Aristotle’s Final Cause Essay

Analyse and comment on Physics 194b18-195a3: “Knowledge is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’ of (which is to grasp its primary cause). So clearly we too must do this as regards both coming to be and passing away and every kind of physical change, in order that, knowing their principles, we may try to refer to these principles each of our problems. In one sense, then, (1) that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists, is called ’cause’, e. g. he bronze of the statue, the silver of the bowl, and the genera of which the bronze and the silver are species. In another sense (2) the form or the archetype, i. e. the statement of the essence, and its genera, are called ’causes’ (e. g. of the octave the relation of 2:1, and generally number), and the parts in the definition. Again (3) the primary source of the change or coming to rest; e. g. the man who gave advice is a cause, the father is cause of the child, and generally what makes of what is made and what causes change of what is changed.

Again (4) in the sense of end or ‘that for the sake of which’ a thing is done, e. g. health is the cause of walking about. (‘Why is he walking about? ‘ we say. ‘To be healthy’, and, having said that, we think we have assigned the cause. ) The same is true also of all the intermediate steps which are brought about through the action of something else as means towards the end, e. g. reduction of flesh, purging, drugs, or surgical instruments are means towards health.

All these things are ‘for the sake of’ the end, though they differ from one another in that some are activities, others instruments. This then perhaps exhausts the number of ways in which the term ’cause’ is used. ” In this essay I will begin by extracting the arguments from the extract, outlining Aristotle’s explanation of the four ‘causes’ and arguing why Aristotle has reasons for believing this. In order to achieve a considered and balanced essay, I will critically focus on the cause that Aristotle calls ‘that for the sake of which’, commonly known as the final cause.

I shall assess the final cause in regard to evolutionary arguments, analysing if arguments for the final cause can claim objective existence when accused of anthropocentrism and ascribing telos to natural objects. I will conclude by saying that the reasoned arguments of evolution show Aristotle’s final cause to be of no objective value, but may exist as a tool for humans to understand nature. Aristotle begins by telling us that knowledge is understanding ‘why? ’ things are the way they are and considers in how many ways that question can be answered.

He of course answers that there are four ways or ‘causes’. First, a strength of Aristotle’s causes is that they can be applied to almost everything we can conceive of (eternal things may struggle with the efficient cause). This means that the causes benefit from a universality that adds strength to the theory because it can readily be applied and generally understood in all situations. This is something Aristotle does not illustrates well with his non-correlating examples of octave ratios and purging, so I will use one illustration throughout this section: a pencil.

The first cause is matter, that out of which a thing comes to be. For a pencil, its matter would be wood and lead. This is easy enough to understand and explains the persistence of a thing but also the separation between matter and formal cause. For example, according to Aristotle, if you snap a pencil in half, the pencil clearly ceases to exist but the lead and wood continue to exist. The second cause, formal cause, is closely related to the essence of a thing, it is the properties that it must essentially have to be that thing.

For a pencil, the form would be that it can make a mark on things, for example. Third we have efficient cause. This is the cause that we most associate with our common idea of a cause. It is the actual source of something being changed or halted. So for a pencil, the efficient cause is the pencil maker, or the workers in the factory that put the pencil together. There is a problem with the idea of eternal things. If everything has an efficient cause then what caused something that exists and has existed eternally?

This cannot be explored in this essay but should be considered when analysing this cause. Finally, there is the final cause. This is the ‘for the sake of which’ a thing is done or exists. So, the final cause for a pencil probably is to make marks on things. This is of course intrinsically linked with the formal cause, as the formal cause is a means to the final cause. So, to conclude, a pencil maker (efficient cause) imposes the form of a pencil (formal cause) onto wood and lead (material cause) so that it can make marks (final cause).

As mentioned earlier, the neat, cohesive nature of Aristotle’s observations strengthen the theory because it just works and appeals to our intuitions about the world. However, I will focus on the final cause and show that Aristotle is mistaken in arguing its existence. Initially, it seems intuitive that things have a final cause. A chair’s final cause is to be sat on and to provide comfort. However, it becomes more difficult if we consider natural things, as opposed to man-made things. For example, what is the final cause of a sheep? Without a man-inspired goal in mind, a final cause is far from intuitive.

This is one anthropocentric criticism and it can be argued that the final cause does not exist objectively, merely if a human gains something from it. For example, a sheep may have a final cause if considered from a human’s stance, that being for gathering wool or milk. However, if we consider it from an objective stance can we really argue that sheep have a final cause? It seems unlikely. Aristotle however, argues that sheep and natural things have a final cause. All of their parts are so well designed and clearly in order to serve something, that something being survival and flourishing.

It is not just chance or luck that a chameleon can change colour to match its surroundings. Therefore, that part is acting in order to achieve the final cause of the chameleon. This could have held fast in a time of greater scientific poverty. However, we now have an abundance of scientific knowledge regarding evolution, natural selection and genetics that nullify the argument. Most scientists now agree that a chameleon’s ability to change its skin colour is neither luck nor due to a final cause. In fact it is a product of natural selection over a vast amount of time.

This undermines any idea of an objective final cause because things are not happening for a reason, they are happening because of random activity within the constraints of evolution and survival. However, humans still use the idea of final causes regularly in conversation. For example, watch any nature program and you’ll hear something like, “This bear has a very sensitive nose in order to find food for its survival”. This implies a final cause of sorts and is common language. As the psychologist Paul Bloom writes, it can be argued that we are naturally inclined to be dualists, separating matter from other things harder to pin down.

This results in a habit of assigning purposes to objects that do not actually have objective purposes beyond our beliefs or desires. A tree is not there for a bear to rub itself on, it is merely a tree. However, the way in which nature programs use final cause is not metaphysically identical to Aristotle’s use, who believed that the final cause exists objectively, an argument that I believe evolution disproves. In conclusion, I began by extracting the meaning of the extract and stating the four causes, applying it to a pencil.

I said that one positive of Aristotle’s theory was its universal nature and its intuitiveness; it just seems to fit. I briefly mentioned some problems with the efficiency cause before moving on to my main argument: the final cause. I began by commenting on the difficulty of giving natural things a final cause, for example a sheep, and alluding to anthropocentric criticisms. I gave Aristotle’s response that everything has a final cause, just look at the suitability of its parts, clear evidence that there is a final cause to be acted towards: survival.

I then gave an account of how evolutionary theory and modern science undermines this argument by showing that things are as they are because of natural selection and vast amounts of time, not because of luck or a final cause. I briefly mentioned the common usage of final cause in the modern day and mentioned why we may be inherently inclined towards it, before concluding that this is not what Aristotle meant by a final cause and that evolutionary theory shows the final cause to be anthropocentric and not at all an objective fact.