When does the human person begin to exist? Part 9, the conclusion

by David Fleischacker

In this entry, I will end up repeating some of the same conclusions as in the last two blogs, however, with a slightly different focus, and a basis from which to answer the challenge in the last blog.

I would like to refer the reader to chapter 8 in INSIGHT, section 3 on “Genus as Explanatory.” Specifically, I am looking at the section in which Lonergan addresses the possibility of the emergence of a new and higher genus of things. He is worth quoting at this point,

Consider, then, a genus of things, Ti with explanatory conjugates, Ci, and a consequent list of possible schemes of recurrence, Si. Suppose there occurs an aggregate of events, Eij that is merely coincidental when considered in light of the laws of things, Ti, and of all their possible schemes of recurrence, Si. Then, if the aggregate of events, Eij, occurs regularly, it is necessary to advance to the higher viewpoint of some genus of things, Tj, with conjugates, Ci and Cj, and with schemes of recurrence, Sj. The lower viewpoint is insufficient for it has to regard as merely coincidental what in fact is regular. The higher viewpoint is justified, for the conjugates, Cj, and the schemes, Sj, constitute a higher system that makes regular what otherwise would be merely coincidental. (Insight, 255 – 256)

This point that Lonergan makes presents us with the heart of the solution that is required in order to make the case that human neurological and sensate schemes possess a regularity that cannot be explained adequately by neurological (biological) nor sensate conjugates and their schemes. Thus, what is taking place in phantasm is something that does not really make sense from standard sensate conjugates and schemes. The standard schemes are for sensing, reproducing a sensation, or creatively constructing something that could be sensed. Phantasm, though a pattern within neurological and sensate schemes, requires an appeal to the higher conscious acts of question and answers to explain it. In other words, when a person asks a question, many neural processes are triggered, and one cannot explain these with the experience of some sense object or desire for food. One has to turn to the question itself in order to explain the neural patterns and why these exist and exist as these do.

Furthermore, I would like to add some points slightly beyond Lonergan’s quote above. Self-transcendence not only explains a particular set of neurological and sensate regularities, but it brings about a horizontal development in the neurological and sensate capabilities as well. Mathematics provides an analogy. Algebra expands arithmetic in order to reach its goals. For example, one can say

8 + 10 = 10 + 8

6 + 5 = 5 + 6,

9 + 12 = 12 + 9

etc., etc., etc.,

This is arithmetic. However, in arithmetic alone, there really would not have been much reason for carrying out such activities. Only in algebra, which is looking to resolve problems in a different manner does one want to discover such laws as “A + B = B + A.”

This solution in the human beingA Thought ExperimentA thought experiment might help to create a plausible understanding of this dependence of the expansion of the lower neurological and sensate manifolds upon the higher self-transcending levels of consciousness.

Let me start with a simple statement rooted in Lonergan’s proposals regarding higher and lower levels in Insight. Every conscious act has its underpinning neural correlate. A sufficiently different conscious act will result in differences within the sensate, which in turn will have differences in neural patterns. Hence, a question about a tree will trigger different neural patterns than the experience of seeing or touching the tree.

Let us say that neural pattern X is discovered. Now, the pattern emerges whenever intelligent creature A is asked about the color of the ball present at which s/he is looking upon. Now, in the brain of this creature, there is already operative pattern Y, which results from the focused attention upon the ball. It was discovered to be a similar pattern within a dog, friendly creature B, and a monkey, curious creature C. In all three, this pattern Y is correlated with the visual perception of the ball. However, the question stirs up other patterns. When the friendly creature B and curious creature C are asked the same question, they too have certain patterns that get triggered, but there are some significant differences from that which gets stirred up in intelligent creature A. Intelligent creature A has a variety of patterns in the cerebrum that are triggered which are not found in the friendly or the curious creature. These further neural patterns are linked to questions and insights and these recur whenever the question is asked. And one never finds these patterns in the friendly or curious creature, neither of which even possess these particular neural possibilities in the first place (as a note I would expect some significant neural differences between the dog and the monkey as well).

Let us say some further experiments have discovered a few more things about these neural patterns in the cerebrum of the human being. Normally, patterns can be explained by various types of sensate and neural “causes.” The seeing of the ball or the desire for food trigger neurological processes or sensate ones. However, in the human being, some of movements in the frontal lobes do not have such an explanation in the end. Even though these might accompany seeing and tasting, these possess a liberty of movement that cannot be reduced to these initial processes. Rather one has to appeal to higher acts of self-transcendence in order to understand these movements. One must appeal to the questions for understanding and insight, questions for reflection and reflective insight, or questions for deliberation and evaluative insight that the human subject is freely raising (as well as concepts, judgments of fact, and judgments of value, etc..).

The expansion of neural and sensate manifolds under self-transcendence.Let us now continue this thought experiment, and turn from the coincidentality of the neural and sensate manifolds toward their development.

