Aristotle on causality

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Stacey on Aristotle's causality --
Aristotle introduced a theory of causality, for the first time in human thought, which brought together elements of various thinkers of his time. He reaffirmed ""becoming"", arguing that change is not an illusion but that humans actually experience nature as change. Reality is not some external given, but an experience one perceives. Humans can trust their experience; indeed, this is the only way of making sense of reality. (Stacey, 2000, pp 195).

Aristotle first introduced this theory of causality as a way of understanding the human experience of physical nature. There may be multiple causes, but there is one cause, the final cause, the fundamental source of becoming, which is teleology. Teleology is then the one overarching source of change. Aristotle argued that there is a fundamental source of becoming in everything, that everything tends towards some end, or form. All other sources of becoming, whether formal, efficient, or material cause in Aristotle's scheme of causality, are subordinate to the overarching teleological movement. (Stacey, 2000, pp 196).

Within this movement toward a final form or end, Aristotle distinguished other sources of becoming that are subordinate to the overarching teleological movement --

  • formal cause -- One of these sources is what has come to be known as ""formal cause."" This is the human experience of the form of the phenomenon as it moves toward its final form. In other words, this is the human experience of pattern, of the given sequence of changes in the form. So, while the teleological is concerned with the final form, the formal source of change is the changes in form that lead up to it. In the above examples, these are the infant and the young adult, or the acorn and the sapling. This is what is meant by the formal source of becoming.
  • efficient cause -- Next, Aristotle distinguished a source of becoming which has come to be known as ""efficient causality."" Here humans experience change in terms of what went before the present state. For example, a tree is now experienced as being on fire because in the preceding state it was hit by lightning. This link between the lightning strike and the subsequent fire is what developed into the if-then sequence of efficient causality.
  • material cause -- Lastly, Aristotle talked about what has come to be known as ""material cause."" Here humans experience change as they do because one source of becoming is the material of which a thing is made. For example, a tree is experienced as a tree because it is made of wood.

The translation from Aristotle's sources of becoming to what we understand today as causality is rather difficult because causality has become so identified with efficient causality of the if-then kind. Furthermore, Aristotle was talking about the source of human experience of change in physical nature whereas today one thinks of causality as pertaining to that physical nature itself rather than the human experience of it.

Human organizations can, however, be understood in terms of all of today's modern descendants of Aristotle's four causes. For example, a pharmaceutical company is as it is because of material cause in the sense that it depends upon the nature of the chemicals it produces. Change and stability in the organization depend in this way on change and stability in chemical matter. An organization can also be understood in terms of efficient cause when, for example, reward systems are used to motivate people. If sales incentives are increased, then sales people sell more products. Formative cause would identity the source of change and stability in the functioning of a system - for example, an information and control system. Then, the processes of, say, the accounting system would be formatively causing the organization to become what it becomes. Teleological cause would be the objectives that the organization was seeking to achieve - for example, the profit objectives. This kind of definition of the four causes seems to us to be typical of the dominant discourse on management. It is a definition that takes for granted the source of change.

Transformative teleology as an overarching cause --
However, this way of thinking about the descendants of Aristotle's four causes does not capture the manner in which goals and values, the motivators of human action, continually emerge in the self-organizing complex responsive processes we discuss in this volume. Instead, the motivational process (that is, the source of goals and values) is hidden within the categories of efficient and formative cause. In this sense teleology is subordinated to the other causes, rather than embracing them as in Aristotle's thinking. In the above examples, what motivates people is reduced to a cause (sales incentive) and effect (change in sales) link, or is simply stated as a profit goal without taking account of how such a goal arises in the self-organizing complex responsive processes we are pointing to. In using the term Transformative Teleology we are trying to draw attention to the self-organizing complex responsive processes of emerging values, goals, strategies, and so on. This restores teleology to its overarching position in a theory of causality.

Source: Stacey, 2000, pp 196 - 197

Overviews of Aristotle's causality --
Aristotle (300s BC) --

In the Aristotelian world, physics was modeled on biology, not biology on physics. For Aristotle, just as the behavior of humans (and other animals) is motivated by specific purposes, so the behavior of any physical object could be explained by understanding its purpose. For Aristotle, an object could only be understood in relation to its purpose or function.

