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.

Knowing and Willing in Aquinas

By Dunstan Robidoux, OSB

In the common literature which exists about Aquinas, he is frequently described as an “intellectualist.” His philosophy (or theology) is frequently regarded as “intellectualist” which implies that he subscribes to a tradition which emphasizes the primary of the human intellect in the life of human beings. However, is this popular view somewhat misleading for more than one reason? Can a development be detected in Aquinas which offers a more nuanced position, a thesis which jars with simple intellectualism and which can be reconciled with a degree of voluntarism? Is Aquinas misunderstood because many of his readers today could be working from a truncated understanding of what could be meant by “intellectualism”?

Early on, in his analysis, In interpreting Aristotle’s De Anima, 3, 433b10-13 in the Sentencia Libri De anima, 3, 15, 830; p. 246, Aquinas argues that, in Aristotle, the “absolute starting point of movement” in the movement of desire or appetite is the apprehension of a desired object, either through the powers of human imagination or the activity of the human intellect. Appetibile apprehensum movet appetitum; “the apprehended object of desire moves the appetite” (citing J. Michael Stebbins’s translation, Divine Initiative: Grace, World-Order, and Human Freedom in the Early Writings of Bernard Lonergan, p. 323, n. 90) even if this phrasing only presents the meaning of Aquinas’s interpretation and so does not cite any literal wording from any text written by Aquinas. On the whole, in the early writings of Aquinas, the will tends to be viewed in passive terms. It is something which is acted upon. Cf. Lonergan, “On God and Secondary Causes,” Collection, p. 63. It lacks a causality of its own.

However, in a development of view which gradually transcends the simple intellectualism of Aristotle, in Aquinas (and in Lonergan’s analysis of Aquinas), will and intellect are related in a way which is best understood in terms of a mutual causality or a causality of mutual priority. In analyzing how Aquinas understands how the human will is related to the life of the intellect, in his Grace and Freedom, pp. 95-96 and pp. 319-320, Lonergan argues that, when Aquinas speaks about the causality of the human will (the fact that it has a causality of its own), he rejects Aristotle’s understanding which had viewed the will as purely a function of reason (as a “wholly passive potency,” quoting Stebbins, p. 84). Cf. Patrick Byrne, “Thomist Sources of Lonergan’s Dynamic World-View,” Thomist: 117. See Thomas Aquinas, In 2 Scriptum super libros sententiarum, d. 25, q. 1, a. 2; De Veritate, q. 22, a. 6; Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 10, 17; De Malo, q. 3, a. 3; Peri Hermeneias, 1, 14; and Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 81, a. 3, ad 2; q. 82, a. 2 for texts which deny that acts of understanding and judgment force or necessitate the will to engage in its activities which lead to a desired end. While the life of the human imagination and the human intellect does admittedly play a primary role in exciting the human will toward movement, a double primary causality is in fact to be postulated (two operative efficient causes) since the human will also acts (to move itself) on the basis of naturally desired ends which already belong to the structure of the will and which incline it to act in certain ways or in certain directions. “To will and not to will lie within the power of the will” (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 10, 17; 3, p. 61). Cf. De Malo, q. 6, a. 1. The human will is in fact moved by two causes, or two principles, which refer to a structure of reason and a structure of desire or appetite which are related to each other and which work together to move things forward in human life. As one’s understanding specifies an object or end which is to be desired by one’s human willing (Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 9, a. 1), at the same time, the self-movement of the will is accounted for by its own ends and first principles which, rationally, are constitutive of its inner life (q. 9, a. 3). The object or end is a practical good that is being desired or wanted. An appetibile or “seekable” designates the object of a striving. Cf. Martin Rhonheimer, Natural Law and Practical Reason, p. 26; p. 32; p. 71.

As this double causality is played out in the life of human beings in a way which also reveals a certain parallel in the structure of intellect and will in the rational life of human beings, where in the structure and operations of human cognition the object is a knowledge of specific facts, in the end, judgments belonging to the will (as a knowing which seeks to grasp courses of action) are also rationally made by reducing hypothesized conclusions to first principles in order to establish specific courses of action which can then be implemented to realize a desired, concrete good. In the life of the will, the will moves itself by working for ends or objectives which are constitutive of its first principles and by effecting a kind of reduction which tries to move from ends specified by first principles back towards specific means that can lead to the ultimate attainment of one’s desired ends. As, in theoretical understanding, from a general premiss in a syllogism one moves toward a specific conclusion, in the same way, from an end or object which functions as a kind of premiss in practical or moral understanding (Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 13, a. 3) and which is to be identified with the human will’s fundamental orientation toward the good (Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 90, a. 2; q. 94, a. 2 cited by Frederick Crowe, “Dialectic and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises,” Appropriating the Lonergan Idea, p. 238), one moves toward a choice which designates a very specific means that can lead to other, higher means and ends which ultimately lead to an end that satisfies all of one’s desires and whose desiring has served as a catalyst to construct an ascending scale of related means and ends. If one is to reach an ultimate goal, one must discover a very specific, initial means or concrete step whose execution will initiate a series of actions that will lead to ultimately desired ends. A teological order or structure belongs to the dynamism of the human will as this will constructs a relation of means and ends which lead to the actualization of a highest goal or end, and as this same will works with other human wills to order means and ends in ways which distinguish how persons differently will and live their lives. As Aquinas argues above in the Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 13, a. 3, for a physician, a patient’s health is something ultimate. A physician will make decisions based on what will nourish or restore a patient’s health. But, if one is a patient or a potential patient, one might decide to forego certain medical treatments because one wishes to attain higher objectives: end which transcend the health of one’s body. The end of one person’s life or activity can become a means for another person’s life or activity. Cf. Crowe, pp. 237-8. In the life of the will, one usually works from an initial, inchoate sense of basic ends or objectives and, from there, one works toward specific objectives which designate means that are made known through co-operative activities that are centered in acts of inquiring, understanding, and judging.

Knowing and willing clearly move each other in a reciprocal relation which more fully reveals an existential tension which inherently exists within human life and, thus, a certain lack of simplicity: a mysteriousness or wonder which exists about the meaning of our human existence. A mutual or reciprocal causality excludes, on the one hand, a simple primacy of the reason over the will (as the Greeks would largely have it) and, on the other hand, a simple primacy of the will over the intellect (as many modern thinkers would have it, thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, and Freud). In one’s understanding, one’s desires and inclinations are known and in one’s desires and affections, one moves toward one’s acts of understanding (from what is already understood to what has yet to be understood). Cf. De Veritate, q. 9, a. 10, ad 3, 2ae ser. In the context of modern voluntarism, the human will is usually not seen as a reasonable or rational thing. Intellect and will, “intellectualism” and “voluntarism,” tend to be set apart from each other in a false dichotomy that can be overcome through a self-understanding which can begin to realize that our human understanding grows and develops through a constant interaction between intellect and will (which would also include a constant, ongoing interaction between sense and intellect in the life of the human mind). For a better understanding of modern contemporary views which emphasize the primacy of the will over the intellect, on Hobbes and the primacy of the human lust for power in human life, see Eric Voegelin, Modernity without Restraint: Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, vol. 5, ed. Manfred Henningsen (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), p. 307.

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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