Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Dear Jane: Brains are just possessions

Recently, I talked with a teenage relative of mine who was busy nervously comparing her standardized test scores with those of other people. Sure, such behavior is normal and not exactly worrisome, but afterward I realized what I wish I had said - to her or to anyone else thinking less of themselves because of their intelligence level, physical appearance, athletic ability, etc. Thus the following letter:

Dear "Jane,"

What are you made of?

No, seriously. I'll put it simply: I think that you, Jane, as a human person, could theoretically be divided into two different kinds of stuff. There's the material stuff - your skin, heart, blood, bones, brain, etc. (i.e., your body) - and there's the immaterial stuff. Which category of stuff, do you think, is more essential to you as a person? Could you get rid of one type and still be you?

It seems crystal clear to me, Jane, that it's conceivable that you could exist apart from the material stuff (your body). That is, your body isn't essential to who you are; it's constantly changing, but your identity isn't. So what makes you you? The immaterial stuff is, in fact, what defines you, Jane - namely, a single immaterial substance (i.e., a "mind" or "soul").

Which leads me to think about you and your SAT score. Though you're very intelligent, Jane, intelligence in no way defines you. Intelligence is a function of your brain, which is a part of your body and which is therefore not essential to your identity. Indeed, your body basically amounts to material stuff that you - an immaterial substance - currently possess.

So brains are really just possessions. And some people are richer than others. But why should you worry about that? If one is born into poverty, that doesn't make him any less of a person than someone with a privileged upbringing, does it? Why should you, Jane, be concerned with what type of stuff you happen to have been given? You had no choice in the matter, and to have been given such a body at all is actually a tremendous blessing.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: Material possessions have no bearing on us as persons. They have absolutely no effect on our worth and dignity.

And that's the kind of mind-body dualism they ought to teach you in school.

P.S. - No, Jane, I'm serious.

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