The Four Horsemen of the Causocalypse!

(Hmm… “the Causocalypse”… I am reminded once more how some things sound better sung to heavy metal in one’s head than they look on a computer screen. Bu the show must go on!)

“Not all that glitters is gold,” as they say.

Now let’s “Aristotelianize” the saying: “Not all that displays finality is conscious.”


All that is conscious of attaining ends, does display consciousness. This is exactly what Popper meant by “all of life is problem-solving.” If even the tiniest unconscious creatures display apparent aims, then a fortiori (all the more) do conscious creatures like us display “aimedness.” Without intrinsic (viz., evolved, inherited) dispositions to try this and that tentative solution-behavior for the attainment of some solution to a problem, creatures will not “give” anything to natural selection to approve or condemn.

The rubber-ball example Edward Feser uses in The Last Superstition to describe “the four causes” is, explicitly, anthropomorphic, but it is not meant to be an exhaustive demonstration of finality per se. It is an anthropomorphic analogy, and, as we all know, no analogy is perfect. He describes fourfold hylomorphic causation thus:

Efficient cause: workers in plant

Material cause: rubber

Formal cause: elastic sphere

Final cause: amusement of child

Since this seems too obviously anthropomorphic, how can the rubber ball example be generalized––deanthropomorphized––to clarify finality per se?

Chrysippus, if memory serves, uses the analogy of a wooden ball rolling down a plane.

Material cause (Mc): the wood itself.

Efficient cause (Ec): the hand that sets the ball on the incline, or flicks it into motion.

Formal cause (FORc): the unified roundness of the ball.

Final cause (FINc): the bottom of the plane.

Or how about an atom?

Mc: its component “fundamental” particles.

Ec: the strong nuclear force.

: its “fundamental” particles as they coexist in a particular dynamic structure.

: orbital valence and reactivity with other suitable atoms.

In no case is the atom displaying a conscious aim to be a “good atom,” but it is displaying an intrinsic tendency towards maintaining its own “law of finite being” based upon matter suitable for that dynamic structure. One kind of atom is not another kind of atom, even though they are subject to the same efficient causes and made of the same basic material constituents. This is just how we explain a concrete entity “scientifically”: we enumerate its material and efficient “strictures” as they are integrated with (or “balanced by”) its own dynamic tendency to maintain its particular structure precisely as its proper end.

Perhaps the most important thought to keep in the background while listing the four causes is this: Nature is not a homogeneous “sludge” of matter-in-motion, but is in fact a sort of “symphony” of discrete natures in dynamic interrelations with each other, each seeking its own endurance and/or integration into a larger whole. Why does each being seek its own good? Why does each species seeks its own propagation? The genome is perhaps one of the most vivid cases of the four causes, since the nucleotides (Mc), conjoined by electric bonds (Ec), are clearly ordered towards (FINc) a larger “product” which itself is the web in which (FORc) the discrete genes “all find their place.” The genes your parents gave you existed only as the dynamic “software” of their hardware, and pass on successfully only as the incipient software of your hardware. Outside of the larger formal unity of your parents and you, and thus lacking the finality of functioning towards their survival and reproduction, the genome literally disintegrates.

As for the four causes of an electron, I am less willing to “go there.” First of all, do electrons even have matter sufficient to be called “material objects”? Second, does it make sense to speak of “an electron” in the abstract? I don’t think it does, since in nature electrons exist as formal constituents of atoms. Again, assuming they are “material”, electrons display the same intrinsic tendency (intentio) toward maintaining their place in a dynamic relation to the rest of nature.

But, shoot, here’s a stab at an Aristotelian analysis of an electron:

Mc: …whatever the hell an electron is. (Interestingly, even if we stipulate that electrons only “exist” as so-called margin-points at the interstices of other energy fields, they have a distinct material efficacy and dimensionality as electrons.)

Ec: the force of the nucleus that draws the electrons to it and not to another atom. (Unless sufficient force under proper conditions, yada yada yada.)

: the resistance of an electron to collapse right into the nucleus. (Its formal “role” in the atom demands that it “assert” its own dynamic “place” in the form of the atom.)

: the particular dynamic integration of each electron in the orbital structure that the atom needs.

I suspect a materialist critic will want to retort, “But the bare electromagnetic forces and quantum fluctuations account for all that just fine. FINc and FORc are just theoretical ascriptions we impose on pure nature.”

