When does the Human Person Begin to Exist? Part 7. The Human Person: As Body and Mind

By David Fleischacker

In the last blog, I had mentioned the final steps in reaching a conclusion. Ignore that, at least in part.

In this current installment, I have chosen to examine the relationship between the body and the mind in the matured human person. Most of us would hardly argue whether a grown, awake, intelligent adult is a human person. Yet not so clear is the relationship of the body and the mind in terms of being intrinsically related to an intellectual nature. And until this becomes a bit clearer, I cannot begin to answer the question about when the human being begins to exist.

The Human Mind as Intrinsically Independent and Extrinsically Dependent on the Empirical Residue

[As a note of profound gratitude, I would like to thank Fr. Joseph Flanagan for highlighting the meaning of the spiritual in INSIGHT during the year long courses I had with him in 1990 on that book. Fr. Flanagan’s pointers have been a starting point of deepening reflection for me over the years. The following discussion is simply another example of that deepening.]

In INSIGHT, Lonergan notes that human intelligence develops in relationship to the sensate, which in turn, emerges within the neural manifolds, and one could continue on down, to the chemical and sub-atomic, and even the quark. So, on the one hand, the development of human intelligence simply cannot take place without images or what St. Thomas calls phantasms, which in turn only happen within neural manifolds in particular places, times, continuums, and coincidental aggregates. At the same time, from these particular manifolds of neurons and images, human questions and insights have a liberty that stretches to the universe and beyond. Our questions intrinsically intend intelligibilities, truths, and goods, or in general the transcendentals of intelligibility, truth, and goodness. Together, the integrated intentionality constituted by these transcendental notions forms the basic human capacity for self-transcendence. What emerges from this capacity has a universal and invariant character that can include the concrete and particular. Insights and judgments abstract from the empirical residue to reach universals and the virtually unconditioned, and thus have a kind of liberty from that residue.[for more on these, see Lonergan’s account of the invariant character of insight in chapter 2 of INSIGHT and of the virtually unconditioned in chapter 9 of INSIGHT] This liberty is what Lonergan means when in INSIGHT he technically defines the spiritual as that which is intrinsically independent of the empirical residue. Intrinsically independent because the mind intrinsically intends the transcendental notions not the particularities of the images and neural manifolds. At the same time, it is extrinsically dependent, because it cannot reach its aim without that particularity.

Is the human body intrinsically independent of the spiritual capacity for self-transcendence?

All of this however points to the fact that human intellectual, rational, and moral development of the capacity for self-transcendence is intrinsically independent of and extrinsically dependent on the body–its organic and motor-sensate, and affective facets as well as its embeddedness in the empirical residue. However, this relation of the mind to the body does not allow one to understand and know whether the human body is intrinsically independent of the capacity for self-transcendence and its realization. This reminds one of St. Thomas point that God is intrinsically independent of us, but we are not intrinsically independent of God in our existence. At the same time, it reminds me of St. Thomas point that the rational nature of the human being informs the body which means the body has an intelligibility that comes from the rational nature above.

There is another way of raising this question. Is the human body intrinsically intelligible without reference to the intelligibility of the capacity for self-transcendence and its realization in the self-transcending acts of understanding, judging, and deciding? If the body is intrinsically independent, then one cannot say that an intrinsic link to an intellectual nature occurs in the human body. Thus, when a human being is merely an organic or zoological being, he or she is not a human person. On the other hand, if such an intelligibility exists, then one can say that this being who is not currently intellectual, rational, and moral is still a human person.

Phantasm and Insight

Non-heuristic sense objects

One way to develop this answer is to examine the relationship that the phantasm has to insight. The images that are phantasms are distinct from those that are merely sensate. Sensate type images are either direct integrations of neural responses to sense objects the apple as seen–or they are creative remembrances of those objects the apple as remembered–or creative constructions of potential sensate objects that have never actually been sensed the cubicle apple. Notice that in each case there is a greater liberty from the material manifolds. The second is free from the actual sensation of the object in a particular physical place and time but not free from memories of the object. The third is free from both a sensation of the object and even from a memory of it though it is not free from some previous sense experiences. If one has never had eyes to see or ears to hear, then no visual or auditory creative constructs can be formed.

In all three cases, the empirical residue is a constitutive component of the images. Every actual, remembered, or potential sensate object has a particular spatial or temporal element, as well as individuality. And though the imagination has a kind of freedom to create these residues, especially as one moves to the second and third types of sensate objects, the objects it creates cannot be without these residues.

