TMA | KCA 07 | What Even Are “Causes” | Part 4

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.


We’re still looking at a challenge to the first premise of the KCA. Which runs something like,

“Because the interactions in our universe are so numerous and complicated, we don’t or can’t know what a/the cause really is for any event or contingent thing.”

Our rebuttal to this claim is simply that we do know what causes are and that any knowledge that we have or accrue which explains an event or contingent thing will fall under Aristotle’s four causal categories.


Formal Cause, Material Cause, Efficient Cause and Final Cause.


Today, we are focusing on the last of the Four Causes. The Final Cause.


When we talk about the “Final Cause” we’re talking about the end, goal, or purpose of a thing. Referring, once again, back to our beloved birdhouse example from Part 1, my birdhouse has a few Final Causes. The first Final Cause is to bring joy to my wife. The second Final Cause is to attract and house a growing bird family. The third Final Cause is to look nice in the yard. There are other Final Causes that can be discovered for the birdhouse but those three are the major ones.


Final Causality is often thought to merely mean, “the function of a thing”. But, as you can see above, this is not necessarily true. While all functions are of Final Causality, not all Final Causes involve having a function (1).

“For the Aristotelian, final causality or teleology (to use a more modern expression) is evident wherever some natural object or process has a tendency to produce some particular effect or range of effects.” -Dr Edward Feser

The Final Cause is probably the most controversial of the Four Causes and there are a couple reasons for this. a) One is that Final Causality seems inextricably tied to intentionality and it ought to be considered absurd to believe that a birdhouse has intentionality. b) Another is, if every contingent thing and event can be explained by something like Efficient Causes, then there seems to be no need for further explanations. Rejecting Final Causality also has the added benefit of removing the troubling prospect of the existence of God and the moral accountability that comes with it. There are more reasons but we’ll just focus on a) and b) here.


The focus for challenge a) is that when we say, “The birdhouse’s purpose is to bring joy to my wife”, it sounds like the birdhouse has intentionality. As though the birdhouse, itself, is “trying” and “wants to pursue”, in a conscious way, its purpose to bring joy to my wife. But that is just to misunderstand what a Final Cause is. Aristotle didn’t think that Final Causes were necessarily bound to consciousness, so why should anyone else? We can easily agree that it’s absurd to attribute intentionality to inanimate objects like birdhouses. After all, the birdhouse’s Final Cause to attract and house a growing bird family doesn’t seem to require a consciousness nor any kind of “effort” on the part of the birdhouse.


But, then again, why remove intentionality from the equation altogether? The point of the Four Causes are to point beyond the contingent thing itself. So, while it’s true that Aristotle didn’t seem to think Final Causes were bound to consciousness, that doesn’t mean that we need to believe that no Final Causes are bound to consciousness. For example, the birdhouse has the Final Cause to bring joy to my wife, only because a consciousness has given it that Final Cause. That consciousness, of course, is me and not the birdhouse.


Now for reason b). Here the idea is that science has removed the need for Final Causes. Since science is able to explain everything through various physical interactions, anything resembling “Final Causes” is actually illusory. Those physical interactions are often thought to be the Efficient Cause that we discussed in Part 3. However, you simply can’t properly understand Efficient Causes apart from Final Causes. As a matter of fact, there can’t be Efficient Causes without Final ones. Reason b) is actually why causation has become such a problem for modern thinkers (2). Because Efficient Causes are always goal directed. And goals are the realm of Final Causes.

I’m now going to quote Dr Edward Feser at length because it’s worth it:

Aquinas refers to the final cause as “the cause of causes”, and for good reason. The material cause of a thing underlies its potential for change, but potentialities … are always potentialities for, or directed toward, some actuality. Hence final causality underlies all potentiality and thus all materiality. The final cause of a thing is also the central aspect of its formal cause; indeed, it determines its formal cause. For it is only because a thing has a certain end or final cause that it has the form it has - hence hearts have ventricles, atria, and the like precisely because they have the function of pumping blood. (“Form follows function,” you might say, though Aristotle would have been horrified at modern architecture’s simple-minded application of this principle.) [please see part 2] And as I have said …, efficient causality cannot be made sense of apart from final causality. Indeed, nothing makes sense - not the world as a whole, not morality or human action in general, not the thoughts you’re thinking or the words you’re using, not anything at all - without final causes. They are certainly utterly central to, and ineliminable from, our conception of ourselves as rational and freely choosing agents, whose thoughts and actions are always directed toward an end beyond themselves.


And with that it can be seen that we do know what Final Causes are and that they are not only real but are obvious and unavoidable. This is also the final nail in the coffin for the claim that we don’t or can’t know what a/the cause is. Yes, our world is very complicated and contains many, many interactions. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know what causes are. Nor does it mean that we can never know what a/the cause is. It only goes to show that we can always further enhance our knowledge. That there’s always something for us to learn and explore. So, it’s just not true that the Four Causes are some sort of “show stopper” for scientific inquiry and investigation. We only stop investigating because we want to. On the contrary, anyone who actually thinks that we don’t know what causes are or that we can never know causes, are the ones who really destroy scientific inquiry and investigation. Talk about ironic.


I also hope you can finally see why I don’t think this challenge to the first premise of the KCA provides us with a significant defeater for believing the truth of the first premise. As a matter of fact, personally, I tend to consider this challenge to be kind of embarrassing. But what do you think? Do you want to destroy science by utilizing this challenge to the first premise? Or would you rather be a science loving and causally cognizant entity? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

NOTES:

  1. The word “function” here is intended to mean, “the role or part something plays in a machine”. Like, the Final Cause of a pump is to move fluid. Which is the same as its function in a water treatment facility. The pump's role in the water treatment facility is to move water.

  2. In Part 3 we briefly mentioned the problem being the idea that "events are causes" when they aren’t. Things are causes.


SOURCES:

  • Feser, Edward. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (Pg. 64, 70-71). St Augustine’s Press.

  • Feser, Edward. Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Beginner's Guides) (pp. 25, 26). Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

  • Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica (Complete & Unabridged) . Coyote Canyon Press. Kindle Edition.

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