouncements — either by giving up our most secure beliefs about the world that we encounter or by abandoning our conception of what those beliefs are really about.
  2. In contrast to traditional metaphysics, a more pragmatic metaphysics does not hold the empirical world in abeyance until we have thoroughgoing accounts of properties and the other topics of traditional metaphysics. Rather, a more pragmatic approach to reality — an approach that elsewhere I have called ‘Practical Realism’ — reverses the priorities of traditional metaphysics. A Practical Realist starts with the world that people successfully interact with. Instead of holding the encountered world hostage to accounts of, say, properties and particulars, the Practical Realist judges accounts of properties and particulars in terms of how well they illuminate matters that everyone — nonphilosophers as well as philosophers — cares about. To use metaphysics as a tool for understanding is not to conflate metaphysics and epistemology; nor is it to follow Quine in taking philosophy to be an extension of science. Rather, it is to pluck metaphysics out of intellectual isolation and to bring it to bear on the world that we all encounter. In this way, metaphysics can earn its keep.
  3. Like Lewis and Chisholm, I take ordinary beliefs about human beings and their place in the world to count as data for an ontology that includes persons. But unlike Lewis and Chisholm, I take most substantive a priori commitments to be negotiable. I want to consider the world as we encounter it more or less at face value, and to formulate an ontological scheme that systematizes what we all believe. A Practical Realist seeks a unified theory that hews as closely as possible to what is common currency about the world as we encounter it.
  4. Anyone who takes the world as we encounter it to be ontologically significant — as I do — will be attracted to the more pragmatic line. (By contrast, much traditional metaphysics either has nothing to say about ordinary things that matter, or it treats them in ways that are unrecognizable to science and to common sense.) One way that a more pragmatic metaphysician departs from traditional metaphysics is to accept that what something is most fundamentally may be a matter of what it does, rather than what it is made of. Persons, I believe, are such entities.
  5. ‘Person,’ as Locke famously noted, is a forensic term. However, it also denotes a certain kind of being. A metaphysical account of human persons should accommodate well-known established facts. First, there are the facts of biology that situate human persons in the animal world. Darwinism offers a great unifying thesis that “there is one grand pattern of similarity linking all life.” Human and nonhuman organisms both find their place in this one grand pattern. Second, there are the facts of self-consciousness that distinguish human persons from other parts of the natural world. People often know what they are thinking, feeling, deciding, etc. They can think about the future, wonder how they are going to die, hope for resurrection. They can reflect on their own motivations — from Augustine in the Confessions to former U.S. Presidents in their memoirs. Such descriptions all presuppose self-consciousness: they presuppose beings with the ability to be conscious of themselves from a first-personal point of view. And what they describe is unique to human persons.
  6. The view that I shall propose fully honors both these kinds of fact — the biological facts that pertain to human beings as part of the animal kingdom and, for want of a better word, the “personal” facts that pertain to human beings uniquely. On the one hand, human persons are material objects, subject to all the natural laws that apply to other kinds of material objects. Human persons are wholly part of nature, the product of natural processes that started eons before the existence of our solar system, and that account for the existence of everything in the natural world — from atoms and molecules to solar systems and galaxies. On the other hand, human persons have evolved to have the capacity to think of themselves in the first-person. A first-person perspective is the defining property of persons and makes possible their characteristic forms of life and experience.
  7. Not only are human persons a unique part of nature, but also — as I shall urge — they are an ontologically unique part of nature. By saying that persons are ontologically unique, I imply that an inventory of what exists leaving out persons would be incomplete. The addition of a person to the world is the addition of a new entity. Being a person is not just a property of some essentially nonpersonal kind of thing. (Fs are essentially nonpersonal if and only if being a person makes no difference to whether or not an F exists.) I realize that many philosophers do not take ontological uniqueness of persons to be a desideratum for an account of persons. Such philosophers are often motivated by doubt about the compatibility of persons’ being ontologically unique and their being natural products of natural selection. Part of my aim here is to dispel that doubt. (If you do not think that ontological uniqueness of persons is a desideratum of an account of persons, then omit the term ‘desideratum’ and take my argument to show that if persons are wholly natural, they may still be ontologically unique.) I know of no view of human persons other than the Constitution View3 that satisfies both these desiderata (as I shall continue to say): Human persons are wholly natural, yet ontologically distinctive.
  8. Let me interject a word about my use of the terms ‘nature’ and ‘natural.’ I use such terms broadly to apply to anything nondivine or nonsupernatural. So, nature, as I construe it, includes culture. Both biological and cultural processes are natural, in the sense that I intend.
  9. I have set out and defended my view of persons — the Constitution View4 — elsewhere in detail. Here I want to defend the kind of account that I hold, however the details are worked out, by showing how much better it satisfies the desiderata than its rivals. After comparing and contrasting three approaches with respect to the desiderata, I shall discuss the compatibility of the Constitution View5 with traditional theism. I hope to show that the Constitution View6 takes human persons to be wholly in the natural world and wholly material, to come into being without special divine intervention, and yet to be ontologically distinctive in the way required by the great monotheistic traditions. That is, I hold the Constitution View7 of human persons to be compatible with traditional theism without entailing it.


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: From "Zimmerman (Dean) - Persons: Human and Divine - Three Introductory Questions".

Footnote 2: Footnotes omitted.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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