Intellectual Images – Phantasms

Images need not be limited to sense type objects, and this is precisely what takes place in the formation of a phantasm. A phantasm is an imaginative object that has become formed in such a manner as to allow for the emergence of an insight. For example, in understanding the algebraic law that A + B = B + A, the data requires that one do and then examine a series of arithmetic activities, such as 1 + 2 = 2 + 1; 4 + 10 = 10 + 4, 8 + 54 = 54 + 8, etc., etc., etc.. Thus, the phantasm in this case is formed by doing arithmetic based on symbolic representations of numerical elements and mathematical operations. Notice, that the kind of patterning of the imagination that takes place cannot be explained either as a perception of an actual sensate object, as a memory, or as a creative construct of a potential sensate object. Instead, this kind of imaginative play is ordered toward insight. And that patterning of the imagination is an intelligibility that requires an understanding of higher levels of intellectual life. The phantasm as a phantasm would not exist without the insight and it would not be what it is without the insight. Yet, it belongs to the imagination, and hence is embedded in neural manifolds and the empirical residue. Without the act of insight, the underlying phantasm is merely a strange coincidental aggregate of neural events and images. The reality is that it is not random or strange, and needs the higher order for explanation.

What this indicates is the body, at least that part of the body that has become informed as a phantasm, is informed by the insight, and thus cannot be understood in its form or pattern without that insight. This indicates an intelligibility of the body that intrinsically requires an appeal to intelligence itself. Thus, the phantasm is intrinsically linked to our human intellectual nature.
Intellectual Body without phantasm?

This then raises another question. Does this intelligible link between the phantasm and intelligence exist when no phantasm actually exists? If I am in a deep sleep, or in a kind of non-intellectual conscious state, does my vegetative and sensate being still exist in a manner that possesses an intrinsic form that requires an appeal to higher conscious operations? The answer in my judgment is yes.
Evidence 1: The Potentiality of the Imagination and Brain for Phantasm

What is the evidence? Well, I think in general one could point to the real potentiality of the imagination to be informed as a phantasm. When the imagination is not actually informed as a phantasm, it does not thereby become limited in its capability to form a phantasm. In other words, it does not regress to being able to rise no higher than sensate type images and constructs. This also means that the neural manifolds that underlie the potentiality for forming the phantasm have this same plasticity. I suspect that the great power of the associative regions of the brain, and the motor and sensory cortices along with the front lobes point to this plasticity as well, and as the structures of the brain become better known, this link will become clearer.

Evidence 2: The Memory of Habituation of the Imagination and Neural Patterns by Phantasm

Also, once a phantasm has been created, and the neurons and their synaptic linkages have switched into long term patterns for long term memory, then literally, the brain has become habituated to these phantasms. Even when these patterns are not operative as phantasms, the stability of the neural linkages remain. And like the phantasm, these underlying neural patterns cannot be explained except in relationship to the higher insights, reflective insights, and evaluative insights that inform them [I think the neural patterns involved in evaluative insights include a combination of the manner in which the affective/emotional dimensions of the brain are integrated into the higher parts of the brain, especially the frontal lobes. Thus the phantasm sublated by evaluative insight includes higher brain integrations of these intentional affect elements, which is what neurologically allows for the sublation of the affective into the rationally self-consciousness, or the level of decision]. Thus, even the memory patterns of these phantasms are intrinsically informed by these higher conscious operations and thus have an intrinsic link to an intellectual nature.

Thus, an intrinsic link of the body to an intellectual nature is found both in the potentiality of the human imagination and human brain for phantasm as well as in the memory patterns of the imagination and neural structures that had emerged as a result of phantasm.

So, even when we are in a deep sleep, or in a sensate state in which we are not thinking, understanding, judging, and deciding, our bodies are still in a neural and imaginative potentiality and state that is intrinsically linked to our capacity for self-transcendence and its realization.

Yet, we have not reached our final answer. The relation of phantasm and the higher conscious operations regards the matured human adult and not when the human person begins to exist. However we have made one further step toward the resolution of this question. One can point out that the intrinsic link to an intellectual nature can begin even when a real potentiality for phantasm begins. But a real potentiality includes development, and such finality for development can be both horizontal and vertical. The implications of this need to be explored, and that is for the next blog.