Aristotle argued that one needs to understand the four causes of an object in order to appreciate the object, especially the changes that it undergoes. This argument is reiterated in his statement, “that we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause” (Aristotle 15). Cause is a Greek word, which means an explanation for how something came about. Aristotle provides a general description of the four causes. The description is general in that it applies to all things that need explanation, inclusive of the human action and artistic productions. The causes include: the material cause, formal cause, efficient cause and final cause. In all the above causes, Aristotle tries to give an answer to the Why-question.
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According to Aristotle, material cause relates to the physical cause of an object. Its occurrence is attributed to its constituents, parts or materials. The explanation of causes is emanates from the individual factors, constituents, elements etc forming the whole. Formal cause relates to the pattern or form of something. Formal cause identifies an object i.e. it shows what something is. Efficient cause gives an explanation of something in relation to its starting point of change. Aristotle mentioned that “Efficient cause is the primary source of change”. It includes all agents of change both living and non-living. Finally the fourth cause, the Final cause, according to Aristotle, is the purpose why something is done i.e. the end (telos) for which an object must serve (Aristotle 15).
In explaining the Four Causes, Aristotle cites the production of a bronze statue, which requires the use of bronze. The bronze is both the material cause and the subject of change, since it goes through change, in order to produce a statue. The bronze undergoes melting, after which it is put into a wax cast to attain the desired new shape; the shape of the bronze statue. This shape explains the formal cause of the production of the statue. However, to adequately explain the production of the statue, the efficient cause, or the principle that leads to the production of the statue is required. According to Aristotle, this principle is the art of casting the bronze into the statue. It is common knowledge that the art of bronze-casting is present in the artisan, who produces the statue. But Aristotle argues that what the artisan does during the production of the statue is to manifest a certain knowledge; a knowledge that is the prominent explanatory factor of the efficient cause. By choosing the art and not the artisan, Aristotle emphasizes the steps required in the production of a statue (Moravcsik 31-48). The final outcome of the production, the statue, is the last stage in the process, and is called the final cause.
Aristotle believes that there are only four causes by which something can be explained. He defends his position by arguing that when people seek to understand something, they are asking, “on account of what is this thing the thing it is?” (Aristotle 15) to which there are only four types of answers, since the answers fully satisfy the question. I other words, Aristotle is asking why a fifth explanatory factor should be sought when there is nothing left to explain. However, one may wonder whether the ways of explaining things are just four, or there are more. Critics have argued that there is a fifth explanatory factor, or cause of explaining something and that is chance, and I tend to agree with them. For instance, two people, Ruby and Tom are interested in each other romantically, but none of them has dared to initiate the romance. They separately plan for a holiday in Cuba on the same week; they arrive in Cuba on the same night, and spend in the same hotel. During their stay in Cuba, they fall in love with each other. This is a situation that is brought about by chance. Even though both Ruby and Tom, wanted the outcome, none of them intentionally planned it; the romantic relationship was made possible due to the circumstance. This event can only be explained through chance or luck since there was no intention by the couple to achieve the outcome; it was a meeting of chance. Therefore, I believe chance is the fifth cause of explaining the existence of things.
Analysis of Aristotle’s theory of causality
Aristotle’s theory of causality can be compared to Plato’s theory of Forms, which appeared to require a lot of acceptance based on faith, in particular, the existence of a divine realm of endless ideas/ forms. Aristotle’s materialism and empiricism is evident in his statement that says that the material world is existent, and that true knowledge relies on the observation and experience of the material world. His view is backed up by modern empiricists like Locke, Hume and Berkeley (Mure 356-357). It important to note that modern scientists have also proceeded in the same way i.e. scientific theories about the universe are based on the past observations and experiences of the world. Just like science, Aristotle developed his causality theory from his study on change, and the cause that control the material world.
Aristotle’s theory of Four Causes shows that there can be numerous different explanations for the existence of something, all functioning at the same time, and contributing to our understanding of that thing, for instance, certain people think that their understanding of the chemical component of human beings is enough, and they do not need other explanations of life, i.e. the fact that life is a gift from God. Aristotle’s causal theory shows that the two explanations are true, the first being the material cause of a human being, and the second being the efficient cause (Mure 356-357). In addition, religious and scientific theories concerning the origin of the universe have often conflicted with each other, but Aristotle’s theory has given a solution to this conflict. According to him, a scientist can look at the Big Bang as the efficient cause of the universe, while at the same time, looking at God as its final cause.
Aristotle’s ideas have had a great impact on other disciplines, i.e. they have been taken and developed by other philosophers. Other than influencing the development of modern science, his ideas have also been adopted by Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas applied Aristotle’s concept of the Prime Mover in the development of his cosmological argument to explain God’s existence (Shields 39-97).
While Aristotle theory of the Four Causes seems to provide a sensible explanation of how things exist, there are some aspects of it that have been criticized for instance, his argument that true knowledge of the material world is gained through observation and experience. As an empiricist, Aristotle believed that the universe is knowable via sense experience. He also criticized Plato’s theory of Forms arguing that it had no concrete evidence of Forms. However, according to Shields (39-97), the majority of philosophers today have taken Plato’s side arguing that true knowledge comes from the use of reason and the intellect, as opposed to Aristotle’s sense experience. Rationalists such as Descartes have also taken a skeptical approach to reliance on senses, and he advocates for an a priori approach to knowledge.
In addition, Aristotle’s theory on the final cause of things is also disputable. For instance, while Aristotle argues that each and every individual thing has a purpose for existence; I disagree with this argument because some things such as the human appendix seem to have no purpose (Shields 39-97). In addition, his argument that the purpose or final cause of all things in the world is God has also been criticized. Some people argue that the world is a totally random place, and there is no true evidence of purpose or order within it. Bertrand Russell argued that there is no proof of design in the world; that the world is just there.
Aristotle’s Prime Mover concept is also questionable. According to Aristotle, God is the mover, who created the chain of cause and effect in the world without being moved. The majority of philosophers have regarded the unmoved mover concept as impossibility and a contradiction. How is it possible for something that does not move to initiate movement? Even Christians have found the Prime mover immobility hard to believe since it contradicts their belief in the fact that God is moved by the power of human prayer (Todd 319-322).
Various investigations of the natural world have been conducted in search of the causes of various natural phenomena, prior to and independently of Aristotle. Therefore, Aristotle’s investigations on the four causes were the elaboration of the previous works done by his predecessors. He maintained that his explanation of the material, formal, efficient and final cause could give an answer to the what-question. He explored the systematic inter-relationships among the causes, in trying to expand his causality theory, as well as to build explanatory principles that are specific and useful in the study of nature. Aristotle considered these principles as the essential theoretical framework that will enable investigation of the natural world to be done successfully (Todd 319-322). However, chance could just be the fifth cause of explaining things, in addition to Aristotle’s four causes.