The Last Superstition: Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts, Aristotle’s metaphysics

We now come to Aristotle, and one of Feser’s central points (emphasis in the original):

How significant is Aristotle? Well, I wouldn’t want to exaggerate, so let me put it this way: Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought. [p.51]

At least he doesn’t mess about.

[This abandonment’s] logical implications can also be seen in today’s headlines: in the abortion industry’s slaughter of millions upon millions of unborn human beings; in the judicial murder of Terri Schiavo (as Nat Hentoff aptly labeled it) and the push for euthanasia generally; in the mostly pointless and certainly point-missing debate between Darwinians and “Intelligent Design” advocates; in the movement for “same-sex marriage” and the sexual revolution generally; and a thousand other things besides. [p.51, same paragraph as previous quotation]

PS, he is not a crackpot.

A central part of Aristotle’s philosophy is “actuality” vs. “potentiality”. In considering the example of a rubber ball that melts and becomes gooey:

Aristotle replies: Even if the gooeyness itself doesn’t yet exist in the ball, the potential for gooeyness does exist in it, and this, together with some external influence that actualizes this potential (e.g. heat), suffices to show how the change can occur. [p.53]

This, by the way, is supposed to put us on the way to understanding that there must be a god.

So basically, a thing’s “actuality” is the way it that thing is, or exists, or is configured, and its “potentialities” are all the ways it could possibly be. If I’m understanding correctly, actuality is the object’s position in phase space, and its potentialities are all the positions reachable from its current position.

Feser reminds us that a potential can’t actualize itself, and this seems trivially true: if you have a blue rubber ball, and it might be painted red, then “being red” isn’t something that can paint a ball. Likewise for all the other potentialities. But he also tells us,

Consider also that if a potential could actualize itself, there would be no way to explain why it does so at one time rather than another. [p. 54]

This seems like a non sequitur. I said above that potential states aren’t the sort of thing that do things, but even if we take the sentence above to mean “If a thing could change on its own, there would be no way …”, I don’t see how the second half necessarily follows.

Superficially, it seems obvious, but if there’s one thing science should have taught us, it’s that “obvious” is not the same as “true”: the sun does not revolve around the earth, objects in motion don’t stop on their own (more on this later), fast-moving objects get shorter, and so on. So I’d like to see a few more intermediary steps between “an object can’t change on its own” and “there can be no explanation for why it changes at time t0 and not t1.

But there’s another problem with the above, beside the non sequitur: let’s say that Feser is right, and there’s some phenomenon for which there’s no explanation beyond “that’s just the way it is”.

So what?

I know that this makes us uncomfortable. I, for one, would find that rather unsettling, because it does seem as though everything has a good explanation. But so what? The universe is not obligated to conform to our desires. And we see all the time that people accept bogus explanations because they’re more satisfying than saying “I don’t know” or “that’s just the way it is”. But this self-deception is exactly the sort of thing we need to guard against if we want to know the truth.

Form and matter

For Aristotle, Feser tells us, an object has two important properties: its matter — the stuff it’s made of — and its form — the way the matter is put together. That is, you can have a bunch of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, etc. atoms (matter), and if you assemble them into the shape of a chair (form), then you’ve got a chair. Seems pretty straightforward.

The four causes

The four causes are Aristotle’s answer to four questions that can be asked of anything: “What is it made of?” (material cause), “What’s its shape or form?” (formal cause), “What caused it?” (efficient cause), and “What’s it for?” (final cause).

The first two seem out of place, since they’re not really causes as that word is currently understood, but maybe there are historical reasons. The third one, efficient cause, is just your garden-variety cause: “Why is the water boiling? Because it’s on a hot stove.” That sort of thing.

But final cause deserves closer scrutiny. For one thing, asking “what is X for?” presupposes that X is for something, and that’s far from obvious. But Feser tells us that final causality can be found everywhere:

I also gave the functions of bodily organs as an example, and it is indeed the most obvious and compelling sort of example to give. But Aristotle takes final causation or goal-directedness to exist throughout inorganic nature as well. The moon is “directed toward” movement around the earth, as a kind of “goal.”

The moon is there so it can orbit the earth. You heard it here first, folks.

