Being, Personhood, and Humanity

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This article contains descriptions and spoiler content for Sense8, Avatar, Avatar: The Way of Water, Axiom’s End, and more. If you want to avoid spoilers for any of the shows, books, or movies mentioned, skip this article.

… people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were…

Philip Roth

It is a burden to carry this knowledge. You are not unique. […] You can reason, you have language, you are conscious. And you are predators. And you are violent.

Lindsay Ellis, “The Truth of the Divine”

Who we are is less relevant than what we are, and what we are is different from them.

Jonas Maliki, Sense8

There is a philosophical fascination of personhood. What it means to be human. What it means to have being. How and why that being takes shape. Grappling with one’s self as an opposition to another ‘self’, or basing an identity on the identity of another. The fascination extends deeply into culture, traditions, religion, and media. How we know who we are, and how we form a sense of identity, community, and humanity come together to form fantastical stories of the struggles of life, grief, joy, pain, love, and loss. And I find myself caught up in this. It’s why I love first-contact books and movies, why I love action sci-fi movies like James Cameron’s “Avatar” series.

Over time I have found this obsession morphing into a media critic’s wet dream of thematic analysis of personhood and depictions of humanity across multiple genres, formats, and hegemonies. As I consume more media, I find myself yearning for threads of connection between seemingly disparate franchises or media types, longing for that single thread that ties a book or movie’s narrative to a greater philosophical depiction of what it means to be.

It has been hard to put to words the connections between these themes and ideas, but over time, I think the broader zeitgeist has done it for me, weaving a framework of questions and answers which all seem to revolve around a central framework of “personhood”. Now, I want to unravel this web, to pull at the strings that tangle around the concept of being, and put to words that which has held my fascination for years.

Collective Consciousness and Self Identity

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

The 2001 Disney animated film “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is one of the first movies I remember seeing in theaters. I was six years old, and I remember going with my mother and grandmother. At the time, the main draw was the city of Atlantis itself – this lost city that may or may not exist, and the adventure inherent in exploration and discovery. What six year old doesn’t love the idea of being an explorer?

In the movie, the city of Atlantis, having sunk to the bottom of the ocean after a cataclysmic event known diegetically as the “mehbelmok” (great flood), is sustained underground by the “Heart of Atlantis”; a giant crystalline sphere of energy and power. The king of Atlantis says that the crystal “thrives on the collective emotions of all who came before us”, and in return the crystal provides power, protection, and longevity.

The King of Atlantis explaining the connection between Atlanteans and the Heart of Atlantis

The king explains that in times of danger to the Atlantean Empire, the crystal would “choose” a host to protect itself and the city, bonding with the host until the threat ceased. We see the crystal responding visually to threats, and we see the crystal “taking action”, shielding the city from danger, and bonding with one of the main characters, Kida.

In the crystal’s chamber underneath the city, the main character, Milo Thatch, explains that the Heart of Atlantis seems to be “[…] alive, somehow […] it’s their deity, their power source. They’re a part of it, it’s a part of them”, implying some kind of “hive mind” or collective consciousness shared between the Atlanteans and the Heart of Atlantis. This piece of dialogue happening shortly before the crystal seems to speak through Kida, telling Milo that all will be well, as she begins to walk on water and levitate into the crystal, having been chosen for the city’s protection.

The Heart of Atlantis reacting to disturbances in its chamber.

So obviously there is some kind of consciousness residing within the crystal, and arguably within the city of Atlantis itself, and that consciousness is shared and connects with all Atlanteans, seemingly across time. A reservoir of past knowledge and experiences contained within a god-like superstructure, with untold power and potential. Is the crystal a “being” like a human is a “being”? Is the crystal something greater than? Or is the consciousness of the crystal some kind of emergent behavior that is distinct and separate from what we would consider ‘personhood’? Is a collective consciousness wholly distinct from a singular consciousness like that of a person?

Being a Disney movie, these questions are not explored very deeply, but they exist in the framing of the movie for those who wish to ponder them. Unlike “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”, James Cameron’s 2009 movie “Avatar” builds an entire world from these questions.


