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

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

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 their 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.)
  • “Hammerstone 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 happened 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.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.


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

  1. Pingback: Notes on Aristotle’s “Physics” – Zoon Echon Blogon

  2. Pingback: Notes on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” Book VII | Zoon Echon Blogon

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