Are You There? If Not, Then Who’s Ignoring This?

What is a person, and how do you know if we are one? People have been worrying about this for many centuries, which we smug moderns might think makes them look foolish. This is a trick of perspective: they had no way to know that we’d look back and see people worrying about whether they were people, which would have given an answer if they’d known it. People of past ages were foolish in many ways but they wouldn’t go begging the question like that when they could be instead riling up people who misuse phrases like “begging the question”.

However, since we can’t know what future generations will think of any of us, we can’t rest assured that any one of us is a person. There are many possible answers, none of which satisfy anyone but the person who thought the answer up. One I’ve found satisfying is that a person is “an agent which, given sufficient time, will realize that I’m just prattling on about any foolish idea that pops into my head and so falls gradually into a state of ignoring me altogether”. This is a solid test as long as I’m in the sort of mood where I feel like talking about what’s on my mind.

For example, I might ask how you’re doing, and you might say, “Oh, I’m surviving”, and then I observe how that’s doing pretty good because it beats the alternative, except for the zombies, of course, and the ghost community. Possibly the vampires depending on their exact circumstances of vampirism. Before long I might be rattling off a long list of undead entities and you don’t want to hear any of that, but I won’t notice, so you can just start ignoring me. This establishes your person nature very effectively, and pretty correctly.

This test fails if you consider it possible for non-person things to ignore me. For all the time that I’ve spent hollering at the Swiss Alps, have they ever responded to me in the slightest? And given that utter lack of response, can’t we consider that to be a state of ignoring me? Ah, but what if it turns out that I haven’t ever hollered at the Swiss Alps and can’t even swear that I’ve seen a single Alp of the Swiss variety? Then, we’ve neatly shown that I must be a person, at least in the eyes of the Swiss Alps, because I’m clearly ignoring them. Now consider all the many people who’ve got around to ignoring me as a result of that paragraph alone.

If I’m not available and you’re not convinced by the Swiss Alps test, however — and I don’t blame you being unconvinced, because, for example, imagine that the Swiss Alp you were using to test whether you were being ignored turned out to be mostly a golem who was under directions to ignore things regardless of whether they were people or not? — you can turn to other and no less operational tests. For the best of these you’ll need a work computer, and some problem with your work computer. If you haven’t got a problem with your work computer, you’re not trying hard enough, because it’s surely doing something annoying.

Try to communicate the problem with your work computer to the Information Technology Or Whatever Department, who are supposed to fix it, while leaving out words about exactly you were trying to do or what you expected. Bat off their follow-up questions — for example, if asked when they could come up and see you have the problem, include subtle incompatibilities like “anytime before lunch this Monday, April 30th afternoon” — and eventually, someone’s bound to lose patience and cry out, “I WILL TEACH YOU PEOPLE TO FILE A BUG REPORT IF I HAVE TO KILL YOU ALL”, and run out of the ITOW offices, never to be actually seen again, but occasionally spoken of as a legendary figure haunting the boardwalk and berating people who complain they can’t beat the ring toss. When you hear this ITOW agent screaming and running out, you have evidence that you are one of “you people”, and are therefore at least one person. QED.

The natural next question after working out whether you’re a person is, if you aren’t one, can we rule out your being two?