"Revival" of St. Thomas' Philosophy - Yes, But Not His Erroneous "Delayed Personhood" Argument
Concerns For Beginning And End of Life Issues

IV. The Bottom Line

For those who are not interested in wading through the currently documented science, or the hard-core philosophical discussions involved, let me try to present in this section the bottom line concerning at least three serious errors inherent in St. Thomas' "delayed personhood" argument. Those who are interested in more details (with extensive scientific and philosophical references) will find them later in the more technical sections.

A. The "science" used was grossly erroneous

Obviously, neither Aristotle nor Thomas were privy to the accurate science that we have today. Instead, they both believed, e.g., that there were only 4 elements in the material world - air, earth, fire and water. One could say that their knowledge of "science" was obviously "historically-bound" and erroneous. Empirical knowledge such as that found in the current Periodic Table of the Elements, human genetics or human embryology simply were not even imagined back then. So why would anyone want to use philosophical concepts today that were based on ancient and erroneous science? Unfortunately, although understandable, the "science" Aristotle and Thomas used in their "delayed personhood" arguments was grossly erroneous and led to erroneous philosophical concepts of "delayed personhood".

That is no excuse for scientists or philosophers today. We have known for over 125 years now that in human sexual reproduction a new unicellular human being (human organism) begins to exist at the beginning of the process of fertilization, when the sperm cell makes first contact with the oocyte cell and penetrates it (Stage 1a of the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development). Immediately, substantial changes take place. Mere "cells" become new whole organisms. Proteins, enzymes and biological functions and activities that are specific to human organisms (and are not specific for mere human cells, or for carrots, mice or apes) occur and are empirically verified. There is no mystery; there is no confusion or doubt. That is when "the matter is appropriately organized" in human sexual reproduction, and when a new sexually reproduced living human being immediately begins to exist.

It has also been known for many decades that human beings can be reproduced asexually, without the immediate use of sperm and oocyte. These two reproductive processes are similar in that they both result in a new living human being. But they are not functionally equivalent, as the functions involved in the genetics and biochemistry in each case are very different. In human asexual reproduction (including naturally occurring human identical twins reproduced asexually within the woman's body), a new human being begins to exist when the DNA in the totipotent cell(s) is reprogrammed back to that of a new organism (rather than remaining as that of just a cell or cells). That is when "the matter is appropriately organized" in human asexual reproduction, and when a new asexually reproduced human being immediately begins to exist. Whether sexually or asexually reproduced, new human beings begin to exist at the beginning of their biological development as human organisms. No delays.

These current objective scientific facts should be the proper "starting point" for next determining the answer to the philosophical question: "When does a human person begin to exist?" As will be demonstrated below, a human person must begin to exist immediately when the human being begins to exist - at the beginning of that human being's biological development as a human organism - whether sexually or asexually reproduced. There are no "delays" or "splits". Thus in any "revival" of St. Thomas' philosophy today, great care should be given to identifying the scientific error inherent in his theory of "delayed personhood", and that the current accurate science be taught as a corrective for "immediate personhood".

B. Therefore, their systematically required epistemological "starting points" were erroneous

This use of erroneous science by both Aristotle and St. Thomas also has serious implications for their philosophies. There are at least two (of many) major contradictions inherent within their own philosophical systems that both would be hard put to explain given their "delayed personhood" theories.

The first philosophical contradiction, directly related to the scientific issue above, involves their systematically required empirically based epistemological "starting points" for doing any philosophy at all. So the question must be raised: Is the "science" used by them as their epistemological "starting points" to ground their philosophical "delayed personhood" arguments really accurate? If not, then any philosophical concepts that they derive from those erroneous scientific "starting points" are automatically invalid. That certainly holds true specifically for their philosophical "delayed personhood" arguments, since the "science" they used as their empirical "starting points" was grossly out-dated and grossly erroneous. Therefore, both Aristotle's and Thomas' philosophical arguments for "delayed personhood" violate their own systematic philosophical systems' epistemological demands, and are therefore automatically invalid theories. This too should be taught and explained in any current "revival" of St. Thomas' philosophy. To fail to do so would seriously impact the ethical judgments derived from that erroneous theory and the real life consequences concerning the complicated life issues today.