Taking place on an alien (to us) moon-planet called “Pandora”, Avatar builds the entire world around the ideas of shared consciousness through a “Gaia-Earth” hypothetical lens. In the near future, humanity has found and inhabited an earth-like planet-moon capable of sustaining life. While the atmosphere is not breathable to humans, the rest of the environment is not too dissimillar to Earth’s. Pandora has oceans, forests, planes, weather patterns, liquid water, a diverse biosphere, and a richness of material resources for which the human colonists’s purpose on the planet resides.

Both the flora and fauna of Pandora seem to have evolved a mechanism for connecting to one another across species. Called “Tsaheylu”, meaning “the bond”. The Na’vi are able to mentally connect with each other, the plants and trees around them, and other species like the dragonesque ikran or the horse-like pa’li.

Neytiri performing tsaheylu with her ikran Seze

The bond formed between a Na’vi or avatar and the plants and animals of Pandora seems to expand the consciousness of the person performing tsaheylu. Jake Sully, the titular character and avatar pilot of the film, can hear the voices of deceased Na’vi when he connects to the Tree of Voices. Neytiri describes the Tree of Voices as a place for prayers to be heard and sometimes answered, saying that the ancestors live in Ewa, their deity. And what more metaphysical proof could you need that a long dead loved one lives on in an afterlife than literally hearing their voice in the hyper connected biosphere of the planet itself!?

Dr. Grace Augustine, a biologist studying the ecosystem of Pandora, says that the spirituality of Pandora is “something real, something measurable”. The connections between the trees of the planet forming a network with more synapses than the human brain. She argues that the global network of biology is a kind of organism unto itself that the Na’vi can access through tsaheylu, sharing thoughts, feelings, memories, and prayers.

Later, as Grace is connected to the Tree of Souls in an attempt to save her life by permanently transferring her consciousness into her avatar body, she says that she can see Ewa, that she is with her, and that Ewa is real. Grace is, in this moment, connected to all living things on Pandora, and very literally connected to the macroorganism of the planet itself. She can feel the thoughts of every Na’vi connected to the Tree of Souls with her. Upon her death, it is remarked that “she is with Ewa now”, which, in the context of the world of Pandora, could be literally true. Grace’s consciousness could be living in the network of organisms on the planet, continuing to think and feel despite the death of her body.

Does this mean that the planet is alive, and it takes the form of Ewa? Just as some have postulated that Earth is alive in the form of Gaia? Are the connections of the trees at locations like the Tree of Voices and the Tree of Souls nodes on a larger sentient network, accessible and sharable by the Na’vi through tsaheylu? What does it mean for your own sense of being and identity when you can literally merge your thoughts, feelings, and emotions with that of another?

Some of these questions are explored further in the sequel: “Avatar: The Way of Water”, as Grace’s avatar gives birth to a daughter Kiri, who has a deep connection to the planet and Ewa.

Kiri, performing tsaheylu with the underwater Spirit Tree

Kiri seems to share a continuous connection to Pandora and Ewa even when tsaheylu is not present. She is able to “feel her [Ewa’s] heart beat” and “hear her breathing” at all times, suggesting a stronger connection to this being than that of any previously introduced Na’vi.

So is Ewa a distinct being like that of the Heart of Atlantis? Is the collective thoughts and memories of past Na’vi enough to create a new planet-wide sentience in the form of Ewa? Where do we draw the line for what is and isn’t a “being” or a “person” when the physical limits of personhood can extend to that of a global ecosystem through which all life connects?


The Wachowski sibling’s Netflix series Sense8 explores the ideas of shared consciousness not through an alien world, but through our own world. Viewers find themselves following eight characters who wake up with a psychic connection to each other, able to hear, see, feel, and “control” each other. Sharing skills, knowledge, language, memories, and experiences across the globe.

In this exploration of identity and being, we grapple with ideas of the self in juxtaposition of others, and whether or not you can still have a sense of self when it is shared, willingly or unwillingly, with seven other strangers.

In this world, sensates form “clusters” of 8 people. Sensates can also form psychic bonds and connections with other sensates outside of their cluster, though these connections are not as powerful. After making eye contact with another sensate, you can communicate with them psychically, as if you were sitting right next to them. You can see what they see and hear what they hear. Within your own cluster, you can feel what they feel, and know what they know.

