When does the human person begin to exist? Part 1: To Be Distinct

By David Fleischacker

In answering the factual question “When does the human person begin to exist?”, a first step is to examine what is meant by “person” as such. Lonergan’s work on Christology and Trinitarian Theology lends us a great deal of precision in answering this question. Though we cannot pretend to present the profound explanatory and interior accounts of person developed especially in Lonergan’s piece on the ONTOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL CONSTITUTION OF CHRIST, nor of his development of its meaning in his systematic exposition of person in THE TRIUNE GOD: SYSTEMATICS, I think it would be good to begin with one of the most prominent definitions of person from which Lonergan springs, namely that developed by St. Thomas Aquinas.

In developing his systematic account of the Holy Trinity, Aquinas defines person as a “distinct subsistent in a intellectual nature” In order to understand St. Thomas’ definition one must come to understand all of the key terms in the definition and with these understood, one can then proceed to the meaning of human person, and finally to the question of fact that concludes as to when the human person begins to exist. Along the way, we will explore the transposition of the meaning of person from faculty psychological of the 13th century into the exposition of person through the more recent interiority analysis as found in Lonergan, and the subsequent metaphysical clarification of the meaning of person.

So, we shall begin with the first term, “distinct.” Ultimately it bears upon such questions as when is the child distinct from the mother? At the moment a zygote is formed? When the infant is sensitively conscious? When the infant is intellectually, rationally, and morally conscious?

First Question: What is the meaning and importance of “distinct”?

The Importance of the Subjective Ability to Distinguish

Being able to ground the fact that some feature or thing is distinct from another cognitively requires the ability to make “absolute” judgments such that one can say that A is and B is, and then move to comparative judgments, such as A is not B. Epistemologically, these comparative judgments result in what Lonergan calls the principle notion of objectivity and when the A is a “unity, identity, whole” and “B” is a unity identity whole” (or more technically, an actually existing central/substantial form) and A is not B, then one objectively knows that two distinct things exist. We can ask, for example, is this tree that tree, or this dog that dog. If one says no in each case, then one has factually distinguished different things and arrived at some degree of objectification of the real world. Notice, if such judgments are not possible, then one cannot really become “attuned” to this universe and world, since such attunment requires that people, persons, and things become distinguished and related. Without these judgments, we would not recognize ourselves as distinct from anything in this world, nor the distinction of friends and family from each other, nor the distinction of one culture from another, nor a tree from a pond, nor a cell from a mountain.

The Criterion or Ground for Distinguishing

One can then turn from the need for comparative judgments to the basic criterion that ground these comparative judgments. For example, in making the comparative judgment of fact that one tree is not another, one could be making the distinction based upon the difference of species of trees. One is an oak, another a maple, hence these are distinct. However, in addition to the distinction based on species of tree, there is a simple fact of material difference, this tree here and now is not the same as that tree over there. These trees occupy different experiential spatial regions. Hence, even if these two trees were the same species, say maple, and the same age, say 25 years old, and even had grown in precisely the same way over the years right down to the order of the sub-atomic quarks (yes, this would be impossible), these would still be different just because of the different spatial-temporal differences. Likewise for dogs. Dogs can be distinct from each other on a number of traits, but say that two dogs were identical to each other in everything except the spatial-temporal regions that these dogs occupy. These dogs would be distinct “things” on that basis alone.

When one turns to the Holy Trinity, the question of the basis of distinction becomes rather interesting. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct from each other on the basis of genus, species, Being, Intellectual disposition, hair color, physical size, or because each occupies a different spatial-temporal region. So what is the basis of the distinction between these three? The answer to this, since at least St. Augustine (I believe book seven of De Trinitate) has been mutually opposed relations which results in the irreducibility of the terms of the relations to each other (Actually, I have found similar answers in St. Gregory of Nyssa). “Relations” without opposition do not result in such distinctions. For example, friendship is based on two relationships, the first being based on friend one who seeks the good of friend two. The second on friend two who seeks the good of friend one. However these are not mutually opposed in kind. Rather, it results in two relations similar in kind, which means that the two terms of the relations are the same (term one being friend one, and term two being friend two). Friendship is a relationship that results in “two friends.” Father and son however are likewise rooted in relations but these are mutual opposed, because the relation of paternity and the relation of filiation are different in kind from each other, and these result in two irreducibly different terms, “father” and “son”, not two fathers or two sons. This becomes the basis for saying why one is not the other in the Holy Trinity. The Father “begets” the Son and thus has a relationship of paternity to the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father, and thus has a relationship of filiation to the Father. Mutually opposed relations is the key.

The Conclusion is that different kinds of things might need different grounds that allow human beings to understand the difference cognitively and that actually cause these things to be distinct metaphysically.

