When Does The Person Begin?

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"Each One of Us is an Icon of the Beginning"


Dr. Francis Clark raised the question of 'the secret of the Creator': how 'the material universe ... receives created existence from the creative action, how it stands out from nothingness, or how it continues to draw its substantial being from the Source of all being'*.  This confronts the metaphysician with a mystery which is useful from the point of view of sharpening his perception of the invisible implication to the visible extra-mental existence of things.

St. Thomas Aquinas says: 'matter as such is formless and adaptable to any form'647; however, it seems that the matter which constitutes a being as 'undivided in itself and divided from all other beings'648 is a matter which makes the universal form of a thing to be a particular thing, is a matter which exists as quantified649, as against pure 'first matter' which only exists as a conceptual abstraction.  This matter 'is the termini of a substantial change'; it is the substrate which is first one thing and then another, according as it had one type of form and now another650.

The resemblance between this concept of formless matter which requires some quantification and is called signate matter651 and the 'formless matter' (Wis 11: 17) of Scripture is striking.

On the one hand, however, there is the difficulty of comparing insights not fundamental to the truth necessary for our salvation652, although this may be related to such a truth in the sense of a presupposition necessary to the premise that leads to a conclusion; and on the other hand it is difficult to obtain a precise sense of these medieval concepts.

The concept of formless matter for St. Thomas is of something which, even if it exists as in some sense quantified, yet does not exist except as structured by a form; and the formless matter of the earth at the first instant of its creation (Gn 1: 2) could well be a formless matter of such a kind that it could be said to be the most primitive existence of created matter: the 'simplest' and 'first' expression of what would be called the 'corporeal substantial form'653 of matter.  For the concept of 'formless matter' with which St. Thomas works is that the form gives matter its actuality; and, therefore, it would be a contradiction to say that formless matter can exist654, except with such existence as ideas exist.

The concept of form used at this point in Scripture is one of shape in that this corresponds to the literal sense of form as used by the Yahwist author in the second account of creation (cf Gn 2: 7), although it could also be said to extend to the formation of the whole man in other contexts (cf. Wis 9: 1-4; Ps 139: 13).  Nevertheless, in the context of the first account of creaton the matter could be said to be 'formless' in one of two ways: either in a first sense of pure energy - if there is such a state - or in a second state in which the form of energy that matter already is has not been further specified into the particular things of the sun (Gn 1: 3), the firmament (Gn 1: 7), and the making of the dry land called 'Earth' and 'the waters that were gathered together he called Seas' (Gn 1: 10).  The first state, if it can be said to have a real existence would in some sense be comparable to the moment of an impact where the elasticity of energy is as it were prior to its collapse into particles.  This idea comes from the following consideration: in 'order to "divide" a small particle, a very strong pulse of energy must be used, since the wave length of the pulse must be smaller than the diameter of the particle.  (...)  The resulting splinters from a high-energy collision, then, are elementary particles, and some of these can be of the same type as the original particle'655.  This raises the question of a state, however transitory, of energy changing its material configuration; and, therefore, that quasi-real intermediary state of one form of matter to another is almost and analogously comparable to 'water' (Gn 1: 2).

The second concept of matter which could apply at this first moment of creation is matter as it is resolved into its fundamental entities which are called in their particularity the 'particle-with-field'656, but which are not as yet the particular thing of a star.  A particle-with-field is defined as an 'entity having localized particlelike interactions with matter, but subject to a nonlocalized field or wave-type law of propagation in configuration space'657.

In conclusion, one thing that can be made of the comparison between the 'formless' matter of St. Thomas and the 'formless' matter of Scripture, is that while both are understood to be the material 'substrate' of things, the former is a component of the real thing and the latter would have to be, if indeed it had an actual existence, a type of that real thing: a combination of the following two components of 'form' and signate matter.

646 RP, pages 13-14.    Back
647 SuTh, Pt I, Qu 47, art 1, page 89.    Back
648 J. R. Rosenberg, Individuation, page 475 of Vol 7, NCE.    Back
649 J. R. Rosenberg, Individuation, (cf. De ente 2; and De nat. mat. 3), page 477 of Vol 7, NCE.    Back
650 AQU, page 39.    Back
651 J. R. Rosenberg, Individuation, ( cf. De ente 2 ), page 477 of Vol 7, NCE.    Back
652 Dei Verbum, art 11, page 757 of VCII.    Back
653 F. J. Collingwood, Form, page 1013 of Vol V, NCE.    Back
654 AQU, page 42: (S I 66 I).    Back
655 P. A. Heelan, Philosophical Considerations (of Elemenatary Particles), page 262 of Vol 5, NCE.    Back
656 P. A. Heelan, Philosophical Considerations (of Elemenatary Particles), page 261 of Vol 5, NCE.    Back
657 P. A. Heelan, Philosophical Considerations (of Elemenatary Particles), page 262 of Vol 5, NCE.    Back

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