C. Contradicts their philosophical definitions of "substance", "soul" and "person"

The second philosophical contradiction involves their philosophical definitions of "substance", "soul", and "person". Regardless if they used grossly erroneous "science" as their starting points, do Aristotle's and Thomas' concepts of "delayed personhood" really match their own philosophical definitions of "substance", "soul" and (for Thomas) "person used systematically throughout the rest of their systems? The answer is "no". (And it might be noted here for those unfamiliar with philosophy that any kind of "delay" would require some sort of "split" on the level of theory among the powers of the human soul, and/or between the whole human soul and the human body. That is, "delays" require "splits".)

Consider the following. If, as they both held, a "substance" begins to exist as an individual substance immediately (not incrementally), then that holds as well for the human substance, which then also must begin to exist immediately (not incrementally). There can be no "delays" or "splits".

Aristotle and Thomas also both hold that the "rational soul" as the immaterial "form" of the human body ("matter") must always contain virtually the vegetative, sensitive and rational powers, and that none of these "powers" can exist beforehand (or ever) on their own as separate individual substances, souls, or forms. These three powers of the one whole human soul are not "split" from each other. There are not three "souls". There is only one soul. Therefore, there can be no "succession" of vegetative, sensitive or rational "souls". Thus there can also be no "delays"; nor can there be any "soul/soul" splits.

Likewise, both Aristotle and Thomas agreed that for material things, the form cannot exist without the matter, and the matter cannot exist without the form. Thus, as they both hold, if the whole human "rational soul" cannot exist in this life separate from and without the human body of which it is the form (and vice versa), then there can be no "souls" or "bodies" that preexist each other. Thus there can be no "delays" before they are first united, nor can there be any "soul/body" splits.

Finally, although Aristotle didn't use the term "person" (other than referring to face masks used by actors in the Greek plays), St. Thomas did. St. Thomas holds that a human "person" must be defined as one single individual compound substance ("subsistens"), complete with its body, its whole rational soul (that includes virtually its sensitive and vegetative powers), and its' soul's act of existing (esse). And, as noted, he holds that this whole human substance comes into existence immediately. Therefore, since the "rational" soul is part of the definition of a human "person", and since the "rational soul" is present immediately with the human body, then a human "person" must begin to exist when the human body begins to exist - i.e., at the beginning of the biological development of that human being. Therefore, according to their own philosophical definitions, both Aristotle (had he used the term "person" in this context) and St. Thomas should have been systematically required to argue for "immediate personhood", rather than for "delayed personhood". This too should be taught and explained in any current "revival" of St. Thomas' philosophy. To fail to do so would also seriously impact the ethical judgments and concrete consequences concerning the life issues today.

It now remains, for those hearty souls so inclined, to delve a little deeper and in greater detail, with extensive references, into the relevant "science" and philosophical "definitions" used by both Aristotle and St. Thomas. By necessity some of this will repeat some points addressed above.

V. What Is The Accurate Science That Should Be Used As The "Starting Point" For Determining Human "Personhood?

The question as to "when a human being begins to exist" is a scientific question. "When a human person begins to exist" is a philosophical question. It is critical to address the scientific question first, as the accurate empirical scientific facts should be used as the required empirical "starting point" for doing any philosophical investigations into the human "personhood" issue at all. Of course, if one wants to "justify" certain unethical actions against human persons either at the beginning or the end of their lives, all one has to do is falsify and corrupt that empirical "starting point" by using false and erroneous "scientific" facts instead. Not only are many human beings thereby denied their legitimate "personhood", many are actually redefined out of existence, thus denying them both their "humanhood" and their "personhood" - at both the beginning and the end of life. And indeed this has been done for many decades now, especially in the new "field" of bioethics.14

By not starting with the accurate science, one almost inevitably ends up with some sort of philosophical "mind/body" split -- required for any "delayed personhood" position. In the examples to follow, such "delays" allow one to claim that there is no human being present immediately, there is no human person present immediately - or that certain human beings simply don't even exist.

A. The Accurate Science in Human Sexual Reproduction

There is no question scientifically as to when a new living human being begins to exist - whether sexually or asexually reproduced. And any philosophical argument for "personhood" must begin with these long-known and thoroughly documented scientific facts. The scientific experts to consult for these scientific facts about the early human embryo are human embryologists (not developmental biologists, biochemists, organic chemists, physicists, mathematicians, radiation technologists, dentists, physicians, nurses, theologians, philosophers, policemen or politicians - or even, and especially, not a "consensus" of any of them!).

