Almost 50 Years Since Humanae Vitae: Statistics and Finality in Conception

[this was a piece drafted in 2008 when I had been publishing a series on Humanae Vitae.  I had not published this one yet–and now that we are heading toward 50 years since Humanae Vitae, I thought it might be good to get these going again.]


There are a number of factors that effect the statistical probabilities for conception. Sometimes individuals have used statistics to undermine the Catholic teaching against contraception.  Usually the arguments claim that since there is not a direct causal relationship between the conjugal act and conception but rather only a “statistical” one, and contraception simply changes the statistical relationship, then in some circumstances contraception would be ok.  However, this is to fail to understand the nature of the statistical relationship of the conjugal act to conception along with the nature of the moral act involved in this relationship.  In this blog, I intend on developing the nature of statistics and its impact on understanding conception.

The Nature of Statistics

In general, the enriching intelligibility of statistics is centered upon ideal frequencies and rates. These ideal frequencies in turn are based upon the actualization of conjugate forms (events). In any given situation, events that take place do so with certain frequencies. One might say that every type of event has its ideal frequencies, and sometimes that ideal might be all but negligible, and other times it might be quite high. Part of what influences the particular ideal frequency depends upon the spatial and temporal framework, along with the particular ranges of events and their ideal frequencies that currently constitute that situation with its spatial-temporal boundaries. So, for example, one could ask what is the frequency of births. Now, that is meaningless until one starts to set spatial-temporal boundaries. For example, one could say births in a year, within the United States. In addition to the spatial-temporal boundaries, one should know something about the events within that spatial temporal boundary as well. If all that one wants is an actual frequency, then one would just need to count the actual births in a particular spatial-temporal set of boundaries, however, in order to get to ideal frequencies, more needs to be known.  There needs to be a move that grasps an intelligible rate that even abstracts from concrete space and time.

Lonergan notes that there are two ways to get to this ideal frequency (Chapter 2, INSIGHT);

  1. empirically from measure frequencies of events of certain types
  2. or from a knowledge of the given conjugate forms and their realization in events.

The first can be illustrated by the monk, Gregor Mendel, when he counted actual manifestations of traits in pea plants and their progeny. Notice that his starting point already set him in a direction that would allow him to abstract an ideal rate from mating events within concrete space and time (as a note, sometimes one does want to start with concrete space and time as part of the measure, but to reach full ideal frequencies, one needs to break from this so as to return to it with a concrete inference of statistical laws).  For example, he does not in the end ask “how often does one find rough or smooth seeds within a year in such and such a territory.”  Rather, he sets the boundary as another type of event rather than space and time, namely that boundary being the mating of pea plants.  The concrete location, such as Austria or Hungary, and the duration in the region is no longer of interest.  The parents of the seeds are the interest. And in the end, this leads him to some interesting correlations (namely genotype to phenotype–which is an explanatory definition–see ch. 1 of INSIGHT) The more actual frequencies he gathered, the more numbers began to converge on ideals (3:1, etc.).

The second is illustrated by flipping a coin. One knows ahead of time that in flipping a coin there are two outcomes, and unless one side is weighted more than the other, all things equal, the coin has a 50:50 chance of being heads or tails (notice that the concrete space and concrete time is present, but not part of the focus in this either).

One can make a similar move in genetics once the theory of dominant and recessive alleles developed. One can calculate the reason why their is a 3:1 ratio for certain traits when mating two heterozygote pea plants. Thus, if one knew the theory first, one could predict the ideal frequency prior to even counting frequencies. In the case of Mendel, it was the ideal frequencies which led to the theory, but the reverse can happen in science as well. One might just know that there are two possibilities when “something happens”, and thus be able to predict the statistical outcome.

