Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter One: Metaphysics and the Four Causes

NB: All previous chapters can be found here.


The first major work in the history of philosophy to bear the title “Metaphysics” was the treatise by Aristotle that we have come to know by that name.

Aristotle didn’t use this title – Metaphysics – for his work; it was offered by a first century AD compiler of his work.  This was a study of being qua being; “qua” meaning “in so far as,” or “under the aspect”:

…Aristotle’s description does not involve two things— (1) a study and (2) a subject matter (being qua being)—for he did not think that there is any such subject matter as ‘being qua being’. Rather, his description involves three things: (1) a study, (2) a subject matter (being), and (3) a manner in which the subject matter is studied (qua being).

A natural scientist studies things as they are subject to change; a mathematician studies things as they are countable and measurable; a metaphysician studies things in an abstract way – as they are beings.  These are things eternal, not subject to change and independent of matter.

It leads to an interesting place: what “things” are eternal?  We find the eternal in Plato’s “forms,” with the ultimate form being the Form of the Good.  From Edward Feser:

…the good for a thing, including for a human being, is entirely objective, it is determined by its essence or Form and has nothing necessarily to do with what we happen contingently to “value” or desire.

Plato sees that the form of a triangle can exist even without the presence of a physical triangle – the physical triangle is an imperfect image of the disembodied perfect form.  Materialists deny that such universals are real.  From that same post, I summarized further of Feser’s thoughts:

Feser offers that it is very hard avoid something like Plato’s theory: one cannot make sense of mathematics, language, science, and even the structure of the world without this idea. 

Aristotle cleans things up a bit – yes there are forms, but these exist in things and are not independent of things.  The form of the triangle only exists in a triangle.  There is a universal, but it is inherent in the thing.

Returning to the Stanford Encyclopedia and Aristotle:

Such a science, he says, is theology, and this is the “first” and “highest” science.

Aristotle lays out the questions he hopes to deal with, for example:

·         Are sensible substances the only ones that exist, or are there others besides them?
·         Is there a cause apart from matter?
·         Is there anything apart from material compounds?
·         Are the principles of perishable things themselves perishable?
·         Are the principles universal or particular, and do they exist potentially or actually?
·         And (“the hardest and most perplexing of all,” Aristotle says) are unity and being the substance of things, or are they attributes of some other subject?

Reference is made to an earlier work of Aristotle’s: Categories, in which he lists ten categories of things into which beings can be divided, with substance being placed in the premier position and all other categories dependent on substance, for example:

…color is always found in bodies, knowledge in the soul. Neither whiteness nor a piece of grammatical knowledge, for example, is capable of existing on its own. Each requires for its existence that there be some substance in which it inheres.

Both the body and the color are identified as being, with the body primary and the color in a different sense; the soul and knowledge are also identified as being, with the soul primary and knowledge in a different sense.  The body and the soul exist; color and knowledge also exist but are dependent on the body and soul, respectively.

The Categories leads us to expect that the study of being in general (being qua being) will crucially involve the study of substance, and when we turn to the Metaphysics we are not disappointed.

What follows is a lengthy discussion of substances – too complex for me and not really necessary for my purposes, and ending in any case in controversy – at least according to the authors of this encyclopedia.  The controversy revolves around the relationships among and between substances, forms, and universals.

The Four Causes

This brings us to what is generally referred to as Aristotle’s Four Causes (or, perhaps more accurately, the four becauses):

·         Material Cause: “that out of which a thing comes to be, and which persists; e.g., bronze, silver, and the genus of these are causes of a statue or a bowl.”
·         Formal Cause: “the form … the account of the essence.”
·         Efficient Cause: “the primary source of change or rest.”
·         Final Cause: “the end (telos), that for which a thing is done.”

The lines between these four are not impermeable:

As [Aristotle] puts it, “form, mover, and telos often coincide.” And in De Anima he is perfectly explicit that the soul, which is the form or essence of a living thing, “is a cause in three of the ways we have distinguished” — efficient, formal, and final.

I find it helpful to also introduce the descriptions of the four causes as offered by Edward Feser:

·         The material cause: what is it made of?  Rubber, in the case of our ball.
·         The formal cause: the form, structure, or pattern of the matter.  In our case, its sphericity, solidity, and bounciness.
·         The efficient cause: what brings the thing into being – what actualizes the potentiality.  In our case, the workers, machines, etc.
·         The final cause: what is the end, goal, or purpose of the thing?  For the ball, amusement for a child.

In combination, these causes provide a complete explanation of a thing.

Feser continues:

…its material cause entails that it has certain potentialities and lacks others; its formal cause, being its substantial form or essence, is shared by other things and known by the intellect via abstraction from experience….

The final cause of a thing is…the central aspect of its formal cause; indeed, it determines its formal cause.  For it is only because a thing has a certain end or final cause that it has the form it has…

…efficient causality cannot be made sense of apart from final causality.  Indeed, nothing makes sense – not the world as a whole, not morality or human action in general, not the thoughts you’re thinking, or the words you’re using, not anything at all – without final causes.

…[Aristotle’s] account of the metaphysical structure of reality, far from being empty verbiage of mere academic interest, has dramatic implications for religion, morality, and science that will repay the effort we have put into understanding it.

·         Material Cause: “that out of which a thing comes to be and persists”
·         Formal Cause: The pattern, structure, or form that the matter realizes in becoming a determinate thing.
·         Efficient Cause: the agent or entity responsible for the matter taking its specific pattern, structure, or form
·         Final Cause: “that for the sake of which a thing is done.”

