Volume 3, Issue 1
1st Quarter, 2008

An Outline for the Legal Ontology of Personhood:
The Transbeman Example

David Koepsell, Ph.D.

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Dr. Koepsell during the 3rd Annual Colloquium on the Law of Transbeman Persons, December 10, 2007, at the Florida Space Coast Office of Terasem Movement, Inc.

Dr. Koepsell combines a legal and philosophical prowess in his research and desire to define the nature of personhood and the legal and social challenges posed by our evolving, technological future.

I am involved with the National Center for Ontological Research [1] centered in Buffalo, New York and Saarbrucken, Germany. As a philosopher, I want to first clarify a term that I use in a manner different than many other philosophers, and that is the term “ontology”. We have a system of ontology, which we call Basic Formal Ontology. My brief definition, as I use it in my work, is the generalizing from experience so that we can build agents with vocabularies that represent reality usefully.

Ontologies are being built for a number of applications primarily in the realm of biomedicine. Ontologies are now being used in things like the gene ontology [2] and the open biomedical ontology [3] to represent objects in the biomedical domain. My overall thesis for this article is that underlying some of these existing ontologies, and other social ontologies [4] which are not explicitly in development, are certain assumptions about the nature of personhood which I think we ought to pursue.

image 1
Image 1

What the gene ontology has done is essentially divide the realm of genetics into these three basic entities as a way of describing the relation among genotypes [5] and phenotypes [6]. The ideal goal of the gene ontology is to give us an accurate picture of an organism's phenotype from its genotype. Much simpler than higher-level biological functions. For instance, all of the messy intelligence that comes out of this soup of proteins. There is this really important question which is really essential to the discussions we have today, and that is at what level of granularity – we represent the world in what we call in BFO [7] levels of granularity.

Our pictures of the world differ according to what we are trying to do. In the biomedical realm, we are interested in health. In the legal realm, we are interested in things like rights and obligations. In these things we call persons, are complex entities, which are represented at a number of different levels of ontological granularity.

Simple biomedical ontologies are not going to be sufficient to give us clear understanding of this question of what a person is, this entity called a person. While at the same time, we consider persons to be important in medical and social realms alike. When you are treating a person in a hospital, we are not treating just a human being, right? The bioethical concerns that we face in a clinical setting or in a research setting are centered not upon the nature of that organism as a human being, but upon the nature of that organism as a person. We already have, I think in bioethics and in the law, critical concepts that help us to understand persons even if we have not developed a good robust ontology.

Projects like the gene ontology are going to be important, and other biomedical ontologies are going to be important, but they are not going to be the end. They have to have some overlap with this other problem of persons.

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I submit that there is no good work in ontology being done on this. There is in other realms of social research, primarily philosophy, bioethics and the law, where much of this has been worked out. I believe that in order to make use of the very things which we expect to come out of this kind of work we really have to begin focusing on this question not simply as a sort of mainly bioethical question but in an ontological sense. Clarify the terms as we use them in reality and understand their relations to an actual thing, which we expect exists, called persons.

For example, Islam is not a person, simply because it does not have any of the things we typically expect a person to have, especially the capacities for reason and cognition.

A person is, as we know it in the human form, an emergent phenomenon out of all of these various biological functions, but I would say it's not dependent upon. While these give us sufficient reason to define a person, they do not give us necessary reason to define a person. These are the sorts of things – bearing rights and intention, duties that Islam does not have, although it can define its own set of rules, but it can't as an entity do any of these things.

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Image 3

I believe that in order to make use, to bridge a gap between existing social- biomedical ontologies and what I consider to be very important emerging problems about rights and duties for AI and other transbeman [8] entities, we need to start this as a research project, not just for the gene ontology so that we can understand what makes these complex continuants work, but also because we are going to end up with a number of real practical, social and legal issues arising out of this question.

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1. National Center for Ontological Research - Ontologists at the University of Buffalo are involved in collaborative ventures with leading national and international institutions. They have received major funding for ontology-related projects from the NSF, NIH, US and Canadian defense agencies and defense industries, and from the European Union. As a result of existing and new targeted faculty recruitment, UB's Department of Philosophy is on the point of reaching critical mass in ontological research and teaching.
http://ncor.buffalo.edu/ncorbuffalo.htm January 24, 2008 2:01PM EST

2. Gene Ontology - provides a controlled vocabulary to describe gene and gene product attributes in any organism.
http://www.geneontology.org/ January 24, 2008 2:14PM EST

3. Biomedical Ontology – the development of innovative technology and methods that allow scientists to create, disseminate, and manage biomedical information and knowledge in machine-processable form.
http://www.bioontology.org/ January 24, 2008 2:16PM EST

4. Social Ontology - the systematic study of the nature and basic structure of social reality.
http://www.csog.group.cam.ac.uk/ January 24, 2008 2:18PM EST

5. Genotypen. 1. The genetic constitution of an organism or a group of organisms. 2. A group or class of organisms having the same genetic constitution. (genotypical)
Stedman. The American Heritage Medical Dictionary, Second Edition. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, 328.

6. Phenotypen. 1. The observable physical or biochemical characteristics of an organism, as determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences. 2. The expression of a specific trait, such as stature or blood type, based on genetic and environmental influences. 3. An individual or group of organisms exhibiting a particular phenotype. (phenotypical)
Stedman. The American Heritage Medical Dictionary, Second Edition. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, 625.

7. BFO - Basic Formal Ontology framework developed by Barry Smith and his associates consists in a series of sub-ontologies at different levels of granularity. The ontologies are divided into two varieties: SNAP (or snapshot) ontologies, comprehending continuant entities such as three-dimensional enduring objects, and SPAN ontologies, comprehending processes conceived as extended through (or as spanning) time. BFO thus incorporates both three-dimensionalist and four-dimensionalist perspectives on reality within a single framework.
http://en.wikipedia.org... January 24, 2008 2:23PM EST

8. Transbeman – a term coined by Martine Rothblatt, Ph.D., Founder of Terasem Movement, Inc., is defined as: “[A] being who claims to have the rights and obligations associated with being human, but who may be beyond currently accepted notions of legal personhood. Examples of transbemans include beings who claim human rights but (a) are of computerized substrate, or (b) have been revived from biostasis, or (c) whose DNA varies significantly from human DNA.”
http://terasemcentral.org/cdescription.html January 24, 2008 1:55PM EST

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