Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Speaking of Essentially Ordered Causes . . .

Faber's last post reminded me of a bit I whipped up some time ago along similar lines. It's not a straight quote from the Latin, but our readers may or may not appreciate having a bit of extrapolation and analysis. Anyway here it is. Sorry if its non-scholarly tone and lacks of references seems to bring down our level somewhat.

Someone asked me "Is the efficient cause [of a house] the builder, or the force he directs in his hammer blows?" This was a good question because it pointed to the need for a kind of distinction between causes that Aristotle does not provide. There seem to be (at least) two efficient causes of the house, the builder and the hammer; the builder seems further removed from the application of force to the materials, and yet he also seems more responsible for the result. How to class these kinds of efficient causality?

Now consider a chain of builders. Bob the builder has a son who became a builder named Rob, who has a son named Nob, also a builder in what is becoming the traditional family profession. Bob is the efficient cause of Rob, and Rob is the efficient cause of Nob; so, remotely, Bob is the efficient cause of Nob as well, and Rob can only cause Nob because Bob first caused Rob. But this causal chain Bob-Rob-Nob seems different from the causal chain Bob-hammer-house. What's the difference?

Duns Scotus (surprise!) gives what I think is an excellent answer in postulating a distinction between essentially ordered causal chains and accidentally ordered causal chains.

This is not the same distinction Aristotle makes in Book II of Physics in which he separates essential causes (the builder builds the house) from accidental causes (the musical man builds the house). So far as I know the present distinction does not appear in Aristotle and may have originated with Scotus, though I could be wrong on the latter point.

Essentially ordered causes differ from accidentally ordered ones, according to Scotus, in three ways:

1) In essentially ordered causes a second cause (such as the hammer) depends for its causality on the first (the builder), but in accidentally ordered causes a second cause (such as Rob) does not depend for its causal power on the first (namely, Bob). That is, the hammer causes the house to be built and the brush causes the portrait to be painted, but neither could do so without the builder or the painter causing its causality. Without Da Vinci causing the brush to cause the painting, the Mona Lisa would not get painted. Brushes and hammers cause paintings and houses, but only because people cause them to so cause. On the other hand, Bob does not cause Rob's causing of Nob. Bob shouldn't even be there when Rob begets Nob (boy would that be embarrassing!). Bob caused his son's existence by begetting him, but Bob does not cause his son's generative act. So Bob the grandfather's causation of his grandson Nob is accidentally ordered, unlike Bob the builder's causation of the house, which is essentially ordered.

2) In essentially ordered causes the causality of the first cause (such as the builder) is of a "superior and more perfect" kind than that of the second (such as the hammer), but this is not so in accidentally ordered causes. Da Vinci's causation of the Mona Lisa, or of his brush's causation, is of an essentially higher and better kind than his brush's causation. He could have used some other brush to cause the painting, but with another painter that brush could not have caused that painting. On the other hand, Bob causes Rob in just the same way that Rob causes Nob, i.e. by biological generation. Bob does not have a higher kind of causality just because he comes earlier in the chain.

3) In essentially ordered causes all the causes in the chain are simultaenously required to produce the final effect, whereas in accidentally ordered causes they are not. For the Mona Lisa to come to be there must be a) Da Vinci, b) his brush, c) paint on the brush, d) etc., all simultanously working in their various ways in order to produce the colored canvas. Without any of these elements cooperating with the rest the painting would not happen. Da Vinci could be painting the air, or moving a dry brush across the canvass, with the exact same motions, but would not cause the painting. Whereas even if Bob is dead Rob can cause Nob. Bob has done his job in causing Rob and no further causation is required on his part for Nob to come to be.

It should be clear that this distinction is not an alternative to the Aristotelian four-cause model of causality, but an amplification of it. It gets at real differences in the way things happen that merely picking out the efficient, formal, material, and final types of causality does not, for something can be efficiently caused by more than one cause and in more than one way. Similarly things can have more than one final cause, or end, or for-the-sake-of-which, which can be ordered to each other in different ways. There are layers or levels in the materials and forms of which things are constituted. This kind of additional distinguishing is not mere logic-chopping or excessive subtlety, but an attempt to refine one's explanatory apparatus of what is after all a complicated reality.

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