However, our concern with statistics is not so much prediction, but its occurrence within concrete situations. When we ask, for example, what is the statistical probability for conception, one can specify any number of situations. In each case, knowing the statistics tells us something about the situation that we otherwise would not know. And the ideal frequency of various events within a situation is something objective about the situation (if a concrete inference of statistical laws is made, which is similar to a concrete inference of classical laws–see ch. 2 of INSIGHT for more). The situation, with all of its species of events, and with its non-systematically related sets of events, creates a situation in which coincidentality is part of the situation. Now, this is not the place to repeat all of Lonergan’s arguments on this, but his sections in chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Insight provide rather convincing pointers to the coincidental aggregation of events within a spatial-temporal manifold. This coincidentality has its roots in what Lonergan calls the empirical residue (Lonergan’s transposition of the traditional meaning of prime matter).

Statistics and Conception

Thus, the statistical probability of conception informs us of something objective about one facet of world process. Conception is the union of the oocyte and the spermatozoa. The formation of the zygote is the particular actualization of concern. The probability of its occurrence is the ideal frequency of its occurrence. Of course, to understand this probability, one needs to specify further factors. For example, one could be just asking this frequency in a given population in a particular region, during a particular time frame, say San Francisco over the course of a year. At the same time, one might be narrowing this a bit, let us say to individuals in the world who are married, or individuals who are not married. Or one might compare various religious groups in the world, and their conception rates. One might have political agenda, or perhaps they might be interested in sorting out various biological difference between ethnic groups (always a dangerous subject!), for good or bad purposes. Notice as well that as one learns more and more factors that might shift the rates, one can further specify these factors, and study sub-groups. So, let us say, that one wants to study the rates of conception for males who have had measles during their life, or perhaps who have been promiscuous during their teenage years. Likewise, one could examine women, and sort them out according to smoking or dietary habits, or perhaps look at certain psychological dispositions. Notice, that the list of sub-factors seems limitless, and this is because there are so many factors that condition conception.

To give a sense of this, let’s name a few more factors:: the rates of production of spermatozoa, the days on which an oocyte is released into the fallopian tubes, the general state and health of the woman’s and man’s bodies, the character of the relationship between the man and the woman (and various psychological states as well), the work habits and home life of the man and woman which influence their marital activities. Many of us recognize for example, that a couple who hate each other and never stay together in the same home will find themselves living in a situation with virtually no possiblity of conception. On the other hand, a young couple, celebrating the honeymoon of their marriage, and seriously desiring to be part of the creation of new life together, and who possess healthy bodies, have a significantly better probability of conceiving.

[I do want to note that many of the factors effecting the probability for conception are identified in a descriptive manner, and thus to become more precise, a shift to theoretically differentiation is needed (which would also significantly multiply the number of factors actually involved). This theoretical differentiation using explanatory conjugates is the level  of probability of which I am concerned in the end.]

Now, one of the points that I would like to highlight is that at any given context of conditions, a couple has a particular statistical probability for conception. This probability however does shift because of numerous factors each day, some of which might be based on regular schemes of recurrence (such as the woman’s fertility cycle), and other on non-systematic components relative to their own organic schemes of recurrence, say certain bacteria or viruses that the man or woman might have contracted that might reduce the production of spermatozoa or perhaps harm the ability to complete the maturation of the oocyte before it is released into the fallopian tube. Regarding the regular cycles in the life of the man and the woman, the statistical probabilities for conception probably hover around certain sets of ideal frequencies during the fertile stages of their adult lives. When the occyte has been released, and the woman’s body prepares itself for the possibility of conception and implantation, which then changes her psyche in relation to the man (yes, this really does happen), and in turn, changes the man’s psyche in relation to her, along with the moral and religious contexts that impact the relationship on a regular basis as well, then one could probably formulate the ideal frequencies of conception. Changes in the lifestyle, in the physical well-being, also change this, as does age, but in the end, there are given objective probabilities for conception between the couple during the course of their lives together and at each stage of their lives together.

