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Four Causes refers to an influential principle in Aristotelian thought whereby causes of change or movement are categorized into four fundamental types of answer to the question "why?". Aristotle wrote that "we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause." While there are cases where identifying a cause is difficult, or in which causes might merge, Aristotle was convinced that his four causes provided an analytical scheme of general applicability.
- A change or movement's material cause is the aspect of the change or movement which is determined by the material which the moving or changing things are made of. For a table, that might be wood; for a statue, that might be bronze or marble.
- A change or movement's formal cause is a change or movement caused by the arrangement, shape or appearance of the thing changing or moving. Aristotle says for example that the ratio 2:1, and number in general, is the cause of the octave.
- A change or movement's efficient or moving cause consists of things apart from the thing being changed or moved, which interact so as to be an agency of the change or movement. For example, the efficient cause of a table is a carpenter, or a person working as one, and according to Aristotle the efficient cause of a boy is a father.
- An event's final cause is the aim or purpose being served by it. That for the sake of which a thing is what it is. For a seed, it might be an adult plant. For a sailboat, it might be sailing. For a ball at the top of a ramp, it might be coming to rest at the bottom.
Meaning of "cause"
Aristotle's word for "cause" is the Greek αἴτιον, aition, a neutral, singular form of an adjective meaning "responsible." He uses this word in the sense meaning an explanation for how a thing came about; in this context, "x is the aition of y" means "x makes a y".
The material cause of an object is equivalent to the nature of the raw material out of which the object is composed. (The word "nature" for Aristotle applies to both its potential in the raw material and its ultimate finished form. In a sense this form already existed in the material. See Potentiality and actuality.)
Whereas modern physics looks to simple bodies, Aristotle's physics instead treated living things as exemplary. However, he felt that simple natural bodies such as earth, fire, air, and water also showed signs of having their own innate sources of motion, change, and rest. Fire, for example, carries things upwards, unless stopped from doing so. Things like beds and cloaks, formed by human artifice, have no innate tendency to become beds or cloaks.
In Aristotelian terminology, material is not the same as substance. Matter has parallels with substance in so far as primary matter serves as the substratum for simple bodies which are not substance: sand and rock (mostly earth), rivers and seas (mostly water), atmosphere and wind (mostly air and then mostly fire below the moon). Only individuals are said to be substance (subjects) in the primary sense. Secondary substance, in a different sense, also applies to man-made artifacts.
Formal cause is a term describing the pattern or form which when present makes matter into a particular type of thing, which we recognize as being of that particular type.
By Aristotle's own account, this is a difficult and controversial concept. It is associated with theories of forms such as those of Aristotle's teacher, Plato, but in Aristotle's own account (see Metaphysics (Aristotle)), he takes into account many previous writers who had expressed opinions about forms and ideas, but he shows how his own views are different.
See also Platonic realism.
The "efficient cause" of an object is equivalent to that which causes change and motion to start or stop (such as a painter painting a house) (see Aristotle, Physics II 3, 194b29). In many cases, this is simply the thing that brings something about. For example, in the case of a statue, it is the person chiseling away which transforms a block of marble into a statue.
Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something. Like the formal cause, this is a controversial type of cause in science. It is commonly claimed that Aristotle's conception of nature is teleological in the sense that he believed that Nature has goals apart from those that humans have. On the other hand, as will be discussed further below, it has also been claimed that Aristotle thought that a telos can be present without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence. An example of a passage which is discussed in this context is Physics II.8 (from
This is most obvious in the animals other than man: they make things neither by art nor after inquiry or deliberation. That is why people wonder whether it is by intelligence or by some other faculty that these creatures work, – spiders, ants, and the like... It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in art, it is present also in nature.
For example, according to Aristotle a seed has the eventual adult plant as its final cause (i.e., as its telos) if and only if the seed would become the adult plant under normal circumstances. In Physics II.9, Aristotle hazards a few arguments that a determination of the final cause of a phenomenon is more important than the others. He argues that the final cause is the cause of that which brings it about, so for example "if one defines the operation of sawing as being a certain kind of dividing, then this cannot come about unless the saw has teeth of a certain kind; and these cannot be unless it is of iron." According to Aristotle, once a final cause is in place, the material, efficient and formal causes follow by necessity. However he recommends that the student of nature determine the other causes as well, and notes that not all phenomena have a final cause, e.g., chance events.
George Holmes Howison, in "The Limits of Evolution", highlights "final causation" in presenting his theory of metaphysics, which he terms "personal idealism", and to which he invites not only man, but all (ideal) life; at p. 39:
Here, in seeing that Final Cause – causation at the call of self-posited aim or end – is the only full and genuine cause, we further see that Nature, the cosmic aggregate of phenomena and the cosmic bond of their law which in the mood of vague and inaccurate abstraction we call Force, is after all only an effect. ... Thus teleology, or the Reign of Final Cause, the reign of ideality, is not only an element in the notion Evolution, but is the very vital cord in the notion. The conception of evolution is founded at last and essentially in the conception of Progress: but this conception has no meaning at all except in the light of a goal; there can be no goal unless there is a Beyond for everything actual; and there is no such Beyond except through a spontaneous ideal. The presupposition of Nature, as a system undergoing evolution, is therefore the causal activity of our Pure Ideals. These are our three organic and organizing conceptions called the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.
However, Edward Feser argues, in line with the Aristotelian and Aquinian tradition, that finality has been greatly misunderstood. Indeed, without finality, efficient causality becomes inexplicable. Finality thus understood is not purpose but that end towards which a thing is ordered. When a match is rubbed against the side of a matchbox, the effect is not the appearance of an elephant or the sounding of a drum, but fire. The effect is not arbitrary because the match is ordered towards the end of fire which is realized through efficient causes.
