The “Arkhe”: Notes on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” V.1


Arkhe” (pl. “arkhai“) is an untranslatable Greek word that includes the meanings of the English words “principle”, “origin”, “basis”, “leader”, “oldest”, “first” and others. In my view, philosophy, science and engineering all seek the arkhe behind everything, and every major scientific revolution in science seems to reduce the number of principles needed for explaining things without decreasing predictive power.

Defined at length in Metaphysics V.1 by Aristotle, where he defines with the meaning given below; for the sake of the unGreeked reader, I have underlined all words that translate “arkhe”.

“‘BEGINNING‘ [Gk. arkhe] means

  1. That part of a thing from which one would start first, e.g a line or a road has a beginning in either of the contrary directions.
  2. That from which each thing would best be originated, e.g. even in learning we must sometimes begin not from the first point and the beginning of the subject, but from the point from which we should learn most easily.
  3. That from which, as an immanent part, a thing first comes to be, e,g, as the keel of a ship and the foundation of a house, while in animals some suppose the heart, others the brain, others some other part, to be of this nature.
  4. That from which, not as an immanent part, a thing first comes to be, and from which the movement or the change naturally first begins, as a child comes from its father and its mother, and a fight from abusive language.
  5. That at whose will that which is moved is moved and that which changes changes, e.g. the magistracies in cities, and oligarchies and monarchies and tyrannies, are called arhchai, and so are the arts, and of these especially the architectonic arts.
  6. That from which a thing can first be known,-this also is called the beginning of the thing, e.g.the hypotheses are the beginnings of demonstrations. (Causes are spoken of in an equal number of senses; for all causes are beginnings.)

It is common, then, to all beginnings to be the first point from which a thing either is or comes to be or is known; but of these some are immanent in the thing and others are outside. Hence the nature of a thing is a beginning, and so is the element of a thing, and thought and will, and essence, and the final cause-for the good and the beautiful are the beginning both of the knowledge and of the movement of many things. ”

Arkhe is also the dominant theme of Metaphysics Book I.1-2. Section one distinguishes the use of principles in a theory or an “art”(tekne) from other forms of cognition that do not depend on principle, such as sensation and experience. Section two refines the concept of value of principles, while also distinguishing tow things that both use principles: theoretical science and productive or practical knowledge. An especially relevant passage from section two is this:

“Since we are seeking this knowledge, we must inquire of what kind are the causes and the principles, the knowledge of which is Wisdom. If one were to take the notions we have about the wise man, this might perhaps make the answer more evident. We suppose first, then, that the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them in detail; secondly, that he who can learn things that are difficult, and not easy for man to know, is wise (sense-perception is common to all, and therefore easy and no mark of Wisdom); again, that he who is more exact and more capable of teaching the causes is wiser, in every branch of knowledge; and that of the sciences, also, that which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more of the nature of Wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results, and the superior science is more of the nature of Wisdom than the ancillary; for the wise man must not be ordered but must order, and he must not obey another, but the less wise must obey him.” 

This is a very important concept for evolutionary philosophy, since much of the its elegance derives from the fact that many phenomena that are often thought to lack an explanation are amenable to evolutionary explanation: For example: ethics. Ethics is clearly a behavior of certain animals, and this alone is enough to make evolution its default explanation, even if certain questions remain unanswered in the short term. Biologists often are confronted with behaviors that are difficult to explain, but they never doubt that and explanation exists or that evolution will provide the explanation. If biology was in a theoretical crisis (ripe for paradigm shift), then they would be open to non-evolutionary approaches, but given that there is no crisis, we are warranted in assuming an evolutionary explanation.

Granted the above, ethics must inherit principles from some wider domain of beings. orthodox philosophy has placed ethics directly under metaphysics, but this classification has not helped to clarify or resolve issues in ethical theory over many centuries or millennia. In my view, moral naturalism adds value by positing that ethical beings inherit principles from biology in the same way that biology inherits principles from physics and physics inherits principles from metaphysics.


The “Baldwin Effect”.

