When does the human person begin to exist? Part 4 The basis of the unity-identity-whole in an explanatory viewpoint.

by David Fleischacker

In the last installment on January 11th, a question was posed at the end.

“The question then becomes more precisely what is required to grasp intelligently and affirm reasonably the unity of a concrete unity, a subsistent being? Since all insight requires an adequate image or phantasm, what kind of image or phantasm is needed for the emergence of the insight that recognizes a unity-identity-whole?”

Expanding the question in terms of Conjugate Forms, the Unity-Identity-Whole, and Development.

In chapter 8 of INSIGHT, Lonergan succinctly presents the cognitive discovery of the unity-identity-whole, and then how the knower can move to an explanatory differentiation of the unity-identity-whole, the thing in its various conjugate forms (as both genus and species). The highest set of conjugate forms define the kind of thing that is unified. He makes it clear that the “direct insights” which understand these highest conjugate forms are not the same as those insights which grasp unity-identity-wholes.” Later in the book, a nuance is added to the differentation of things. In chapter 15, “Elements of Metaphysics,” Lonergan introduces a further heuristic structure, that had been implicit in certain parts of the book earlier, including chapter 8, namely genetic/developmental method. And he subsequently integrates that which is known developmentally with the notion of the thing. A developmental thing changes through sequences of changing conjugate forms, yet it is one and the same through the entire process from beginning to end. So the same thing is both acorn and, later, Oak.

Now these developmental insights are distinct from insights into conjugate form and central form (central form = unity-identity-whole). Since our purpose here is to identify when the human person begins to exist, and the human person is a developing kind of thing, we need to examine what place development holds in our inquiry.

Another way of posing this question is how does a thing, as it develops, remain one and the same. A zygote of an animal, for example, has rather indeterminate organic or vegetative features, and nothing more. It is not yet a sensate being. When it sufficiently develops to possess neural cells and ganglia, and then a brain, and thus begins to acquire the ability to sense, it has become a new kind of thing. Is this a substantial change? Is it an annihilation of an old unity-identity-whole and the creation of a new one? Now, as said above, Lonergan states that it is one and the same, even through the same thing changes from a lower set of conjugate forms (eg. Organic) to a higher set (psychic/sensate).

Now notice, that if one stops at this point, then one can only say that the same thing is an organic thing at stage one, then the same thing becomes a sensate/psychic kind of thing at stage two. This means that the same thing comes to possess a different kind of nature. Thus, when one wants to define a thing, does one then need to use multiple definitions depending upon the stage of development? The ramifications of this, for our question at hand, is that one must wonder if a human person, which needs to be a rational/intellectual being, exists only when a certain kind of thing reaches a stage at which rational life is in act, or at least has the power to act. This would seem to support the theory of delayed-hominization. It means that at one stage, I am merely an organic kind of thing (vegetative), then I become a sensate kind of thing (animal), and later a rational kind of thing. I am one and the same throughout these three major shifts, yet quite different at each stage. It also means, however, given the definition of person with which we are working (a distinct subsistent in an intellectual nature), that I am not a human person until that third stage.

Defining a Thing Developmentally

However, the notion of development, especially as it is related to horizontal and vertical finality (For more on the meaning of finality, see INSIGHT, chapter 14, and I would also recommend his treatment of it in Third Collection, in the essay “Healing and Creating in History), introduces some new ways for defining something. One can come to define “what” something is not only by the highest actually operative conjugate forms in their schemes of recurrence, but by the potency of the highest actually operative conjugate forms in their schemes of recurrence. Any developing being that is at any stage prior to full maturity is a system that is an operator because it not only possesses a regular set of schemes of recurrence, but it is setting itself up for either horizontal (just as a deductive or homogenous expansion can take place in arthmetic, so an organism can “expand” its organic operations) or vertical (just as one can move from arithmetic to algebra, so a organism can expand from vegetative/organic operations to motor-sensate operations) changes.

The Highest Finality of a Potency as That Which Unifies all the Data in a Development

Because every potency is defined by its relation to form and act, and because those relations can be horizontal and vertical, one can define a thing by the highest potency that constitutes it (I say highest, because in a complex matured organism, the maturation of stem cells which maintain and heal tissues include operators, but these are not the highest operators of the organism as a whole). Now notice, that the highest potency of a developing thing is the same from its beginning to its completion, even though at the earliest stage that potency is vertical and later it became horizontal, and then perhaps, once maturity was reached development stops. In this last stage, the same potency is still a constituent of the being, though now it is a fully realized potency. This is why a particular developing kind of thing can be defined by the highest finality that belongs to its potency.

