When Does The Person Begin?

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

A Metaphysics

If these metaphysical ideas seem particularly difficult it is because, in part, they arise out of the limited knowledge of their time about the beginning of a human life and the end of a human life: about conception and death.  This is crucial.  Because if there is to be a solution to their complexity it has, in part, to come from the new evidence that the development of science has made available; but at the same time it will not reject or be inconsistent with what is valid in the tradition, if what was grasped was true, or even tending, as it were, to the truth, because of the thoroughness with which what were thought to be facts were discussed, bearing in mind that a number of these philosophical ideas are derived from what remains the case, precisely because it is not the evidence that changes but our understanding of it, and our understanding of it does not change in an arbitrary direction, as it were, but in the direction dictated by the evidence.  In other words, some of the complexity and the difficulty will remain because of the subject itself, but some of it will be relative to the uncertainty with which something is known at a particular time, although something could be known for certain even if the facts that express it are, at the time, uncertain.  For example it was known for certain, philosophically, that a form is as necessary to what a thing is as it is that there be some kind of matter that it informs755.

It did not initially seem to follow, however, that 'first matter' is as necessary to understanding what the soul is, as understanding that ordinary matter cannot "understand itself," and therefore understanding that the living body, as composed of ordinary matter, is not simply "physical matter."  And if, therefore, another explanation to that of 'first matter' can be found for the "problem of life and death" and of substantial change generally, then it can only enhance and further elucidate our understanding of these things rather than lead to the contradiction of what has already been rightly understood.  Nevertheless, I have to admit, the coherence of this concept with the metaphysics which comes to us through Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas is as it were so consistently and insistently arguing for itself756 by the very fact of its extraordinary coherence and intelligibility that it no longer seems possible for me to 'imagine' an alternative as conceptually and extramentally realistic as this one.

First matter and Form

The intelligibility of our existence is what St. Thomas Aquinas calls its form: the 'intelligible structure'757 which informs and makes real a 'first matter' that cannot exist without it758.  Secondly, first matter is not without a materiality that is necessary to it if it is to individuate the soul.  For if matter was pure potentiality then it would be without the actual individuality necessary to individuate the soul.  St. Thomas Aquinas called this matter 'signet matter.'

The idea of first matter belongs to a conceptual order that begins with pure potentiality and ends with pure act.  The first does not exist except with such existence as a possibility to exist has, which cannot but exist except in God, first of all, and in us in so far as we can conceive of things before they come to be in relation to what did come to be. &nbap;The last member of this series of things is God and is not therefore a part of the series in the same way everything else is, although in one sense God is, precisely as the efficient cause of all that exists, both the origin of all possibility759, potentiality760 and the being par excellence that is761.

Further, 'first matter,' informed by a form is that which makes possible the continuity of a thing's existence when one form is succeeded by another762.  Thus, for St. Thomas Aquinas, at our death the 'form' that departs is succeeded by another which remains: the one which departs is the soul and the one which succeeds the soul is not another soul but something which ensures the continuity in existence of the body as a corpse; and, moreover, what each of these forms inform successively is the 'first matter.'  Therefore 'first matter' is in a way required by this understanding of things because if it did not "exist," and was not reinformed by something else on death, then the loss of the form at death would, as it were, be the loss of the existence of what remains, because material things exist precisely as informed 'first matter.'  For it is the form that informs the 'first matter' after the departure of the soul that ensures, as it were, the existence of the body which is now without its soul.

Thus material things are made up of, as it were, both a form and first matter in such a way that neither of these things has an existence apart from the other763.  It is the form and the first matter that together make the substance of a thing764; and this combination of things is what is called secondary matter: the actual existent thing, such as the particular human being.  This thing is capable of modification.  The modifications of which it is capable are an expresson of what are called 'accidental forms': modifications such as a change in colour or shape as when the colour of a person's hair changes colour or there is a change in their size765.  The alterations in a thing are due to an alteration of the 'accidents' which inhere in the substantial being of the thing.  Therefore it is the 'form' of a thing that makes it what it is, in this case that form is called the human soul, and then that form determines the signet-first matter with which it is united to become an individual existent thing, which in this case is a human being.  It is the substance of a thing which is fundamentally both constant and capable of change766, in that the relationship of what is constant to what is changing is that between substance and accident767.  For the accident is an accident 'of'768 the substance and so a change in the accident is not a change of the 'form' with which the signet-first matter is united, but is a change in the substance of the thing which is in conformity with the kind of changes commensurate to the 'inherent form' of the thing.  Therefore the growth of a thing is the growth of the substance of the thing, where substance denotes the integral subject of the changes which are called growth.

