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TRANSIENT NATURES AT THE EDGES OF HUMAN LIFE: A THOMISTIC EXPLORATION PHILIP SMITH, O.P. Providence College Providence, R.I. T:HE CONCEPT OF human nature as the intrinsic and wdical source of characteristic human a;ctivity has great mportanoe for natural law ethics. But olosely allied to the concept of human nature is the possibility of there being tmnsient natures in humans, and this rpossirbility has implications for human life at its outer edges. What transient natures are wiill he discussed 1in detail below. Let us ,say for now that they are the life principles of entities transition from one state of being to another. These forms enjoy only a temporary existence before they disappear and are replaced by other emerging forms.1 When applied to the outer limits of human existence, such transient natures offer useful insights for addressing the difficult problems of when personhood begins and when death occurs. Thomistic philosophy defines a human person a;s a combination of mrutte1ยท and ,form, more oommorrly referred to as a unity of hody and soul.2 Relativie to the beginning of Jife and the 1 Such natures are discussed in William A. Wallace, 0.P., "Nature and Human Nature as the Norm in Medical Ethics,'' in Catholic Perspectives on Medical Morals, ed. E.D. Pellegrino et al., Philosophy and Medicine Series, Vol. 24 (Dordrecht-Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1989). This essay was originally presented at an international conference held at the Joseph and Rose Kenned,y Institute of Ethies of Georgetown UniYersity, October 13-16, 1986. For further background against which Wallace's discussion should be situated, see his "Nature as Animating: The Soul in the Human Sciences,'' The Thornist 49 (l985) : 612-6'18, and "The Intelligibility of Nature: A Neo-Aristotelian View," Rev,iew of Metaphysics 38 (1984): 33-56. 2 Thomas Aquinas, St., Surnrna Theologiae, I, q.29, a.4. 191 19Q PHILIP SMITH, O.P. onset of death, this philosophy of person raises the question of w:hen tihe soul is infused into the body and when :it is 1separated from it. Is the newly-fortiilized zygote capable of :receiving and sustaining the rational soul as its ,substantirul form? Or must the genetic materials be informed by one or more transient natures before they achieve ithe internal unity and stability necessary :for personhood? At the end of life, the person dies when the soul leaves the body. Does personail death coincide with the death of the human organism as a whole? Or can the destruction of only an essential part of the body, e.g. tihe cerebral cortex , cause personal death by damaging the body so severely that it is simply incapable of supporting a :rational soul, even though the rest of the body remains intact and spontaneously alive? If so, is the remaining organism informed by a succession of transient substantiail forms that maintain its existence but at ever lower levels of life as it gradually declines toward total death? In examining these questions posed by the possibility of transient natures, my point of departure will be an analysis of transient natures themselves. Recently, William A. Wallace, O.P., has 'begun to eX!plore the philosophical meaning and implications of transient natures for issues such as these.a His findings will he summarized here. The insights gathered from the exploration of transient natures will next he applied to the questions of when personhood begins and when death occurs. This will necessarily employ a fraiilework embracing both tihe empirical and the philosophical, with the empirical looking to the available biological data and the philosophical inquiring about the impact o.f these data for determining the status of human life at its outer edges. Since Aquinas's natural philoss Wallace, "Nature and Human Nature .. .," pp. 23-51. Additional background for his researches, apart from the essays cited in note l above, will be found in his "The Reality of Elementary Particles," Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 38 (1964): pp. 154-166, and "Elementarity and Reality in Particle Physics," Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 2nd ed. (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983), pp. 171-183 and pp. 185-212. TRANSIENT...


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