Aristotle's four causes are each a different way of explaining why a thing is as it is. The four causes are four aspects of the purpose of a thing. All four causes together bring a complete view of the object under consideration. To understand an object, one must understand --

  1. its formal cause - the form received by a thing, a form taken by the movement or development
  2. material cause -- the matter underlying that form, a material
  3. efficient cause -- the agency that brings about the change, something to act upon it, an if - then sequence of causality, cause based on what went on before the current state
  4. the final cause -- the purpose or goal served by the change

As an example, the Aristotelian answer to the question of why the statue of David is as it is, is answered as such - Because it was made by Michelangelo (efficient cause) out of marble (material cause) with the shape of David (formal cause) to glorify the Medici family (final cause). For Aristotle, the final cause is final because it is pre-eminent in explaining why a thing is as it is.

Aristotle's causality --
Source: Wikipedia contributors, ""Causality,"" Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed November 27, 2006).

In his Metaphysics and Posterior Analytics, Aristotle said: ""All causes of things are beginnings; that we have scientific knowledge when we know the cause; that to know a thing's existence is to know the reason why it is"". With this formulation, he set the guidelines for all the subsequent causal theories by specifying the number, nature, principles, elements, varieties, order of causes as well as the modes of causation. Aristotle's account of the causes of things may be qualified as the most comprehensive model up to now.

According to Aristotle's theory, all the possible causes fall into several wide groups, the total number of which amounts to the ways the question ""why"" may be answered; namely, by reference to the material worked upon (as by an artisan) or what might be called the substratum; to the essence, i.e., the pattern, the form, or the structure by reference to which the ""matter"" or ""substratum"" is to be worked; to the primary moving agent of change or the agent and its action; and to the goal, the plan, the end, or the good that the figurative artisan intended to obtain. As a result, the major kinds of causes come under the following divisions:

  • The Material Cause is that ""raw material"" from which a thing is produced as from its parts, constituents, substratum, or materials. This rubric limits the explanation of cause to the parts (the factors, elements, constituents, ingredients) forming the whole (the system, structure, compound, complex, composite, or combination) (the part-whole causation).
  • The Formal Cause tells us what, by analogy to the plans of an artisan, a thing is intended and planned to be. Any thing is thought to be determined by its definition, form (mold), pattern, essence, whole, synthesis, or archetype. This analysis embraces the account of causes in terms of fundamental principles or general laws, as the intended whole (macrostructure) is the cause that explains the production of its parts (the whole-part causation).
  • The Efficient Cause is that external entity from which the change or the ending of the change first starts. It identifies 'what makes of what is made and what causes change of what is changed' and so suggests all sorts of agents, nonliving or living, acting as the sources of change or movement or rest. Representing the current understanding of causality as the relation of cause and effect, this analysis covers the modern definitionsnew of ""cause"" as either the agent, agency, particular causal events, or the relevant causal states of affairs.
  • The Final Cause is that for the sake of which a thing exists, or is done - including both purposeful and instrumental actions. The final cause, or telos, is the purpose, or end, that something is supposed to serve; or it is that from which, and that to which, the change is. This analysis also covers modern ideas of mental causation involving such psychological causes as volition, need, motivation, or motives; rational, irrational, ethical - all that gives purpose to behavior.

Additionally, things can be causes of one another, reciprocally causing each other, as hard work causes fitness, and vice versa - although not in the same way or by means of the same function: the one is as the beginning of change, the other is as its goal. (Thus Aristotle first suggested a reciprocal or circular causality - as a relation of mutual dependence, action, or influence of cause and effect.) Also; Aristotle indicated that the same thing can be the cause of contrary effects - as its presence and absence may result in different outcomes. In speaking thus he formulated what currently is ordinarily termed a ""causal factor,"" e.g., atmospheric pressure as it affects chemical or physical reactions.

Aristotle marked two modes of causation: proper (prior) causation and accidental (chance) causation. All causes, proper and incidental, can be spoken as potential or as actual, particular or generic. The same language refers to the effects of causes; so that generic effects assigned to generic causes, particular effects to particular causes, and operating causes to actual effects. It is also essential that ontological causality does not suggest the temporal relation of before and after - between the cause and the effect; that spontaneity (in nature) and chance (in the sphere of moral actions) are among the causes of effects belonging to the efficient causation, and that no incidental, spontaneous, or chance cause can be prior to a proper, real, or underlying cause per se.

All investigations of causality coming later in history will consist in imposing a favorite hierarchy on the order (priority) of causes; such as ""final > efficient > material > formal"" (Aquinas), or in restricting all causality to the material and efficient causes or, to the efficient causality (deterministic or chance), or just to regular sequences and correlations of natural phenomena (the natural sciences describing how things happen rather than asking why they happen).