When Does The Person Begin?

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

An analogy

The washing machine is made up of three levels: the physical matter; the mechanical parts; and the 'brains.'  The physical matter and the mechanical parts, and indeed the circuits of the 'brain' are indeed the corporeality of the washing machine.  It will not work, however, unless it is activated, unless it is switched on; and, therefore, in this poor comparison, electricity is as necessary to the completion, as indeed that completion is an activation of the washing machine, as the biological cell needs to be completed by that which activates it at conception.

It is also interesting to note that an 'automatic' machine necessarily goes beyond the capability of both simple matter and that of a manual machine; but in going beyond the 'simple' matter and the simpler type of mechanism, the washing machine as 'automatic' incorporates these elements by subordinating them to the 'governing' computer programme which is electrically activated.

It could be said that the design of the washing machine, which presupposes some degree of pre-formed parts, is otherwise a process by which the different physical parts will be formed into casing, whether the external carcass or the internal drum, as it is also what orders the construction of the working parts, as it is also what determines the construction of the computer functions which 'run' the washing machine.  In other words, from beginning to end, from bolt to computer code, the design is what determines the place of every part in the whole.  Although, therefore, it is the electricity which animates the machine, it is the 'idea', first translated into a design and then into a building plan and then embodied in the artifact, which determines what this object is to be, which determines that it will be the kind of thing it is, namely an automatic washing machine, and which guides every aspect of its construction according to the requirements of the material out of which it is made.  Thus it is the 'idea' which can be said to be the 'end' which is envisaged: the 'end' of the washing machine as the free standing object it is and the actual use of it by people and the actual washing of clothes it is designed to do.  But the single idea of the thing to be made, which is the 'end' to which all else is ordered, is in the course of things divided into the following 'things': the design, which includes the building program; the materials, which includes the animating principle; and, finally, the 'switched on' object in which it is all embodied.

The idea is, therefore, the totality of everything and in its simplicity could be called the 'germ' of the object.  The materials, which condition the design, could be distinguished in various ways, but the main distinction is that between what will animate the whole and what is to be animated: the electricity and the parts, directly or indirectly, which it will make to work.  Some parts of the machine, like the casing, will not be working parts except in a structural sense; however, they are unified in the whole, not by the fact as to whether or not they are 'working' parts but by the 'function' assigned to them by the design's realization of the initial idea.  Similarly, even the basic materials are taken up into the design, principally because the design presupposes what kind of thing they are and how, therefore, they can be incorporated into the whole; the point is, however, that whether it is the smallest part, or the multitude of different kinds of materials, or the two basic types of material, the one which animates and the one which is animated, it is the idea, embodied in the unity of the design and how it has informed every material part, which has so fundamentally integrated everything into a whole, that the whole is called, not by the name of any part, but by a name which reveals what it is as a whole: a washing machine.  Thus everything in which that whole consists is now identified in relation to the whole of which it is a part.

It is the design then, which together with the materials-which are both what animates and what is animated - which are the two complementary and yet different constituent halves of the whole 'idea.'  The design is therefore the 'form' of the washing machine and the material is the signet first matter.  It will be noted that the matter out of which the washing machine is made is not an 'abstract' non thing, but a concrete reality which contributes its necessary characteristics to the whole; it can rightly be said, therefore, that the design and the matter 'mutually condition' each other in the realization of the idea of which each is a radically inseparable part.

It is the design which secondarily and in relation to the governing 'idea', which is the form which informs the whole of the washing machine; and it is this 'composite' which is called 'secondary matter': the actually existing thing which is the finished unity of the 'design-form' and the 'material' out of which it is made.  The change in the material substrate is called a substantial change, the end terminus of a substantial change is when that material substrate comes to possess a form when first it did not.

The termini of the substantial change of the material substrate are, therefore, the idea which inspires the design and the switched on washing machine; and the termini of the material substrate are the 'many' materials and the 'one' working washing machine.  The 'privation' of the many materials - which are yet one as materials - is the 'form' to which they are ordered as 'potential' to 'act'.  For it is the design which completes, unifies and actuates the potential of those materials: a potential which is, however, an actuality to the extent that the properties of the material are real and existent as that which the concrete matter is.

The 'instant', or indivisible time in which the substantial change could be said to occur, is the moment in which the washing machine is switched on.  For this is the moment in which everything the object is intended to be, is actually present; and this first moment of completion is simultaneously ordered to a second, namely the running of the washing machine; and it is the running of the washing machine to which everything else is definitively ordered.  The running of the washing machine is, however, ordered to time and thus while it is 'running' when it is switched on, it is nevertheless 'running' in the sense of doing the programme of actions which fulfils what it is, when that first completion is followed by an actualization of its activity, when being 'switched on' is followed by being 'switched on to a washing programme' and the water comes into the drum and mixes the soap with the clothes and so on.

The 'instant', however, that the washing machine is switched on, is the instant that the diverse materials of which it is made, particularly the difference between the activating electricity and the activated parts, are for the first time united and create the whole which the washing machine is.  Secondly, this is simultaneously the first time that the idea is completely and perfectly realized: the idea which is expressed in the complementary but diverse and dynamic unity of the 'design-form' and the 'material-corporeality'.  The washing machine now exists in the sense of the kind of being it is; and, as the ancient adage goes, this being manifests what it is in the natural and characteristic activity which follows on being what it is.  In other words, while time and process and different kinds of things are involved - such as design-form and material-corporeality, animating electricity and animated parts - there is a concrete moment when the washing becomes what it is; and that concrete 'instant' is when it is switched on, when it is activated for the first time in the finished totality it is.  It is this 'instant,' therefore, in which occurs the act of existence which makes to be all that the being of that thing is as the one thing that it is.