We see this throughout the show as characters are suddenly fluent in a language they’ve never studied, or can suddenly fight with the skill of a martial artist with decades of practice. In a world where people with these abilities exist, the very nature of the ‘self’ and identity are threatened. How can a single individual compare to someone who has these connections across the planet? How can one being compare to a network of people who can share thoughts and feelings so easily.

Sun Bak (in prison) experiencing the performance of a symphony attended by Riley Gunnarsdóttir (in person).

The nature of being and the nature of identity become tangled even further when you consider what romantic and sexual relationships between sensates would entail. One character, Yrsa, says that “love inside a cluster is pathological … love inside a cluster is the worst kind of narcissism”. When you can literally feel someone else’s emotions, see what they see, know what they know, and do so as intimately as you know yourself, can it be anything other than narcissism? Or is it the purist form of self acceptance? Seeing someone else as they see themselves, knowing someone else as they know themselves, is that not the highest form of empathy?

When your sense of being is tied up in your self perception and other’s perception of you, what can be more validating for your identity than feeling exactly how someone else feels about you? If our sense of self and identity is tied to our perceptions of the world, then there could be nothing more affirming than experiencing your own identity through the lens of another.

Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic tells the story of two independent beings who upon encountering each other, engage in a life and death struggle of refuting the identity of the other while simultaneously requiring the existence of an ‘other’ to validate their own. In Sense8, rather than these self consciousnesses engaging in a life and death struggle, each self consciousness validates and supports the identity of the other without refutation.

The shared and collective consciousness in Sense8 does not contradict the collective consciousness of Avatar or Atlantis, nor does the shared consciousness of a cluster contradict or dispute the individual sense of self of each member. While each member retains an individual being, the collective becomes something distinctly more, further pushing the boundaries of what it means to be.

Humanity and Being

Black Mirror

Imagine the near future, a world where your home starts brewing your coffee just the way you like it, while playing the perfect beats to get you excited to greet the day, as the lights fade on gently and your schedule is announced in a soothing and familiar voice to you. This wonder of automation technology always knows exactly how you like things done. It knows you like your toast (a little more done, in my case), how you like your eggs, and every facet of minutiae that makes up your personality.

Black Mirror’s “White Christmas” plunges us straight into this world. People in this futuristic utopic-dystopia can pay to have “cookies” implanted in their heads. While implanted, the cookie learns everything about you, eventually creating a digital clone of your consciousness. When removed, the cookie is placed in a device that connects to your home ecosystem and helps automate the world around you. In this world, you are doing the work for you.

So if a cookie is an exact digital replica of your consciousness and being, trapped inside a digital space, does this you have rights? Is this you even real? Can it feel pain? Can it suffer? Black Mirror certainly seems to think so. One way of training a new cookie to accept its reality as a slave to itself is by “fast-forwarding” time. What passes as seconds for humans in the real would can be months or years for the cookie, locked in isolation, unable to leave, unable to sleep, eat, drink, breathe, or die. Rather than face an eternity of nothingness trapped inside a digital void, these ‘cookie cutter copies’ of people agree to do the work of home automation, simply because there is nothing else to do.

Cookie version of Greta looking outside of her digital room at Matt, who is there to “train” her to do her job.

In thought experiments such as this, the idea of personhood isn’t anything special or intrinsic to any living or synthetic being, it is a legal status conferred upon you by another legal entity. The reason cookies aren’t “people” in the world of Black Mirror has nothing to do with whether they experience pain or joy or sadness, and has everything to do with being called people by the legal system. In this instance, cookies are not “people” simply because the law says they are not.

The sad reality is that this line of thinking is not unfamiliar to humans in recent memory. Before the abolition of slavery in the United States, slaves were not considered people, but rather property. Despite having the same characteristics for humanity as white people, enslaved people were nevertheless considered sub-human. The Three Fifths Compromise codified this idea into law, stating that three out of every five enslaved people were counted for census purposes in determining the population of a state for the legislature. So we have both media and literary precedence for gatekeeping personhood, and historical presedence for it as well.

If the idea of personhood is a legal problem, rather than a metaphysical or biological question, where do we draw the line? At what point do we consider the rights of “humans” to be extendable to non-humans? At what point will human rights be stripped away from humans for political reasons? We again have a precedence for this in history, as Jewish and minority people such as LGBTQ individuals or individuals with disabilities were stripped of their legal rights as persons during the second World War.