The Baldwin Effect is one of the weirdest things to be accepted in evolutionary theory; it is what accounts for much of the accelerated rate of adaptation in advanced creatures, especially vertebrates with complex brains. Because of it, individual mammals and some birds (esp. corvids) are prone to have rather distinct personalities and eccentricities. There is a very good evolutionary reason why humans “have special purpose that they need to discover”, and the reason is the Baldwin Effect.

From the linked pdf (see below):

“What the Baldwin Effect affects”

“The Baldwin Effect is a proposed mechanism by which plasticity
facilitates adaptive phenotypic and genetic evolution. In
particular it has been proposed to be involved in the evolution
of language. Here we investigate three factors affecting
the extent to which plastic traits are fixed by selection: (i) the
difficulty with which traits can be acquired through plasticity,
(ii) the importance of traits to fitness, and (iii) the nature of
dependencies between different traits. We find that selection
preferentially fixes traits that are difficult to acquire through
plasticity, traits that have larger fitness benefits, and traits that
affect the acquisition of, or benefits from, other traits. We conclude
by discussing the implications of these findings for the
evolution of language as well as non-human behaviors and reconsider the evolutionary significance of the Baldwin Effect.”

The “Baldwin Effect” is a key feature of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. It is a key part of the “evolution of evolvability” in higher animals.

The key feature are:

  • Where a creature has the ability to process many different forms of behavior.
  • And there is no telling ahead of time which forms of behavior will become adaptive.
  • Then it is adaptive for individuals to experiment with weird behaviors that are not obviously adaptive from the outset and are somewhat unique.
  • Thus ravens and cats and dogs and primates and cetaceans and octopi will, on close examination, be found to have various eccentric behaviors unique to individuals that are not obviously adaptive.

The above will include not only playing with sticks and stones, and trying our new and possibly semi-dangerous forms of food, but also quasi social interactions with other species. Inter-species interaction could lead to symbiosis or domestication. While normal natural selection merely reacts to existing selection pressures, the “Baldwin Effect” specifically means the process of experimenting with new behaviors that create new selective pressures from out of nothing as it were.

For example, the Baldwin Effect is responsible for distinctively human “Existential Freedom”

What is interesting to me about “existence precedes essence” is the following:

1) If true, it is a formal description of the behavior of a living creature. As a “formal” description, it still leaves open many questions about humans, including the following:

2) “Material “causes (how is the brain of this creature wired such that it is free),

3) “Efficient” causes (the ontogentic and phylogenetic development of free humans) and

4) “Final” causes (what is the adaptive purpose of being “free” in this sense).

My question is this: given that most existentialists believe in evolution, why have they never ever posed the above questions about the “human reality”? These questions are foundational and unavoidable. Surely with all the ink spilled over this topic, someone HAD to treat of this question. Am I really the first person to think this?

Once you have posited a formal description, you still need the material, efficient and final causes to get a full explanation. For final causes, we much ask: “Is radical freedom adaptive or not? If not, how is it a by-product of an adaptation?”

My gut feeling is that this “freedom” is one name for a few related features which are mostly adaptive, especially if the Baldwin Effect is considered an adaptation

Elaboration of Aristotle’s “Four Causes” into modern terms.

I have recently been reading Aristotle’s Physics, which is famous for the “Four Causes”. My impression is that the Four Causes require a lot of filling out in light of modern science. In my view, it is very important that we do so, since this will allow making sense of ther relation of the hitherto separate worlds of science and value.

One way to fill it out is to define various “sub-causes” within the main four, which are listed below. If there is anything which is unclear, please ask in the comments. This will be filled out in the future and become the outline for further work.

The causes are the principles of change in nature. While forms in themselves are not strictly natural, many types of natural changes do have something to do with form. Many people nowadays are of the opinion that purpose are value are in no way part of natural science, but Aristotle and myself disagree. This is why “final causes” are also part of natural science, for which see below.