It has been known in the science of human embryology for over 125 years now, institutionally established since 1942, and available in libraries and on the internet around the world for decades, that in human sexual reproduction a new unicellular genetically unique human being begins to exist at the beginning of the process of fertilization.15 This is not "new", and it is not a "mystery". All one has to do is go to the library or on the internet and look it up. Especially helpful and accurate are the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development, updated every 3-5 years since 1942, and just recently fully updated again in the Terminologia Embryologica, now available online by the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists (IFAA).16 Also, the new website "The Virtual Human Embryo", which is grounded in the Carnegie Stages, is particularly excellent. [A note of caution: Some resources claim to use the official Carnegie Stages, and even use the name, but the scientific details for each Carnegie Stage they present are different than the genuine scientific details, and usually erroneous.]

In 1942, the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development were instituted at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.18 The Carnegie Stages of Early Human Development were the basis for the Nomina Embryologica which was part of the larger Nomina Anatomica for decades until 1989. In 1999 the name was changed by the International Associations of Anatomists to Terminologia Embryologica and Terminologia Anatomica. Their international nomenclature committee on human embryology, consisting of at least 20-25 experts in human embryology per se from around the world, continually reviews the latest scientific data on human embryology, sanctioning that data that is scientifically correct, and rejecting that which is scientifically false or misleading. You can't get more objective than that.

Thus, we do know that "fertilization", involving sexual reproduction, normally takes place in the woman's fallopian tube (and not in her uterus). Only in artificial fertilization in vitro is the already existing embryo in the petri dish implanted into her uterus. In the former case, the woman is "pregnant" at fertilization; in the latter case only is the woman "pregnant" at implantation. But either way, the embryo already exists before implantation. The 23 Carnegie Stages19 consist of the accurate scientific information on the developing human embryo, the human being, through 8 weeks post-fertilization. Stage One is characterized by "unicellularity", from "first contact" and penetration of the oocyte by the sperm at the beginning of the process of fertilization through the formation of the zygote at the end of the process of fertilization. Thus, according to the Carnegie Stages, sexual human reproduction involves the following:

"Embryonic life commences with fertilization, and hence the beginning of that process may be taken as the point de depart of stage 1. Despite the small size and weight of the organism at fertilization, the embryo is "schon ein individual-spezifischer Mensch" [definitely and specifically a human person] (Blechschmidt, 1972). ... Fertilization is the procession of events that begins when a spermatozoon makes contact with an oocyte or its investments and ends with the intermingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes at metaphase of the first mitotic division of the zygote (Brackett et al, 1972). ... Fertilization, which takes place normally in the ampulla of the uterine tube [i.e., fallopian tube - not the uterus], includes (a) contact of spermatozoa with the zona pellucida of an oocyte, penetration of one or more spermatozoa through the zona pellucida and the ooplasm, swelling of the spermatozoal head and extrusion of the second polar body, (b) the formation of the male and female pronuclei, and (c) the beginning of the first mitotic division, or cleavage, of the zygote. ... The three phases (a, b, and c) referred to above will be included here under stage 1, the characteristic feature of which is unicellularity.20 (emphases added)

These accurate internationally documented scientific facts, along with the Chart of the Carnegie Stages, are then professionally required to be used by human embryologists in their textbooks, along with superscripts for specific "generalized" terms within the text's chapters relating them to those official Stages for more rigorous details for the uninitiated students.

B. False, Erroneous and Misleading Scientific Terms Used to Create "Delayed-Personhood" Arguments

As noted, one of the purposes of using false science is to attempt to make it appear that there is some sort of "delay" even before any human being begins to exist, or a delay between when the human being begins to exist and when the human person begins to exist. The consequences are that already existing living human embryos, fetuses, even newborns and young children, can be considered as mere "objects" rather than as "subjects". They are not "persons", and thus do not have the moral or legal rights and protections of "persons" (although they "should be respected"). This applies to innocent living human beings at the end of life as well. If they have lost their "rationality" or "autonomy", then they are not "persons". The list below is the tip of the iceberg of such false terms.

1. "Fertilization" is Not When All Human Beings Begin to Exist

Obviously, if some human beings do not begin to exist by means of the sexual reproductive process of "fertilization", then those asexually reproduced human beings would not even exist according to that claim. That would include all human beings asexually reproduced, both in vivo and in vitro. For such human beings, there is no "humanhood", much less any "personhood".