An example of a statue of Hercules is offered: its material cause is bronze; its formal cause, the body of Hercules; its efficient cause, a sculptor; its final cause, really depends on what the statue is for – in this case, perhaps, to honor Hercules.

From Jonathan Lear: “real purposefulness requires that the end somehow govern the process along the way to its own realization...” 

The final cause has proven to be very controversial – not for manmade objects like airplanes and hammers as humans build such things with a purpose in mind, but for things in nature – plants, animals, their teeth, liver, etc.: a “teleological view of nature.”

The controversy: some see no purposes in nature; others see purposes in nature, but only where there is a designer.  Is nature purposeless, with atoms interacting blindly on each other, or is there purpose, driven by a designer?  Aristotle saw neither – he saw purpose in nature, but no designer.

Maybe.  The video ends with an extensive quote from Aristotle:

“…it is not insofar as he is man that he will live [a life of contemplation], but insofar as something divine is present in him…If intellect is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life.  But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.”

“If intellect is divine….”  if it is divine, who, or what, is the efficient cause of this divinity?  Is it possible that the human whose intellect is divine is the efficient cause of creating this divine intellect prior to having a divine intellect?  It does not seem logically possible.

What does it mean to “make ourselves immortal”?  if this is to be done, are humans the efficient cause to make humans immortal after the physical body dies?  Once again, this does not seem logically possible.

Aristotle was looking for the divine and immortal, his protestations against a designer in nature notwithstanding.

For centuries, Aristotle’s views have taken a backseat – certainly since the Enlightenment, science has only had a materialistic worldview in its sights.  This has been changing in recent years, driven – according to the “Introduction to Aristotle” video – by the field of robotics: “where some believe that the quest for autonomous robots capable of self-directed purposive action is unreachable when operating under a mechanistic worldview.”

It seems to me that the interest is also due to the meaninglessness of life when our only purpose (our telos) in the Western world seems to be material accumulation – with a significant acceleration of understanding the reality of this meaninglessness in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

From my summary to the Feser post, which has helped move me to this current study:

It isn’t that the ends justify the means; it is that the ends define the means.  Feser describes this as a real problem for modern thinkers, who deny that there are final causes.  But without a final cause – an end – the efficient cause would have no basis or reason on which to act.  How would someone act, without an end – a final cause?

…if we are to find liberty, we cannot ignore the “humanness” of humans – the material cause and formal cause; we also cannot ignore their final cause.

It is the final cause that determines our action.  The question remains: what is our “final cause”?  What is the “good”?


Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego's meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person's conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.

Humans act, and they act with a purpose – an end – in mind.  This is not to say that they always act with their best ends in mind.  While we identify such choices as “liberty,” we can also recognize that such choices are not consistent with the implications of and conclusions one can draw from Aristotle’s Four Causes. 

Which might mean something when we consider how we define the word “liberty.”  As noted in the Introduction:

In an attempt to provide purely objective law – and only objective law – pure libertarian law applied, without some statement regarding culture and tradition, will never allow us to reach the highest levels of human possibilities, as Solzhenitsyn suggests.  And, after all, can you offer a better definition of liberty than reaching our “highest levels of human possibilities”?

And for those who think I am dumping libertarianism and the non-aggression principle, also from the Introduction:

Natural law grounded in Christian ethics can inform proper behavior in society – behavior necessary to sustain liberty and freedom; the non-aggression principle can help to inform regarding those violations of natural law that are deserving of physical punishment.  It is this that I wish to develop further. 

Yes, humans act.  From the definitions for final cause offered above:

“…the end (telos), that for which a thing is done.”  … what is the end, goal, or purpose of the thing?  … “that for the sake of which a thing is done.”

Plato gave us the eternal forms, with the ultimate being the Form of the Good.  Aristotle offered that this form is inherent in the “thing.”  For the purposes of this discussion, the “thing” that concerns me is…humans.

Which leads to the questions: What is the “final cause” for humans, humans who carry in them this “Form of the Good”?  What is this Form of the Good that humans carry?  What is the good?

These are the questions.


  1. Jordan Peterson just came out with a lecture that includes why he doesn't answer the question he's posed often, "Does he believe in God?" and in fact he is annoyed at such questions. He talks about the metaphysical aspects such in today's lecture he posted,and the need for a narrative(sound familiar?) . He also talks about dangers of falling into believing in "nothingness" via rationality.

    He discusses his reasons for abstaining on the question of God around a bit past the 1 hour mark:

    Just prior, he also discusses the incompatibility of Marxism and Christianity. It's a long lecture, but well worth it.

    The follow up lecture was posted today and I'm still working through it, but it seem to touch more on the metaphysical:

    Good write up BM, it's thought provoking. I hope the links above add to it for everyone.

    1. I have heard bits of the first discussion, but I will watch both of these.

  2. What is the form of good that humans carry?

    Form of good = Image of God

    Reflect the nature of God and bring His goodness into the created world. God has things He wants in the world. We are to make them happen on Earth.

    1. Next chapter (but I put a slightly different spin to it)- you could at least have given a spoiler alert!

    2. God told me that He didn’t invent ethics; man did to make him look and feel good, then God said if man would only live in the image and likeness I created him in there would be no need for any kind of ethics. AB