Causes: Real, Heuristic?

The neoplatonic and scholastic traditions tended to treat causes as hypostatized real metaphysical principles, either inferred or simply given. Modern science in its more sophisticated statements has generally treated causes in a more heuristic way, as useful for the explanation of lawful regularity in phenomena.

I read the “causes” or “reasons why” in Aristotle as a sort of hermeneutic tools for understanding. This would encompass the kind of explanations employed by modern science, as well as much else that is helpful for understanding things in ordinary life, and for realizing our potential as animals involved with meaning and values.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics treats causes in Book V, in the context of “things said in many ways”. I will here quote the short first chapter, which introduces causes indirectly through the related concept of arché (governing principle, beginning, or as Sachs translates it, “source”):

Source means that part of a thing from which one might first move, as of a line or a road there is a source in one direction, and another one from the opposite direction; and it means that from which each thing might best come into being, as in the case of learning, sometimes one ought to begin not from what is first and the source of the thing, but from which one might learn most easily; or it means that constituent from which something first comes into being, such as the keel of a ship or the foundation of a house, and in animals some say it is the heart, others the brain, and others whatever they happen to believe is of this sort; or it means that which is not a constituent, from which something first comes into being, and from which its motion and change naturally first begin, as a child from its father and mother, or a fight from insults; or it means that by whose choice a thing is moved or what changes changes, in the sense in which the ruling offices of cities as well as oligarchies, monarchies, and tyrannies are called sources, as are the arts, and among these the master crafts most of all. Also, that from which a thing is first known is called the source of the thing, such as the hypotheses of demonstrations.”

“Causes [aitiai] are meant in just as many ways, since all causes are sources. And what is common to all sources is to be the first thing from which something is or comes to be or is known; of these, some are present within while others are outside. For this reason nature is a source, as are elements, thinking, choice, thinghood, and that for the sake of which; for the good and the beautiful are sources of both the knowledge and the motion of many things” (Sachs translation, pp. 77-78).

What is emphasized in the notion of “source”, which Aristotle uses to provide insight into that of “cause”, is what is ultimately — or at least relatively ultimately — behind something, not that which is immediately behind it. By contrast, what I have been calling the “modern” (common-sense, not properly scientific) sense of “cause” is supposed to “operate” in an at least relatively immediate and direct (proximate) way.

Efficient vs Proximate Causes

Joe Sachs links the notion of proximate cause to what I have called the modern sense of “efficient cause”.

The brief passage in Aristotle’s Metaphysics that seems to have primarily driven scholastic discussions of efficient causes reads “In yet another [way], [cause] is that from which the first beginning of change or rest is, as the legislator is a cause, or the father of a child, or generally the maker of what is made, or whatever makes a changing thing change” (Book V chapter 2, 1013a30-33, Sachs translation, p. 78).

Sachs’ footnote to this passage says “This is sometimes mistakenly called the efficient cause. Aristotle never describes it in such a way, and we generally intend by the phrase [efficient cause] the proximate cause, the last event that issues in the effect. Aristotle always means instead the origin of the motion, when it happens to be outside the moving thing. It is only in a derivative sense that he will speak of a push or a bump as being a cause at all, since, as he says at 1013a16 above, all causes are sources” (p. 78n).

When he says “Aristotle never describes it this way”, I think he means that “efficient cause” is yet another Latin-derived standard translation that has quite different connotations from the original Greek.

The excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Aristotle on Causality” reconciles the brief reference in the Metaphysics with Aristotle’s much more detailed discussion in the Physics. This is worthy of an unusually long quotation:

“[A]n adequate explanation of the production of a [bronze] statue requires also a reference to the efficient cause or the principle that produces the statue. For Aristotle, this is the art of bronze-casting the statue….”