The Ground for Distinction of Human Beings Cognitively and Metaphysically

Our concern at the moment is not with the ground of the distinction of three Persons in the Trinity, but rather the meaning of “distinct” as such, and in turn how it grounds the distinction of human persons, and then how this distinction bears upon when human persons begin to exist.

The basis upon which one human being is not another is not easy to identify metaphysically as the following two questions illustrate. “Is the basis of the distinction between human beings the genetic uniqueness of a person?” “Is it that each man, woman, and child possesses a self-conscious unity?” Notice how neither of these grounds for distinction work because neither provides a definitive principle of difference. Theoretically, human beings could be genetically identical, hence that does not quite work. Likewise, even in possessing a “self-conscious unity”, one cannot use that feature to conclude that one person is not another because both “self-conscious” human beings would be the same in this feature of “self-conscious unity.” Furthermore, one is not always a “self-conscious unity” and this provides further evidence that this cannot be a principle of difference.

Now, as with trees and dogs, one can argue that human beings are distinct from each other on many grounds: Biographical, cultural, and biological differences would allow one to say why one human being is not another. In the end, however, one human being could be completely identical to another biographically, culturally, and biologically (even down to the sub-atomic quarks), and yet each would be distinct from the other. The solution? Though I do not think this solution can be reached yet with clarity, I can point to Lonergan’s answer. Each human being possesses a difference rooted in one feature of the empirical residue, which Lonergan calls “individuality.” Cognitively, individuality is a residue in intellectually patterned experience that is identifiable when one grasps that a human material-rational-spiritual unity exists. Metaphysically, individuality is part of central (substantial) potency, and this difference in individuality is what metaphysically causes human beings to be distinct from each other. Notice though, I have slipped in something that needs to be made more precise first, namely “material-rational-spiritual unity” on the cognitive side, and “central (substantial) form” on the metaphysical side, and clarification of these will come when we treat the subsequent terms — “subsistent in an intellectual nature” — in Aquinas’ definition of person and work this out as it exists in human beings.

For now, we just need to note that in order for a human person to be a person, this person must be distinct and hence distinguishable in some fundamental fashion from others, including from one’s mother. Is the zygote a distinct being from the mother while in the womb in which the zygote “lives and moves and has its being (relatively speaking).” Or is the child not distinct until some later age, when he or she has rationally and morally decided to be distinct?

Hence, the next question for the next posting: What does “subsistent” mean and how does it bear upon the question “When does a human being begin to exist?”

2 Replies to “When does the human person begin to exist? Part 1: To Be Distinct”

  1. My only question with regard to your analysis of when does the human being begin to exist is the fact that twinning and recombination can take place anywhere from 7 to 14 days after conception. Given this fact then does the human being begin to exist only after that time or have we somehow lost a potential human in the recombination?

    Pat Sheedy

  2. I will sort out my response into the following points: 

    1. I would argue that whenever a self-mediating developing entity begins to exist that has an orientation to unfolding as a human being does–toward self-transcendence–then the human being begins to exist.

    2. Thus, a zygote and the first number of cell divisions are a human being because he/she is a being that has a finality toward self-transcendence.

    2. However, a zygote and its first cellular divisions are not differentiated to a point that prevents twinning. [Substantial cellular differentiation in which the cells and cell tissues differentiate and loose the original undifferentiated plasticity hinders the possibility of twinning.]

    3. Twinning results from spliting of cells into two distinct developing entities, each with their own developmental tragectories, oriented toward becoming two self-transcending beings.

    4. Thus, I would argue that prior to twinning, you had one human being, then after you have two (or three, or four).

    There would not be a philosophical problem as far as I can tell with a multiplication of “unity-identity-wholes.” This is a substantial change. (or to use Lonergan’s language from Insight, a central change). When a person dies, of course, there is a great deal of multiplication of “unity-idenity-wholes” — each molecule, etc., becomes its own unity-identity-whole. However, these obviously are different kinds of unity-identity-wholes that arise–and these are no longer human beings. In the case of twinning, the cells that compose the original human being had been on one developmental tragectory, then because of some non-systematic and non-developmental event, (since twinning is neither a scheme of recurrence nor is it built into the developmental operators) these cells are separated in a manner that allows for two developing entities to come into existence and to begin their own developmental journeys. Both have their own individual developmental capacities that are oriented, if all goes well, toward a self-transcending being, just as the pre-twinning human being was likewise oriented. One interesting question to raise, I suppose, is whether this was a “substantial” change (an annihilation of one central form, and the creation of two others) or not. Did the original human being cease to exist in this? If not, which of the two is the original? One cannot really base the answer on which one had received the most cells when the split took place — that seems arbitrary. So, if one cannot determine which of the two was the original, then perhaps neither was the original — and two unity-identity-wholes have come from one, and the one no longer exists. It is true that if the original had not split, it would have developed in a slightly different manner, with different finger prints, perhaps different size organs, some difference in brain layout and formation, etc., etc., etc..– all because of the manner in which cell differentiation unfolds.

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