Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Virtueal Reality

Yes, I do believe I used this title in the past for something I wrote before. Still, I hope you like it. =)

.:Virtueal Reality:.

The prefix “meta” in any word will almost always indicate a coming after. Such is the case when we say that the achievements attributed to a legendary person have become “metahuman”, or when a story that alludes to breaking the fourth wall is “metatextual”. Having said that, we can safely say that metaphysics denotes a coming after physics, or the study of nature, as it were. Simplistic as this rough definition may be, it at least serves our purpose as a foothold in our attempt to better understand what it means when examined more rigorously.

Metaphysics is regarded as “first Philosophy” insofar as it is concerned with issues and questions that are, to quite an extent, the most fundamental of issues and questions, as is the case when we wish to discover “being qua being”, or being understood as being. It is an examination of what can be asserted about anything that exists by virtue of its existence and not due to any special qualities it may possess. For our purposes, we are going to focus solely on the Aristotelian paradigm with regard to Metaphysics.

In the Aristotelian paradigm, he employs a rather cause-oriented approach of analysis, where we discover what the object is (causa formalis), who made the object (causa efficiens), of what the object is made (causa materialis), and what its teleological purpose (causa finalis) is. For instance, we have a chair (causa formalis), by the carpenter (causa efficiens), made of wood and nails (causa materialis), and meant to be seated on (causa finalis). Even if the chair may be made of ivory instead of wood, i.e., a special quality, we still recognize it as a chair, regardless. In what on the surface may appear to be an offshoot of the Platonic notion of the Eidos, then this so-called copy of the idea of a chair may have variations indeed, but because of its “chairness”, as it were, we can still safely call it a chair.

When we consider the four causes for any object in particular, there are varying levels of difficulty that can be attached to our endeavor, but what is of interest to us is that the moment we ask about the human person and its four causes, we may very well be able to find an easy answer for the first three causes, but we will be hard-pressed to find a general, overarching answer to the fourth cause: the purpose of the human person.

When one would be asked what their purpose is, their answers will vary wildly. The hedonist would say “to have fun”. The religious would say “to serve God”. The educator would say “to educate the youth”. The policeman would say “to maintain peace and order”. A myriad answers for the same question, and yet one would be inclined to ask if there is a general, overarching principle that can be utilized to perhaps tie all these answers together. Again, metaphysics is meant to study being independent of its special, specific qualities, and so what would a hedonist, a religious person, an educator, and a policeman, in their genuine attempt at achieving their perceived but specific purpose, be truly achieving in common with each other?

Perhaps the simplest yet most riveting answer is, “the purpose of the human person is to be human”. An answer such as this may seem obvious when one hears it, but then, it's a proposition that defines itself by itself: exactly what does it mean to be human? Why is it infinitely easier for a dog to be a dog, or for a rock to be a rock, than for a human being to be human? It would be ludicrous for us to wonder if a dog would go through a metaphysical anxiety, asking himself if being locked up in a cage when his ancestors ran around the plains of New Zealand, chasing after ducks. It would be funny to imagine this dog, in its moment of metaphysical anxiety, to exclaim, “where are the ducks?!?” On the other hand, we cannot say the same for the human person's plight, as it is clearly more nuanced.

The human person constantly wonders what his or her purpose is. The human person wonders how one must comport himself or herself in order to truly say, “I am a human being, and I have arrived.” When one assigns the wrong telos to his or her life project, they often lose sight of the fundamental building blocks needed for them to achieve such a goal, especially if they were to employ a Machiavellian paradigm where the end justifies the means in their minds. In the face of such a dilemma is where the role of ethics makes its presence felt, and conveniently enough, Aristotle also had his own contemplations regarding ethics as well.

Ethics proves to be a powerful companion to metaphysics because ethics may very well be construed as the answer to the question, “how ought a human person be?” In answering the question of how the human person ought to comport himself or herself, ethics indeed relates to the dilemma of the short yet troublesome answer to what man's causa finalis is, which some have asserted as “to be human”. The obvious concern would be if this attempt at making the two work together is truly a harmonious option, or merely a shoehorning of an agenda that will only seek to pick and choose those details that make this proposition more appealing, and this is the reason why choosing only one philosopher for both metaphysics and ethics would be helpful for making a genuine evaluation of how the two could potentially work together.

Even purely through intuitive thinking with only working definitions at the ready, it is very implicit that there must be some connection between a body of work that studies being understood as being, which is of course a study that can be turned to the human person; and a body of work that studies how a human being must act: an immediate but time-consuming goal that could very well be, if not already the purpose of the human person itself, a prime building block towards the achievement of the human person's purpose. Even upon hearing the proposition for the first time, it makes perfect sense, but the vague ideas need to be fleshed out more efficiently in order for the connection to be made more apparent.

While there have been countless attempts at explaining ethics, simply adhering to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics would already give us a very clear and apparent connection between it and his metaphysics, because in Aristotle's metaphysics, we see that his teleological bend in the fourth cause is being given feasibility by his call for habituation in his ethics. Habituation comes with doing something constantly and consistently, and thus, cannot be achieved quickly.

