Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Four Horsemen of the Causocalypse…

(Hmm… "Causocalypse"… I am reminded once more how some things sound better sung to heavy metal in one's head than they look on a computer screen. Bu the show must go on!)

"Not all that glitters is gold," as they say.

Now let's "Aristotelianize" the saying: "Not all that displays finality is conscious."


All that is conscious of attaining ends, does display consciousness. This is exactly what Popper meant by "all of life is problem-solving." If even the tiniest unconscious creatures display apparent aims, then a fortiori (all the more) do conscious creatures like us display "aimedness." Without intrinsic (viz., evolved, inherited) dispositions to try this and that tentative solution-behavior for the attainment of some solution to a problem, creatures will not "give" anything to natural selection to approve or condemn.

The rubber-ball example Edward Feser uses in The Last Superstition to describe "the four causes" is, explicitly, anthropomorphic, but it is not meant to be an exhaustive demonstration of finality per se. It is an anthropomorphic analogy, and, as we all know, no analogy is perfect. He describes fourfold hylomorphic causation thus:

Efficient cause: workers in plant

Material cause: rubber

Formal cause: elastic sphere

Final cause: amusement of child

Since this seems too obviously anthropomorphic, how can the rubber ball example be generalized––de-anthropomorphized––to clarify finality per se?

Chrysippus, if memory serves, uses the analogy of a wooden ball rolling down a plane.

Material cause (Mc): the wood itself.

Efficient cause (Ec): the hand that sets the ball on the incline, or flicks it into motion.

Formal cause (FORc): the unified roundness of the ball.

Final cause (FINc): the bottom of the plane.

Or how about an atom?

Mc: its component "fundamental" particles.

Ec: the strong nuclear force.

: its "fundamental" particles as they coexist in a particular dynamic structure.

: orbital valence and reactivity with other suitable atoms.

In no case is the atom displaying a conscious aim to be a "good atom," but it is displaying an intrinsic tendency towards maintaining its own "law of finite being" based upon matter suitable for that dynamic structure. One kind of atom is not another kind of atom, even though they are subject to the same efficient causes and made of the same basic material constituents. This is just how we explain a concrete entity "scientifically": we enumerate its material and efficient "strictures" as they are integrated with (or "balanced by") its own dynamic tendency to maintain its particular structure precisely as its proper end.

Perhaps the most important thought to keep in the background while listing the four causes is this: Nature is not a homogeneous "sludge" of matter-in-motion, but is in fact a sort of "symphony" of discrete natures in dynamic interrelations with each other, each seeking its own endurance and/or integration into a larger whole. Why does each being seek its own good? Why does each species seeks its own propagation? The genome is perhaps one of the most vivid cases of the four causes, since the nucleotides (Mc), conjoined by electric bonds (Ec), are clearly ordered towards (FINc) a larger "product" which itself is the web in which (FORc) the discrete genes "all find their place." The genes your parents gave you existed only as the dynamic "software" of their hardware, and pass on successfully only as the incipient software of your hardware. Outside of the larger formal unity of your parents and you, and thus lacking the finality of functioning towards their survival and reproduction, the genome literally disintegrates.

As for the four causes of an electron, I am less willing to "go there." First of all, do electrons even have matter sufficient to be called "material objects"? Second, does it make sense to speak of "an electron" in the abstract? I don't think it does, since in nature electrons exist as formal constituents of atoms. Again, assuming they are "material", electrons display the same intrinsic tendency (intentio) toward maintaining their place in a dynamic relation to the rest of nature.

But, shoot, here's a stab at an Aristotelian analysis of an electron:

Mc: …whatever the hell an electron is. (Interestingly, even if we stipulate that electrons only "exist" as so-called margin-points at the interstices of other energy fields, they have a distinct material efficacy and dimensionality AS electrons.)

Ec: the force of the nucleus that draws the electrons to it and not to another atom. (Unless sufficient force under proper conditions, yada yada yada.)

: the resistance of an electron to collapse right into the nucleus. (Its formal "role" in the atom demands that it "assert" its own dynamic "place" in the form of the atom.)

: the particular dynamic integration of each electron in the orbital structure that the atom needs.

I suspect a materialist critic will want to retort, "But the bare electromagnetic forces and quantum fluctuations account for all that just fine. FINc and FORc are just theoretical ascriptions we impose on pure nature."

