On Action

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A reflection on Aristotles Posterior Analytics

I have previously compared what I conceive as the three broad camps of metaphysicians that exist within the debate of mind and matter. I have painted the mechanistic materialists in the light of those who deny reality beyond the physical (see on Materialism). In contrast, I have portrayed the party of those dualists who affirm consciousness as a representation of metaphysical substance (see on Reality). Although largely unscathed, and somewhat redeemed, I have also discussed the position of idealists – who see the physical as nothing more than an illusory cloth draped over a deeper, realer plane of existence (see Monism Redux). All three of these camps feel like caricatures, straw men for the scythe of my pen, and I hope with further reading I can begin to round out these two-dimensional actors. However, it is the distinction between these positions that I posit is important in our interpretation of action and virtue – and the subject of this reflection to which I will turn. It is my intent to demonstrate my understanding of action – and the consequences of denying consciousness and intentionality.

I will define action as the physical movements of an actor in response to external stimuli to achieve a desired end state. The difference between action and other physical motion is that it is – by definition – motivated by the will of the agent, rather than as the consequence of mechanism of the cosmos unwinding. The metaphysical underpinning of this definition is that consciousness exists as a separate entity to physical substance – as in our decisions are more than an inevitable chemical reaction unfurling along an inevitable path. Secondly, it requires that the intentionality of some omnipotent being does not dictate all of reality – otherwise, our actions would be predetermined and thus without agency.

If virtue is the act of aligning our lives with the good, then it would appear analytically correct to state that without intentionality and choice, virtue is nothing more than a charade. If our consciousness is nothing more than the electrical output of a deterministic biochemical process, then our decisions were pre-formulated – hence no choice. The same issue exists within idealist theistic models proposing an omnipotent creator – benevolent or otherwise. If a creator designed the cosmos then our very thoughts and deeds are pre-scripted, choice once again a mere illusion.

Some would look as these two opposing positions as liberating – removing that most troubling aspect of sentient existence: free will. However, without true choice there cannot be virtue – and we cannot be good. In the world of the materialist there is not metaphysical good, and thus no true reason for why we should either continue existing or attempt to improve the world. Arguments for relative good in a materialistic universe strike me as bad faith – walking up to the edge of the abyss and then shying back when you realise the actual conclusions of one’s philosophy. On the other hand, dealing with theistic idealism is at least slightly easier, for at least a proponent can claim that the imperfect knowledge of the inhabitants of the system allows for pragmatic free will. However, the same issue exists – why punish a person who did something wrong if another (greater) mind predetermined their actions?

What is the utility of such arbitrary definitions and analytic discussion? Firstly, I would argue that all definitions are, by and large, rather arbitrary – but they can still be useful. By defining action as a physical event linked to intentionality, and by defining virtue as action aligning life with goodness I am trying to show that, without cognition and goodness being separate from physical reality there cannot be goodness or cognition. If these are merely evolutionarily conditioned behavioural traits, and the illusion of cognition and goodness serve some end in improving our biological fitness to reproduce, then we should cease any attempt at positivist philosophy or ethics, for it is as farcical as rocks attempting to reason. On the other hand, if fate is deterministic due to the omnipotence of a creator/maintainer of the universe, then why should anyone be held accountable for their actions? Surely, we are naught but a small cog, playing our role in the design of some greater mind. It is in the face of the consequences of both materialistic and theistic philosophy that I continue to choose to walk the path between – for at this point I find their solutions too terrible to stomach.

Original text

Posterior Analytics


Alexander von Wagner, The Chariot Race, c.1882


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