There is a wide range of existing things, however, from the physicality of the universe, to plants, animals, human beings, angels769 and God; and how we define what something is, therefore, must take account of where, exactly, it falls in this order of existing things.  What exists, therefore, does not exist simply as matter informed by different kinds of form, such that a plant is one kind of matter informed by a form and an angel is the same kind of matter informed by a different kind of form.  The situation is, rather, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, that while a material thing such as an animal has a form that informs it and makes it what it is, an angel is, as it were, a pure form: it is an intelligent being that by definition is without a material body.  Therefore, while this distinction between 'first matter' and form applies to many things that exist it does not apply to all; and, for the purposes of this discussion it is to that type of thing to which it does apply, that this discussion will restrict itself.

Now in the case of man St. Thomas770 is prepared to consider the following two possibilities.  The first is that man is one from conception.  The second possibility is the successive giving of three types of soul to man, each replacing the other at the appropriate stage of development and each higher soul containing the powers of the soul it replaces.  The first soul is the vegetative soul which makes the embryo able to nourish itself.  The second, sensitive soul has the power of the first and brings with its own power which makes the embryo able to sense.  Finally, the body is given its rational soul, which has both the power to nourish itself and to sense, and is in addition able to understand771.  Thus the conclusion of this process is not that man has three types of soul, but that at the end of this process he has one soul which has the power of all three.

While I have assumed for the purposes of this discussion that the 'soul' is to the 'body' what 'form' is to 'matter', it is perhaps more accurate to return to the original wording of the Catechism, which says: 'The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the 'form' of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature'772773.

755 Cf, SuTh, Pt I, Qu 2, art. 1, page 11.    Back
756 Cf. Dignitatis Humanae, art 1, page 800 of VCII.    Back
757 A, page 105; cf. also F. J. Collingwood, Form, pages 1015 of Vol V, NCE.    Back
758 A, page 95.    Back
759 The essence of a thing is the kind of thing that exists; and on page 98 of A, F.C. Copleston says,'In a sense the essence pre-existed in God as a divine 'idea.'"    Back
760 A, page 94, 'That which can be and is not is said to exist in potency, while that which is is said to exist in act' (De principiis naturae, in first sentence).    Back
761 A, page 95.    Back
762 Cf, Agneta Sutton, Prenatal Diagnosis: Confronting the Ethical Issues, (London: The Linacre Centre For The Study Of The Ethics Of Health Care, 1990), pages 85-91, but particularly page 90.  Abbrev. PD.    Back
763 Cf, A, pages 86-7 and on page 87 he quotes Aquinas: 'Matter cannot be said to be; it is the substance itself which exists' (C. G., 2, 54).  Secondly, the question of human death, of the separation of the body-soul, is a question in its own right.    Back
764 Cf, A, page 87.    Back
765 W. A. Wallace, Hylomorphism, page 284 of Vol VII, NCE.    Back
766 Cf, A, pages 82-3.    Back
767 Cf, A, page 81.    Back
768 AQU, page 36.    Back
769 ST, page 94.  Clearly I accept the argument that 'without created intelligences the universe would be incomplete.' &nbap;Secondly, I do not set aside the testimony of Scripture and Tradition.    Back
770 St. Thomas will here stand for St. Thomas Aquinas.    Back
771 ST, Pt I, Qu 118, art 2, page 162-163.    Back
772 CCC art 365, page 93.    Back
773 Cf. also AQU, page 48; ST, Pt II, Qu 50, art 1, page 226.    Back

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