2. The "Zygote" is Not the Beginning of All Sexually Reproduced Human Beings

Clearly, the zygote is not when a new sexually reproduced human being begins to exist. The zygote is formed at the end of the process of fertilization (Stage 1c). Before that the embryo already exists at Stage 1a and Stage 1b. And in some asexual reproductive processes, the new human being results immediately as a multi-celled organism, so that it never passes through the zygote phase of development. For example, sometimes in identical (monozygotic) twinning (both in vivo and in vitro), the new asexually reproduced twin begins to exist when two or more totipotent21 cells split off from the original embryo, and the state of differentiation of the DNA in those cells is "regulated" or reversed back to whatever is required for that multi-celled organism. Thus to claim that the "zygote" is when all human beings begin to exist is to leave out of existence - and thus both "humanhood" and "personhood" - the sexually reproduced human embryos already existing at Stage 1a and Stage 1b, as well as most asexually reproduced identical twins.22

3. "Ova" and "Fertilized Eggs" Don't Exist

There is also no such thing as the "fertilized egg Stage". The unicellular human embryo considered at Stage One is absolutely not just an "egg" or a "fertilized egg", but a new genetically unique living human being at the single-cell stage of embryonic development.

"The term 'ovum', which has been used for such disparate structures as an oocyte and a 3-week embryo, has no scientific usefulness and is not used here. Indeed, strictly speaking, "the existence of the ovum ... is impossible" (Franchi, 1970). The term 'egg' is best reserved for a nutritive object frequently seen on the breakfast table.23

Yet another way to make the new living human being simply disappear is to call it an "egg" - one of the favorite "pre-embryo substitutes" used especially by lobbyists for researchers, the drug industry and abortion proponents.24

4. "Pre-embryo" - the Mother-Lode of All "Delayed Personhood" Terms

As with the other false scientific terms, the international nomenclature committee on human embryology has also formally rejected the use of the false scientific term "pre-embryo" (even though it has been used for decades as the basis for laws and regulations on the use of the early human embryo in IVF/ARTs and in research in Great Britain).25 In fact, there is probably no other false scientific term that has caused as much global massive confusion (and death) as the term "pre-embryo", created by Catholics, used for decades now among Catholic and non-Catholic scholars alike,26 as well as adopted by hundreds of academic, legal, medical, scientific and international professional organizations.27 In fact, the term "pre-embryo" especially has been used in issues at the end of life28 - as have a mind-boggling multitude of equally false - yet very inventive -- "pre-embryo substitute" terms.29 One has to wonder how even "science" texts so readily started using the false term "pre-embryo, including the 5th edition of the biology textbook on human embryology by developmental biologist Keith Moore.30 But as succinctly put by O'Rahilly (one of the originators of the Carnegie Stages) and Muller:

"The term 'pre-embryo' is not used here for the following reasons: (1) it is ill-defined because it is said to end with the appearance of the primitive streak or to include neurulation; (2) it is inaccurate because purely embryonic cells can already be distinguished after a few days, as can also the embryonic (not pre-embryonic!) disc; (3) it is unjustified because the accepted meaning of the word embryo includes all of the first 8 weeks; (4) it is equivocal because it may convey the erroneous idea that a new human organism is formed at only some considerable time after fertilization; and (5) it was [used] in 1986 'largely for public policy reasons' (Biggers). ... Just as postnatal age begins at birth, prenatal age begins at fertilization."31 (emphases added)

"The ill-defined and inaccurate term pre-embryo, which includes the embryonic disc, is said either to end with the appearance of the primitive streak or to include neurulation. The term is not used in this book."32 (emphases added)

In short, there is no such thing as a "pre-embryo". It's a myth.

5. "Conception" Can Leave Out Both Sexually and Asexually Human Beings

The international nomenclature committee on human embryology also scientifically rejected the passe term "conception" as misleading:

"The term conception, however, may refer either to fertilization or to implantation and hence (like gestation) is best avoided."33 (emphases added)

In fact, if the term "conception" (meaning "fertilization") is used it would leave out of existence all human beings asexually reproduced, both in vivo and in vitro - at both the beginning and the end of life.34 Worse, the term "conception" is now mis-defined by many professional medical and scientific organizations, and legally mis-defined in many states, as "implantation" (5-7 days post-fertilization), thus leaving out of existence all sexually reproduced human beings who exist before implantation.

