Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Metaphysical anthropology seeks to answer what is man. We are seeking to understand the relationship between ourselves and the rest of reality. If we are part of nature or separate from it. If we are more than or less than other beings. In essence, what is our place in the universe? To determine this, we must first compare ourselves to the other things in the universe, using what we know to be true to determine the answers we seek. So, what do we know?
We know ‘a posteriori’ (from experience) that we can actively interact with and influence the physical world around us. We can know from observation that there appear to be many different things in this physical world. Some of these things can interact with us, and some of these things cannot. We can also know through observation that many of these things are different from us. In this manner, we can determine that we are somehow distinct from other things.
We also know that there exist things in the world that lack the ability to interact with the physical world. This determination means that we can logically divide the world into two classes of things. Those things that can actively interact with the world, which we shall call beings, and those that cannot, which we will persist in calling things. By actively interact, we mean interact as of their own volition or agency. This quality of agency is what we commonly term as life, with the being possessing it called ‘living’, while the lack of this quality is termed not life (¬Life), with the thing being called ‘non-living’. As such, it is correct to say that all living beings are capable of interaction through their own agency while all non-living things are able to affect the world only through the interaction of an external force.
Through observation, we can also determine that we and all other beings come from the bodies of other beings similar to ourselves, and that after a period of agency, we become things. Which is to say we become incapable of agency upon death. This determination tells us that we go from mere things prior to life, become living beings for a finite period, and then become things once more upon death. This tells us that we are living creatures who live for a time and then will die.
All this may seem obvious, yet it is vital to our understanding of the world and how we answer the big questions. When we add these truths to what we already know, we realise several important things. Firstly, that in the universe in which our existence is experienced, we can deduce from observation that there are multiple sperate things. Some of which are us and some of which are not. Secondly, we can infer from observation that some of those things, which we call beings, can actively interact with things and beings. This dichotomy implies a distinction between beings and things, a difference we call the quality of life. We can also know from experience that we are able to actively interact with other beings and things in the universe. From this, we know we are what we have termed as a being, which is to say we are alive. Thirdly, we can know from observation that beings come from similar beings and are made up of things and become things once more after a finite period (a process called death). From this observation, we can infer the knowledge of our mortality.
In short, these three truths lead us to know that we are an individual being in a universe inhabited by other beings and made up of things. That there is a commonality between ourselves and other beings and that we will, at some point, cease to be a being and become a thing. Knowing these truths allows us to know that we exist as one of many individual beings within a physical universe and are alive for an indeterminate period of time. The question that follows from these truths is that of our relationship between ourselves and the other beings whose existence we can infer from our senses.
The Relationship Between Beings
To determine this relationship, we rely on our faculties of observation and categorise the different beings based on their attributes. By doing this, we discover that the myriad of differences that exist in the other beings are fundamentally ones of degree. Some are bigger, some are smaller. Some are smarter, and some are dumber. Some move in the air, some on land and some in water. Some are faster, and some are slower. Some are more similar to us, and some are less similar. However, in the end, the differences pale beside the difference between the living and the dead, the beings and the things.
Let us examine this a bit more. We naturally assume that we—you, I, the individual at the centre of each of our experience—are the model of normalcy. The yardstick by which to measure all other beings, and why not? We are each one of us, the focus of our own existences. Suppose I have six fingers? Who is to say that five is better or more normal? Bugs are small and alien to me as a human, yet if I were a bug, humans would be huge and just as alien. If I were a tree, would I not perceive as a tree does and (projecting human conceptions of perception on to a plant) would I not find animals to be as unknowable as plants are to us? My point is that we perceive other beings from our own unique perspective. We know this just as we know that, try as we might, this is the only perspective we can see from. To paraphrase Thomas Nagel in his 1974 article for the Philosophical Review, ‘We might be able to imagine being a bat, yet we can’t know what a bat’s experience is like’. Likewise, while we can communicate more easily with other humans compared with plants or bats, we cannot positively know what their experience is like any more than we can ‘know’ the proverbial bat’s experience. This should give us pause for thought.
We know we exist and that other beings exist, yet we cannot know how they perceive the world. The only thing we can say with certainty is that they are alive like us but differ from us by different degrees. These degrees of differentiation may be considerable as between humans and oaks or small as between two types of moth. However, in their essential nature, they are small compared to the difference between things and beings. As we cannot experience life from another being’s perspective, it is impossible to judge with any certainty if we are greater or lesser than them. After all, while we can judge that a monkey is indeed better at climbing than us, and that we alone of the other beings can build cities and write literature, we cannot know if their experience is more or less than ours. I posit that all we can say with certainty is that we and other beings are alive and share some commonality with each other.
The Value of Life
With this universal commonality being understood, we are forced to move on to the question of being/life. We have discovered life is the attribute of active interaction with the physical universe. We have also observed that beings are only alive or capable of active interaction for a finite period of time. This transient nature of agency prompts the question: is it better to be or not to be? To answer this question, we need only to observe the universe and consult our own perspective. Through observation and internal consultation, we can all assert that continuance of being is an absolute imperative to us, and from what we can observe, of all other beings. This desire for continuance is another inferred truth: beings who are alive seek (if they seek anything) to continue to exist. This, combined with the other truths, tells us that we exist in a physical universe containing many objects divided into living beings and non-living things. That we are a living being, that like all beings, we will die, and that we desire to continue living.
This universality of the desire (if it may be called a desire) amongst beings to continue living, coupled with the inability to divide beings from each other due to the lack of any measure except yourself, creates an implication that life has, at least from the universal perspective, a uniform value. After all, as I cannot know the perspective of any other being, it stands to reason that just as I judge existence against myself, all other beings must do the same in their own fashion. Prioritising their own existence over other beings just as I do, and judging that which harms them as ‘a bad’ and that which helps them as ‘a good’ in the same way as I do. This is not to project cognition on to non-sentient beings, but it is to consider that just as we strive to survive, so do all other living beings. If we accept this universality of the desire for existence, then removing ourselves from our own perspective, we should be able to comprehend the universality or the equality of the value of life.
The concept of equality of life’s value at the universal level is not to be confused with implying a proposition that life has no innate value [A ≠ (¬A)]. The opposite proposition is intended. Namely, all life has equal value if seen from the universal perspective, which is to be understood as being synonymous with that of a ‘Deist God’ being able to perceive all life forms simultaneously. The survival of any one species or individual is irrelevant so long as life plural continues while, from the perspective of any individual being, their existence is paramount.
While this does not prove that this value is greater than none (>0) as the premise of this work is that the continuation of life is a universal desire of all beings, there is held to be an implication from this premise that life must have a greater value than not life (). Leaving aside the unanswerable question of the exact value of life, we can for convenience give life a value of 1 and a value of <1. We can also infer that, as each individual being seeks the continuation of existence, they will value their existence above other beings unless it will (as paradoxical as it sounds) result in their own continuation.
This concept of the primacy of individual perspective, or ‘perspectivism’ for short, is an important one in this work. It will form the basis for much of what follows from here on in. In review, it is vital that we understand the truths as we know them. Namely, we are separate beings, existing in a physical universe in which there are many objects divided into beings with life and things without. Each of the beings in existence will exist as a being for only a finite period and will become a thing or collection of things once more. Each being seeks the continuation of its existence and can only observe the world from its own perspective. Having thus determined our relationship to the universe and all that is in it, it is time to move onto the big question—the meaning and purpose of life.