For a human being to be human, it must be effectively natural for him or her to comport himself or herself as a human person should, going against more primal and basic urges that obstruct from the true goal. It is clear that Aristotle even uses the same vocabulary in both works, and as such, also lends a very teleological slant to his ethics. This allows us to analyze the connection more succinctly.

To further lend credence to the metaphysical-ethical connection, Aristotle himself defined the purpose of human existence in Nicomachean Ethics (Book I, Chapter 7):

“If we declare that the function of man is a certain form of life, and define that form of life as the exercise of the soul's faculties and activities in association with rational principle, and say that the function of a good man is to perform these activities well and rightly, and if a function is well performed when it is performed in accordance
with its own proper excellence--from these premises it follows that the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them.”

In Aristotle's ethics, the call is for virtue or arĂȘte, but for him, it clearly cannot happen overnight. It is made clear that not individual acts, but a consistent habituation of these good and virtuous acts is required in order to achieve excellence. Thus, to say that one has done an immense amount of good the other day is not enough of a measure to say that a particular person is a virtuous person. It is character-centric, that is, a building of character, that sets apart the virtuous human person from those who are only sporadically good. The human person is assumed to be a thinking, reasoning being: a quality that we ought to know is intrinsic and exclusive only to humans. This rationality is expressed in constant and consistent action according to what is intrinsically and exclusively human, and therefore, virtuous.

But why is there a need to excel? Why is there a need to habituate such good and virtue? Why is there a need to act according to rationality? One can be Kantian for a moment and say “because it is good in and by itself”, and thus require no further questioning, but Aristotle himself also provides a very enticing “reward”: eudaimonia, or a flourishing. When we keep asking ourselves why we want something, upon arriving at the answer “to be fulfilled and happy”, we find something that we clearly want for its own sake, and not in order to achieve something else. In Aristotle's ethics, he says that the eudaimon, i.e., the flourishing man, is a virtuous man blessed with some measure of good fortune, neither of which are enough on their own to achieve complete happiness, and are thus both prerequisites. In this sense, happiness is not a mood or a temporary state of mind, but a constant state that is strived for in earnest.

Is not this flourishing that we speak of, thus, the human person achieving his or her purpose? When we ask ourselves why we want to achieve something, and continue asking so until we cannot continue asking any longer, do we not end at “fulfillment” and/or “happiness”? Is it not the case, then, that when we flourish, we are “fulfilled” and “happy”?

Then right here, we clearly see that Aristotle's ethics is a road map to the vast city we know as his metaphysics: yes, we are human beings. Yes, our parents made us. Yes, we are made of flesh and bone. But for us to achieve our purpose, we must live virtuously. What is the point of becoming the president of our country that we always wanted to be if we achieved it through nefarious means? If we acted no better than a ravenous animal claiming our stake, what have we truly gained? Is this even human any longer, for that matter?

For any rational person, how can one feel fulfillment in achieving a feat without truly earning it? How can any rational person be genuinely happy with acting unlike a human being in order to obtain a lofty goal? What is made clear here is that the human person's causa finalis is not something that can be achieved overnight. On the contrary, it takes an entire lifetime to fully achieve one's causa finalis, and because of this, there is a constant challenge for the human person that he or she must meet every single day of their lives.

Thus, being a president, or a teacher, or anything else, takes a backseat to the unimpeachable desire for happiness and fulfillment achieved through virtue. If one is to be anything at all, they must achieve it virtuously, excellently. To do any less than that is to deny ourselves of what makes us human: our ability to reason, which, in turn ought to render itself intuitively to us as that is precisely what we are, and to be otherwise is to simply not be human.

While the specific career path is the “what” of the equation of one's telos, the general and overarching “how” would be the call for an ethical mode of living, and as a lifelong process, there are no shortcuts. The import of this is clear: to achieve one's purpose is to act from virtue, which is a very rational, thus exclusively and intrinsically human, form of action. The consistency is a requirement because it enables what is truly intrinsic in the human person to become genuinely natural, which in turn inclines the human person to genuinely virtuous action. Even in daily life, we've seen examples of people who have habituated good behavior, whether it be studying in advance for exams, or having the initiative to work efficiently even without prior prodding to actually go and do so. Thus, since only virtue is within the human person's control, and good fortune is entirely independent of our grasp, we can only seek to excel at that which is within our control, and with some measure of good fortune, everything will follow.

In the final analysis, we realize that metaphysics as a study of being qua being has a great importance on so many levels, but its relevance to the human condition is arguably the most important level of them all. For us to fully understand the human being and what it means to be a human being, we need to turn to a guide: ethics, the very mode of expression of the purpose of the human person. In achieving the general and overarching telos of being an ethical human being, we become more capable of achieving our own specific goals. It is with this realization that the human being ought to press on constantly and consistently towards the path of virtue, and achieving the human being's purpose, is meant to follow.

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