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

VI. The Philosophical Questions

In any "delayed personhood" argument used at the beginning of life, there is a requirement that the human "substance" be only gradually composed and compacted from various elements outside of the original entity. Even today, for example, some claim that in human sexual reproduction, first the "vegetative soul" is there in the matter at fertilization, then later the "sensitive soul" is added, and only later is the "rational" soul added "when the matter is appropriately organized". The reverse "delay" is used today for the end of life issues. First the "rational soul" leaves the body, then the "sensitive" soul leaves the body, and finally all that is left there is a "vegetative soul" in a human body, a "human vegetable" - the source of the dubious phrase "vegetative state" used in medicine. This variety of "delayed personhood" often appeals to the "authority" of Aristotle or St. Thomas for justification.

But neither St. Thomas nor Aristotle can square this "explanation" of the succession of souls, or of the "delay" of the whole soul's union with the human body, with their own theories of "substance". For both of them, a "substance" is something that can "stand on its own", can exist on its own, and that comes to exist immediately - not "successively". A human substance for both of them is one thing, one entity - not a collection of different multiple independent substances. There are not three different human "souls", but only one human soul (the "form" of the material human body) with three different powers - the vegetative, sensitive and rational powers. There is no such thing for either Aristotle or St. Thomas as an "intermediate human being" - such as a "human vegetable" -- they are both very firm about that. And although Aristotle didn't use the term "person" (except to refer to the face masks used in the ancient Greek plays), St. Thomas defined a human "person" as one compound rational substance or "subsistens", including the whole soul (which includes its act of existing, or esse) and the whole body. None of these different aspects of an individual human person is a complete substance or a "thing" in and of itself.

Further, both Aristotle and St. Thomas were excruciatingly aware of and aggressively countered the "mind/body" split inherent in Plato's anthropology (a basically gnostic-influenced41 philosophical legacy that infected much of the subsequent History of Philosophy, that especially bloomed again with the philosophies of Descartes and most modern philosophers, and now again in the current "bioethics"). How can the supposedly different "souls", that are obviously separated from each other, and then "added to" each other, successively interact or cause any inherent functions or activities within each other or within the human body that is also separated from them? Wouldn't such a "delayed" personhood theory necessarily have to invoke this very problematic and, frankly, historically and academically indefensible, "soul/soul? split, as well as a "mind/body" split?

For those interested, to better understand in more detail the very real philosophical problems with St. Thomas' "delayed personhood" argument, I will first address his own established philosophical requirements for the epistemology he is using, and then take a brief look at his definitions of "substance", "soul" and "person".

VII. "Delayed Personhood" Contradicts St. Thomas' Own Required Epistemoogical "Starting Point"

One of the most significant lessons I learned from studying both Aristotle and St. Thomas is their empirically bound philosophical epistemology. "Epistemology" is a sub-field of philosophy used to determine the method by which we come to have concepts of the real world, and how to determine the truth or falsity of those concepts. These are the concepts of which metaphysics, natural philosophy, anthropology and ethics (including natural law ethics) are composed.

Although there are significant differences between St. Thomas' and Aristotle's philosophies, they are both from the school of philosophy known as "classical realism". St. Thomas' classical realist philosophical system was largely based on Aristotle, and both of them systematically required in their epistemology that the starting point of doing philosophy must be material objects in the real world. Quoting St. Thomas:

"Thus the intelligible species is that which is understood secondarily; but that which is primarily understood is the object, of which the species is the likeness."42 (emphases added)

That is, material things in the real world impinge on our senses, causing empirically derived images (phantasms), or sense knowledge, that are then abstracted into the intellect as concepts.43 That "starting point" must be as accurate as possible; otherwise we are not knowing the real world at all. Paraphrasing Aristotle in his De Anima (and later, St. Thomas): "A small error in the beginning leads to a multitude of errors in the end."44 If your empirical starting point is in error, then your concepts will also be in error. This type of epistemological method is called "a posteriori" - starting with material things outside the mind that impinge on our senses.45

Thus nothing is more important in doing philosophy for both Aristotle and St. Thomas than having an accurate empirical starting point. But additionally, once an empirically-derived concept is in the intellect, then a realist philosopher must still check the truth or falsity of that concept by comparing it with the thing or object outside the mind that caused the concept. This is called the "Correspondence Theory of Truth". If there is no "match", then the concept is considered invalid and discarded. If there is a "match", then the philosopher continues to use it..