6. "Biogenetic Law" is defunct

Likewise, the old and now-defunct but still used "Biogenetic Law" is also scientifically inaccurate and rejected (even though it is currently used as the basis for laws and regulations on the use of the early human embryo in IVF/ARTs and in research in Canada):35

"Recapitulation, the So-Called Biogenetic Law. The theory that successive stages of individual development (ontogeny) correspond with ('recapitulate') successive adult ancestors in the line of evolutionary descent (phylogeny) became popular in the nineteenth century as the so-called biogenetic law. This theory of recapitulation, however, has had a regrettable influence on the progress of embryology (G. de Beer). ... According to the 'laws' of von Baer, general characters (e.g., brain, notochord) appear in development earlier than special characters (e.g., limbs, hair). Furthermore, during its development an animal departs more and more from the form of other animals. Indeed, the early stages in the development of an animal are not like the adult stages of other forms but resemble only the early stages of those animals. The pharyngeal clefts of vertebrate embryos, for example, are neither gills nor slits. Although a fish elaborates this region into gill slits, in reptiles, birds, and mammals it is converted into such structures as the tonsils and the thymus."36 (emphases added)

Yet this erroneous evolutionary "science" is used by some today to argue for a kind of "delayed personhood" in which "personhood", understood mostly in terms of "self-awareness", evolves "throughout the millennia". For example, in his own corrective but enrichment of the field of "evolutionary psychology" (a theory about the origins of the human mind), physician William Hurlbut uses the "biogenetic law" to argue that the "psychophysical unity of the human person" has evolved throughout the centuries to the present.37 But given that the "biogenetic law" is now defunct, what happens to this theory of "evolving personhood"?

C. The Accurate Science in Human Asexual Reproduction

The accurate science should also be used with reference to the human embryo reproduced asexually (without the immediate use of sperm and oocyte), as we know happens in naturally occurring human identical (monozygotic) twinning in the woman's body, as well as in vitro in the laboratory (e.g., during artificial "twinning", "cloning", and other genetic engineering techniques).38 Once the DNA in the cell(s) is "appropriately organized", or in the same state as the DNA in the cell(s) of the earliest of human embryos, that new human being simply proceeds through the same developmental stages as those documented by the Carnegie Stages in sexual reproduction. Strachan and Reed perhaps explain this most succinctly in describing two of many kinds of human cloning techniques:

The term 'clones' indicates genetic identity and so can describe genetically identical molecules (DNA clones), genetically identical cells or genetically identical organisms. Animal clones occur naturally ... . For example, genetically identical twins are clones who happened to have received exactly the same set of genetic instructions from two donor individuals, a mother and a father. A form of animal cloning can also occur as a result of artificial manipulation to bring about a type of asexual reproduction. The genetic manipulation in this case uses nuclear transfer technology [SCNT and GLCNT]: a nucleus is removed from a donor cell then transplanted into an oocyte whose own nucleus has previously been removed. ... The individual providing the donor nucleus and the individual that develops from the 'renucleated' oocyte are usually described as "clones", but it should be noted that they share only the same nuclear DNA; they do not share the same mitochondrial DNA, unlike genetically identical twins. ... Wilmut et al (1997) reported successful cloning of an adult sheep. For the first time, an adult nucleus had been reprogrammed to become totipotent once more, just like the genetic material in the fertilized oocyte from which the donor cell had ultimately developed. ... Successful cloning of adult animals has forced us to accept that genome modifications once considered irreversible can be reversed and that the genomes of adult cells can be reprogrammed by factors in the oocyte to make them totipotent once again.39 (emphases added)

Thus international agreement and documentation by the international experts in human embryology and human molecular genetics for decades make the following perfectly clear. The new unicellular human embryo formed sexually begins to exist at the beginning of the process of fertilization (when the human sperm cell makes first contact with and penetrates the human oocyte cell). The new human embryo formed asexually by various natural or artificial reproductive techniques (such as one of every two identical twins reproduced naturally in vivo, as well as by means of artificial "twinning", and other cloning and genetic engineering techniques in vitro) begins to exist as a new living human being when the DNA in the cell(s) is reprogrammed to that of a human organism. THESE are the objective empirical scientific facts that should be used as the accurate empirical "starting points" for any philosophical "personhood" arguments.40 They should also be used as a necessary corrective in any current "revival" of St. Thomas' philosophy to forestall any misunderstandings surrounding the current life issues.

Next Page: VI. The Philosophical Questions
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