“This result is mildly surprising and requires a few words of elaboration. There is no doubt that the art of bronze-casting resides in an individual artisan who is responsible for the production of the statue. According to Aristotle, however, all the artisan does in the production of the statue is the manifestation of specific knowledge. This knowledge, not the artisan who has mastered it, is the salient explanatory factor that one should pick as the most accurate specification of the efficient cause (Phys. 195b21-25). By picking the art, not the artisan, Aristotle is not just trying to provide an explanation of the production of the statue that is not dependent upon the desires, beliefs and intentions of the individual artisan; he is trying to offer an entirely different type of explanation – namely, an explanation that does not make a reference (implicit or explicit) to these desires, beliefs and intentions. More directly, the art of bronze-casting the statue enters in the explanation as the efficient cause because it helps us to understand what it takes to produce the statue; that is to say, what steps are required to produce the statue. But can an explanation of this type be given without a reference to the final outcome of the production, the statue? The answer is emphatically “no”. A model is made for producing the statue. A mold is prepared for producing the statue. The bronze is melted and poured for producing the statue. Both the prior and the subsequent stage are for the sake of a certain end, the production of the statue. Clearly, the statue enters in the explanation of each step of the artistic production as the final cause or that for the sake of which everything in the production process is done.”

“In thinking about the four causes, we have come to understand that Aristotle offers a teleological explanation of the production of a bronze statue; that is to say, an explanation that makes a reference to the telos or end of the process. Moreover, a teleological explanation of the type sketched above does not crucially depend upon the application of psychological concepts such as desires, beliefs and intentions. This is important because artistic production provides Aristotle with a teleological model for the study of natural processes, whose explanation does not involve beliefs, desires, intentions or anything of this sort. Some have objected that Aristotle explains natural process on the basis of an inappropriately psychological teleological model; that is to say, a teleological model that involves a purposive agent who is somehow sensitive to the end. This objection can be met if the artistic model is understood in non-psychological terms. In other words, Aristotle does not psychologize nature because his study of the natural world is based on a teleological model that is consciously free from psychological factors….”

“One final clarification is in order. By insisting on the art of bronze-casting as the most accurate efficient cause of the production of the statue, Aristotle does not mean to preclude an appeal to the beliefs and desires of the individual artisan. On the contrary, there are cases where the individual realization of the art obviously enters in the explanation of the bronze statue. For example, one may be interested in a particular bronze statue because that statue is the great achievement of an artisan who has not only mastered the art but has also applied it with a distinctive style. In this case it is perfectly appropriate to make reference to the beliefs and desires of the artisan. Aristotle seems to make room for this case when he says that we should look “for general causes of general things and for particular causes of particular things” (Phys. 195b25-26). Note, however, that the idiosyncrasies that may be important in studying a particular bronze statue as the great achievement of an individual artisan may be extraneous to a more central (and more interesting) case. To understand why let us focus on the study of nature. When the student of nature is concerned with the explanation of a natural phenomenon like the formation of sharp teeth in the front and broad molars in the back of the mouth, the student of nature is concerned with what is typical about that phenomenon. In other words, the student of nature is expected to provide an explanation of why certain animals typically have a certain dental arrangement.”

Legal Uses of “Cause”

According to Wikipedia, two main kinds of “cause” are used in (U.S.) legal assessments of liability: cause-in-fact and proximate cause. A cause-in-fact is anything without which something would not have happened. The same event could clearly have multiple causes-in-fact. Cause-in-fact is a necessary but not sufficient condition for proving proximate cause. Proximate causation involves the additional element that the causing event be sufficiently related to the injury for the courts to consider it “the” cause of the injury for purposes of liability. I think it serves effectively as a kind of model for talk about “the” cause of something in general.

The notion of proximate cause seems close to the naive notion of cause that Russell wanted to remind us plays no role in modern science, and at the same time to the intuition of causal efficacy that Whitehead took to be involved in the common-sense apprehension of medium-sized wholes. I have associated both of these with what I have called “causality in the modern sense”. Proximate causes differ from these insofar as the law is only concerned with the proximate causes of particular events or states of affairs, whereas Russell and Whitehead were both concerned with what are taken to be repeatable cases of causal efficacy.

It is important to point out that the notion of proximate cause is explicitly tied to questions of legal liability. In the wake of Kant and Brandom, it should not be surprising to find that more generally, the descriptive “causality in the modern sense” that allows us to reductively talk about “the” cause of something has this close connection to considerations of blame and culpability. Similarly, Aristotle’s “categories” are etymologically kinds of accusations, and Locke spoke of the person as a “forensic” concept.