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Introduction to Classical Christian Metaphysics – Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 2 we introduced the metaphysical principles of form and matter. In part 3 we introduce the four causes.

Aristotle taught, and the Scholastics agreed, that there are four different causes, and that these four causes give a complete explanation of a thing. Modern English-speaking people tend to only use the word “cause” in a narrow sense, but the ancients thought of “cause” in at least four different ways: efficient, formal, material, and final.

If we take a wooden chair as an example, the material cause is the material – wood – out of which the chair is made; the formal cause, or the form, is the pattern or structure it exhibits – having legs and a seat; the efficient cause of the chair is that which actualizes a potency and brings the chair into existence – a carpenter; the final cause is the purpose for which the chair was made – to provide a place for a person to sit.

The material and formal causes of a thing are simply the form/matter composite (recall part 2) that constitute a substance.  Efficient and final causality give rise to other basic principles.  From efficient causality, or causing a thing to come into being, emerges the principle of causality. This principle states that whatever comes into existence must have a cause, and that cause cannot be the thing itself.  From final causality emerges the principle of finality, or the fact that every agent acts for an end.

According to Edward Feser, final causality exists “wherever some natural object or process has a tendency to produce some particular effect or range of effects.” In other words, wherever there is a regularity in nature, a pattern where a particular cause repeatedly produces a particular effect, final causality is present. Thus when the principle of finality refers to every agent acting toward an end, this includes “agents” that are both conscious and unconscious.

For example, if we think of the heart as an agent, the heart’s final cause is the pumping of blood, but we would not say that the heart is consciously pumping blood. Feser remarks that “the same directedness towards a certain specific effect or range of effects is evident in all causes operative in the natural world.”

In part 4 we will look at being and goodness.


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Comments

  • sean

    I just want to point out one thing, which is that I feel there is something critical here, that while not yet wrong will be applied in such a way as to be a non sequitur. What I mean by that is that here you suggest that we have a principle of causality. What you are describing here I have no problem with. However, I think it’s important to realize what this principle of causality with respect your acronyms means. Lets continue with the ball analogy. The ball is a specific arrangement of atoms, its form. All of these atoms existed before the ball did, that is, the matter existed, just not in ball form. Then some agent acting upon these atoms resulted in it becoming a ball. I am fine with this. However, this is something that applies under what is generally referred to as “Newtonian physics”

    These Greek people you refer to that came with these ideas had a more limited scope of things. They understood the macro world, and the Newtonian world. However, when you step outside of these realms, there is no guarantee that any of these things automatically still apply. They must be re-proven of their own right. Thus far you’ve made no mistake from how I see it.

    That said, if this is going where I think it’s going, at the beginning of, or beyond, what laymen, like you and I, (non-physicists) refer to as the universe then you are guilty of a non sequitur fallacy, as the principle of causality as you have described it here has nothing to do with those other things outside of the general Newtonian universe.

    As a less important side note, the idea that every agent acts for an end is to anthropomorphize the concept of agency. The word for suggests an intensive purpose, something that you yourself have said in this post isn’t required for agency.

  • sean

    oops, I believe I used the wrong slash in my html formatting to indicate the end of my bold text. I meant to just put the first bolded word, for, in bold as that lone word with emphasis.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Sean,
    These metaphysical claims do not rest or fall on a particular conception of physics. These are claims about all of reality. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Newtonian reality, Einsteinian reality, or the reality of sub-atomic particles.

    The principle of causality stands regardless of which scientific paradigm is applied. Every thing that comes into existence has to have an efficient cause, something else that caused it to come into existence. Every potency must be acted on by an agent before it becomes act. Something that only potentially exists could never actualize itself, right? That would be nonsense. Only that which actually exists can actualize anything else.

    To deny this principle is to descend into utter irrationality and nonsense. A world where objects come into existence without a cause is incoherent. Now, it may be the case that we often do not know what the efficient cause of something coming into existence is, but that is a far cry from dogmatically claiming that we know that nothing caused something, that no efficient cause was involved.

    To me, anyone who wants to argue that nothing can cause something has gone into la-la land. I sincerely hope this isn’t what you’re arguing.

  • sean

    What I am saying is that you are conflating two separate issues here. What you describe in your blog post isn’t a description of anything but matter changing form. Matter coming into existence in the first place is a different thing altogether. It could still fall under these rules of causation, but that would need a separate proof.

    What we know from science about the origins of the universe is limited, and a far cry from consensus. The big bang theory has legitimate scientific criticisms from many physicists.
    Irrespective of that, there is a careful semantic argument here, which is that everything with a beginning has a cause, and not everything. This allows for a god that always existed to be the exception to the rule. However, since our current understanding of the universe doesn’t extend to before the universe, it’s possible that the stuff in our universe has always existed too, and can therefore escape your need for a cause exactly as your god does.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Metaphysics is more fundamental than science. The fact that science cannot answer some questions about reality in no way impacts the implications of the metaphysical principles we are discussing.

    Science is the study of physical objects that can be empirically measured and quantified. Metaphysics is the study of being, as such. There is more to being (existence) than physical objects that can be measured and quantified. Metaphysics, therefore, is foundational to science. Because it is more fundamental than science, science cannot veto metaphysical principles.

    With regard to the origin of the universe, the metaphysical principles we’re discussing aren’t really aiming at providing a version of the kalam cosmological argument, which you seem to be challenging. We should cover that topic another day.

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