Embryos, souls and metaphysics
While an embryo can not perform the intellective acts that one might characterise as spiritual, it has the potential to do so, in a way that can never be said of a non-human embryo… In an embryo that infrastructure is still in the process of developing. But it is the same human being that moves from an embryonic state to being one capable of acts we characterise as spiritual and personal, acts of knowing and loving. It is that potential which is uniquely human that gives that human being dignity and is deserving of our protection.
by Neil Ormerod
The recent debate on the use of embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes has raised once again the question of when life begins.
When in the process from initial fertilization to birth can we speak of a living human being? Or perhaps the question might be reframed as: when in the process do we have a human person?
Indeed are these the same question or are they different? In his recent contribution to Online Catholics (When?, OLC issue 128) distinguished Australian philosopher Max Charlesworth reframes the issue in the following terms:
It is only then that we can speak of the beginnings of the conscious self (or 'soul') with a potentiality for self-awareness and self determination. 'I' is a personal pronoun and it is only then (with apologies to Norman Ford) that "I' begin.
Quoting the recent statement by the Australian Catholic Bishops on stem cell research he goes on to state:
[the bishops state] 'the human embryo cannot continue to develop as anything else than a human being'. That is true of the embryo as biologically human, but it is not true of the embryo as a human person.
What we see in this quote a mix of terms, consciousness, self-awareness, “I”, soul, human being, human person. How are these multiple terms related to one another?
While Charlesworth offers apologies to moral theologian Norman Ford, whose book When did I begin? is one of the more thorough analyses of the question, I would prefer to side with Ford and spell out the logic of his position.
Ford follows an Aristotelian metaphysic whose starting point is that the soul is the form or organising principle of a living thing.
For Aristotle all living things have souls, but this tells us very little unless we study the form or intelligibility of the living thing. To study the soul of a living thing is to study what makes it living, and for Aristotle this was an empirical, scientific question.
Of course, for Aristotle not all souls are the same, otherwise living things would all be the same sort of thing, which they are not. In particular, the soul of a human being is different because human living is different. Human living is not simply oriented to biological ends, but to meaning, truth and goodness. Or as Aristotle would say, a human being is a rational animal. This orientation indicates that the soul is a spiritual principle, since meaning, truth and goodness are not material being in themselves, so the human soul has some independence from materiality, this is, the soul is spiritual.
Despite this Aristotle was not convinced this spiritual principle could survive death.
Aquinas on the other hand argued that this spiritual principle could survive death and hence enjoyed a natural immortality. However, he also stated, “The soul is not me”, and that such a separated soul was in an unnatural state, implicitly arguing for the necessity of resurrection.
How does this apply to the question of the embryo? Does it have a soul? The question for Aristotle and Aquinas is simply whether it is a living thing?
The problem is not whether it is living because it clearly is, but whether it is a “thing” and not just an aggregate of cells. Or as Amanda Vanstone stated in the Senate debate, “it’s human tissue, not a human being”.
Is there a form or intelligible unity to this lump of cells we call an embryo? Do these cells act under some principle of organisation? Or do they just sit there lumped together like strangers on a bus?
For Aristotle this is an empirical question, one to be settled by reference to scientific evidence. It could be settled by a detailed study of animal embryos to examine at what stage in the initial process of division the cells act in an organised manner. Much of Norman Ford’s book is about examining such evidence.
Some people point to the formation of the primitive streak in the embryo (about seven days after initial fertilisation), but it might well be possible to find evidence from the first cell division. In this regard, the so-called 1600 year tradition of “ensoulment” some 40 days after fertilization, “when the embryo has reached an advanced stage of development with the appearance of a rudimentary brain and nervous system”, that Charlesworth refers to, is a pre-scientific myth.
Of course, some will complain about all this scholastic metaphysics when the real issues are those of consciousness and self-awareness. The embryo may be a human being, but is it a human person?
This of course, in Charlesworth’s words, “assumes what needs to be proved”, that is, that human dignity resides in personhood and not simply in being human.
This is a dangerous path to tread because many human beings have their personhood compromised: those in deep comas, those in persistent vegetative states, and those with severe intellectual handicaps. If we can experiment with embryos because they are not “persons”, can we also experiment with a person in a deep coma? Such human beings may show no self-awareness or self-determination, so on Charlesworth’s test of personhood, they are not persons.
Concerns with questions of consciousness are very modern though there are antecedents in Augustine (particularly De Trinitate Book 10) and suggestions in Aquinas. It is a complex issue and one with many potential pitfalls. For example the comment by one OLC correspondent that “consciousness includes a spiritual dimension” is simply wrong. Cats and dogs are clearly conscious; they experience pain and appear to dream. But there is no evidence that they are spiritual, that is, oriented to meaning, truth and goodness. And there is certainly no basis for identifying consciousness - the conscious self - with the soul, as Charlesworth does, for then when we are unconscious we would have no soul.
It all boils down to questions of potential.
I am confident that an embryo can not perform the intellective acts that one might characterise as spiritual. The senses are not developed, and the brain is non-existent.
I am also confident that it has the potential to do so, in a way that can never be said of a non-human embryo.
This potential is different from the potential we all have when we move from dreamless sleep to being alert and insightful. Then the biological infrastructure - the brain and nervous system - is already present and it is simply being activated. In an embryo that infrastructure is still in the process of developing. But it is the same human being that moves from an embryonic state to being one capable of acts we characterise as spiritual and personal, acts of knowing and loving. It is that potential which is uniquely human that gives that human being dignity and is deserving of our protection.
Finally, if we are talking about a human being, then Charlesworth’s suggestion that decisions about embryonic cells are simply a private matter for the parents or the ovum donor are inadequate.
The protection of human life is a social concern. We would not tolerate as a private matter a decision to own slaves. Such an undermining of human dignity would threaten us all. Similarly the move to legalise embryonic stem cell research threatens us all by undermining the dignity of the most vulnerable human beings of all, those without a voice, created simply to be destroyed by an appeal to the “greater good” of medical research.
Professor Neil Ormerod is the Director of the Institute of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education for the Australian Catholic University.