Guest post by 天智 (Tian Zhi)
Aristotle distinguishes four causes which determine the nature and purpose of every thing: the “material”, the “formal”, the “efficient” and the “final” or “teleological” causes.
Aristotle opens one of his famous works, the Metaphysics, with the statement “All men by nature desire to know.” We can easily adjust this for the modern reader to say that “All people by their nature desire to know” without any essential change in Aristotle’s views on the matter.
But what is this thing we supposedly desire? What is knowledge? This question is not so easy to answer and philosophers through the ages have struggled to identify its distinctive characteristics, distinguishing it from closely related ideas such as opinion and belief.
For Aristotle, in order to know a thing fully and completely, we must know its cause, of which he identified four different kinds: the “material”, the “formal”, the “efficient” and the “final” or “teleological” cause.
His meaning of these terms can be understood most easily by an example. Let us take a bronze statue. In order to know what it is, we might first ask, “What is it made from?” – Bronze of course! This is its “material cause” in Aristotle’s terminology.
What, then is its “formal cause”? – this would be the structure and shape the statue exemplifies – so perhaps the statue is Rodin’s Thinker or Donatello’s Bronze David.
Next we want to know what brought this statue into being? What was its efficient cause? To this, the response is: an artist using various tools and skill-sets, notably “bronze-casting”.
The next cause, the final cause, is the most important for Aristotle. This concerns the reason for the statue’s existence. That is, for what purpose was it created? Fun? Pleasure? To represent some literary theme? Or perhaps just to express the artistic yearning in the soul of the artist, or to feed his mouth upon payment?
If we think of any artefact, that is, a man-made object, in attempting to come to know it, we would intuitively want to identify these four causes. If we wanted comprehensive knowledge of an igloo, we would want to know what it was made of (blocks of compacted snow), what its shape was (dome like), what brought it into being (an Eskimo employing various skills) and what it was made for (temporary shelter). With any one of these missing, we would feel our account of knowledge was lacking.
Do living things have causes?
What, though, of objects that are not artefacts? What of living things such as plants and animals? To take the latter, animals, identifying the first two causes is relatively uncontroversial: we can identify a material cause (flesh and blood) and a formal cause (dog, horse, fish) easily enough. However, when we get to the efficient cause matters get complicated. Often evolutionary or religious accounts are given, and such accounts are not always opposed as many would suggest.
Providing a teleological or final account is even more challenging. The sciences do not typically even try to answer this question; it’s not the kind of question scientists ask. It is left, then, to us! What is the final cause of living things? For what end were they brought into existence? What is your end? Your purpose? These are questions worth dwelling on!
天智 (Tian Zhi)
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