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Aristotle - The Four Causes
Aristotle describes and argues for the four causes in his
books Physics and Metaphysics as a part of developing
his philosophy of substance. He claims that there are four
causes (or explanations) needed to explain change in the
world. A complete explanation of any material change will
use all four causes. These causes are material, formal,
efficient and final.
The material cause is what something is made out of.
The human body of made up of cells. Wooden boxes are
made up of wood. Computers are made out of transistors
and other electronic components. The material cause also
explains the general sort of properties of something. Wooden boxes burn because
they are made out of wood. The human body needs oxygen because its cells need
oxygen. Finally, the material cause can be divided into two: prime matter and
proximate matter. Proximate matter is matter that has some properties, such as
wood, cells and electronic components. Prime matter has no properties at all.
Aristotle believed that prime matter did not exist, but was theoretically necessary.
The formal cause is what makes a thing one thing rather than many things. The
human body is human, wooden boxes are boxes, and computers are computers.
The difference between a mere collection of cells and a human body is that a human
body has properties and functions that come from a particular arrangement of the
right kind of cells doing the right kind of things. A mere collection of cells is not the
formal cause. A human body is the formal cause. The formal cause can also be
divided into two: formal cause and exemplary cause. An exemplary cause is the
plan in someone’s mind that gave rise to a computer. Things have either a formal
cause or an exemplary cause – not both.
The efficient cause is what did that. If a ball broke a window, then the ball is the
efficient cause of the window breaking. Every change is caused by an efficient
cause. If your eye sees, then it sees because light from the object strikes your eyes
and causes you to see what is there. Efficient causes answer the “what did that”
question, but do not answer how it was done.
The final cause is why efficient causes do what they do and why formal causes do
what they do. Why do balls break windows? The final cause says that because balls
are hard and windows are brittle, they break. Why do rocks fall? Aristotle said that
rocks fall because they are heavy. Air is light, therefore air rises. These are all
pointing out the final cause of efficient causes. To ask for the final cause of formal
causes is to ask why these things exist at all. Why do human beings exist? Aristotle
says that they exist to make more human beings, because they are alive. They also
exist to be happy because they are rational. Why do rocks exist? They exist
because the wind, sea and rain break rock formations to produce rocks.
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