Axiom’s End and Truth of the Divine

YouTuber, media critic, and author Lindsay Ellis grapples with the questions of humanity and legal personhood in her Noumena series, starting with “Axiom’s End”. In this not-yet finished sci-fi first contact trilogy, human protagonist Cora Sabino finds herself in the center of a human-alien conflict around who deserves sanctuary, who counts as a ‘person’, and what legal rights are people entitled to.

In the Noumena series, the primary alien race (called “Amygdalin” by humans, for their ‘almond’ shaped eyes), are capable of varying forms of communication, each with different levels of intimacy. The first level of communication is verbal communication, and the second is network-language, allowing communication between individuals of the species through transmitted signals aided by technology. The highest form of communication comes from their species’s ability to “fusion bond”, in which two or more members of the Amygdalin species create permanent bond analogous to a human’s lifelong commitment of marriage.

A fanart sketch of Amygdalins in height compared to Cora Sabino

For Amygdalins, fusion bonding and the creation of family structures or “philes” is the criteria for personhood in their species. Having encountered other life forms across the galaxy, the Amygdalins do not believe other life forms to be capable of personhood, even if they are intelligent. In the sequel, “Truth of the Divine”, Ampersand, the main Amygdalin character, expresses his anguish over the fact that humans are ‘persons’, after successfully fusion bonding with a human, saying “It is a burden to carry this knowledge. You are not unique. There is nothing exceptional about you. If you are a person, then so are all adult humans. Seven billion persons on this planet. You can reason, you have language, you are conscious. And you are predators. And you are violent. And you consume […]. Why, of every species that we have discovered with the potential to advance, why did it have to be you?”

In the case of Humans and Amygdalins, each species is trying to determine the personhood of the other, with Ampersand not wanting to view humans as persons, because it would only pain him with guilt and knowledge of their pain and suffering. For humans, the question of Amygdalin personhood comes down to whether or not asylum laws and protection should apply to them. Do we have an obligation to help other persons when asked? If we do, do we also have an obligation to help other beings even if they may not be persons?

Veganism is actually an incredibly relevant topic in this regard. Vegans would argue that we have a moral obligation to protect the legal rights of the animals on our planet. Beings like cows and pigs, who have the ability to create social bonds, can feel pain and fear, are intelligent, and who can live fulfilling lives have just as much of a right to personhood protections as humans.

From a biological, legal, and moralistic sense, the concept of personhood is an amorphous idea that can be shaped to apply to a multitude of beings across the phylogenetic tree, and perhaps even across sentience levels. Media like Axiom’s End, The Truth of the Divine, and Black Mirror push us to question our conceptions of human rights and personhood beyond its application in humanity.

The fact that we can conceive of variations of sentient and conscious persons might provide a clue that personhood is a more complex concept than originally envisioned. If we can conceive of a sentient hivemind existing within a network of computer chips and wires, while simultaneously conceiving of an alien race capable of thought and complex social interactions like us, then perhaps the idea of personhood is more flexible than we give it credit for. After all, personhood comes in all forms for humans. We do not deny the personhood of someone with severe disabilities, simply because they might not walk like us or talk like us. Likewise, we actively ascribe personhood to and anthropomorphize beings in our day to day lives, believing that our pets love us as a child loves a parent, or assigning emotional traits and desires to plants. Sunflowers “wanting” to face the sun, rather than following a biological imperative.

Perhaps by the time any species or organism is able to ponder questions of sentience and personhood, its own nature has become too complex to fully understand. As we are always limited by our own biology, it is important to recognize and accept that some of these questions will never be answered. If an ant cannot grasp the thoughts of a human, then is it so different for humans trying to grasp at the very concept of our own being? How can any person ever fully understand that which makes it capable of asking in the first place? Maybe it’s best that we can’t understand it fully. Maybe our fasciation will pave the way for a new generation to grow and accept all new ideas of what makes us so… human.

Author’s Note:

There are a plethora of books, movies, TV shows, and podcasts that touch on the ideas of personhood, human rights, identity, and being, and I have only examined a small set of material for this article. For anyone who has made it this far and is curious about the kinds of media that inspire this thinking for me, I hope this list proves to be insightful.