Finally, the fact that the 'agent-builder' is external to the washing machine is one of many reasons why this analogy is only partially applicable to the reality of the human being it has been modelling; however, even that has its place in the analogy because it makes abundantly clear that there has to be an active 'designer-builder' who knows how to translate an idea into an incarnate reality, and this designer-builder is God.  Furthermore, it not only does not detract from the work of this designer-builder that one thing should be made to make the parts of other things, as another thing should be made to be the material which is formed, as another thing should be made to be the form of the finished thing - but it positively makes one marvel at the 'integrity' of the 'whole' work of Creation which is the one work of the Creator.

Secondly, it makes clear that the 'idea' has an origin 'internal' to the designer-builder and is as much a subject of investigation as every other part of the process; however, the investigation of that 'interior process' is quite simply dependent on the extent to which the Creator reveals what 'inspired' the idea in the first place and which, ultimately, is the 'being' of the Creator (cf. Gn 1: 26-27).  Furthermore, one can only humanly 'enter into' what that means to the extent that the analogy of actual human creativity permits, particularly the co-creation of human life - because it is particularly the co-creation of human life which could be said to be an instance of the human experience of life from life: of new life proceeding in imitation of a life which already exists, while at the same time that new life is a 'different' life to that which already exists.

Thirdly, just as the metal transcends the raw materials, the pressed shape the sheet metal, the mechanism the individual parts, and the circuits and their activating electricity transcend the mechanism, so the programme transcends the computer which is programmed, such that it can be said that the design transcends the material out of which it is made and through which it is expressed, and, finally, so does the Creator transcend His creation - yet that transcendence of one thing to another is not a 'distance' of one thing from another, but is under another name the 'immanence' of one thing to another.  For if the design-form was not present to the 'material-corporeality' then there would be no washing machine, just as if the designer-builder did not switch it on then the 'idea' would not be realized in a 'complete' artifact.

The act, therefore, which unifies everything, is the act which 'switches the washing machine on.'  The 'sign' that the washing machine is on is the sign which indicates that the electricity is now 'in' the body of the machine.  This is signified by a light coming on as the switch is put on.  In other words there is an external and concrete act which 'completes' the incarnation of the idea in the artifact; and, moreover, this external and concrete act is as necessary to that completion as the switching on is to the washing machine being on.  Finally, just as the switching on of the washing machine completes the washing machine as to what it is and is simultaneously indicated by the light coming on, so the person's existence begins at fertilization and is 'signified' by the activation of the egg by the sperm which is also, in this case, the act by which both man, woman and God co-create and complete the act by which the person begins.  What we cannot 'see', however, is the 'soul' completing the body, just as we cannot 'see' the design's embodiment in the whole thing as a separate 'thing' to that whole thing; however, just as we can 'see' the switch go down and the light come on, so we can 'see' the act of fertilization and the animation of the egg by the sperm.  It is this 'act of activation' which is the evidence of the actual beginning of the person, as it is this act of activation which is the observable beginning of the person, as it is this act of activation which is the 'external' reality sign of the 'internal' act of God to which it is the co-existing and yet exterior aspect to the internal and yet one 'sacramental sign' of the beginning of the person.

Two implications to all this which cannot be overestimated are to do with the relation of the design-form to the material-corporeality on the one hand, and on the other hand the fact that the whole cannot but exist in relation to its maker.

The first implication then is to do with how the design-form can give 'life' to a materially corporeal thing when it is so 'different' from it.  This can only be explained from the point of view that the design-form can only give 'life' to a materially corporeal thing when it is actually embodied in it.  In other words, just as there can be no actual washing machine if there is no 'embodied design-form', so neither can there be an actual washing machine if there is no 'material embodying that design-form.'  But further, just as 'design-form' and 'material-corporeality' are only definitively united at the moment the washing machine is switched on, so the union of soul and body are not and cannot be what they are to each other until the moment of fertilization.

The second implication to this is the implication of relationship.  In other words, just as the washing machine can neither originate its own idea, design, build or switch itself on, so the person cannot begin to be without an antecedent cause and, therefore, the relationship between itself and that antecedent cause comes into existence as completely as the factors which contribute to that existence are made one at the moment it is 'switched on.'  Thus the evidence of the relationships which co-constitute the beginning of the person and yet are not the person, is the mystery of that first instant in which the person begins to be.  This evidence of relationship is of two kinds: the positive existence of the person conceived, which is the relational physical fact of the embryo's existence and the total 'signification' of that fact; or, and particularly in our time, the tragic quality of the reactions of men and women to the death of their child, either because of a miscarriage or an abortion805.

805 Cf. D. Alton with A. Holmes, Whose Choice Anyway?, The Right to Life, Holmes, (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1988) pages 84-5.  Abbrev. WCA.  Cf. R. Winter, Choose Life, A Christian Perspective on Abortion and Embryo Experiments, (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1988), page 46.  Abbrev. CL.  Cf. Philip G. Ney, and his research assistant, Adele Rose Wickett, BSN, British Victims of Abortion, Occasional Paper, Mental Health and Abortion: Review and Analysis, (Summer 1991, Issue 2), pages 1-8.  Abbrev. BVA.  Cf also but in a different way the following: S. Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, (London: Bantam Books, 4th printing 1981), pages 169-71.  This autobiography of a marriage is a beautiful book in its own right.  The author admits his wife may have come out of the coma herself (page 170); but when she does he says: 'She came wholly out of the coma - against all predictions - came out of it with a memory of happiness' (page 171).  Abbrev. ASM.    Back

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