As one of the famous founding fathers of philosophy, Aristotle had an opinion on many subjects. He is solely responsible for the theories on numerous topics such as logical reasoning, epistemology, physics and much more. As a Greek philosopher and scientist, he was also very much interested in life and the issues that arise in our everyday actions. It led to him asking a very famous question today: “why”?
In ordinary literary words, causality is the activity or ability that connects one process (the cause) to another process or state (the effect). The first is partly responsible for the second, and the second is dependent on the first. However, when it comes to Aristotle, the ordinary literary words do not suffice. He believed that as human beings, “we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause.” Thus, the causality of a thing is crucial if we are to have adequate understanding. Aristotle then went ahead to develop some theories about causality.
Aristotle’s Theories on Causality
As a result of his inquisitive mind, Aristotle believed that four causes are the elements behind his principle of causality. He classified all his theories into the question “why.” He admitted that there are some cases where identifying a cause might be difficult. There might not even be a cause at all. But, he held firm in his belief that his four “causes” can be applicable generally and those that have no cause may be the exception. Here are the four causes duly identified by Aristotle:
- Matter: With regards to matter, Aristotle believed that if there is a change or movement in a particular material, the cause is the materials that make up the moving or changing thing. In order words, the gravity of the change or movement is determined by what the material comprises of. For example, a table is made up of wood. The gravity of the change or movement in that table is determined by what it is made up of which is wood. The same thing goes for a statue made up of bronze or marble.
- Form: By formulating this theory, Aristotle believed that change or movement in the form of something is caused by the arrangement, appearance, or shape of that thing. Aristotle said then that numbers, in general, are the cause of the octave.
- Agent: Here, Aristotle differentiated between efficient or moving cause and material cause. Hence, if there is a movement or change in the efficient or moving cause of a thing which consists of other things being moved or changed, there ought to be an interaction between them. This interaction is to ensure that one of the things is an agency of the change or movement. For example, let’s say we have a table. The efficient cause of the table is the carpenter because he or she built the table. Also, the efficient cause of a child are the parents.
- End or Purpose: This simply means the end of a thing. In other words, Aristotle here is of the opinion that we should consider the sake of which a thing is done. So, if you decide to start exercising, the end is better and improved health. If you plant a seed, the end if for it to grow into an adult plant.
The Four Causes and the Science of Nature
After building his theory on the four causes, Aristotle decided to develop guiding principles which are peculiar to the study of nature. He believed that all the four causes are responsible for natural phenomena and things that happen around us that we take for granted. You should note at this juncture that the four causes are not mutually exclusive. They can be independent of each other when they happen.
Also, Aristotle does not imply that all the causes are the explanation for each and every instance of natural change. Rather, his view is that if anybody wants to give an adequate explanation of natural change, it may involve reference to all of the causes. In his thesis, Aristotle also referred to the fact that his predecessors did not recognize all the causes. They recognized only the material and efficient cause. However, he is firmly of the opinion that the other two causes genuinely matter. That is why he wrote another thesis as a form of defense against those that say final causality is a genuine mode of causality.
The Defense of Final Causes
Here, Aristotle wrote a thesis titled Physics II 8 which is a defense of final causality. He was of the opinion that if anybody says that material and efficient causes alone are sufficient to explain natural change, such person has failed because there is no account for their natural regularity. He says that final causality should be the best explanation for any aspect of nature which would remain unexplained otherwise. Aristotle explain this theory of the other two causes by using rain as an analogy. Rain happens because of certain material processes which can be specified as follows: when the warm air that has been drawn up is cooled off and becomes water, then this water comes down as rain. It may happen that the wheat in the field is nurtured or the harvest is ruined as a result of the rain. But it does not rain for the sake of any good or bad result. The good or bad result is just a coincidence.
Thus, you cannot predict the result of a particular act. Many things which are the result of an action happen merely coincidentally. They are not planned in any way whatsoever. Some aspects of nature will always remain unexplained. And that is why final causality should be held responsible for its explanation.
Aristotle’s thoughts on causality is perhaps one of the most controversial in all philosophy. However, many other writers have referenced it in their work. The theory of the four causes is even found in various fields. Doing more research will educate you better and keep you better informed. What you have just read is a brief summary of what Aristotle thinks about causality.
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