The “Four Causes”

In Aristotle’s own words, the four causes are:

  • Matter
    • “Some identify the nature or substance of a natural object with that immediate constituent of it which taken by itself is without arrangement, e.g. the wood is the ‘nature’ of the bed, and the bronze the ‘nature’ of the statue. ” (Physics II.1.)
    • “In one sense, then, (1) that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists, is called ’cause’, e.g. the bronze of the statue, the silver of the bowl, and the genera of which the bronze and the silver are species. (Physics II.3)
  • Form  
    • 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.”
  • Efficient / Agent
    • “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.”
  • Purpose
    • “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. ” (Physics II.3)

Natural Material Elements

Premodern material elements

Nonliving Substances (“ousia“) have a “nature”, but no form except perhaps an “elemental form”(see below). These are found in the classical pre-modern medical theory of Europe and Asia.

  • The original elements:
    • Sublunary/Terrestrial matter
      • “Dry/Moist”
      • “Hot/Cold”
    • Different cominations of these give rise to the classical four elements: of
      • earth –
      • water
      • fire
      • air
    • The Fifth Element -“Quintessence” or Celestial Matter

Modern material elements

The modern elements of the periodic table function something like the way that the classical elements do, with the exception that there are rare cases where they transmute, which means that strictly speaking, only the fundamental particles should be “elements”.  But since we do not yet know if there are any fundamental particles or matter, then we will accept that for purposes of biology (the general domain with which Aristotle and we are concerned), the modern elements will serve as material substance.

  • Level 1 substances: Hydrogen, Helium, etc.
  • Level 2 substances: Protons, neutrons, electrons
  • Level 3 substances: Quarks, gluons, photons, etc.
  • Level n substances: Whatever…
  • Level 0 substances: Protons, Electrons, Neutrons, Photons
  • Level -1 substances: Quarks, etc.
  • Level – 2 …. -n substances: Who knows if there is really a fundamental level of matter or not. Perhaps it is “turtles all the way down”.

In any case, it seems to me that the “substantiality” of a certain level of natural phenomena is relative to how well it behaves in a certain way. The foundational task of neo-Aristotelian naturalism is defining what that “certain way” is. In short those levels of organization where

  1. behavior can be more suitably described as having “Form” in the way this term is use by Plato and Aristotle.
  2. are suitable for forming a material substrate for living systems.

Both of these above points are mutually constituitive: Formal regions of nature are those regions which are suitable form of matter to sustain life, and vice versa.

A good illustration of this is the comparison of atoms and solar systems. Atoms and solar system are quite similar is some ways in that they have a “nucleus” made of one type of thing (stars, protons) that is orbited by another type of thing (electrons, planets). There are other similarities, but the differences between them are what concern up here. All the essential differences are those which make atoms fall into natural kinds which make them suitable for being the substrate or matter of living creatures.

Atoms of a certain element are so identical that they can be likened to “standardized parts”. Every hydrogen atom in the universe is at least as identical as every new part that rolls off of an assembly line in any factory. This goes for all atoms of every element on the periodical table. There are differences between carbon atoms, for example there are different isotopes which differ in atomic weight and decay rates, but this does not affect the function that carbon atoms serve in chemical processes. Since the different isotopes behave similarly in chemical reactions (as anion, cation, catalyst, etc.), therefore play the same function in biological processes. By virtue of this common functionality, all carbon atoms can be said to instantiate the same “form”: the “Form of the Carbon Atom”.

Notice how different the case would be if all the atoms in a universe would be as dissimilar as solar systems. As we have seen from the recent data from exoplanetary observation satellites, the orbits of planets  are radically different from each other to a much greater degree that those of electron. All hydrogen atoms have a single proton which orbits in exactly the same way, presenting to other atoms the exact same outer orbital with one electron and one gap just large enough for one donated electron from some other atom. Different isotopes of hydrogen, despite the difference in atomic weight, behave in the same way in chemical reactions to the extent that living creatures are not very concerned with avoiding “heavy water”, because this difference does not matter to it. This similarity in function among slight differences among atoms of the same element is why these atoms can be said to have the same “form”.

Material Compounds

 These are not strictly natural according to the original descriptions given by Aristotle  (Physics II.1.), but rather derive their nature from their elemental composition.

