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?”