When does the human person begin to exist? Part 2: To be a subsistent, or not to be.

By David Fleischacker

Last week, in the search for the answer to this factual question about when a human person begins to exist, I had turned to the definition of a person developed by St. Thomas Aquinas, with the hopes that it would add significant precision in the search for an answer. And in initiating that search, the meaning of the first term of the definition had been explored. A person is distinct from others. A child must be distinct from his or her mother, as well as others, in order to be a person. Now we turn to the second term in St. Thomas’ definition of person; subsist.

A subsistent, as far as I can tell, is a being in all of its concrete unity. It is not just a part of a being, such as the molecules or the biological systems of cells that compose it, or the unity of it. It is the entire, concrete, existing being, which as such, exists in itself and not in another as St. Thomas highlights.

As a human person, this means that all of my parts, all of my being, including my thoughts, my will, my memories, my character, my personality, my body, legs, eyes, arms, ears, my unity, identity, whole, my individuality, my perfections and lack thereof, all belong to my concrete existing being. These are parts of me, unified in me, which allows me to say these belong to me, not as a possession of mine, but rather as a constituent part of my being. These parts are the parts of a complex composition that is me and which thus allow me to say in a very subjective and objective way that these parts are me, such that if someone were to harm a part, I would then say you have hurt me. These parts are constitutive and compositional, not merely add-ons to my being. I, and all that composes me, am a concrete unity. I am a subsistent being.

And yet, all of this can be challenged. Perhaps the most difficult element of subsistence, at least for me, is the question about the unity of the concrete being. What if the very notion of unity is merely that, a notion, and not real? A number of philosophers and scientists in the post-modern era, especially ecologists, have highlighted the relational element of all events and things, including people. If the relational is all that is real, then unity is merely a notion and these relationally consistuted parts and pieces are just that, relationally consitituted parts and pieces. There is no unified subject, no individual. Individualism is an idea of the past. And subsequently, with the loss of a real concrete unity, there is no meaning to subsistent being.

One can go on to add premises that destroy the notion of the subsistent by giving a multitude of examples that highlight the relational in this world. My lungs for example do not operate and really do not make sense except in relationship to oxygen and carbon dioxide cycles, and the plants and trees that form part of those cycles. Even the biochemical cycles in my body do not make sense as independent elements without understanding the relationship these possess to various forms of energy in the ecosystem (eg. Such as Kreb’s cycle and a large bowl of food). As a human being I am a social being. I am the son of so and so, a teacher, a student, a consumer, a friend, and on and on. All relationally defined terms. When I look at my being, from the sub-sub-atomic to the most meaningful elements, I understanding nothing but relational events and activities. Even my own mind is constituted by transcending notions that seek the intelligible, the true, and the good, transcending terms that are not me. And this transcending orientation is not restricted, which implies a relation to some unrestricted being. So, isn’t what is real, what is concrete, simply a relational reality? There is no independent, individual unity that is distinct from others, that subsists. Rather what exists is a web of relationships that expand throughout the galaxy, and to the universe as a whole, and onward to the divine.

One could also destroy the subsistent by traveling the way of the reductionist. Looking at a human being, one could focus upon the chemical, or the sub-atomic, or the sub-sub-atomic. One sees just an aggregate pile of molecules, once in a while statistically interacting with each other in some type of reaction. There is no overarching unity from this point of view, and hence one begins to argue that there is no larger thing that mysteriously brings everything together. The larger unity becomes a mere epi-phenomena, more conceptual than real. And as Lonergan pointed out, beings of mere reason are not subsistent.

Notice, how this also destroys the notion of individuality, and along with it the reality of distinctness, and the cognitive ability to distinguish. A relational reality is not really a distinct being, an individual.

The objections to the notion of subsistent thus can be serious. If it does not exist, then the meaning of person really does not hold. People really do not exist. This long standing Western tradition that affirms the reality of the person and of people should be cast into a grave. Human beings as persons cannot be. Like the chemical reductionist, Derrida the linguistic reductionist is right. My mother is no longer a person. I am no longer a person. And Tertullian and the tradition he helped initiate was wrong all along. The three what in God cannot be three divine persons.

Yet, a reality seems to persist. I want to be a person, with a name, a concrete biography, a son, a friend, a student, a teacher, and ultimately a child of God. And for me to be these things I must be an I, not just as an epiphenomena or a merely subjective conscious I, but as a real objective unity. I not only want to be related to others but I also want to be distinct from them, and to be a concrete unity, a subject who can love, and be responsible, and truthful, and intelligent.

The solution? Let us leave it for the next installment.

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