The four causes in modern science
Francis Bacon wrote in his Advancement of Learning (1605) that natural science "doth make inquiry, and take consideration of the same natures : but how? Only as to the material and efficient causes of them, and not as to the forms." According to the demands of Bacon, apart from the "laws of nature" themselves, the causes relevant to natural science are only efficient causes and material causes in terms of Aristotle's classification, or to use the formulation which became famous later, all nature visible to human science is matter and motion. Using the terminology of Aristotle, he divided knowledge into physics and metaphysics in The New Organon.
From the two kinds of axioms which have been spoken of arises a just division of philosophy and the sciences, taking the received terms (which come nearest to express the thing) in a sense agreeable to my own views. Thus, let the investigation of forms, which are (in the eye of reason at least, and in their essential law) eternal and immutable, constitute Metaphysics; and let the investigation of the efficient cause, and of matter, and of the latent process, and the latent configuration (all of which have reference to the common and ordinary course of nature, not to her eternal and fundamental laws) constitute Physics. And to these let there be subordinate two practical divisions: to Physics, Mechanics; to Metaphysics, what (in a purer sense of the word) I call Magic, on account of the broadness of the ways it moves in, and its greater command over nature. Francis Bacon The New Organon, Book II, Aphorism 9, 1620
It has been argued that explanations in terms of final causes remain common in modern science, including contemporary evolutionary biology, and that teleology is indispensable to biology in general for (among other reasons) the very concept of adaptation is teleological in nature. In an appreciation of Charles Darwin published in Nature in 1874, Asa Gray noted "Darwin's great service to Natural Science" lies in bringing back Teleology "so that, instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology". Darwin quickly responded, "What you say about Teleology pleases me especially and I do not think anyone else has ever noticed the point." Francis Darwin and T. H. Huxley reiterate this sentiment. The latter wrote that "..the most remarkable service to the philosophy of Biology rendered by Mr. Darwin is the reconciliation of Teleology and Morphology, and the explanation of the facts of both, which his view offers." James G. Lennox states that Darwin uses the term 'Final Cause' consistently in his Species Notebook, Origin of Species and after.
Ernst Mayr states that "adaptedness... is a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking." Various commentators view the teleological phrases used in modern evolutionary biology as a type of shorthand. For example, S. H. P. Madrell writes that "the proper but cumbersome way of describing change by evolutionary adaptation [may be] substituted by shorter overtly teleological statements" for the sake of saving space, but that this "should not be taken to imply that evolution proceeds by anything other than from mutations arising by chance, with those that impart an advantage being retained by natural selection." However, Lennox states that in evolution as conceived by Darwin, it is true both that evolution is the result of mutations arising by chance and that evolution is teleological in nature.
Statements which imply that nature has goals, for example where a species is said to do something "in order to" achieve survival, appear teleological, and therefore invalid. Usually, it is possible to rewrite such sentences to avoid the apparent teleology. Some biology courses have incorporated exercises requiring students to rephrase such sentences so that they do not read teleologically. Nevertheless, biologists still frequently write in a way which can be read as implying teleology even if that is not the intention.
- Anthropic principle
- Convergent evolution
- Four discourses, by Jacques Lacan
- Proximate and ultimate causation
- The purpose of a system is what it does, Anthony Stafford Beer's POSIWID principle
- Tinbergen's four questions
- Aristotle, Physics 194 b17–20; see also: Posterior Analytics 71 b9–11; 94 a20.
- "Four Causes". Falcon, Andrea. Aristotle on Causality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2008.
- Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science (1992). p53
- Aristotle, "Book 5, section 1013a", Metaphysics, Translated by Hugh Tredennick Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols. 17, 18, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989; (hosted at perseus.tufts.edu.) Aristotle also discusses the four causes in his Physics, Book B, chapter 3.
- original text on Perseus
- Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. By Douglas J. Soccio. Page 161.
- Physics 192b
- The Complete Works of Aristotle Vol. I. The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes).
- This example is given by Aristotle in Parts of Animals I.1.
- Aristotle, Physics II.9. 200b4–7.
- Aristotle, Physics II.9.
- Physics II.5 where chance is opposed to nature, which he has already said acts for ends.
- Aquinas, Edward Feser.
- Lennox, James G. (1993). "Darwin was a Teleologist" Biology and Philosophy, 8, 409–21.
- Ayala, Francisco (1998). "Teleological explanations in evolutionary biology." Nature's purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology. The MIT Press.
- Lennox, James G. (1993). "Darwin was a Teleologist" Biology and Philosophy, 8, p. 410.
- Mayr, Ernst W. (1992). "The idea of teleology" Journal of the History of Ideas, 53, 117–135.
- Madrell SHP (1998) Why are there no insects in the open sea? The Journal of Experimental Biology 201:2461–2464.
- Cohen, Marc S. "The Four Causes" (Lecture Notes) Accessed March 14, 2006.
- Falcon, Andrea. Aristotle on Causality (link to section labeled "Four Causes"). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2008.
- Hennig, Boris. "The Four Causes." Journal of Philosophy 106(3), 2009, 137–60.
- Moravcsik, J.M. "Aitia as generative factor in Aristotle's philosophy." Dialogue, 14 : pp 622–638, 1975.
- English translation of Study on Phideas, by Pía Figueroa written with theme of Final Cause as per Aristotle  PDF file with references
- The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World, By R. C. Sproul
- Aristotle on definition. By Marguerite Deslauriers, page 81
- Philosophy in the ancient world: an introduction. By James A. Arieti. p201.
- Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics. By Joseph Owens and Etienne Gilson.
- Aitia as generative factor in Aristotle's philosophy*
- A Compass for the Imagination, by Harold C. Morris. Philosophy thesis elaborates on Aristotle's Theory of the Four Causes. Washington State University, 1981.