This is in counter-distinction to, e.g., a "rationalist" or an "idealist" system of philosophy, where the epistemological method is "a priori". That is, the "starting point" consists of concepts already in the mind, and the truth or falsity of these concepts is determined by whether or not they "fit in with" or "cohere with" other concepts or theories already in the mind. (Also, sometimes "truth tables" are used to determine if the concept is true or false). This is called the "Coherence Theory of Truth". Whether or not those mental concepts match or correspond with objects in the real world outside the mind is not always critical. (Note that when any philosophy has an inherent "mind/body" split, one can never really get outside the mind to check anything in the real world anyway - as Descartes spectacularly learned!)

And this brings us to the very serious problem with Aristotle's, and thus St. Thomas', own arguments for "delayed personhood", positions that, again, could be applied to various current life issues at both the beginning and at the end of life.

St. Thomas, unlike Aristotle (the Father of Biology) was not a scientist. Thus he "unblushingly" accepted the "biology" that Aristotle used in his own "delayed personhood" argument. It is also important to acknowledge that for both of them the state of knowledge about the composition of material things, e.g., human embryology and human genetics, etc., was still rather primitive (to put it mildly). For example, both still held for only 4 physical elements total in the material world -- air, earth, fire and water.46 Nor did they really have a clue as to what was involved in sexual (much less asexual) human reproduction. Therefore, the "science" they were using as their "empirical starting points" for their "delayed personhood" arguments, so critical to the validity of their own classical realist systems, was grossly erroneous.

Nor could either of them have legitimately continued with any philosophical reasoning at all using such erroneous "science" as their starting points. Any "concepts" they did derive from their ancient biological "facts" would and could never match or correspond with the real world - specifically what we know today are the real objective empirical facts of human embryology and human molecular genetics. Indeed, a thorough read of the major works of these philosophers indicates that, had the required epistemological starting point for their realist philosophical analyses been the accurate objective facts of human embryology and human molecular genetics as known today, as realist philosophers they would have necessarily been systematically required to argue for "immediate personhood" instead.

VIII. "Delayed Personhood" Contradicts Their Philosophical Definitions of "Substance", "Soul" and "Person"

For both Aristotle and St. Thomas, this "delayed personhood" position of theirs would actually contradict their own philosophical doctrines of the the unity of the soul, the unity of soul and body in the human substance, as well as St. Thomas' philosophical definition of "person".

For example, for Aristotle, his major metaphysical and anthropological treatises argue consistently for a single human substance with no mind/body split. (Although there is some evidence of a serious Platonic streak in his De Anima -- that atypical and historically problematic treatise of Aristotle's so often quoted by contemporary scholars -- as well as historians who researched and specifically chose it for Roe vs. Wade). As Aristotle argues, material forms cannot really exist without their matter:

"...'nature' has two senses -- matter and form. If one considers 'nature' as the form, then it would be the shape or form (not separate except in statement) of things which have in themselves a source of motion" (emphasis added)

Again, he says:

..."the physicist is concerned only with things whose forms are separable [in the mind], indeed, but do not exist apart from matter."48 (emphasis added)

Similarly, matter cannot exist apart from its material form.49 For Aristotle, the human being is defined as one composite substance -- the vegetative, sensitive and rational powers of the "soul" together with the human "body".50 The whole soul, he wrote, is homogenous, and in each part of the body as one whole composite:

"In each of the bodily parts there are present all the parts of the soul, and the 'souls' so present are homogenous with one another and with the whole; this means that the several parts of the soul are indisseverable from one another."51 (emphases added)

As Aristotle noted, the whole man thinks; the whole man knows; and the whole man acts.52

And in contrast to his opposite view in the very same De Anima, Aristotle addresses the very impossibility of a "being-on-the-way", or an "intermediate" human being, railing against the anthropological absurdity and consequences of Plato's or Pythagoras' mind/body splits when he very sarcastically retorts: "Yet how are we to believe in such things?!"53 (emphasis in the original). Indeed, I, at least, have never seen an "intermediate man" walking down the street or sitting up at a bar, playing soccer or kneeling in prayer.

Although Aristotle-proper did not actually use the term "person", he clearly would have to concur today that a human being is always a human person, for as noted above, he states that neither form nor matter can exist on their own as two different things or independent substances.

Nor could either Aristotle or St. Thomas be used today to argue for such a thing as "proto-matter" to ground a "delayed personhood" theory. "Proto-matter" is actually a very ancient gnostic term going back at least to the ancient philosopher Plotinus (205-270 A.D.). The best way to describe it is as a sort of primal material "blob" that holds multiple "forms" that are supposedly "educed" successively from the "blob" to constitute the forms of material things in the world. Oddly, there has been somewhat of a "revival" of that passe ancient gnostic term in more than a few scientific fields lately. Neither Aristotle nor St. Thomas gave any real existence to "proto-matter", or what I think some Thomists today confuse with "prime matter". And, indeed, for both of them "prime matter" was only a conceptual construct, and by definition, was totally without forms54 -- in fact, that was the whole point! As Klubertanz states:

"Of itself, prime matter is not actually any kind of thing; nor does it have quantity, or any kind of qualities or other accidents. Hence prime matter cannot exist in itself; it cannot be found as such in direct or indirect sense experience; it cannot even be understood separately from substance or substantial form. It is an intelligible co-principle..."55 (emphasis added)

Thus no substantial forms can be educed from "prime matter" for either Aristotle or Thomas, because there were no forms there to begin with. And Thomas, like Aristotle, actually argued against this sort of theory:

"Creation does not mean the building up of a composite thing from pre-existing principles; but it means that the composite is created so that it is brought into being at the same time with all its principles." (emphasis added)

For Thomas, this is true for the human substance as well:

"From this it is clear how false are the opinions of those who maintained the existence of some mediate bodies between the soul and body of man ... Now all this is fictitious and ridiculous ... because the soul is immediately united to the body as the form to matter."57 (emphases added)

Further, "prime matter" should not be equated with the concept of "quantity", as is sometimes argued by some Thomists today.58 "Quantity" for both Aristotle and Thomas was an accident of substance, not a concrete substance itself.59 Thus neither would equate their concept of "quantity" with the modern concept of "mass".

Finally, St. Thomas affirms his own adamant rejection of Plato's problematic anthropology that involves a "mind/body" split.60 As with Aristotle, for St. Thomas, there is no such thing as just a "rational soul" that doesn't always include its sensitive and vegetative powers. There are not three different separate human "souls", but only one whole soul comprised of three different powers. And for Thomas, the rational soul per se is neither an individual substance itself nor a "person":

"The soul is a part of the human species; and so, although it may exist in a separate state, yet since it ever retains its nature of unibility, it cannot be called an individual substance, which is the hypostasis or first substance, as neither can the hand nor any other part of man; thus neither the definition nor the name of person belongs to it."61 (emphases added)

Indeed, for Thomas, the whole human being - body, whole soul, and its act of existing -- is essentially and necessarily the human "person". To paraphrase Thomas:

"The name of "person"[and he uses that term] does not belong to the rational part of the soul alone, nor to the whole soul alone -- but to the entire human substance (or, subsistens)".62

