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How Not To Be a Chronological Snob (Post 5)

We all see things and naturally wonder what caused them to happen. When we come home to shattered glass, we ask our kids who broke the window. When we do an experiment in the chemistry lab, we try to determine what caused the reaction. When I saw the “Dancing House” in Prague, I wondered what the blueprints must have looked like leading to such a structure.  And when I see a new home being built in my neighborhood, I wonder who is having the house built and whether we might become good friends. 

Each of these are questions we naturally ask about causes. However, after the Enlightenment only two types of such questions were allowed. The other two were deemed off-limits. This tenth shift in thinking from the pre-modern to the modern era has far-reaching implications.

The Pre-Enlightenment Understanding of Causes

Prior to the Enlightenment, everyone understood that for everything observed, there were four separate but equally important causes. Aristotle first outlined these as the material, efficient, formal, and final causes. I touch on these four causes here. I’ll say a bit more about them in this post.

The material cause is, as you might guess, the matter which is necessary to produce the effect. To use the analogy of a house, the material cause is the building supplies used in its construction: concrete, wood, iron, plastic, etc. Without these materials, the house would be just a dream. It could never be built and lived in. So it is right to say the matter causes the house.

Yet matter alone never causes anything. It is a necessary cause, but not a sufficient cause. In other words, we need matter to make a house, but matter alone does not just magically turn into a house. Other forms of causation are needed–specifically, the other three causes. 

The second necessary cause is what Aristotle called the efficient cause. This is the energy that works on the matter, causing it to be structured in the right way to produce the desired effect. In the case of the house, the efficient cause would be the bricklayers, carpenters, and plumbers who pour the concrete, form the lumber into walls, run the pipes throughout the house to connect its sinks, showers, and toilets, and so on. Their effort structures the matter in the proper way, leading to the effect of a house. So in a very real way, the workers cause the house.

Though efficient causes are also necessary, they are not sufficient either. If the workers show up on the job site and the bricks and lumber hasn’t been delivered yet, they have nothing to do and no house gets built. Nor are the material and efficient causes sufficient in combination. If you drop a pile of bricks, carpet, and pipe in front of a group of workers and say “Build!” but give them no further instructions, no house is likely to appear.

The third cause required is the formal cause. This is the predetermined structure that energy will work on matter to produce. In the case of the house, it is the blueprint. If the workers on the job have no blueprint to work from, they have no way to know how to build the house. What are the dimensions of the foundation? Where should the walls be built? Where will the bathrooms be? The workers need the instructions contained in the blueprint. 

So the formal cause is equally necessary to cause the house. However, these three causes, while all necessary, are still not sufficient, until the fourth cause is added.

That fourth cause is the final cause: “the reason for which.” It is the ultimate reason driving the whole process (and the other causes). For example, the reason why everything else happens to build a house is that someone wants a home. This desire of the homeowner (final cause) leads to the blueprint being drawn up (formal cause), materials being delivered (material cause) and workers showing up and building the house (efficient cause).

People of earlier times understood all four of these causes, and that all four were necessary for an effect to happen (for something to be caused). They realized that to fully understand an effect, all four causes had to be identified and understood. Anything less was an inadequate understanding.

As a result, the study of science from the time of Aristotle to the Enlightenment required explaining things according to all four causes. For instance, if the question was why a bird could fly, a full scientific answer would include (1) the material that makes up its body and wings, (2) the energy used to position its body and wings in certain places and move them in certain ways, (3) its essence or nature, which causes its physical characteristics allowing it to fly (as opposed to other types of things, with natures that do not result in bodies with wings), and (4) its inner disposition to fly as a means to move, mate, or find food for itself and its offspring. 

The Post-Enlightenment Understanding of Causes

This all changed in the Enlightenment, influenced by the general zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”) and specifically due to a very influential book written by Francis Bacon. We have already looked at a number of shifts occurring during this time which made immaterial reality less important, if people still believed in it at all. The new trend was to say all there is, or at least all that really matters, is what we can see. Another theme was the shift to nominalism–the assumption that there are natures (universals), only particular things. Finally, a third theme was the shift to pragmatism, with its emphasis on what expediency and the here-and-now. All of these have been discussed earlier in this series of posts.

These shifts had a great influence on how science would be understood from that day forward. Francis Bacon put voice to this in The New Organon, or True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature. This refers to Aristotle’s work on the nature of science. 

Bacon argued, contrary to Aristotle, that science does not need to use formal and final causes to explain phenomena (effects). Both are immaterial, and therefore not empirically verifiable. Furthermore, formal causes require things to have immaterial natures. Given the zeitgeist, none of this is acceptable any longer. 

Finally, even if formal and final causes do exist, they do not allow us to have mastery over nature. And this, according to Bacon, is the purpose of science, rather than a complete understanding of the thing being studied (pragmatism in science). Therefore, formal and final causes are no longer needed. Ever since Bacon’s time, science has been on a new, albeit less robust, path of discovery.

This Enlightenment thinking is so ingrained in us that we can hardly spot it. I have had many conversations with Christians who hold Ph.D..degrees in the sciences. Many are not aware of the distinction between two and four causes (i.e., between the pre- and post-Baconian understandings of the nature of science). Others are aware of the difference but have adopted the post-Baconian philosophy of science, saying, “That’s just the way we do science.” 

For instance, I was once attending a conference on the integration of science and Christian faith. A world-renowned Christian scientist was lecturing, and an important aspect of his lecture revolved around the point that science has not been able to explain certain phenomena in his area of specialization (physics). During the question-and-answer session, I asked him why he had not included a discussion of formal and final causes in his lecture, suggesting that these causes may help fill in the missing pieces and thus more completely explain the phenomena. He brushed my question aside by simply saying, “We appeal only to material and efficient causes in science.” 

Of course, his statement was true descriptively, thanks to the Enlightenment. But my question was whether a Christian should accept this reductionism and pragmatism, especially when the reductionistic answer was not up to the task of explaining all the phenomena (the effects that science is trying to explain). To say simply “We just don’t do that” is to acquiesce to the current zeitgeist, rather than “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

At its root, this is another example of the non-integrative character of post-Enlightenment thinking (discussed last week). Even if there are other causes (which Christians know there are, since reality is more than just material), we choose to not integrate all we know in our quest for knowledge. Rather, we dis-integrate knowledge, in this case offering only partial scientific explanations by appeal to only material and efficient causes.


If these four causes are new to you, I invite you to begin thinking along these lines. When you hear an explanation given of something, ask if all four causes are accounted for. If not, ask why not, and what is being left out. See if you can explain the formal and final causes, and observe how that gives you a fuller, more meaningful, and more theologically accurate understanding of the cause and effect.

More personally, when you answer “What caused X?” reflect on your answer to see if you have identified all four causes. If not, ask yourself why not. Then think more deeply about what the formal and final causes may be.

Next week I’ll continue with one or more of Lewis’s distinctions, on our quest not to be chronological snobs.

Until then, grace and peace.

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