Philosophy Is About Real Questions: Why the Pain If There Is No One There?

Collage for Why the pain if no one is there

Photo of Unborn Child by Lennart Nilsson

Although we are naturally philosophers (cf. Fides et Ratio, 3-4, 33), what will bring that search for the truth to the fore and confront us with a question in search of an answer? There are those, however, that claim that truth does not exist; and, therefore, it would be an illusory pursuit to go in search of it. If, however, it is true that truth does not exist, then truth exists.1 If truth exists, the search for it is according to the question asked: What questions are there to be asked? One possibility is that we have lived an encounter with a real question, and it has challenged us to pursue it.2 A man, on becoming a father, then discovers that “their” child has been aborted, and encounters an indescribable contradiction of an unexpected joy—out of the very selfishness of sin breaks a question: Why the pain? The Church, for example, says that she has not expressly committed herself to a philosophical position concerning the moment of ensoulment (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 60); and, therefore, there is a philosophical task to which we are impelled by the very nature of that uncertainty.3

The question, then, about the beginning of personhood, is a question that implies the whole philosophical quest for the structure of created being. Presupposing, then, that the philosophical quest is not an invention of what exists; rather, it is an investigation of “what is,”4 then the structure of human being is in the context of the structure of all created being. Indeed, in part, the philosophical quest raises the question about whether or not there is created being. However, the very slow but gradual realization that there is a profound unity, an indivisible whole to being a human person, becomes an increasingly evident argument for a radically unitary beginning to each one of us. While it may well be necessary to emphasize the immortality of the soul,5 it is increasingly necessary to investigate the unity-in-diversity of human personhood: the indivisibility of human being.

This essay, then, falls into a number of parts. Firstly, there are a variety of places which give a starting point to the present understanding of the mystery of human personhood (I). Secondly, there are various philosophical ideas which could assist or mislead the inquiry (II). Finally, there are biblical indications which open up further thoughts on the beginning of each one of us (III).

  1. Several starting points to our inquiry: Humanae Vitae; Familiaris Consortio; Gaudium et Spes; Veritatis Splendor; The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Blessed Paul VI, quoting St. John XXIII, wrote: “For human life is sacred – all men must recognize that fact, Our Predecessor, Pope John XXIII, recalled, ‘since from its first beginnings it calls for the creative action of God’”6 (Humanae Vitae, dated 1968, para. 13). What is the philosophical basis of the claim that there is a “creative action of God” at the beginning of each one of us? Just as a human person is one in body and soul, so human love is “a compound of sense spirit” (Humanae Vitae, 9); and, at the same time, just as love is a “compound of sense and spirit,” so spousal love is an inherent expression of “the unitive significance and the procreative significance of … the marriage act” (Humanae Vitae, 12).

The “creative action of God,” then, that brings this mystery of human being into existence, can be articulated in two ways. On the one hand, Eve “witnessed” to the action of God when she said: “I have begotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gn 4: 1). On the other hand, the very nature of human personhood exceeds the transmission of human life. The sperm and the ovum are not in themselves capable of bringing a person to exist. Both sperm and ovum are ordered to their unification; but this unification will not, of itself, transcend either element. Biological life begets biological life.

The life of a person, however, has to be begotten by a cause proportionate to “his” reality; and, therefore, the cause proportionate to the whole reality of a human person is God. In other words, in view of the real but subordinate causality of the mother’s ovum and the father’s sperm, there is nevertheless a causation which God expresses in bringing the union of sperm and ovum to be a human being. Thus, in view of the language of creation, God wills human personhood to express the mystery of personhood “through” the relationship of husband and wife. In other words, “from” the life transmitted by the father, “through” the readiness of the ovum for fertilization, “by” the action of God, there comes to exist a human person. Thus procreation is a created expression of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity: of “Person from” and “through Person.”

St. John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio: “As an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body, and a body informed by an immortal spirit, man is called to love in his unified totality” (dated 1981, para. 11). Does the very possibility of a unity of body and soul that is so intimately ordered, one to the other, indicate that the perfect moment in which “an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body” is in fact the first instant of fertilization? Does the language of the incarnation make this claim irremediably theological and, therefore, based on Scripture rather than on psycho-physiological evidence? On the other hand, do we actually need the language of the incarnation to go beyond a tendency to dualism: to thinking in terms of “body” and “soul”? Is the emphasis in Gaudium et Spes on being one in body and soul (cf. 14) an instance of what takes us into the mystery of human being: that each one of us is an outward expression of an inward reality?

In Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II says: “{The natural moral law} refers to man’s proper and primordial nature, the “nature of the human person,”7 which is the person himself in the unity of soul and body, in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations, and of all the other specific characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his end” (dated 1993, para. 50). In other words, “in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations” raises the possibility that marital love, for example, is not a biological and a psychological drive. Rather, spousal love expresses the psychosomatic unity of the person and, therefore, the physiological expresses the psychological, and the psychological is manifest in the physiological expression of the person. As it says in Humanae Vitae: “This love is, above all, fully human, a compound of sense and spirit” (9).

Furthermore, there is the implication that the human person manifests “the unity of soul and body, in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations”; and, therefore, the human person is an ontological unity that expresses, inseparably, action and activity that is at once intelligently sensitive, and sensitively intelligent. Does this bodily manifestation of the human spirit either impel us to an irreconcilable dualism, or a rejection of the immortality of the human spirit? Or is it that the whole, inexpressibly unique interrelationship of body and soul, reveals that although it is possible for the human spirit to endure a kind of extraordinary rupture of its relationship to the flesh, as in death, that the very indivisibility of human being both “requires” the reunion of the resurrection and indicates, at root, that there is an existential inseparability of existence: a perduring “anchor” of the soul’s relationship to the flesh that manifested its presence?

  1. Various ideas: “form” and “matter”; body and soul; substance; animation; beginning; and, therefore, a dialogue between philosophy and embryology.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says that the “whole human person” is “precisely” a human body “animated by a spiritual soul” (CCC, 3648). “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body … spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (CCC, 365). Indeed, “it is because of its spiritual soul that the body, made of matter, becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (CCC, 365). But the Catechism also says: “In Sacred Scripture, the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person”9 (CCC, 363). As we will see, the principle of the soul as the “life” of the body—the very being what it is to be the life of the bodily person: the life of the psychosomatic whole—will be crucial to following through this discussion of what brings clarity to an almost bewildering range of expressions.

The Catechism’s philosophical language expresses an understanding of human life that draws on an ancient principle that it is “form” which determines what “matter” will be. Just as the shape of a piece of wood can bring about the difference between a shelf and a chair so, analogously, a “form” determines what “matter” will be. “Form,” however, can make matter to be “living”; and, therefore, there is a type of form or soul for a plant, an animal, and a human being. Thus, in the terms of this ancient philosophy, it is the union of form and matter which brings about the living reality of a human person. Thus, as the language suggests, “it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body” (CCC, 365). This language, however, gives the impression that there was “matter,” and that through “the spiritual soul,” that “body made of matter becomes a living, human body” (CCC, 365). But, in reality, there never was a “body made of matter” that was not a living body.

Embryology and philosophy
At conception, then, the sperm embeds in the wall of the ovum. The embryo is formed the moment the ovum is activated by the sperm, and closes the remaining sperm-docking ports; and, therefore, the existence of the embryo is immediately discernible by the embryonic wall constituting the first outward expression of an inward change. In this process, then, there never was a moment when the embryo was a “body made of matter” that was not a living body. Thus, if we are to understand the traditional language of philosophy in the context of the truths of modern embryology, then “matter” and “form” have to be understood as coexisting principles of human being. In other words, at the very moment that the sperm animates the ovum, the ovum ceases to be in readiness for fertilization, and the sperm ceases to be an agent of the transmission of life, and the union of both brings the embryo to exist: a new entity with its own life principle and development. Metaphysically, then, at the very instant of the transmission of life, when sperm animates ovum, the “being” of the embryo comes to exist, such that what is living is animated by the presence of a human soul.

Conception (a beginning): An outward sign of an inward reality
This leads to understanding that the action of God at the beginning of each child is an action of God which brings the human soul to exist the moment that the embryo comes to exist.10 Thus, the outward sign of the “wall-formed” embryo is the natural outward sign of the action of God bringing the human person to exist: the life of the embryo “being” the life of the person. The bodily existence of the human embryo “is” the outward expression of the first instant of the beginning of human personhood: a beginning which progressively manifests the person through the natural stages of human development. In other words, the very life that is transmitted is, at the moment of its transmission, transformed into the life of a person; and, if this is too amazing for words, it is precisely what makes the transmission of human life absolutely real, and neither fictitious, nor incidental. Thus, God both acts at the beginning of human personhood; but, in so doing, reveals the indispensably real nature of human parenthood. In an act of procreation which could not be more integral, the child is both of the parents and God; and, therefore, is both gift, and child of man, woman, and God: “brought to exist” by an act of the unoriginate God, “from” the father, and “through” the mother.