This means that the whole soul, whole body, and its act of existing constitute one substance entire -- with no separate and troublesome independent "parts" each of which might be claimed to be true and independent whole substances. No succession of three different "souls". No splits. No delays. The body is not split from the soul, and the different powers of the rational soul are not separable from each other or from the body of which the soul is the form. It is worth noting, by the way, that Thomas is one of the only philosophers who includes "undesignated matter" (body) in his formal definitions of natural things -- of which man is one.63

For Thomas a human being is necessarily always a human person, and characteristics appealed to today for "delayed personhood" such as "rational attributes", autonomous willing or sentience, are for him merely consequential and secondary or accidental actions which follow upon certain powers, which themselves follow upon the essential nature of the human being.64 Thus "personhood" should be defined according to the nature of a human substance - not according to later adult functions that flow from that very nature. That nature is defined as the single, whole, formal, material and existential human substance. As Thomas states:

"...the soul must be in the whole body [and therefore not just in the brain], and in each part thereof ...for to the nature of the species belongs what the definition signifies; and in natural things, the definition does not signify the form only, but the form and the matter...so it belongs to the notion [definition] of man to be composed of soul, flesh and bones."65 (emphases added)

In sum, and in their own words, it is clear that neither Aristotle nor St. Thomas can either scientifically or philosophically justify their "delayed personhood" arguments. The implications for any "revival" of St. Thomas' philosophy today and the implications for the life issues should be obvious by now.

IX. Hard Questions For "Delayed Personhood" Proponents

These philosophical precisions force at least two major questions on any of the several types of Aristotlean/Thomistic type frameworks used today in bioethics66 to argue for "delayed personhood". As is clear, "personhood" should be defined in terms of the nature of a human being, not by any characteristics that may or may not develop at later fetal, child or adult stages of development. And, as we have seen, the proper Aristotelean and Thomistic philosophical systems and definitions support that.

Yet still today, some Aristoteleans and Thomists continue to argue for "delayed personhood" in human sexual reproduction using supposedly Aristotelean and Thomistic philosophies, e.g., in the recent arguments by Suarez, Ford, McCormick, Wallace and Bole,67 They claim that the "rational" soul - which they admit "organizes and directs human embryological development" -- is not infused until about the third month. But if that is true, then what explains the specifically human organization of the human embryo and human fetus up to about three months? Hasn't the work of this supposed "delayed rational soul" already been done before it gets there -- as empirically verified? If so, then this biological evidence of specifically human structural organization which we do empirically observe must be accounted for by the presence of the whole human soul right from the beginning. No splits. No delays.

In addition to the specifically human structural organization from the beginning, we also empirically observe specifically human reactions, functions and activities from the very beginning -- e.g., the production of specifically human proteins, enzymes, and other biochemical and organic chemical reactions. If for Aristotle and St. Thomas the whole soul must be united immediately with the human body, then this biological evidence of specifically human reactions, functions and activities which we do empirically observe in the human body at the very beginning must be accounted for by the presence of the whole human soul right from the beginning. Or phrased another way, as scientists put it: "Function follows form"; similarly, as classic realist philosophers put it, "Action follows being". If the form of the human body is the whole soul, and if the whole soul must exist immediately when the body begins to exist, and if we empirically observe specifically human functions and activities immediately, then there must be a whole human form (complete with vegetative, sensitive and rational powers) already present immediately that caused those specifically human functions and activities. THIS accurate science should be used as the empirical starting point for determining the philosophical concept of "person hood" in sexual human reproduction. No splits. No delays.

Further, although both Aristotle and Thomas could be excused, there is no excuse today for their scholars to not even acknowledge the reality of human beings asexually reproduced. It is as if these human beings just don't exist. But as demonstrated above, in human asexual reproduction a new human person must begin to exist when the new human being begins to exist - i.e., when the DNA in a human cell(s) is returned to the same status as that of a new human organism. That new human being also begins to function and develop humanly immediately. THIS accurate science should be used as the empirical starting point for determining the philosophical concept of "person hood" in asexual human reproduction. No splits. No delays.

