A Critical Analysis of Aristotle’s Theory of Causation

The theory that the philosopher Aristotle put forward regarding causation is one of his most well-known and influential. In fact, his ideas have dominated perceptions on this issue throughout most of western philosophy since his work appeared approximately 2,300 years ago. His theory centers around the idea of what causes things to be, and of how many different kind of causes there are; for Aristotle, it was necessary to attempt to investigate the phenomena that we experience in our world. His theory is also known as “the doctrine of four causes.” These four causes are usually labelled as “material,” “efficient,” “formal,” and “final.” I will be looking in depth at these four causes separately, and will also critically examine the specific strengths of Aristotle’s theory and the broader issues surrounding it.

Aristotle’s theory of the “material cause” is accepted as one of the primary accounts of causation. If we accept that everything in our world is material, then we must look at what these materialities are made of. For example, a knife is made out of steel, or a box is made out of cardboard. He also attempts to use the material cause as an example of the properties of the object; knives are strong because they are made of steel etc. Aristotle believed that material cause had two elements, the prime matter and the proximate matter. The proximate matter is matter that is made up of things with properties. For example, Aristotle would say that if a computer is made up of cells and electricity, then those cells and electricty have a proximate matter. Prime matter, on the other hand, is described as a necessity, but Aristotle is not sure that it exists. He after all believed (like many Greeks of this time) that the elements made up everything we can empirically acknowledge. Prime matter is matter of the elements, which Aristotle describes as “pure potentiality.” Such prime matter is capable of existing in any form, and exists externally and in everything. Plato had put forward a similar idea, as described in his “Timaeus”; there must be another external “thing” that does not fall into Plato’s belief about forms, much less his idea about what drives them. Plato thus argues that there must be “a receptacle of all coming to be.” However, he refers to this element of the universe as “space” rather than as “matter.”

Aristotle’s and Plato’s theories on “prime matter” have been criticised by Daniel W. Graham, who claims that such thinking entails a paradox. William Charlton also argues against the concept of prime matter, basing his criticism on matters of ambiguous classification. As he writes, “is the difference of saying nothing remains, or the difference of saying prime matter remains, purely one of words?” Both modern scholars argue that there may not be anything left to remain, but that prime matter is not necessarily produced as a result. Ultimately, they argue that there is no way to tell if the property Aristotle cites does or does not exist; therefore, all this is a “non-argument.” However, Charlton does point out that there are problematic issues behind the “metaphysicality” of Aristotle’s thoughts.

Aristotle’s next theory of causation is the idea of “efficiency.” An efficient cause is the concept of “what causes it to be.” For example, if we were to look at a knife, the knife was made by we humans because we needed to cut things. That factor would effectively be the efficient cause of a knife. Such a cause can also be linked to internal motion or motivation. The internal motion of living things would be growth or “the soul.” Adapting Greek philosophy to Christian thought, St. Aquinas used Aristotle’s theory of efficiency in 3 of his 5 proofs of the existence of God. Aquinas explains that we can see that everything we observe is the product of an efficient cause; therefore, there must have been a starting point, in order to avoid infinite regression. He then makes the assumption that this “uncaused causer” is God. Yet a criticism of this construct is that if we can foresee an infinite future, then it is not entirely out of the realms of possibility for there to be an infinite past also. There is also the question of whether God is potentially an infinite regress, since by the logic of causation there will always have to be something that caused the uncaused. If we are to accept that there is an uncaused causer, then why should we assume that this causer is God, or has the characteristics of the Judeo-Christian God?

Aristotle’s third theory of causation is the “Formal” theory. Here, he argues that not only is everything made up of matter, but everything also has a form. The form of a perceivable object is what defines and separates it from something with the same matter. For example, a table and a pencil may both be made out of wood, but their “forms” make them very different objects. The material cause is described as the “potentiality,” whereas the formal cause is the “actuality.” The idea of form is also applied to living creatures. Aristotle described the theory of forms as a “difficult and controversial” topic. The idea is very closely associated with Plato’s “world of forms,” but is perhaps a slightly more refined version, as Aristotle has taken into account thinkers before him, yet manages to show how his ideas are different with the four causes. Aristotle’s theory is also visible in the material world, as opposed to Plato’s theory, which hinges on the presence of an undetectable world. The idea of form has been criticised,however, as it doesn’t take into account the constant flux of objects and the material world. We wouldn’t be able to take into account all the possibilities of the forms of an object. While something may have the form of a table, it could also be used as a chair, or a murder weapon. A counter-argument to this objection is the idea of a blunt knife. Although the efficient cause has been compromised, that doesn’t affect the formal cause; it’s not that the knife is no longer a knife, but is now instead just a “bad knife.” This criticism could come under ethical fire, however, if we take into account Aristotle’s belief regarding our own telos, which is to reason. If a human is unable to reason due to mental disabilities, or differing beliefs concerning our telos, does that make that human a bad human?

The fourth and concluding cause is the “final” cause. The final cause is explained by Aristotle as the end for which things are in motion. This is also described as the end purpose or the telos. The final cause is not external to the subject, but is an intrinsic part of its nature. For a seed, the final cause may be to grow into a plant. For a knife, the final cause may be to cut a watermelon in half. Aristotle believed that the final cause for humans, and what separates us from other animals, is our ability to reason, and to seek happiness (which can only be achieved through our ability to reason). Yet it is debatable whether Aristotle is correct that humans are the only creatures with the capacity to reason. For example, there is a famous photograph of an ape using a stick to measure the depth of water in a stream in order to determine whether or not the stream can be crossed. Such examples render debatable the question of Aristotle actually means by “reason.” Another criticism would be indebted to the naturalist Darwin, who would argue against the idea of having a “telos” in the first place. It is somewhat unclear why Aristotle, who is described as an empiricist, would subscribe to the idea of a telos, as there is no empirical evidence of a purpose for humans outside of whatever purpose we create for ourselves. Yet Aristotle believes that we cannot describe anything in its entirety unless we mention its telos. It would be virtually impossible to fully describe a knife without mentioning its ability to cut; therefore, Aristotle’s interest in our telos comes from his drive to fully understand the cause of our existence. Aristotle claims that our telos is to find happiness, yet he argues that the only way to achieve happiness is through the use of reason. Reason will provide us with happiness if we focus solely on attempting to understand ourselves, rather than give into the pleasures of the body, which are seen as “less than” by Aristotle. A hedonist may disagree with this view of the world, and may argue that happiness comes from indulging in pleasure, not from abstaining from it.

Aristotle provides us with a simple way of defining where things come from, and why they are here. He fails, however, in appreciating the complexity of circumstances and of exceptional cases, and brands them as “false.” This choice results in an argument that contains many faults. Aristotle’s ideas also rely on experience, yet as Plato had previously explained, our experience and our perception of the world are untrustworthy; therefore, any argument based on them should regarded with suspicion.