It is almost as if it is possible to speak of “life from life”: as if the very creative act of God is intended to express the inner mystery of the life of the Blessed Trinity while, at the same time, bringing about the existence of each human person. At the very instant of the transmission of human life, visibly manifest in the “enclosed” embryo, God gives “life” from “life”.

III. Biblical Indications to the beginning of human personhood
If the life of the person is the life of the bodily person, then it follows that death occurs when the life of the person ceases to be the life of the bodily person. However, as we know from the difficulties that abound in the definition of death, in practice and in principle, owing to resuscitation, transplantation, and the extraordinary events of people being brought back to life, there is, as it were, a “tractive” tendency for the life of the person to remain the life of the bodily person. It is almost possible to put it in terms of life being “planted”: as if the very coming to exist of a person is a kind of “rootedness” in physical existence to the point that uprooting it is death. Death, then, is not that a person has ceased to exist, but that the visible expression of that person has ceased to “witness” the presence of personhood.

Different insights: vessel, substance, and breath.
Given, however, the tendency of human thought to work through the imagery and data of the senses,11 the very embryological evidence has a tendency to enter into dialogue with the biblical expressions of the beginning of life. What is so striking, then, is that the biblical word, sometimes translated as “embryo,”12 or “substance,”13 is golmi, which literally translated means “my unfinished vessel” (139: 16)14. Thus, we can almost “see” the insight of the psalmist, who realizes that God alone can “see” the very beginning of his being, that what it was to be brought to exist was to be given an existence that was dynamically begun: to be an “unfinished vessel” that is dynamically orientated to development (cf. Ps 139: 13-16). Alternatively, “unfinished vessel” clearly evokes an earthen vessel, the sense of which is evident when St. Paul says that we are “earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4: 7).

The expression, “unfinished vessel,” both applies to the concept of development, but also to the possibility of bearing a “treasure” (ibid): “that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4: 10). But, even so, “unfinished vessel” bears the sense of a vessel that is begun, and that, therefore, has already received a decisively determining shaping. Using, then, the more concrete, biblical understanding of our beginning, nevertheless entails a

discreet sense of a material that both exists, but exists as definitely personal. Indeed, in the second chapter of Genesis, there is a marvellously vivid account of the personal action of the Lord God bringing a person to exist: “then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gn 2: 7). But again, the biblical use of the God’s “breath of life” bringing man to be “a living being” is a wonderful recognition of the almost physical nature of the gift of life: the mysterious sense in which human life is both visible and invisible. In other words, just as breath is virtually invisible, and yet animates a visible form—almost like the relationship between a musician and “her” instrument—so the life of a person, literally, is recognized in being a breathing being. Similarly, just as life “came with the breath of God,” so it departs when breathing irrevocably ceases.

“Unfinished substance” communicates a more “Greek” sense of what exists as a definite entity but, even so, as “unfinished.” Substance has a kind of physicality, too, certainly in our own day, albeit it denotes a more philosophical whole—an entity, however unfinished, which is actually a definite being: “my unfinished substance.” Returning, however, to a more philosophical use of the term “substance,” it denotes a whole a being—substance can be said to be that which is revealed through the transparent characteristics which express it.15 Substance, in this sense, is the whole which expresses the metaphysical unity of soul and body: the reciprocally conditioning principles of human being. In other words, just as you cannot have the inside of a vessel without the outside, you cannot have a human being that is not one in body and soul.

To translate the word, “golmi,” as “embryo” is to introduce, similarly, a different term into the biblical text. However, a human “embryo” is itself an equivalent, if more prevalent term for the beginning of personhood. Indeed, the psalmist uses the suffix, “i” to indicate “my” unfinished vessel. There is a very definite emphasis, then, on the psalmist contemplating the origin of his own personhood. Embryo is also a word which is rather ancient, and means “to swell, be full,”16 a word evoking, more clearly, existence, liveliness and growth—perhaps being based on the perception of the initial sign of pregnancy, which is the increase in the presence of the life within the woman’s womb.

