Thursday, June 30, 2011

De Metaphysicam Aristotelis


I think that one of the greatest poverties of our modern education is that we have taught ourselves that what is new is better than what is old, simply because it is new. And yet, one of the best ways to understand reality was expounded upon over 2000 years ago, by a Greek man named Αριστοτλε (Aristotle). Specifically, today, I am speaking of the "four causes" of Aristotle.

These four causes are:

  1. Formal
  2. Material
  3. Efficient
  4. Final

We're going to work through these today as a sort of groundwork for some other thoughts coming up. Let us begin, shall we?

It is important to keep in mind that we're not thinking of "cause" the way we normally would in English. We will brush the English definitions, but with the exception of the efficient cause, we're in somewhat foreign territory. As we go through these, it may be helpful to think of these causes as answers to questions about the nature of a thing.

The Formal Cause

The formal cause answers the question, "What form does it follow?" or, "What type of thing is it?" For example, let's take your grandpa's rocking chair. Let's say it's a Lay-Z-Boy, or equivalent. Well then, the formal cause is "furniture," or "chair," or perhaps, "rocking chair."

The Material Cause

The material cause answers the question: "What is it made of?" Keeping with the example from the last section, one could say that the material causes of this chair could be considered to be wood, metal, fabric, padding, the components of the chair.

The Efficient Cause

This cause is the one most cognate with the English word. The efficient cause is that which brings about the object, the chain of events which caused it to be. The efficient causes of this chair might include the laborer or machine which crafted it, the order for it from the showroom, things of that nature.

The Final Cause

Finally we come to the final cause, also know as the teleological cause (from the Greek Τελοσ - end). This answers the question, "What is it meant for?" In the case of our grandfather's rocking chair, the simple answer would be "for sitting," a more complex answer might be, "for providing a place to rest." Any final cause of a thing, however, is its purpose, what it is meant for.

As another example, let's take me. My formal causes include "human" and "male." My material cause is an embodied soul or an ensouled body, so a soul, flesh, bone, blood, et cetera. My efficient causes are my parents, and their parents, and their parents. Lastly, my final cause is God, that is to say, since we know that we were created to live in union with God, and that God is our end, God is our final cause, our finality, our purpose.

Now, I did say that the word "cause" here is not being used in the sense we normally associate with it; however, these usages do share a certain sense with their common cousin. Specifically, there is a sense of contingency - that the caused (that which is under investigation) depends upon the cause(s) for its existence. That is to say, the caused is contingent on the cause.

But what does that mean?

Basically, if you take a cause away, you take the thing away. Let's say there's no such thing as flesh and blood, no such thing as a soul. What am I then made of? I cannot exist because what I'm made of doesn't exist.

Take away my parents meeting, marrying and having me, I don't exist.

Take away such a thing as humanity, then I can't even be human, I am formless.

Take away my end, and while I may exist, I exist to no end. I am pointless.

We may begin to see here the dangerous game we play when we attempt to remove God from the equation. He is our proper (and only true & fruitful) end. Our lives are literally meaningless if not for him.

We will discuss more of the ramifications of this worldview in later posts, and will also be coming back to these ideas.

De Experientiam

I seem to be seeing more and more things recently which point me to the conclusion that we are losing touch with reality.

As I sit here composing my dirge to reality, I am playing Angry Birds HD Free on my iPad. Now, if I were to actually set up such a situation where I truly launched birds of varying colors at helpless pigs poised over their destruction, I would most certainly leave me daughter without a father for a protracted period of time. And yet, this little arcade game of Avian-Procine Bellicosity is one of the most popular - and most well known - apps for the various i-devices.

But it's not real, so it's okay. Problem, Angry Birds playing PETAns?

Even as I write this post, I am not actually writing. I am hitting keys laid out in an arbitrary pattern; little bits of plastic which trigger electrical impulses that are sent through a myriad of busses and buffers (and even through the air via Bluetooth), to cause little variations of the brightness of pixels in my screen. The thoughts are real, and the light shining in my face is real, but are the words real?

How real is virtual reality?

Don't get me wrong, I love computers. Well, more accurately I have a love-hate relationship with the blasted machines. Suffice it to say that at present, my livelihood - and by extension my family's - is dependent on my facility with them, and the programming thereof.