  • Classical (pre-scientific) compounds:
    • Tin – earth, fire, ???
    • Copper – earth fire, ???
    • Bronze – tin + copper
    • Mud – water + earth
  • Modern Compounds
    • H2O
    • H2SO4, etc.
    • The relationship between modern compounds and the elements of which they are made can be described in one of two ways, both of which we debated by the Scholastics:
      • The substantial forms of the elements can be subsumed under those of the compounds.
      • Or, the substantial forms of the elements can be merely potentially present in the compounds.
      • Either of these options can be applied to any level of organization; for example, cells combining into animals or plants, or protons combining into atoms.
        • It is clear that water retains some of its properties within the body, so I prefer to say that its substantial form is subsumed under that of the organism.
          • I learned about this disctinction from Francois Savard’s thesis which can be found here. I follow his preference for the “subsumption of forms” solution to this problem.
          • Savard has also written about recent treatments of this theme here.

“Form as Matter”

Where a form is the product of labor, that is shaped by the craftsperson to form a final product.  For example: “The letters are the causes of syllables, the material of artificial products, fire, etc., of bodies, the parts of the whole, and the premisses of the conclusion, in the sense of ‘that from which’.” Aristotle,  Physics II.3. Here Aristotle is saying that the formal building blocks of syllables and premises are the “matter” from which words and arguments are formed.  Thus, form and matter are not absolutely distinct, but only relatively so.  Anything that can be “worked on” or “given form” can be called “matter”However, these are not the only formal elements that are the “material” for formal products; others include:

  • Phonemes (vocalized sounds) as elements of syllables.
  • Letters as elements of words.
  • Words and punctuation as elements of the language.
    • Natural language
    • Artificial languages
  •  Words and punctuation as elements of a work of literature
    • Poetry
    • Fiction
    • Nonfiction
  • Other ideal or formal products
    • Mathematics
      • Just doing math problems entails working on raw materials and getting a result.
      • Empirical Science
        • Words, numerals and symbols as elemetns of theories, hypotheses, etc.
      • Math research – new theorems
    • Other design
      • Architecture, Engineering design drawings – for these, the geometrical forms are the matter that is given form by the designer.
      • Software code – Variables, Classes, Keywords, operators are the matter given form by the programmer.


Formal Causes (Greek “eidos“)

Formal causes concern the informational aspect of things – measurements, sensory data, designs, genetic or other biological information, etc. The aspect of things that can be codified as information.

“Another account is that ‘nature’ is the shape or form which is specified in the definition of the thing. ” Aristotle,  Physics Book II, sec 1.

Merely Physical shape/form

  • “Automatic form” – Not strictly a “form” as that term is used in Greek thought, but rather unformed matter whose form is merely random. However, each rock can be recognized as differently-shaped from other rocks, and in that less-interesting sense can be said to have a “form”. (See also “automatic” below.)
  • “Hammertone form” – Hammerstones are chosen from a wide selection of automatically shaped rocks. They are not given form by the worker (their shape is not altered), but they have a form which is recognized by the flintknapper. There are numerous other natural objects whose unaltered natural (in Aristotle, “automatic”) form is selected according to skill, but not altered in form in any way.

Sensible Form

Patterns of sense impressions

  • Visual – How a thing looks
  • Auditory – How a thing smells
  • Tactile – How a thing feels
  • Olfactory/Taste – How a thing smells/tastes
  • Gustatory – How a thing

Biological Form

  • Genotypic form – The genetic information and transcription protocols that initiate and guide ontogeny.
    • Individual essence – the genome of an individual organism.
    • Species essence – the gene pool of a biological species
    • Generic essence – the common genetic heritage of a higher biological taxa, from biological genus to class, order, phylum, kingdom, etc.
  • Phenotypic form – The actual/manifest  form of a living creature, perhaps including random or environmental influences on development.

Formal Form”

  • Arithmetical form
  • Geometrical form
  • Algebraic form
  • Boolean form
  • Algorithmic from

“Material Form”

The way we recognize the form of various natural elements/compounds.

Phenomenological Form

The way in which things seem within the “lifeworld” of qualia; the results of a formal analysis of Dasein.

Efficient Causes (Greek “urgos”)

Also known as “moving causes”. Causes due to action of an agent.

