Aristotle, Feser, Aquinas, and Finality

Ever since the days of Bacon and Newton philosophers and scientists have bothered themselves with determining the material and efficient causes of various objects and events. They, as a matter of course neglected, ignored, and repudiated the use of the concepts of formal and final causality. That was a brief summary of a truncation of thinking about nature that occurred during the Enlightenment era. This truncation, because of its laser like focus on determining what things are made of (material causes) and what events precede others and lead to them (efficient causes). Edward Feser, in his excellent intro to Aquinas’ thought notes a lame duck critique of final causes (the idea that something either has a function, tendency, or goal in its nature):

Perhaps the most famous criticism of Scholastic metaphysics on the part of the early modern thinkers is the one represented by Molière’s joke about the doctor who claimed to explain why opium causes sleep by saying that it has a “dormitive power.” The reason this is supposed to be funny is that “dormitive power” means “a power to cause sleep,” so that the doctor’s explanation amounts to saying “Opium causes sleep because it has a power to cause sleep.”*


This critique of final causality, as a concept, is wrong headed (as Feser himself notes). To claim that a thing has a final cause is to claim that, as a matter of its nature, it tends towards something. So finding the efficient cause (the chemical reaction that takes place in the human physiology) of the sleepiness when an opiate is taken is dependent upon first recognizing that the opiate itself is the cause of the sleepiness. Claiming the opiate has a dormitive power is claiming that the opiate makes somebody sleepy not some combination of factors incidental to taking the opiate. So, though it isn’t saying much, answering the question, “Why am I sleepy when I use opiates?” with “Because opiates, in and of themselves make human bodies feel tired.” is not a tautology. It is answering a question about what the opiates do, in general, to human bodies to the man wondering why the drug affects him specifically. 

Why does this matter? Because the alternative vision of scientific inquiry that only seeks two kinds of causes is approaching a precipice that must be avoided by a change in direction of the collapse of the current system entirely. Aristotle’s system of causes was never refuted (as Feser notes) and as those who study the history of science are aware. I’m not against the science, I just think that even for scientists, a historical prejudice against a more holistic way of thinking (Aristotelian causality) that is implied by your whole job is a silly way to live. 

*Feser, Edward; Edward Feser (2009-09-01). Aquinas (Beginner’s Guides) (Kindle Locations 696-699). Oneworld Publications (academic). Kindle Edition.


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