But, again, at the most reductionist level, nature is just disparate "fundamental" particles, but of course we do science at numerous levels of reduction, so we must recognize the concrete dynamism of entities that exist in their own way and, seemingly, for their own ends in defiance of the scattered "purity" of super-reduced nature. We don't analyze, much less understand, discrete monads; we grasp and explore dynamic wholes that function in relation to larger (or deeper) ends. This is precisely what James "Just Thomism" Chastek is getting at with this reminder: "The calcium making your leg bone is alive. If it breaks, it grows back together. Human calcium is a living thing." Calcium simpliciter does not "just up and" form bones or repair itself. Only once it is integrated as a formal constituent of a larger hylomorphic whole, does it find a vital finality that it lacks on its own. It "steps into its own," as it were, by "losing itself," as it were, in the higher aims and larger formal harmony of a human body. As with calcium and our body, so with us and the Body of Christ.

A meta-point that will help materialists understand just why these topics and this "lexicon" seem so alien and gratuitous: they are almost literally a foreign language to us. By us I mean those of us immersed in the Galilean, Cartesian, Newtonian worldview. Sure, Einstein and Bohr, et al., have tweaked everything in huge ways, but people still function on a default Newtonian mechanist Weltbild. As easy as it is for us to imagine vector line and angular notations in everything we observe, it was that easy for early moderns, medievals, and the ancients to grasp formal and final causation. We speak Newtonian, with an Einsteinian accent, while classical philosophy before (more or less) Descartes, speaks Aristotelian with a Thomistic accent. Hence, it is almost literally like you are trying to speak and hear a foreign language.

The debate really is not about Feser, or anyone he cites, "making up a lot of woo" in order to undermine science. The fourfold theory of causation was simply an integral component of classical, and then medieval, philosophy. The reason that Feser––merely as a spokesperson for "the tradition"––is dead-set on restoring that classical Weltbild, is not only because he (and I and our ilk) actually believe its modern nemesis is destructive to science, reason, and morality, but also, because modern philosophy has been hijacked by secularism. Hence, bad philosophy is getting not only the "props" for good science but also for the "death of God."


unBeguiled said...

The reason that Feser . . . is dead-set on restoring that classical Weltbild, is not only because he (and I and our ilk) actually believe its modern nemesis is destructive to science, reason, and morality, but also, because modern philosophy has been hijacked by secularism.

You will not be surprised that your and Feser's motives for resurrecting this arcane conjecture does not motivate me to take it seriously. Perhaps the four causes are of minor historical interest, but I just do not see the point, unless the point is a pretext for a larger agenda.

Likewise, I am skeptical of any project that scapegoats an imaginary Folk Devil in order to foment a moral panic.

Care to identify this "modern nemesis" against which you are marshaling moldy metaphysics?

(At least one rimshot per comment, please?)

Of course, your agenda has nothing to do with the merits of the system. So far, I remain underwhelmed by the explanatory work these ideas can do. In fact, it seems to me shoehorning this primitive conception of cause serves only to confuse, rather than illuminate, expand, or explain.

Bottom line, I understand why the four causes were relegated to the dust bin.

unBeguiled said...

Yikes, re-reading that it is way more snarky than intended. Old habits yada yada

Anonymous said...

Yada yada yada does seem to sum up everything unbeguiled posts.

the Cogitator said...


I can handle some snarkiness, as long as I know some basic good will is behind it. (Although, seeing as you denz the reality of free will...! The horror!)

As I say, I would ask you to read the materials to which I directed you in the other thread (Ross, Oderberg, Bougis, heh.)

If, however, you do feel obliged to reply to this post and the immediately related posts that kicked off this dialogue, could you please give specific criticisms of how formal unity and dynamic finality are not parts of a full explanation?


the Cogitator said...

Folk Devil? Do you mean the theology of the devil, or just the larger tendency of "demonizing" an opponent?

It's interesting that you use the word "folk", since it is precisely the aim of physicalism to exorcise the demon called folk psychology which has, so the legend goes, plagued science and crippled human progress.

The "modern nemesis" is a historical commonplace: the early moderns and "Enlightened" ones explicitly set up theirproject as a systematic refutation of the "Middle Ages" (a term of art invented by them to marginalize theclassical Weltbild). The nemesis is Cartesianism, Newtonianism, materialism, and basically Democriteanism warmed over. It is not a pejorative term. Read at least the first and last chapters of E. A. Burtt's The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science and Carl Becker's The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers for a basic orientation (and from two non-Aristhomists, to boot). I have a list of quotations spanning the latter book which I extracted after reading it, if you'd like the file, sort of cliffs notes.

unBeguiled said...

Is there really a theology of the devil? I do realize that whether or not demons are sterile was a critical point of theological departure between Augustine and Aquinas.