  • Phylogenetic agency – This is the idea that evolution can be attributed the credit for “designing” living creatures.
  • Phusis – Could be called “vegetable agency”  The natural action that manifests the adult form of a growing creature. Present in all living creatures, not merely plants.
  • Animal agency – The natural action of animals that act from instinct and experience. Present in all animals, including humans.
  • Rational agency – distinctively human forms of agency.
    • Tekne – The normal use of productive arts
    • Praxis – The deliberate actions taken by rational agents to further or hamper Eudaimonia. Subject to ethical and political appraisal.

Final Causes (Greek “telos“)

Caused by Function or Purpose.

  • Ecological Functions – Play a role in the biosphere
    • Prior Ecological Functions – Preexisting factors
      • The Sun
      • The Earth’s Core, Mantle, Magnetosphere, Raw prebiotic surface composition
    • Coevolutionary Ecological Functions – Factors which co-evolved with life but were not strictly adaptation for the function they play.
      • The postbiotic atmosphere – free O2
      • Topsoil
      • Other organically-formed mineral
        • Limestone
        • Crude deposits of fossil fuels.
        • Mineral nodules from the Archeaen Eon from the waste products of microbes.
  • “Final Final Cause” a.k.a.”Avoiding Extinction”, “Maximizing great-great-grandchildren”, “maximizing inclusive fitness”.
  • Natural Telos – The form of an adult organism manifested by growth or “phusis“.
  • Technical Telos – The form of the completed artificial product manifested by labor.
  • Practical TelosEudaimonia, the telos of human action manifested in praxis.
  • Phenomenological Telos – The way in which things seem tp be for something within the “lifeworld” of qualia; a.k.a. “Zuhandenheit”.

Other “Causes”

“But chance also and spontaneity are reckoned among causes: many things are said both to be and to come to be as a result of chance and spontaneity. We must inquire therefore in what manner chance and spontaneity are present among the causes enumerated, and whether they are the same or different, and generally what chance and spontaneity are. ” Aristotle,  Physics Book II,sec 4.

Spontaneity or Automatic (Greek “automaton“)

“Natural” phenomena that simply occur, but have no purpose and are not regular. For example, the shape of a particular rock, the fact that it rains on a particular day.

“Chance” or “Luck” (Greek “tyche“)

Chance is merely when something happens and fulfills a purpose, but was not done with that purpose in mind. For example, if you find a rock that happend to look like someone famous, that is chance. Originally, the rock’s shape was due to automaton, but the fact that is looks like someone is chance. Likewise, going to the store is deliberate action, but meeting someone that you wanted to see is chance.



What is the Telos of the Super Bowl?

There are many among you who have diverse reactions to the results of the Fifty-first Super Bowl and the miraculous comeback by the Patriots. I do not follow any sports regularly and I only watch half the Super Bowls, but they are often very good, so I happened to watch last night.

My rule is that I always root for the underdog, and perhaps whoever is from the South, so I started out rooting for the Falcons and was very happy that they dominated the first half.

After that, I started rooting for the Pats, since nothing is more inspiring than a comeback. Two years ago I rooted for the Seahawks in their comeback, which was then reversed at the last minute by the epic talents of the Pats. To me, that was what sports is all about.

It is miraculous that people can find the nerve to comeback against such odds under such pressure. I am reminded of Castro and Che after they were reduced to 22 men but then went on to conquer Cuba. Also Ho Chi Minh, Mao, George Washington, King Henry V, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, et cetera. Also dear to my heart is King Alfred the Great, whose comeback against the Dane started with one castle (the one that “fell into the swamp” lol).

These people had the nerve to persevere even when everything looked bleak and they were up against overwhelming odds. It is this that makes humans admire sports heroes. The physical skills are certainly useful for our ancestors, but the character and leadership qualities of team sports are clearly what is needed for the tribe to defend their turf against the Vikings, the Medes, Americans, France, Prussians or whoever.

And that is what we want; no matter what your calling in life, you need territory and access to resources which must be defended by people. And these people need to be led by someone who can rally their team from behind like we saw last night. In this sense it is no surprise that humans have evolved to love sports more than they do other pastimes that also demonstrate useful traits.