Finally, as we have seen, for both Aristotle and Thomas the "rational soul" includes virtually the vegetative and sensitive powers,68 and for neither is there such a thing as a "rational soul" alone, or even a whole soul alone -- or a whole soul without a body. The whole existing human complex (body and soul -- and for Thomas, esse) -- must be present together at once. There can be no evolving of one separate soul to the next - no succession of "souls", no "intermediate human beings" - or human "vegetables" - and no whole human soul without the human body of which it is the form.

Thus, at the beginning of the process of reproduction, whether sexual or asexual, the "matter" (i.e., the body of the newly formed human embryo) is already "appropriately organized" as human -- since we empirically observe it functioning as specifically human and as developing structurally as specifically human from the beginning and continuously throughout its biological development.69

X. Problems in Other "Delayed Personhood" Arguments

Yet it is not just some of the Aristotelean or Thomistic scholars who have argued for "delayed personhood" in the current bioethics debates. There have also been all sorts of versions of "delayed personhood" arguments since the formal "birth" of bioethics in 1978.70 Many mark the beginning of "personhood" long after the human being has been born, even into adulthood - if at all - and "personhood" is defined only in terms of adult functionality, rather in terms of one's essential nature. Just to mention a few, I will focus here briefly on the definition that is most generally agreed upon in bioethics these days, i.e., one that is basically "derived" historically from Descartes71 or Locke.72

Generally, for these philosophers a "person" is defined in terms of adult characteristics only, someone who is actually acting at the time in a "rational manner". That is, he or she is self-conscious, self-aware, competent, autonomous, logical, mature, conversant, and interacts with the environment and other rational beings around him or her. In short, only if one is acting "rationally" is one a person. But if this is true, then you would also have to agree that the following list of even adult human beings are not persons: the mentally handicapped (e.g., the mentally ill, the mentally retarded), patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, the depressed, alcoholics, drug addicts, the comatose, the incompetent or non-autonomous, etc. - even teenagers, or you when you are sleeping or undergoing surgery with anesthesia!

This is the sort of philosophical definition that in fact has been recently resuscitated (at least in part) by bioethics writers such as Engelhardt,73 Tooley,74 Kuhse75 and Singer76 (yes, the animal rights person), and just recently by Canadian Mark Mercer.77 A "person", they claim, is defined only in terms of "rational attributes" (thinking, willing, self-consciousness, autonomous, relating to the world around one, etc.) and/or "sentience" (the ability to feel pain and pleasure). According to them, some human beings are not "persons", and some non-human animals are "persons". Thus, in addition to the list of adult human beings above who are not acting "rationally", they would also consider as non-persons those adult human beings who are deficient in "sentience", e.g., the physically handicapped such as those who are paralyzed and paraplegics, those with multiple sclerosis or nerve disorders, those missing limbs, etc. They also argue in the literature for infanticide of even normal healthy infants. If, they argue, a normal newborn baby cannot act rationally (as described above), then it is not a "subject" but only an "object" -- and we can therefore use it in destructive experimental research or kill it if we rational agents so chose. This is the position of bioethicist Peter Singer, a "preference utilitarian".78 Note that Singer even submitted a Declaration on the Personhood of the Apes to the United Nations, founded the first International Bioethics Institute under the WHO/CIOMS, and receives grants from the United Nations to write "ethics" books such as his recent one, Global Ethics. In the words of Singer:

"Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. A week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel pain (sentience), and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week, a month, or even a year old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.79 (emphasis added)

Philosopher Richard Frey (a Senior Scholar at the Hastings Center), pushing Singer's logic (correctly) one step further, even suggests that mentally ill human beings are therefore also not "persons", and therefore they might be used in purely destructive experimental research in place of the higher animals who are "persons".80

Would you agree that the killing of normal healthy human infants, or the substitution of mentally ill human beings for the higher animals in destructive experimental research, is morally justifiable? If not, then you have to question, at least, such very rationalistic definitions of a human person, and the metaphysical and epistemological foundations on which they are grounded.