Finality and Statistics: The real heart of the matter in conception

If statistics deals with ideal frequencies of the actuation of conjugate forms and of the emergence and existence of things, finality introduces development of those conjugate forms, their ideal frequencies, and of things. Now, let us begin to examine some of the different ways that statistics impacts and relates to finality. Finality deals with a direction of development. Earlier stages possess a set of conjugate forms and their distribution and integration that results in an unfolding sequence of stages of development. The zygote possesses within it a variety of elements that, given the right environment, will unfold into a multi-cellular being, with a variety of higher or vertical intelligible orders of being. So, what starts as a zygote with largely undifferentiated organic schemes that operate within a narrow range of conditions unfolds first in a series of horizontal developments of differentiated organic schemes (eg. new functioning systems such as circulation, digestion, endocrine, exocrine, immunological, etc, systems). Then as the neural system advances, it makes a first vertical leap into motor-sensory operations, with affective re-sponses and pro-sponses through a growing sensory apprehension while in the womb.  As imagination and memory grow and develop, this then prepares the stage for another vertical leap, one into the world of understanding, judgment, and decision (see the blog on the “beginning of the human person” for more precise treatments of this leap as well as challenges to it, since it involves the capacity to transcend the empirical residue).

In each of the horizontal and vertical developments, each stage has a statistical probability for emergence and survival. Earlier stages had made the probability of the current stage likely, but not absolute. The operators (for more on operators, see chapter 15 in INSIGHT) in the earlier stages for these later stages are what shift the entire likelihood of emergence. So, though the emergence of something with a neural structure is very unlikely in this universe, in the zygote of a frog or a cat or a human being, this likelihood is significantly increased, almost systematically. Now, this is not technically a system, because it really is a set of developmental operators. Hence, it is not a scheme of recurrence that brings about these developments. Operators are different than schemes. But they are similar in that these bring about the same kind of development if other events are equal, just as the scheme brings about the same sets of events if other events are equal. Hence, in a development, just as with a scheme, the regular frequencies of various types of events are needed. For example, in order for Kreb’s cycle (a scheme of recurrence) to operate, various proteins, glucose, and other molecules need to be supplied in a statistically regular manner. If the rate of glucose declines, then the rate of kreb’s cycle will decline. If certain proteins are not made regularly, likewise, the cycle will not work regularly. Likewise for development. If the probabilities of events in certain schemes are not maintained, development will cease. If certain proteins are missing, adolescent changes will not take place.

One thing to note however, is that even if later stages do not in fact emerge, the finality of the earlier is not changed. Proper development requires “other events being equal” and just because development fails because other events are not equal does not change the finality. A zygote for example, may fail to continue its development because it fails to implant in the wall of the womb, a failure which may have been made likely because of some chemical deformation of the wall of the womb. This does not change the finality of the zygote however. Or to take another example, human intelligence has a finality for understanding and truth. That finality is manifested in the question for understanding (at the level of understanding) and the question for reflection (at the level of judgment), and just because a person fails to ask these questions, or perhaps undergoes a severe debilitation later in life (perhaps brain damage) that makes it impossible to ask the questions, does not change the finality. Hence, though finality unfolds in and through statistical probabilities of events, schemes, and things, it does not necessarily change in and through those things. Really, in the end, it only changes when the base conditions that essentially constituted the finality in the first place change. Hence the zygote has that finality, unless one removes the genes, destroys the cellular plasma, or some other detrimental effects that essentially kill the zygote. Then this little being has been destroyed, and his or her finality is gone as well. Likewise, one could substantially change the biochemistry, and thus destroy the direction of development (the finality). To take one last example, one could destroy the finality by replacing the genetics in a substantial manner, so that instead of a cow, one gets a cat (though one would have to change other components of the cell along with the genetics). Then the finality has changed.

How to change the finality of procreative fecundity….

