The Great Conversation:
Cause

By Matt McKeown

Causation, like being itself, applies to nearly every philosophical topic in existence.

Causality is a gigantic topic, covering not only different kinds of things but different kinds of kinds of things. It is a topic shared by physics and metaphysics; by the problems of being and the problems of thought; a historical, logical, spiritual, and scientific problem.

Four types of cause were enunciated by Aristotle in his Metaphysics: these were what he called the formal, material, efficient, and final causes. An object’s formal cause is its shape or identity: e.g., for a bronze statue of Socrates, the appearance of Socrates is its formal cause. The material cause is what a thing is made of, which for our exemplary statue is bronze. The efficient cause is its maker, in this case a sculptor; the final cause is an object’s purpose, which for our statue is to honor Socrates.

We aren’t used to thinking of all of these things as causes per se—material cause in particular is a little jarring to typical English usage. The relationship becomes a little clearer with a different example: if I ask “Why is this sandwich bad?” I might mean any of the four causes. If it is over-filled and keeps falling apart, the sandwich is formally bad—bad because its design is flawed. Or the ingredients might be unpleasant or rotten, and the badness be a question of its material cause. Alternatively, I might mean “By what process did this sandwich become bad?” and be asking who made it, the efficient cause. Or the sandwich might be correctly made and delicious, but bad at nourishing the body or satisfying hunger, so that its final cause is bad.

But, while useful, Aristotle’s analysis of causes primarily treats things in themselves, as opposed to chains of causality. Even an object’s efficient cause normally only means one or a few agents. Most discussions of causality are about cause and effect in interactions between things.

Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing "look over there."

Randall Munroe

Newton‘s laws of motion are one of the most famous treatments of causality in the sphere of physics; on the biological side, scientists like Darwin and Mendel investigated the operations of heredity. These studies have become more and more elaborate, as both quantum physics and the theory of evolution waxed in importance over the course of the twentieth century.

Drawing partly on scientific knowledge, but focusing more on ontology, a number of theologians and philosophers have worked on what is called the cosmological argument for the existence of God. In varying forms, the cosmological argument states that every chain of causality must terminate somewhere—that there must be some kind of first cause which, by its nature, does not call for or need any further explanation; and this first cause may conveniently be called God. This has remained one of the stock arguments for the existence of a deity for at least a thousand years.

Causality has important spiritual and psychological dimensions as well. The doctrine of the Last Judgment (common to the Abrahamic religions and to Zoroastrianism) makes each soul’s eternal fate dependent on the good and evil done by it in life. So too, in a different way, does the doctrine of karma shared by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism; the cumulative effects of one’s deeds, in Sanskrit karma, determines one’s reincarnated state. On a more prosaic level, psychoanalysis consists largely in trying to suss out the causes of the patient’s behavior, many of which are unconscious. So, for different reasons, do criminal investigations, histories, and character studies. The exact confluence of human and divine causality in works like Oedipus Rex exemplifies almost every kind of cause at once; perhaps that is why Aristotle considered it the perfect play.

Suggested reading:
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Gautama Buddha, The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Law
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I.10-13
Gottfried Leibniz, Monadology
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

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If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Herodotus, Moses Maimonides, and Simone de Beauvoir. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

Matt McKeown is a staff writer for CLT. He enjoys whiskey, Medieval literature and history, and orchids.

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