I was referring to the the larger tendency to demonize an opponent. Our Cargo-Cult Filosopher Feser has a proclivity for fearing the out-group. In his case, it seems the out-group includes anyone who does not buy-in to his magical belief system.

(Sorry Elliot, I can't help tweaking the nose of Feser's Mom, or whoever this drive-by poster is.)

"Folk Devil" is a just-so story type notion some sociologist came up with in the 70's. It's on Wiki.

Denz? Is it that obvious I'm on the juice? In this context, I think your intended meaning flew over my head.

Speaking of flight, I cry fowl. What I see you doing here is a more sophisticated (dare I say pretentious?) facsimile of the infamous but effective Gish Gallop. Scatter-shot PDF files and rambling posts that end with sentences like this:

Hence, while it not only makes sense, in teleological and formal terms, to try explaining how natural selection per se "made" my "good" fingers (and humans' hands in general) to be the way they are, it also does not beg the question to admit there is no per se way to seek an explanation––as a theoretically coherent and formally natural process––how my awkward ring finger came to be the way it is by the per accidens effects of natural selection.

I'm wondering if you composed that with the assistance of one of those Post-Modern paper generators.

It may be the case that sentence makes sense somewhere, but not in my corner of the metaverse. (An atheological railgun of an argument. I'm still steamed you didn't recognize the moment was sublime.)

So, No. I'm not reading all that stuff. If you wish to be understood, then write plainly. I already feel like I've purchased enough indulgences by slogging through Feser's barely readable book of bad arguments.


I wish to know what you believe, and why you believe it. More specifically, I want to know what you mean by this word "God". What was the method you used to acquire this belief? What are some attributes of this Ground of Being that you worship? Why are you a Catholic rather than a Mormon or a Scientologist?

Is the question offensive? If so, Why? Ask me an offensive question.

The horror of a life lived with your balls out, eyes wide open, nose to gun barrel with The Real?

You should try it. The freedom-less no-self of just being itself is bracing and beautiful, because it is true. This world only. This life only.

the Cogitator said...


I'm touched. I've gone from "Tator" to my actual Christian name. I'm feeling generous––have a free vowel! From now on you're unBe! ;)

1. You complained that "shoehorning this primitive conception of cause" into science is worthless. This underscores what I think is a major false dichotomy in your approach. I said before that I (and by extension hylomorphism) don't reject efficient and material causation, but do reject the disproportionate role they play in materialist metaphysics. FINc and FORc are not being shoehorned into the picture, since they just ARE the picture (albeit under names that get them booted out these days, say, the last four centuries or so).

FORc just IS the reason we examine Mc and Ec under one heading, in one entity, as one phenomenon, etc. FINc, in turn, just IS the way these formally recognizable (i.e., formally distinct) entities and sub-entities "play out" according to an intrinsic law, which can, in turn, be described in terms of material and efficient causation. The latter are incoherent outside of a formally discrete and "lawfully disposed" entity. As soon as you ponder WHY we study otherwise discrete sub-phenomena in relation to each other (and other grouped phenomena), you are knocking against FORc's door. As soon as you come to see how––à la a "natural law"––certain phenomena dynamically result in the same class of effects, you are knocking on FINc's door. By whatever name you call them, FORc qua theoretically formal coherence and FINc qua predictably ordered results just ARE what science is about. Indeed, I would ask you to explain ANY scientific entity or process you know well enough and NOT avail yourself of formal and final (i.e., theoretical and dispositional) talk. You just keep missing this point, intentionally or otherwise.

2. I'm disappointed you refuse to read what I have asked you to read. I only "insist" you read the Oderberg and the Ross pieces. Burtt and Becker were just references to guide you concerning the "nemesis" issue.

I sense that you still need to grasp hylomorphism in general. Fourfold causation falls out FROM my (and pretty much any Thomists's) deeper commitment to that metaphysic. You can search my blog for "what's the matter with matter" to read my explanation of hylomorphism. Do you deny that hylomorphism is a sound metaphysic? If not, why not, specifically? Until you can walk in the shoes of a hylomorphist, as it were, as an exercise in metaphysical "dare", I really do think there is something like "cognitive insensibility." As soon as you hear the very words "form", "purpose", "essence", etc., they get jumbled OUTSIDE a broadly hylomorphic viewpoint. Pot, kettle, etc., I agree, whatever, etc. The point remains, however, that you are so far only "underwhelmed" by the viewpoint, not at all successful in showing that it is incoherent, not to mention rationally inescapable.

