Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why There Can Be No "Potential" Human Beings

The abortion question, of course, boils down to whether the embryo or fetus is a human being or not, though almost everyone will admit that it is a "potential" human being, with the analogy being a seed to a tree or something like that. Obviously, from a purely scientific perspective it is an independent life-form of the species homo sapiens, but those of the pro-choice camp question whether this is enough to render it a subject of moral value, a person. That recent article that caused an uproar because it advocated infanticide (saying that killing a born child is really no different than killing one unborn, which is true) said that, “We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”

Catholic tradition actually might be closer to agreeing with this than some might think. Not with advocating infanticide, but in seeing the definition of person in the moral rather than purely material biological sphere, although it is the reflexive Individualist turn in the infanticidal defition (that she has to be "capable of attributing to her own existence...") that seems to be the problem.

Scholasticism (which for a long time argued that the rational soul was not infused for 40 days, mind you) defines a human being as a "rational animal," that is to say a being with a body and a spiritual soul. In more post-modernist terms, we might say that a human being is a "meaning-making animal" (or meaning perceiving) as only persons, only spirits, can be subjects of meaning (rather than objects of it), because "meaning" is necessarily a non-material and eternal concept/phenomenon.

This should remind us of the "dictionary paradox" of postmodernism regarding Meaning: that it is always deferred as we define each word as simply a string of other words, each of which can only be defined as a string of other words, and the meaning in some sense can thus only be the infinite relational structure of the semantic web as a whole.

However, can a clump of 4 cells really be said to make meaning? In itself, in a purely self-aware way, I think the answer is obviously no. This is the danger in the "individualist" turn I mentioned above regarding humanity. But does this mean it isn't a human person? I would argue not at all, for this would be to misunderstand the idea of a subject as both signifier and signified in a community of significance.

In some ways, we might say, the body is the signifier of the soul. The soul is the "meaning" of the body, and the body is the physical "expression of" the human person (as I recently saw it described on a poster for Catholic cemetaries). The human body is like the word, the material letters written on paper, which transmits the meaning. (It should be noted, there is a profound connection here to being a sacramental and iconographic people; even the physical signs themselves should not be considered irrelevant or interchangeable as if they are separate from the meaning in some sort of dualism.)

But what is the meaning? Various objects in the material world signify various ideas various essences, but a human subject is not an object. Our meaning is, by nature, a meta-meaning, and thus of infinite value, because the human being signifies significance-making itself! In fact, we can see this infinity in the "recursive" definition of a human being that emerges when we push the logic.

A human being, based on what we've said, can be defined something like: "A human person is a signifier capable of signifying being a human person," and to this circularity we might add "to other human persons" although that would be redundant given that the notion of "signifying" already implies that there is some rational subject to receive the significance (conceptually, even if not actually; a word is intelligible with reference to readers, even if a word is not being actually read at any given moment, or even if it is never read, because it is the significant sort of thing).

However, an obvious "recursion" emerges here with reference to significance, obviously, as "human person" is used in the definition itself, and so an infinite nested structure emerges: "A human being is a signifier capable of signifying being a signifier capable of signifying being a signifier capable of signifying being a signifier...etc etc ad infinitum." (This should remind us of the dictionary paradox too).

This should cause us to realize that there can be no "potential" human being who is not an actual human being. Neither a sperm nor an egg alone is a potential human being (and though I suppose you could trivially posit the two of them sitting right next to each other as a potential, until they join they are not one substance, are merely juxtaposed). However, once there is a fertilization, it seems that we cannot but have an actual human being.

Why not? Didn't I just say above that a zygote itself probably is not conscious of any even basic value or meaning until its quite far along in the process? (And isn't that what the ethicists of infanticide use to justify their position?) Ah, but I also just explained the crucial difference. A seed only signifies a tree potentially, because it is not yet what a tree is. We can extrapolate to a tendency towards that, but the fact that we can read that significance into it as a potential does not actually give it the defining characteristics of the Idea "tree" yet.

However, if we tried think of the significance of a fetal human body as "meaning-making" only as a potential to which it tends towards but does not yet have, you will notice that this contradicts itself, as it implies that it cannot be considered merely "potential" but truly actual, for the very fact that a significance of meaning-making can be read into it at all (even "in potential")...means that it is already, in the present moment, actually making its meaning, already has its actual proper significance!

It may not be self-aware of its significance in this regard, but the human significance is clearly there by the very fact that other people (humans are relational beings, after all, because meaning is necessarily
inter-subjective, and so our value as such cannot be judged in a simply self-contained way, in terms of whether we are significant to ourselves) can read that meaning into it at all. Even if they think, at first, they are reading it merely by way of potential, a moment's thought should make them realize that since the significance they are reading is a meta-significance, is nothing other than the significance of being capable of signifying being capable of signifying being capable of signifying(...etc, ad infinitum), the very fact that they can read it "in potential" means that it is already there in actuality!

It is this meta-significance of human subjects as the source of significance that means there can be no merely potential signifier of humanity, because the essence is nothing other than significance itself, and a "potential" signifier of significance already has significance and thus is already actual (this same sort of logic has epistemological implications for the necessity of the existence of God that I'm also working through in my head). It may not yet be aware of meaning itself, and certainly not of its own meta-meaning as a meaning-making being, but the very fact that the signifier of an embryonic body can signify this "potential" to others, means that it's meaning-making-ness is not in fact potential at all, but is already actual, is already signifying the significance that it would if it were self-aware. And thus it is already a human person, a subject of significance.


Agellius said...

Makes sense to me!

It all rests on the premise that "the body is the signifier of the soul", doesn't it? This premise might be a hard sell to some.

It makes sense to me though. I have often thought that the face alone was the signifier of the soul (though I didn't use that wording). But I think this was when I still thought of the soul as "inhabiting" the body. Now that I understand the soul not as a separate object inhabiting the object that we call the body, but rather as the form of the body, I would agree that the whole body is the signifier of the soul.

Anonymous said...

Two human beings can only reproduce another human being. They can not reproduce a partial, quasi, or potential human being... there is no such thing... and if that human being were not alive there would not be a desire to kill it. Zygote, fetus, infant, toddler, adolescent, adult, senior are terms referring to age of development not it's measure of human potential or how human something has become. Abortion kills a living human being.