Thus, one is not forced to limit a definition of a unity-identity-whole to a particular set of actual highest conjugate forms, or, in other words, to a particular stage of development.

[As a note, the finality of a particular thing is different from the universe as a whole, not so much because emergent probability is different, but because in a thing, the particular sequences of development have been delimited within a particular flexible developmental range, whereas in the finality of the universe, no such delimitation has taken place, but rather it includes the possibility of a multiplicity of things and ranges of developing things this as well would be worth another blog article!].

Hence, in defining a zygote of a dog, therefore, one can define it in various ways, but most appropriately I would argue, one wants to define it as a developmental kind of thing, and thus by means of the kind of potency the “dog” zygote possesses, and more specifically, the highest orientation of the potency, which is a vertical orientation toward specific motor-sensory-affective integrations and operations. Thus, if one defines a dog as that which has a particular finality in its potency (which could only be specified after an explantory account of all the developemental stages of the dog takes place in the scientific community), a finality that opens up to a particular combination of motor-sensory-affective integrations/operations, then one can say that this zygote which is one and the same with the fully matured dog is also the same in its developmental nature, and thus possesses the nature of a dog.

[If you have never done so, it is worthwhile taking the extended time needed to work through some specific examples of eucharyotic cells, DNA, a general understanding of biochemical schemes, cell differentiation, and the emergence of differentiated tissues, especially neural tissues and brain development. The emergence of motor-sensory-affective possibilities from these earlier stages is rather fascinating even though knowledge of it is still limited.]

Recognition of a Unity-Identity-Whole in an Explanatory viewpoint requires not only that all the data be individual, but that these data be link in some fashion

This resolves a thorny issue in my mind regarding the recognition in an explanatory framework that something is a unity-identity-whole. From the explanatory viewpoint, the data that form a unity-identity-whole cannot be just individual data, but rather these must be linked to each other in some fashion. For Lonergan, this link is the highest set of conjugate forms that are operative in a set of data (see chapter 8 and 15). Whatever data are united in that highest set of conjugate forms (or it could be one form) all belong to the same thing in all of their particular aspects. In a developing kind of thing however, which undergoes emerging sequences of higher conjugate forms, the actual conjugate forms of a particular stage do not provide the unification with the data of earlier or later stages. Something else is needed. And that need is provided by turning to the highest developmental potency (or finality) of this particular being, which is the same at all of its stages. This developmental potency developmentally unifies all the data from beginning to end.

How a Developmental Unity-Identity-Whole is grasped by understanding and affirmed in judgment

Now this developmental unity, like a unity of data integrated through the highest set of conjugate forms, is not the same as the “unity-identity-whole”, since it regards data as similarly understood, not data as individual. In an explanatory framework, once one has worked through the developmental sequences of some being, a range of intellectually patterned experiences then is generated that lead to the unity-identity-whole insight as explanatorily grounded (this can be reached for some things through descriptive conjugates as well but this is for another blog since we are interested in the explanatory definition of person). As a note, this is much like how the “doing of arithmetic” provides the experiential matrix for getting insights into algebra. Likewise, one can verify in judgment this unity-identity-whole by going back and reflecting upon the relationship of this insight into the central form and its basis in the data as developmentally unified.

Final Conclusion

Thus, to return to the initial question stated at the end of the last blog. The meaning of a “that which is”, a “subsistent,” requires a unity, and that unity is a unity-identity-whole. This unity-identity-whole in a data has its roots in the data as intelligibly united either through some highest set of conjugate forms, or, if it is a developing kind of thing, through the highest reaches of the potency for development (horizontally and/or vertically). However, it is not that data as “similarly understood” but that data as individual.

If one can reasonably affirm a unity-identity-whole, one can reasonably know that such a reality exists. And if such a reality exists, subsistences exist. The next set of questions turn to the meaning of “in an intellectual/rational nature.” Following that, we can turn to human subsistents in an intellectual nature, and finally turn to develop an answer to our original question: “When do human persons begin to exist?”

When does the human person begin to exist? Part 3: The reality of the concrete unity-identity-whole.