To be sure, Feser makes it clear that he doesn’t think the moon is conscious, and doesn’t want or intend to orbit the earth. Rather, the moon is for orbiting in the same way, I guess, that a knife is for slicing. But yes, at the end of the day, Feser tells us, the moon has a purpose: orbiting.

This is one of many “you have got to be kidding me!” moments in this book.

Feser talks, here and elsewhere in the book, that everything or nearly everything has a final cause, but he never supports this claim. He says that Aristotle believed that everything has a final cause, but never presents a case for why we should take this as more than opinion.

He talks a lot about the opinions of “modern philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals in general [p. 71]” on final causes, but his case has several problems: he never quotes his opponents directly, doesn’t cite them, and doesn’t even tell us who these people are.

And when he does present their case, he has them saying that there are no final causes, e.g:

And this is precisely why causation has become such a problem for modern thinkers. Famously, they deny that there really are any final causes at all, appearances notwithstanding. [p.64]

Of course, the converse of “everything has a final cause” isn’t “nothing has a final cause”. It’s “it’s not true that everything has a final cause.” Either Feser’s interlocutors fail basic logic, or else he’s setting up straw men.

Feser does give us specific examples of the sorts of final causes he’s talking about: that the point of the moon is to orbit the earth, or that “an oak tree is the final cause of an acorn” [p.115], so I’m willing to accept that some things have final causes. But that doesn’t imply that everything has a final cause, or that the interesting things (human life, the universe, etc.) have final causes, or that those causes are interesting.

Let’s say it turns out that the purpose or final cause of the universe is to expand. Well, fine. It can do that on its own. The rest of us can ignore that and get on with our own final purposes.

Formal and eminent causation

One last thing before moving on:

whatever is in the effect must in some sense be contained in the cause as well. The basic idea is that a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give [p. 67]

This seems like a very odd thing to say, or at least an odd way of saying it. Yes, a hot fire makes a room hot, a cold ice cube makes a drink cold, a red paint brush makes a canvas red, and so on. But of course, there are other ways of causing something:

Or, to take another example, the cause of a fire might itself be on fire, as when a torch is used to start a brushfire, or it may instead have the power to produce fire, as a cigarette lighter has even when it is not being used. The traditional way of making this distinction is to say that a cause has the feature that it generates in the effect “formally” in the first sort of case (e.g. when both the cause and the effect are red or on fire) and “eminently” in the second sort of case (e.g. when the cause is not itself red or on fire but has an inherent power to produce redness or fire). If a cause didn’t contain all the features of its effect either formally or eminently, there would be no way to account for how the effect came about in just the way it did. Again, a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give. [p. 68]

Which is to say that a cause can produce an effect either by transferring an attribute from itself to something else, or by some other means. It seems odd, even reminiscent of phlogiston to put it the way Feser does: the cigarette lighter doesn’t have heat inside it the way an orange contains juice. Feser has a reason for putting it this way, but since he’s laying groundwork for his main argument, it’ll have to wait.

Series: The Last Superstition

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3 Responses to The Last Superstition: Aristotle’s Metaphysics

  1. Steve Watson says:

    I got intro-to-Aristotle in class last winter, and read a bunch of his scientific works (Physics, Meteorology, On Generation and Corruption) over the summer. Aristotelian “cause” (Gk. aitia, from which we get “etiology”) is a term of art which nowadays might be better translated as “explanation” — the Four Causes explain different aspects of why the thing exists.

    The quotes in your last section could be straight out of Descartes (on whom I wrote a mid-term today) — D. of course was riffing on Aristotle in a big way.

    It’s worth trying to wrap one’s mind around Ari’s view of the cosmos (at least if you’re a history-of-ideas geek, which I seem to be turning into), but the idea of still taking that stuff seriously as a theory is bizarre. I expect what he wants out of it, of course, is final cause, as a bunch of Christian moral theology is based on it (it lets you say e.g. that sex is “for” reproduction and so on). I think it was bit traumatic when we realized (c.1900?) that, there is no Cosmic Purpose behind the universe, and we can’t have Absolute Truth, and more than a few people seem to be pining for the Good Olde Days.

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