But, again, at the most reductionist level, nature is just disparate “fundamental” particles, but of course we do science at numerous levels of reduction, so we must recognize the concrete dynamism of entities that exist in their own way and, seemingly, for their own ends in defiance of the scattered “purity” of super-reduced nature. We don’t analyze, much less understand, discrete monads; we grasp and explore dynamic wholes that function in relation to larger (or deeper) ends. This is precisely what James “Just Thomism” Chastek is getting at with this reminder: “The calcium making your leg bone is alive. If it breaks, it grows back together. Human calcium is a living thing.” Calcium simpliciter does not “just up and” form bones or repair itself. Only once it is integrated as a formal constituent of a larger hylomorphic whole, does it find a vital finality that it lacks on its own. It “steps into its own,” as it were, by “losing itself,” as it were, in the higher aims and larger formal harmony of a human body. As with calcium and our body, so with us and the Body of Christ.

A meta-point that will help materialists understand just why these topics and this “lexicon” seem so alien and gratuitous: they are almost literally a foreign language to us. By us I mean those of us immersed in the Galilean, Cartesian, Newtonian worldview. Sure, Einstein and Bohr, et al., have tweaked everything in huge ways, but people still function on a default Newtonian mechanist Weltbild. As easy as it is for us to imagine vector line and angular notations in everything we observe, it was that easy for early moderns, medievals, and the ancients to grasp formal and final causation. We speak Newtonian, with an Einsteinian accent, while classical philosophy before (more or less) Descartes, speaks Aristotelian with a Thomistic accent. Hence, it is almost literally like you are trying to speak and hear a foreign language.

The debate really is not about Feser, or anyone he cites, “making up a lot of woo” in order to undermine science. The fourfold theory of causation was simply an integral component of classical, and then medieval, philosophy. The reason that Feser––merely as a spokesperson for “the tradition”––is dead-set on restoring that classical Weltbild, is not only because he (and I and our ilk) actually believe its modern nemesis is destructive to science, reason, and morality, but also, because modern philosophy has been hijacked by secularism. Hence, bad philosophy is getting not only the “props” for good science but also for the “death of God.”

I strongly encourage you to read David Oderberg’s essay, “Teleology: Inorganic and Organic” (PDF!), to grasp this topic better (and with the help of an actual professional philosopher, to boot).

2 Responses

  1. I think the most clear way to show that a materialist in fact does have to use a final cause is to show that in all cases the formal cause “includes” the final cause. Asking, for example, the question “what is an atom?” entails a description not only of it’s electronegativity, ect. but also the summary of the whole – the atom is a collection of various subatomic particles in an “organic” whole. The atom’s various functions and behavior are included in this description, but each of these is oriented toward its “proper place” within the world as a whole – how it combines with other atoms, elements, ect.

  2. Amen, Al.

    In a discussion of this post on my own blog, I had to return to the point, which you make so well, once more with my materialist-positivist interlocutor:

    “You complained that ‘shoehorning this primitive conception of cause’ into science is worthless. This underscores what I think is a major false dichotomy in your approach. I said before that I (and by extension hylomorphists) don’t reject efficient and material causation, but do reject the disproportionate role they play in materialist metaphysics. FINc and FORc are not being shoehorned into the picture, since they just ARE the picture (albeit under names that get them booted out these days, say, the last four centuries or so).

    “FORc just IS the reason we examine Mc and Ec under one heading, in one entity, as one phenomenon, etc. FINc, in turn, just IS the way these formally recognizable (i.e., formally distinct) entities and sub-entities ‘play out’ according to an intrinsic law, which can, in turn, be described in terms of material and efficient causation. The latter are incoherent outside of a formally discrete and ‘lawfully disposed’ entity. As soon as you ponder WHY we study otherwise discrete sub-phenomena in relation to each other (and other grouped phenomena), you are knocking against FORc’s door. As soon as you come to see how––à la a ‘natural law’––certain phenomena dynamically result in the same class of effects, you are knocking on FINc’s door. By whatever name you call them, FORc qua theoretically formal coherence and FINc qua predictably ordered results just ARE what science is about. Indeed, I would ask you to explain ANY scientific entity or process you know well enough and NOT avail yourself of formal and final (i.e., theoretical and dispositional) talk. You just keep missing this point, intentionally or otherwise.”

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