A Note on the Philosophical Analysis of Causality

Although the terminology employed by Aristotlean or scholastic philosophy may sound strange at times, the breakdown of causality into four basic categories could shed a lot of light, as well prevent a lot of misunderstandings, when it comes to debates over matters involving science and religious belief -- as well as many other issues that often involve heated arguments.

To take a simple example, if one were to go about building, let's say, a desk, one would most likely first have in mind what kind of desk might be needed. A writing desk? Or a computer work-station? Or maybe just a kind of all-purpose sort of thing or just something pleasing looking to fill an empty space. In any case, the builder's intention or purpose, while it very well may be the first thing on the agenda , is called a "final cause" -- due to the Latin word finis implying the "end" or purpose in mind.

Secondly, once having determined the purpose of this particular desk, we would do well to draw up or secure a set of plans, or a "blueprint" of some sort. These plans will designate the particular form or shape the desk will take. Or maybe we'll just use another similar desk as an example. In either case, here we can speak of the "formal cause" or "exemplary cause".

Third, the next step would be to probably go to a lumber yard to buy all the necessary materials, such a plywood, screws, a few brackets, hinges, drawer slides, etc. As these, although the terminology may seem particularly strange in this instance, would be considered "material causes" of the eventual desk.

After carrying out all these preliminary steps, the fourth or final one, at least in any logical order of execution -- it being obvious that not all do-it-yourselfers proceed logically -- would be to actually take one's saw, hammer, drill, screw-driver and whatever (i.e the various "instruments" or tools, and actually carry out or "effect" the work of building the desk), hence here we have, including the do-it-yourself  builder, the "instrumental" and/or "efficient" cause or causes at work.

It should be clear from this somewhat labored example that when scientists speak about evolution causing this or that to happen, they are speaking first of all about material and instrumental/efficient causes. Thus they are apt see various forms of life as somehow coming about as a result of natural forces causing many genetic changes -- some of which happen to favor this particular line of organisms over another in a given environment. Nor, except for assuming that "survival" might be said to be the purpose, do scientists generally assign any particular "formal" or "final" cause to all of this, nor should they, at least strictly speaking as scientists, because the primary business of science is to determine exactly WHAT is happening and HOW it is happening, and not so much WHY.

On the other hand, as the article to which this note is linked mentions, the traditional understanding of the biblical creation story in Genesis has tended to (quite contrary to the text itself) deny the existence of any "material cause" for the universe, and instead claim that God produced the universe "out of nothing", and in the case of many biblical fundamentalists, even go so far as to claim God produced every separate species by a separate creative act in the sense of an "instrumental" or "efficient" cause. Each of these separate creations, in turn, would be determined by a pre-ordained "formal" or "exemplary" pattern (e.g., to make man "in God's image" , etc.) and all, of course, ultimately, in terms of an over-reaching final purpose or cause. It would seem that in this case, the religious impulse to give an answer to WHY has overpowered every other consideration of causality -- and even the literal meaning of the text itself, (the Hebrew tohu wa bohu of Genesis 1:2 meaning a "trackless waste and emptiness" ) which may, or may not, hint of a pre-existing material cause.

The real area of any possible fruitful dialogue between science and theology in these matters, however, is not between these two extremes. It is rather to be found in the questioning of those scientists, especially those who ponder such issues as a possible "anthropic principle" at work in the universe (speculation which clearly delves into the realm of formal and final causes) and those believers who have no problem with accepting the evolutionary understanding of the universe in terms of material and efficient or instrumental causes. It is in this context that a "teleological" understanding of evolution (telos being the Greek equivalent of the Latin finus) such as that presented by Teilhard de Chardin has aroused so much interest, both among scientists as well as philosophers and theologians, over the years.

In the same way, the argument presented in issue #6 of DIALOGOS concerning the "problem of evil" is really suggesting that in terms of a final cause that encompasses the idea of truly free creatures, the evolutionary understanding of not only material and efficient causality, but perhaps especially formal causality is also necessary -- that without the evolutionary play of chance, there can be no real choice, at least if that is what the Creator had in mind.
 (R.W. Kropf 5/6/98)

Back to DIALOGOS Issue #9 essay on "The Universe, Open or Closed?"