Origin and Cause

Yesterday’s account of before and after allows us to explain the ideas of origin and cause.

Something first is said to be the beginning, principle, or origin of the second, and the second is said to be from the first. This simply signifies the relationship already described in the last post, together with an emphasis on the fact that the first comes before the second by “consequence of being”, in the way described.

When we ask why something is the case, we respond by giving an account or explanation for the thing. There are then two orders in our understanding: the order of time, where first we saw something and then, second, we asked about it, and the order of understanding. In the order of understanding the explanation is the reason for the thing, and is said to come before it, basically for the same reasons that we said that first comes before second in the previous post.

“Cause” and “effect” simply signify that the cause is the origin of the effect, and that the effect is from the cause, together with the idea that when we understand the cause, we understand the explanation for the effect. Thus “cause” adds to “origin” a certain relationship with the understanding; this is why Aristotle says that we do not think we understand a thing until we know its cause, or “why” it is. We do not understand a thing until we know its explanation.

Aristotle sets out four kinds of causality, matter, form, agent and end. The basic division here is between causes that are intrinsic to a thing (or viewed as such) and causes that are extrinsic (or viewed as such.) Each of these divisions is itself divided into a material and formal aspect: that which causes, and why or how it causes. Thus intrinsic causes are divided into matter and form. Wood is the material cause of the chair, and it causes by having the shape of the chair, the formal cause. Likewise the carpenter is the agent cause of the chair, and he causes for the sake of sitting, the final cause and the “why” for which he causes.

6 thoughts on “Origin and Cause

  1. […] As I have defined it, however, there will always be a cause whenever one thing is from another in such a way that understanding this relationship gives an explanation for the thing which is from another. This is true even when it is not a complete explanation, and this is precisely why there is more than one kind of cause; because things come from other things in various ways, and there are various kinds of explanation. […]


  2. […] Note that Richard Swinburne is not the only one who thinks it too much of a coincidence that electrons are not all different and randomly changing their properties from moment to moment. David Hume, praised by Dawkins, believes the same thing. In any case, in terms of the argument here, Swinburne is exactly right. There is only one first cause, and it does indeed explain why all electrons behave in the same way. Some such thing would have to be the case in any event, but the only way the activity of electrons (or of anything else) can be understood is in relation to a final cause, the formal aspect of an efficient cause. […]


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