Still, doesn't it frighten you at least a little bit how much of our lives, our civilization, is dependent on electrical representations of 1s and 0s whizzing through wires (and the air)? Just sayin'

But in all seriousness, I pose the following question: In a world with increasing dependence on computers and other electronic technology, do we know what is real? Do we know how to interact with reality? How real is virtual reality?

Some of you may be wondering what bee got in my bonnet, what the efficient cause of this thought chain is.

To put it briefly, I fear that we are being trained to reason in the wrong direction.

For a culture which prides itself on being scientific - that is, observing reality and then deriving theories to explain it - we seem to thing that we can somehow start from the theories, to learn all there is to know from books, and then to develop our theories of society and governance without actually looking at reality.

I see by the glazed look in your eyes that I'm getting a little hypothetical. Let me exemplify.

  1. Item 1: I have recently been embrangled in a Facebook conversation (will I never learn?) in which one of the chief points of debate is the place and nature of experience, and knowledge gained thereof.

  2. Item 2: Whilst berating my... discussion... partner for not recognizing experience and its importance, I have managed to spectacularly fail at truly experiencing him through his posts so as to actually understand what he's trying to say, filtering them instead through how I would interpret them, and how wrong he must be. I'll give you two guesses how well that's gone, and the first doesn't count...

  3. Item 3: I have come upon one of the most well reasoned criticisms of the Post-Conciliar liturgy that I have yet heard - it is not the organic development it was meant to be, but rather was written theoretically, torn by those exploring theories of the ancient masses (i.e. before 300 A.D.), and those dissatisfied by the Church/Mass and wanting to make it bound ahead. So instead of the well reasoned and thought out Vernacular Mass that we are receiving this Advent, we received a Mass which was unfortunately a source of great confusion and sadness for many people. Many more knowledgeable than I have placed this at the foot of starting with theory and not reality.

So what's with this love affair with experience? Des Cartes put that to bed, didn't he? Cogito ergo sum and all that - I think, (and a thing that thinks exists), therefore I am. He claims that he was able to develop everything from there, but... Things fall apart.

The Cartesian essays which are often fodder for introductory philosophy classes follow his rejection of all things he's ever know to have fooled him as unreliable. He therefore relies solely on reason and seeks to build himself back up from there.

The thing is, reason still remains unproven. He trusts it because it has never failed him, but his memory has, and maybe it is now? How does he know that he is remembering correctly? Perhaps he has simply forgotten all of the times when reason failed?

Our senses tell us that what is attained by reason tends to match what we perceive in the external world. Our reason tells us things and reveals patterns about our observations. They work together, but are not the same thing.

Furthermore, even if we allowed the assumption that reason always works, that only means that reason is self consistent. It is a way that appears to describe the universe, but the maniac says the same thing about his theory that everyone is out to get him, and is able to put forth a quite consistent logic that adequately describes the events that are agreed to happen. To see an example read the chapter, "The Maniac" in G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy.

Now, I know, you're probably saying, "Well of course reason is self consistent, otherwise it wouldn't be very reasonable, would it? And isn't that a point in its favor?" Well, yes, it would be, except that self-consistency is not sufficient to prove a thing, by reason's own standards.

No, this doesn't disprove reason, and I'm not trying to do any such thing. However, reason is itself not sufficient, and even if it were sufficient in itself, it is unable to make the leap between the ego and the external world.

As obvious as it may sound, it takes an experience of the outside world to know that there is an outside world.

I guess the main point I'm trying to make is that we should always favor the real over the virtual, and seek the reality, the real things, the real people. Reality is good, it's a good place to live. There is value in academics and the abstract, in stories and fictional novels, but to paraphrase Morgan Freeman, we are not human doings, we are human beings.

My challenge to you this day is to experience your reality. Experience the air you are breathing. Experience the reality of other people present to you, with you. Touch reality, hold on and don't let go.

I suppose it's about time to wrap this post up. What I hope you take away from this is that while reason is a powerful tool, it is just that, a tool. It is a filter by which we undersand our experiences, but we must have those experiences. Experience reality today, you will be better for it.