Final Causes in Nature

We get the idea of final causes from the goal seeking nature of our own activities, as hunting is for the sake of eating, and eating is for the sake of health. But the nature of a final cause, as was said earlier, is to be the formal aspect of an efficient cause: why or how it causes. Every case of an efficient cause will have such a final cause, since otherwise the efficient cause itself would be unintelligible. However, final causes will not have entirely the same character in every case.

Thus for example the final cause of the form of the human hand is surely to grasp and manipulate objects. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection implies that this form developed because people with more usefully shaped hands were more likely to survive and to have offspring than people with less usefully shaped hands. This account is sometimes used to suggest that we can say that the hand therefore has no final cause. But in reality this does not follow, for even if this happened, it happened not randomly, but with exactly the pattern of promoting hands that could grasp and manipulate objects. Thus this is the correct way to understand the process that actually happened; this is the “form” that the process took.

It was shown earlier that it is necessary that a world measured by place and time should have mathematical laws of nature. This very demonstration gives us a final cause of the fact that such laws exist: namely, in order to have a world at all. It is more difficult to explain why some concrete law has the exact form that it has. But even the exact form of the law will have a final cause, unless the law itself is a first cause, which is very unlikely, since a mathematical law is something abstract.

2 thoughts on “Final Causes in Nature

  1. A minor question: It would appear that most natural, physical events (such as a a rain drop falling) or accidental events (like a person knocking over a lamp) will have the fairly trivial final cause of “because that’s the way the world works”, or “so that the laws of the world are consistent”, or “because several other efficient causes coincided”. Is this a fair characterization? When considering human actions, the final cause is often the most “interesting” of the causes (or is often the first thing we think when we ask “why?”), but in the above cases, the final cause seems trivial, and that many questions will have the same answer. Is it just the case that if you ask a mundane question about mundane things, you get a mundane answer?


    • Yes, this is partly an issue of how questions and answers work in general. If you ask “where is this object?,” of course it is possible to go into detail, but the general answer is going to amount to “it is where it is,” since anything else would amount to saying that it is where it isn’t, which would be false. Likewise, if you ask “what is this object”, the answer is going to amount to “it is what it is.” And similarly, “why is this doing such and such?” will have an answer that amounts to, “because such and such is the kind of thing that this does.” You could characterize all this as saying that a trivial question gets a trivial answer, or but in another way it is simply what is necessary in order for the answer to be true rather than false.

      However, the above is a kind of generic response which is trivial in the very same way: “Why do these questions seem to have trivial answers? Because questions in general require answers that amount to saying that things are the way they are; any other answer would be saying that things are the way they aren’t.”

      Two other issues: (1) the natural physical events we are discussing here are in fact much simpler than human events, and so questions about them must have simpler answers; and (2) we know more about the human events, because we are more closely acquainted with ourselves. In principle a deeper knowledge about the natural events could also result in more interesting answers. For example, we could ask why animals are three dimensional. If you respond to that in terms of efficient and material causes, it is enough to say that this is because the physical world is three dimensional. But if we wanted to answer in terms of final cause, the answer is plausibly that there is no reasonable way to organize an animal’s body in two dimensions, and four or more dimensions might result in a world which is simply too complicated for the animal to be any good at predicting the world; and without such prediction you cannot have a living animal.


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