If one argues from the rationalistic premise that a "human person" is defined only in terms of active "reason" (or only the rational part of the soul), and if only normal older children or adults exhibit such active "rational attributes", then even a normal newborn infant, or a 15-year old child is not a person. And to be logically consistent, you must agree with Singer's or Engelhardt's arguments for infanticide, and with Frey's conclusions about the mentally ill in research. To be even more logically consistent, you might also have to agree that the partial list of human beings who are not presently exercising their "rational attributes" or "sentience" noted above could also be used for the utilitarian "greater good" (or the community's greater "communal good") in experimental research, be denied medical help or costs, or be euthanized.81 After all, these populations of human beings have a "reduced moral status" -- they are no longer human persons, no longer "subjects" -- but only mere "objects".82

XI. Conclusion

In sum, if the philosophy of St. Thomas is to be "revived" today, I would humbly suggest that we acknowledge both the praises and the cautions of Pope Leo XIII. As he urged, the real St. Thomas should be "revived", along with the "right use of" his philosophy, and inherent errors should also be acknowledged and corrected today, rather than passed on. That applies especially to his "delayed personhood" theory.

St. Thomas' theory of "delayed personhood" has already had severe consequences for the life issues today. In any such "theory", if there is a "delay" in personhood at the beginning of life, that "delay" can and has been used to justify abortion, the use of abortifacients, pre-natal genetic diagnosis, etc. It can and has been used to justify the use of cells, tissues and "parts" of aborted human embryos and fetuses for the production of vaccines and as the source of genes, feeder cells, and media for culturing human embryos, human embryonic stem cells, and reprogrammed or genetically engineered human cells in vitro. Further, it can and has been used to justify human embryo and human fetal research, including human cloning, human embryonic stem cell research, unethical genetic engineering of human cells and human embryos, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other artificial reproductive technologies (ARTs), etc. Further, it also can be and has been used to argue for a "delay" at the end of life - the "delays" are simply reversed, and have been used to justify euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, "brain death", organ transplantation, the use of human subjects in the "vegetative state" in experimental research, etc.

The truly incomparably great mind, work and historical teachings of St. Thomas that Pope Leo detailed in his encyclical should not be surreptitiously allowed to be used or fostered to justify such unethical and egregious human actions. Further, this "delayed personhood" theory also leads to actions that actually contradict many of the traditional and current moral teachings of the Church on these related issues. It also precludes the faithful from forming their consciences correctly.

Neither Aristotle nor St. Thomas can either scientifically or philosophically justify their "delayed personhood" arguments within the requirements of their own classic realist philosophical systems. If St. Thomas' "science" was erroneous, then correct it. Scientifically we know today that human beings can be reproduced both sexually and asexually. Fertilization is not when all human beings begin to exist, nor does the term "conception" always refer to "fertilization" and it also denies the very reality of asexually reproduced human beings altogether. Nor is the formation of the "zygote" when all sexually reproduced human beings begin to exist. Scientifically there are no such things as "fertilized eggs", ova, "pre-embryos", "pre-embryo substitutes", or the "biogenetic law". But since both Aristotle and St. Thomas used false "science", their philosophical epistemological "starting points" were invalid. Nor could the major philosophical terms they used in their "delayed personhood" theories square with their definitions of "substance", "soul" and "person" used throughout the rest of their philosophical systems. Indeed, had they used the accurate science that we know today, they both would have had to argue for "immediate personhood".

The "revival" of St. Thomas' philosophy is far overdue, and were the cautions of Pope Leo to be accomplished, the words of Cajetan would ring ever true: "That reason, borne on the wings of Thomas to its human height, can scarcely rise higher, while faith could scarcely expect more or stronger aids from reason than those which she has already obtained through Thomas."

Next Page: Endnotes
1, 2, 3, 4