Philosophy, then, as “thinking ‘through’ the real,” begins with any number of ways that we can draw from, engage with, or discern what actually exists, and the meaning of it. Certain questions—like the beginning of human personhood—are dependent on the development of our understanding of the human sciences. However, the human science of embryology is not self-explanatory: the distinction between a true beginning, and the processes that precede and follow that beginning, need to be properly distinguished and understood. Similarly, the history of philosophy furnishes us with all kinds of expressions which need to be knitted together; and, if possible, understood for their contribution to the whole—both the whole nature of created being and, at the same time, the nature of human being.

Finally, however, the most naturally coherent answer to the meaning of conception is that it is both a truly human beginning to what God has brought to exist, and to what human development makes manifest: a child. Why the pain when a child is lost to the indescribable tragedy of abortion—even thirty years on? Because once a father, always a father: a child is not just for life, but for eternity. The relationship which began, and which was so terribly ruptured, was real, and established in my heart a wound that only Rachel understands:

A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more. (Mt 2: 18)

  1. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, I, Qu. 2, Article 1, Objection 3:
  2. Cf. Josef Pieper, In Defense of Philosophy, translated by Lothar Krauth, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992, p. 65.
  3. It is true that some argue that ensoulment occurs on the fusion of the nuclei of the sperm and ovum; however, this is not, as far as I can tell, a settled teaching of the Church. My main objections to this possibility are the following: “conception” means beginning; the modern understanding that there is a wonderful sophistication to both the sperm and the ovum and their interaction which, once begun, without interruption manifests the person; and, finally, a child is conceived: both by God and by the parents, such that procreation has an amazingly Trinitarian significance of God bringing “life” from “life.”
  4. Cf. Fr. James V. Schall, SJ,
  5. Cf. Br. John Mccusker, OSB,
  6. St. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, dated 1961, paragraph 194.
  7. Footnote 89 of Veritatis Splendor is to the following: Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51.
  8. The order of words has been rearranged without, I think, altering its sense.
  9. The Catechism gives the following references: Cf. Mt 16: 25-26; Jn 15: 13; Acts 2: 41.
  10. There are various “editions” of this explanation (cf. Chapter 12 of Scripture: A Unique Word, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014; an article called ‘The Mysterious Instant of Conception’, published by The National Catholic Bioethical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3, Autumn 2012, soon to be republished by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in Volume III of the trilogy: From Truth and truth, called: Faith is Married Reason: Chapter 10: Part III. There were a number of main sources to this argument, not least the apparent inactivity of the ovum’s mitochondria before fertilization and the suggestion that the ovum’s resting state, its readiness for fertilization, is a wonderful accomplishment of the woman’s contribution to the possibility of becoming pregnant and bearing a child. Thus, just as the build up of static in the atmosphere contributes to the discharge of lightning so, nevertheless, the lightning needs the “presence” of the fronds rising from the earth’s surface to “call it down”. As inadequate as this comparison may be, nevertheless it is indispensible to recognize the different, but complementary characteristics of how life is expressed in its transmission: taking up the whole gift of ovum and sperm and the action of God which creates the person, one in body and soul, in the moment of the transmission of human life.
  11. St. Thomas Aquinas says: “human minds, existing in bodies, know first the natures of material things, and by knowing the natures of what they see, derive some knowledge of what they cannot see” (STh I.84.7).
  12. The New Jerusalem Bible, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985: “Your eyes could see my embryo” (Ps 139: 16).
  13. The Catholic RSV translation reads: “Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance” (Ps 139: 16), San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966.
  14. For a fuller examination of this verse in the context of the psalm as a whole cf. Scripture: A Unique Word, Chapter 11.
  15. Cf. Chapter 1 of Volume I-Faithful Reason, published February, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016; the trilogy is called: From Truth and truth.
  16. embryo (n.): “fetus in utero at an early stage of development,” mid-14c., from Medieval Latin embryo, properly embryon, from Greek embryon “a young one,” in Homer, “young animal,” later, “fruit of the womb,” literally “that which grows,” from assimilated form of en “in” (see en- (2)) + bryein “to swell, be full.” (
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020); Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020),
Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (2021), The ABCQ of Conceiving Conception (2022), Reaching for the Resurrection: A Pastoral Bioethics (2022), and Human Nature: Moral Norm.

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a collaborator of the Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life.