By David Fleischacker

In part 2, I began to examine the notion of the “subsistent” and noted that one key element in a subsistent is the unity of the reality — it needs to be a “that” or a “this” not a “those” nor a “these.” However, both a relational metaphysics and a reductionist metaphysics seriously challenge this key notion of unity. At best, unity becomes a mere epiphenomena, a being of reason, but not a reality. If the reality of the subsistent is going to be salvaged, the reality of unity needs to be substantiated.

Lonergan’s solution turns to the notion of reality, not as that which is lowest in the universe of being (perhaps quarks or some more basic form of energy), or even relational beings, but “that which is grasped intelligently and affirmed reasonably.” This is a bit of a sound bite behind which are the levels of understanding and judgment which are explored more thoroughly in the first half of INSIGHT. When one raises questions for understanding, receives an insight, and then defines that insight, one has “grasped intelligently.” And when one raises questions for reflection, reflects back upon the relation of insight and image/data, then receives reflective insight and pronounces judgment, one has “affirmed reasonably” the understanding. Thus anything–and that means anything–any property, any feature, any experience that can be understood and affirmed in judgment is real.

The cognitive elements are included in the definition of the “that” simply because then one can understand what is meant through a heuristic definition. This heuristic apprehension is needed for a cognitive/rational being to understand the meaning of being (which is possible because our beings are beings that are “lights of being” or “agent intellects participative in divine being”). Hence, to use a traditional language, we understand the meaning of being by the analogy of Being.

Thus, what is key for solving the problem about the reality of the unity-identity-whole is that it be a “that” which can be grasped intelligently and affirmed reasonable, and is real even if not understood or known by anyone.

With this meaning of “real” in mind, neither the lowest, most basic component of things (the ultimate focus of a reductionist metaphysics), nor the relations of things (the focus of a relational metaphysics) preclude the possibility of a unity that also is real, since it too can be grasped intelligently and affirmed reasonably. If one can mean some meaning with the words “this” or “that” then that meaning is rooted upon an insight, and if this insight is affirmed reasonably to be a “this” or “that”, then one can know that one’s meaning refers to a real unity that is identified by the “this” or “that.” Hence just as one can grasp intelligently and affirm reasonably the lowest component of all things, and just as one can grasp intelligently and affirm reasonably the relations of things, so one can grasp intelligently and affirm reasonably the unity necessary to be a thing. Neither reductionist nor relational metaphysics are adequate because neither is capable of accounting for all that is real in this universe. (As a note, Lonergan dialectically analyzes the reductionist position in a number of places in INSIGHT).

The question then becomes more precisely what is required to grasp intelligently and affirm reasonably the unity of a concrete unity, a subsistent being? Since all insight requires an adequate image or phantasm, what kind of image or phantasm is needed for the emergence of the insight that recognizes a “unity-identity-whole”?

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.

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?”

Infusion of the human soul?

By David Fleischacker

Here is an interesting point think about. Lonergan writes in INSIGHT, that the human mind and will are intrinsically independent of the empirical residue (this is the way that he identifies what is meant by “spiritual” as opposed to material). Intrinsically, the human mind operates with respect to intelligibility and being and thus is not limited intrinsically in its operation by the empirical residue. In contrast, material objects are by definition intrinsically conditioned by the empirical residue, which means that these objects cannot be in act or operate without also being limited to doing so by the empirical residue.

The human being however is both spiritual and material. As spiritual, the operators of the mind and will transcend the empirical residue. As material, the motor-sensory matrix does not. This results in an interesting and important relationship between the mind and the “body” because the mind only reaches insight in an image. Hence though the mind operates in a manner transcendent to the empirical residue, it does not reach its answers save through that which is intrinsically conditioned by that residue. This is what Lonergan means when he proclaims that the mind is extrinsically conditioned by the empirical residue.

Now, one of the implications of this is that the human spirit cannot emerge in this world in the same manner that material objects can emerge. Hence, emergent probability operates a bit different in that which is spiritual because of the intrinsic freedom of the operators of the mind and will. In turn, this seems to be an argument for the claim that the “notion of being” (or in general, the transcendental notions of intelligiblity, being, and goodness) is infused. In other words, the mind is intrinsically caused by The Transcendent, and thus it is a created participation in the Divine Mind, rather than something that emerges in virtue of a proper statistical ordering of a lower manifold, as one might get from the emergence of organic life from a chemical soup. So, just as in the Thomistic understanding of efficient causality, nothing in this world can efficiently cause the existence of a rational soul, so in the Lonergan understanding of emergent probability, nothing in this world can emergently “cause” the rational subject.

Just a thought.

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