Procreative (or sexual) fecundity also has a finality.  And to destroy this finality would require the destruction of the embodied human person. Descriptively, the sexual makeup of the human person permeates his or her whole being. Explanatorily, nearly every system of the body is impacted by it, especially the neural patterns that are formed. Sterilization, contraception, and other non-substantial changes to the human body simply do not change the sexual finality. Earlier in development, arguably, it is easier to make changes in the finality of sexual fecundity, and thus to change a boy into a girl or vice versa (though having the power to do so would not be right because there is a finality within each person linked to the finality of the entire species and to the generalized emergence of the universe). I suppose, if we were creative enough, and had the right technologies, we would be able to even create an androgenous creature, though I am not sure what that would mean because it would require a much different body and brain than men and women currently possess because of how much each of these are tied into the sexual elements of our beings (and I mean all the way down to the cellular and biochemical layouts). As a note, there are no large, multi-cellular organism that possess such androgeny because it would have detrimental effects on the species as whole.  Pick up a textbook on the importance of bi-sexual procreativity in organisms if you want to read about the “advantages” of this kind of setup. We need the pluralism of the genetics and the diversity of roles in order to flourish.

So what does this mean for conception?

Statistics in short is integral to finality.  One stage of development is constituted by various ideal probabilities of events that in various ways condition each other, sometimes in schemes of recurrence, sometimes in a manner that brings about shifts of schemes, and when these shifts involve changes in the kinds of operations possible, a development has occurred.

When understanding the body of a man and the body of a woman, specifically the procreative schemes that are operative after procreative activation has taken place in adolescence, one discovers a finality that is built upon the ideal frequencies of a variety of events leading up to and including the procreative conjugal act.  Finality is not built upon a mechanistic view of the human body, but upon the potentialities that constitute probabilities of emergence.  Human freedom is involved in shifting these probabilities of emergence.  It is from this point, that one can begin to examine the moral relevance of shifting these probabilities with human decisions.

For those who say that “nature” shifts the probabilities for conception–and therefore it is not wrong for human beings to do the same–have failed to investigate the situation thoroughly and make distinctions.  If one wants to appeal to nature, nature as Lonergan argues is for increasing not decreasing intelligibility.  In other words, the concrete intelligibility of this universe is generalize emergent probability, and once one gets that argument, then one begins to see how central the creation of more human beings is to this universe and this unfolding emergent probability. Then one sees that even nature is striving for more beings that can help increase the generic and specific intelligibilities of the universe.  Conception is key in this.  And thus, “nature” is not disconnected statistically from conception, but rather uses statistical probabilities for emergence to increase conception and the fruits of conception (namely matured adult men and women to use a phrase from Lonergan’s essay on Love and Finality–though Lonergan had not integrated statistics into this piece yet).    Thus, human freedom is a freedom to enhance this probability for emergence and its fruits (unfolding horizontal and vertical developments that arise from this emergence of a human being).   One can continue to examine all of the horizontal and vertical developments that spring from conception, and this will differentiate all of the ways that human understanding, judgment, and decision cooperate with this in the right acts that lead to conception.

As a note, what I have put forth, is not an argument that results in complete support for all the Catholic teachings on marriage and family in relation to the conjugal act, but it does I think eliminate a particular challenge to those teachings, especially as one looks at the challenge of contraception.  One of the arguments in favor of contraception (a deliberate intention to attempt to eliminate the probability of conception through deliberate acts to eliminate one or more of the conditions required for conception while taking place after a decision has been made to engage in the sexual act between a man and a woman) was based upon the statistical elements of conception, but the argument that nature already builds in contraception into the system is not adequate to say therefore human beings can use the same no matter what or how.  Even the unconscious elements of the organism discriminate because of “nature” on what or how the body is prevented from conceiving, simply because emergent probability is part of the intelligibility of this order.  Understanding, judgment, and decision likewise discriminate, not because they have to, but because they should.  The transcendental notions that are intrinsic operators of each of these levels of consciousness constitute exigences of this discrimination.  And when these transcendental operators are operative within the lower manifolds which are intrinsically conditioned by the empirical residue, they do so with a statistical reality that is intrinsic to the finality of this universe, or at least they should do so to be authentic.