As was mentioned earlier, just as algebra expands the “doing of arithmetic,” so self-transcendence is going to expand the neural and sensate manifolds. This would happen not just in individuals, but in the human species over its history.

In the IndividualOnce questions and answers begin to awaken in the child, the neural manifolds will shift in support of these developments. For example, prior to birth a massive growth of neural connections takes place, far beyond those connections which will be needed. During the first five or so years after birth, this growth is “weeded down.” What gets used, stays, what does not reduces. This period is a period in which the child is literally forming her or his brain through interaction with the immediate environment and culture. Maria Montessori calls this the “absorbant” sensitive period in human development. The mind can be described as a kind of sponge, but literally it is being interiorly formed from the neurons on up.

Just before adolescence another growth of neurons is taking place, similar to that which takes place before birth. The front lobes are massively being reintegrated with the rest of the brain, allowing for a new kind of absorbent period.

In the human speciesNow both the structures of the first growth and the second have neurological, biochemical, and genetic grounds. However, I would like to suggest that these roots were guided by prior generations of self- transcending subjects. Over the millennia, neural patterns that allow for greater rates of self-transcendence increase the probabilities for survival and expansion, and thus, the self-transcendending species sees an evolutionary improvement over time in the neural structures of the brain that support the sensate capacities that underpin acts of self-transcendence. Thus, neural processes and their correlative sensate activities will develop in the brain that have come to be via the higher order of successful self- transcendence. Thus, from the first stage of an individual, he or she possesses developmental orders that come from the self-transcending subjects of the past. This means, that even the genetic and biochemical make-up of the first cell, the zygote, possesses this ordered development.

However, once the neural and sensate matrices arise in the individual that can support actual self- transcendence, then individuals self-transcendence comes to have a new role in shaping the neural and sensate manifolds. Then, for example, the “weeding down” in the first five years after birth and in the early years of adolescence is guided by the subject’s acts of self-transcendence (mediated within the community and its history).

So, both the neural and sensate manifolds have been guided by self-transcending subjects of the past and then further guidance comes from the self-transcending individual in conscious and intentional relation to community and its history. This is a rather differentiation way of looking at nature and nurture.

Notice, that this is not claiming that the underlying neural and sensate manifolds cause self-transcendence. But they are the matrix in which such self-transcendence takes place. As Lonergan argues, human intelligence is intrinsically independent of the empirical residue, though extrinsically dependent upon it. And it is this extrinsic dependence that calls for the kinds of neural and sensate advancements in the human species in the same way as algebra calls forth arithmetic advancements. It seems highly improbable that these advancements could be explained by neural or sensate operations alone, and thus it is highly probable that they have an intrinsic dependence for their intelligible meaning upon self-transcendence (constituted by the transcendental notions).

What does this mean for the larger question at hand?It simply means that from the first stage of development in the human being, the prior generations of self- transcending subjects contribute the basic biochemical and genetic order that has an intrinsic relationship to self-transcendence. In other words, one cannot understand adequately the genetic and biochemical layout even of the zygote without appeal to their formation in relationship to prior generations of self- transcending subjects. Hence, though it is not “guided” by the current self-transcending acts of the zygote, simply because these have not yet emerged, the developmental orientation toward a differentiation of neural and sensate patterns require an appeal to something more in the end, and that more is an orientation toward self-transcendence brought about by an inheritance from the past.

Now, in earlier blogs I had argued that in a developing kind of thing, the first stage of development is the first moment in which that thing exists. However, in those blogs, I could not argue as directly that in stages prior to actual self-transcendence of the individual a human person existed. I did argue that a human person is a person whenever a “this” has an intrinsic (by “intrinsic” I mean it only becomes explanatorily intelligible via self-mediating relationship to self-transcendence. Now, in light of this blog, some further provisional statements and conclusions can be made:

1. A human person begins in the first stage of a “unity-identity-whole” that possesses an intrinsic relationship to intellectual, rational, and moral self-transcendence.

2. Since every stage of development prior to actual self-transcendence cannot be adequately explained without appealing to self-transcendence, every stage of human life has an intrinsic relationship to self- transcendence (though that relationship does change).

3. Thus, the zygote also has an intrinsic relationship to intellectual, rational, and moral self-transcendence (of past self-transcending subjects).

4. The zygote is the first stage of human development (I have not formally made this argument, but it can be done from biological studies).

5. Therefore, a zygote is when the human person begins to exist.

Actually, there are a few more premises that could be introduced and detailed, but I trust that it is sufficient to make the point. Much work can be done in detailing all of these links. I have just picked up a few new texts on brain development and the frontal lobes, which should add some of the latest discoveries. I have tried to simplify the arguments to give pointers more than thorough treatments of the brain and brain development. However, for readers interested in doing more, I would recommend starting with some introductory texts on the brain and brain development, then going to the latest research on the prefrontal cortex and its development. This usually will give more than sufficient detail to underpin some of the general statements I have made in these blogs.