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What Makes Me "Me"?

Part Two

In exploring this question previously, we examined some philosophical works from the Middle Ages, particularly those of John Duns Scotus.  Scotus did not believe that all created substances were simply composites of form and matter.  He believed that matter exists that has no form at all and that a single substance can have more than one substantial form.  He proposed an original principle called individuation which speaks to the heart of our question.  He drew a clear distiction between the common nature of beings which would include features that would be found in any number of individuals and “haecceity” which is the specific combination of features that make one unique. 

Scotus posed this question, “What is it in this stone, by which as by a proximate foundation it is absolutely incompatible with the stone for it to be divided into several parts each of which is this stone, the kind of division that is proper to a universal whole as divided into its subjective parts?”

Answers to this question require conclusions about the distinction between common nature and individuation such as made by Scotus.  Humanity would be considered a universal whole.  Its members, who share many common characteristics, can be divided by geography, color, gender, ethnicity and a number of other characteristics without destroying humanity as such.  Humanity continues to exist even though we divide ourselves into categories. 

However, not everything can be so neatly divided.  This is where Scotus’ philosophy of individuation comes about.  “What is it in this stone, by which it is absolutely incompatible with the stone for it to be divided into several parts each of which is this stone?”  For example:  The Akbar Shah diamond was a specific 116 carat diamond of the early 1600’s.  In the late 1800’s it was purchased and recut into a pear shaped diamond of about 72 carats.  The new pear shaped diamond, the chips and the diamond dust together on a table would not still be called the Akbar Shah.  It is no longer the same stone.

Scotus’ question about the stone is just as easily addressed to an individual human being.  In part one, we looked at how a person changes over time, but still remains the same person.  Science and medicine teach us that over about a seven year period an individual’s cell structure is completely renewed, that is, by age seven or so, there is not a single cell left in the body that was there at birth.  The cells at birth have all died and been replaced, but I am still the same person.  From birth to youth to young adulthood to middle age to retirement age to old age my entire body structure is replaced repeatedly, but I am the same person.  What is it in me that makes that true?

Applying Scotus question to a specific person it might read, “What is it about Mark that makes is absolutely incompatible with Mark for him to be divided into several parts each of which would still be Mark”?  In humans, we see this most clearly at the instants of life and death.  Have you ever been present at the moment of someone’s death?  All the same body parts are there the moment after death as were there the moment before, but what animates the parts is missing.  Even though the body is still in front of us, we speak of the person as having slipped away, passed over, gone.  We begin to talk about the person in the past tense. 

In part one of this article, it was noted that Thomas Aquinas argued that in all finite being the essence of a thing is distinct from its existence, that is, one can exist without the other.  John Duns Scotus, disagreed with Aquinas.  Aquinas taught that the soul is the substantial form of man. Scotus taught that the human body without the soul has its own form, the forma corporeitatis.  What is it we are seeing in death?  Is there a distinction without a difference? 

Next time, we’ll examine the definition and concept of soul and what science and the medical community can and cannot teach us about Transcendentals.

For the complete series, see Part One and Part Three.