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.