3. As for my "pomo" sentence, what can I say? I'm tackling deep issues and my tendency is to compress much of what I've previously written into a sort of muchamente dense thesis (i.e., tie things up with one bow). I accept the guilt for writing, perhaps, too "Kantically", but I can't be blamed if you haven't read Machuga or don't grasp what I meant in that post by per se and per accidens causation.

In any case, let me "unpack" that sentence briefly:

FINc and FORc make sense of how nat. sel. produced my "good" fingers per se (i.e., in just the way that natural selection works as a theoretically formal process ordered towards phylogenetic fitness under variability). Further, it is not incoherent for a "fourfolder" like myself (or Machuga) to admit there is per accidens randomness in nat. sel. which does not fall under the formally describable and predictable nature of evolution.

4. As for my basic belief in God, I have no inclination to go into that topic right now. It has much to do, however, with what truth is, what human personhood is, and why "being totally logical" is not equivalent to "being rational." You might want to search my blog for my post on an "aesthetic cosmological argument."

Cheers, I need some sleep,

P.S. I too am known to be a wit, so don't read too much into "the horror." Choosing to deny free will and urging others to favor its denial are already performatively incoherent, so why not be able to have a little fun as we chat?

the Cogitator said...

5. Oh, I almost forgot:

Concerning your (?) metaverse sally, I would ask you to clarify what you mean by nothing "is" but the metaverse and nothing "outside" it.

Nothing physical is outside it? (If so, that just begs the question.)

Only actual entities are in it? (If so, then it has no potential for change, including the change in properties of, say, 'being conceived by unBe' to 'being conceived of by unBe and then conceived of by Elliot'.) If the metaverse contains all that possibly is, why can there be truly possible things? Or are you a wild actualist like David Lewis?

Nothing immaterial outside it? (If not, I would ask you to explain how you can abstract from the entire metaverse to behold it under one concept––literally step outside it to behold it with your intellect––without being "outside" it.)

Are you sure grasp just how powerful and important the arguments for the immateriality of the intellect really are?


unBeguiled said...

I too am known to be a wit, so don't read too much into "the horror."

This I know, and is why I am here. I greatly appreciated your horror comment.

We continue to talk past one another. Our worlds barely overlap, so I am not surprised. That is not meant as a dig, rather a fact that we both need to constantly remind ourselves of.

If this project is to bear fruit, it seems to me we must go through some kind of Cartesian meta-doubt phase.

Do you deny that hylomorphism is a sound metaphysic?

Yes. But it is so much more than that. I doubt the soundness of metaphysics.

I am sort of in the position of a patient that goes to a doctor, yet at bottom she doubts the scientific method. Don't take this analogy too far, I use it because it is apt, and because I am a physician.

I realize you are disappointed that I have not studied the sources you provided. But try for a moment to see things from my perspective. When I was reading Feser's book, he would put forth a number of premises and then try to get from A to B. The problem was, I thought all of his premises were either false or un-supported. (I am being charitable. At no point in that book did Feser make clear what a particular premise was. Rather, I had to re-write his arguments properly.)

So I get to the end of the book, and Feser is pointing this fool to the moon, and chastises me for looking at his finger. The problem is, I AM looking where he is pointing, but there is just nothing there. So now I look back at him: he has a red ball for a nose, and big floppy clown shoes.


What is the project as I see it? I want to understand how and why a bright educated person can believe what to me is an obvious absurdity.

Or from your perspective, I will try and help you understand why I do not believe what you obviously see is true, moral, and beautiful. Or maybe you don't care about that and just want to rip the scales from my eyes. Whatever is fine.

I am not saying your beliefs are absurd. Hell, actually I haven't a clue what you do believe. You keep me nailed to this ignostic cross. In two weeks you might have me genuflecting and titillating the local priest for hours in a confessional. Fine.

I am here for reasons. I abandoned those idiots on the blog "Atheism is Dead". I read "The Last Superstition" rather than something by Strobel or Craig intentionally (err . . . I mean calcium and potassium channels opened and closed in such a way that three pounds of meat processed that book rather than another).

What now? If you are not interested, let me know and I shall go on my way.

Otherwise, we must find some axiom, and get off the ground.
By this I mean we need to find some notion that we both think is self-evidently true. Or at least some basic epistemic starting point that we just agree between ourselves is true.

I have a few ideas, but I fear you would laugh at them. You go first.

(I predict that you are currently composing in your brain a retort demonstrating that I am committed to some metaphysical view, whether or not I realize it. Don't waste your time. Just throw out an axiom. Please?!)

unBeguiled said...

{utility post because I previously failed to check the "Email follow-up comments" box}