TMA | KCA 05 | What Even Are “Causes” | Part 2

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Welcome to Tuesday Morning Apologetics (TMA). Let’s talk about the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA):


1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.


In part 1 we introduced a challenge to the first premise of the KCA. Click here to look at the post as it will help to understand this week’s post. Essentially, the argument is that the interactions in the physical world are so numerous and complicated that we never know the cause of anything. Therefore, we can’t say, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause” because we don’t (or can’t) know what a (or the) “cause” is. To which we basically responded:

“Actually. Yea. We do.”

We then introduced Aristotle’s Four Causes:


Material cause, formal cause, efficient cause and final cause.


Literally every explanation of a thing that begins to be or an event boils down to these Four Causes. All questions that can be asked about a thing or event will have answers that are just further examples of material, formal, efficient, and final causes. Which is what I hope to show below.


Going back to our birdhouse example from last week:


The Material Cause of the birdhouse is the stuff that it was made out of. Which was wood and nails.


The Formal Cause is the form, pattern, or structure it exhibits, this comprises such features as its boxiness, solidity, and flammability. This is our concept of what it means for something to be a “birdhouse”. At least, the type of birdhouse that we have envisioned and are trying to build.


This is the first instance in which the challenger’s claim that “every such assignment is at best an approximation, a simplification, an abstraction” becomes relevant. To which, when we hear this objection, the appropriate reaction is to blink and reply,

“Welcome to the physical world.”

Almost everything that we interact with is an approximation in some form or another. Take a triangle for example. It is physically impossible to produce a perfect triangle, because the lines could always be straighter or crisper. Nevertheless, we know that a sloppily drawn triangle in a notebook is still a triangle. Even when compared to a triangle carefully drawn with the aid of a ruler. It shouldn’t (and doesn’t) surprise anyone that there are degrees of approximation. The “degrees of approximation” correspond to how well physical “approximations” (physical things like objects) conform to the perfect form. That correspondence determines how “true” those things are(1).

“Any material triangle, for example, is always only ever an approximation of perfect triangularity (since it is bound to have sides that are less than perfectly straight, etc., even if this is undetectable to the naked eye).” - Dr Edward Feser

Therefore, our birdhouse is a true birdhouse depending on how well it conforms to the form of a birdhouse. In this way, we know what the Formal Cause of our birdhouse is.


And, yes. It is a simplification to call the material out of which the birdhouse was made of, “wood” and “nails”. However, it has not been demonstrated that so much accuracy is lost when we use those terms as to make someone justified in claiming that we don’t know the Material Cause of the birdhouse.


Little to no value is added by referring to a block of wood by the chemicals or “simples” out of which it is comprised(2). Similarly, little to no value is added by saying, “I’m building a small structure typically fashioned from wood and nails intended to be occupied by birds,” instead of simply saying, “I’m building a birdhouse”. It’s an unnecessary complication. Why not just constantly speak using definitions? Because we’d never be able to say anything.


Therefore, we know the Material Cause of the birdhouse because we know the stuff that it’s made out of. Namely, wood and nails. Any further details or knowledge obtained regarding the material out of which the birdhouse was made only serves to enhance the knowledge we already have.


And with that I hope you can see why I don’t think we have seen a reason to doubt that we know what Material and Formal Causes are. Next week we’ll start looking at the remaining two types of causes, efficient and final causes. Please let me know what you think. I’d love to hear it.

 

NOTES:

  1. The triangle drawn with the ruler is a “truer” triangle that the one sloppily drawn in the notebook.

  2. It most cases, doing that would actually serve to reduce knowledge since, I dare say, pretty much no-one knows the chemical properties of all the different varieties of wood. And that is not the same as saying that we don’t know the material cause. Learning the chemical properties would only serve to enhance the knowledge we already have about the material cause. Again, learning the chemical properties of the wood would just be a further explanation of the material cause.

SOURCES:

  • Feser, Edward. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (Pg. 62-72). St Augustine’s Press.

  • Feser, Edward. Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Beginner's Guides) (pp. 24-25, 154). Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

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