TLS and formal causes

The website Apologetics 315 kindly reviews my book The Last Superstition.  I’ll let you check out the nice things said about the book for yourself and cut to the reviewer’s main criticism:

Feser convincingly shows throughout the book that Final Causation is inevitable.  Even if someone might say they don't believe in it, no one can really escape it.  But once the Final Cause is firmly established, Feser tries to sneak in the Formal Cause as well, by piggybacking on top of it.  This seemed insufficient.  Based on what Richard Dawkins in particular has written, evolution itself undermines the Formal Cause.  He claimes [sic] that there is no static 'Form', because life is constantly and mindlessly changing.  Although Feser tackled the Final Cause aspect of this line of thinking extremely well, this reviewer would have liked to hear more about why Dawkins and others are mistaken about Formal Causality specifically.  Especially since so much rests on it.

A lot could be said about formal causes, and it’s true that I don’t say all of it in TLS.  (Useful recent treatments of the subject include chapter 1 of Eleonore Stump’s Aquinas, David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, and James Ross’s Thought and World.)  But with all due respect to the reviewer, it is not correct to maintain that what I do say in the book amounts to “sneaking in” formal causes alongside final causes, as if the relationship between them were contingent.  It is not contingent.  For every irreducible level of immanent final causality in the natural order, there is necessarily a corresponding irreducible level of formal causality.  

Recall first that for the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition, the fundamental sort of final causality that exists in nature is the “directedness” of an efficient cause toward the generation of its typical effect or range of effects.  It is similar to what contemporary writers on dispositions and causal powers like C. B. Martin, John Heil, Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, and George Molnar have in mind when they speak, for example, of the way dispositions are “directed toward” or “point to” their characteristic “manifestations,” or the way causal powers are “directed toward” their characteristic effects.  Hence the directedness of brittle objects toward shattering, of soluble objects toward dissolving, of the phosphorus in a match head toward generating flame and heat, are instances of finality as that is understood in the A-T tradition.  The A-T view is that unless we regard such “directedness” or “pointing” as immanent or inherent to the natural phenomena that exhibit such dispositions and causal powers, we have no way of making it intelligible why they have the manifestations and effects that they typically do.  Causes and effects, dispositions and manifestations would become inherently “loose and separate,” so that any effect or none might follow upon any cause.  Such Humean fantasies are for A-T an inevitable result of the abandonment of immanent final causes.

Now with that much the reviewer seems to agree; or at least, he allows that TLS makes a strong case for this position.  But what he apparently does not see is that for a cause A to be inherently directed toward the generation of some effect B is just for A to have what the A-T tradition calls a substantial form -- the immanent principle by virtue of which a natural object carries out its characteristic operations.  To deny that A has such a principle is implicitly to deny that A is inherently “directed” toward any particular operations at all, and thus implicitly to deny immanent final causes.  But the notion of substantial form was the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic doctrine of formal causality.  Hence final causality and formal causality, as those are understood in the A-T tradition, go hand in hand; to affirm the first is to affirm the second.

Another way to make the point is in terms of the distinction between act and potency (or actuality and potentiality).  A potency or potentiality is always a potency for some actuality; to have a potency is to be directed toward or to point to some outcome.  Hence the notion of potency goes hand in hand with that of final cause.  Now as I note in TLS, a thing has the potencies it has only because of the ways in which it is actual; for instance, a rubber ball has the potential to be melted at such-and-such a temperature only because it is actually composed of rubber rather than granite or steel.   And where the potencies a natural object has are concerned, it will have them by virtue of whatever makes it actually the kind of natural substance that it is.  But that is just to say that it has them because of its substantial form; for the substantial form of a thing just is the inherent principle that makes it actually the kind of natural substance it is, with the operations typical of that kind of substance.  To deny that a thing has such a form is to deny that its basic potencies (and thus its directedness toward what those potencies are potencies for) are inherent to it.  Again, immanent finality -- inherently being “directed toward” or “pointing to” some end -- goes hand in hand with formal causality.

Indeed, act and potency, substantial form, final causality, causal powers, essentialism, and so on -- all of these notions form a tightly integrated network, and an understanding of the precise nature of their interrelationships was something Scholastic writers gradually and carefully refined over the course of centuries.  It is no accident that the moderns more or less rejected this network of ideas as a whole when it rejected Scholasticism, and it is no accident that the revival of interest in dispositions, causal powers, and the like in the work of recent analytic philosophers like Martin, Heil, Ellis, Cartwright, and Molnar has gone hand in hand with a revival of essentialism and the appearance in contemporary metaphysics of something like the act/potency distinction (in the distinction between “categorical” and “dispositional” properties) and something like immanent final causality (in e.g. Molnar’s talk of “physical intentionality” and the common suggestion that powers and dispositions are “directed toward” their effects and manifestations).  The language is often different and the details are not always worked out the way the A-T tradition would work them out, but this recent work nevertheless constitutes a partial revival of the Scholastic metaphysical apparatus.  And that so much of the apparatus has been revived by writers with no Thomistic ax to grind is itself a further indication that bringing formal causality in together with final causes is not a matter of “sneaking” something in.  The connection between the notions is, as I say, necessary, not contingent.

Now, that much shows at most only that if you allow immanent final causes at all, you are to that extent committed also to formal causes.  But someone could admit this and still deny formal causes at the level of biology.  He could say, for example, that there is immanent final causality at the level of fundamental physics -- that basic particles, say, have causal powers and dispositions by virtue of which they are “directed at” or “point to” certain effects and manifestations -- but that there is no such finality at any higher level of physical reality.  And in that case, formal causes need be admitted only at the level of physics: Fermions and bosons, say, would have substantial forms, but trees, squirrels, and human beings would not.

But such a position would be plausible only if there were no causal powers at higher levels of physical reality that are irreducible to those described by physics.  And that is simply not the case; at the very least, such reductionism is highly controversial.  Whether even chemistry is reducible to physics is doubted by most philosophers of chemistryReductionism in biology and psychology are notoriously controversial.  Chemical systems, organic systems, and psychological systems have causal properties that are simply impossible (or, to put the point less controversially, at least extremely difficult) to reduce to the causal properties of their basic physical parts.   And even within the biological realm reductionism is more problematic than is often realized.  For example, the traditional Aristotelian view that there is a difference in kind and not degree between sentient life and vegetative life is routinely dismissed as a historical curiosity.  Yet even many naturalistic philosophers admit that it is at least extremely difficult to explain qualia in terms of insensate matter -- not realizing that they are thereby implicitly acknowledging that the old Aristotelian distinction has a serious metaphysical basis after all.  

[One reason why they don’t see this is that contemporary philosophers universally regard “the qualia problem” as a problem in the philosophy of mind rather than the philosophy of biology, and see it as a question of whether or not qualia, understood as “mental” properties, are “physical.”  From an A-T point of view this is entirely wrongheaded, and unreflectively presupposes a post-Cartesian conception both of mind and of matter.  If you think that the intrinsic nature of matter is more or less exhausted by the mathematical description given by physics and that anything that cannot be assimilated to this description exists only in the mind and is wrongly projected onto material reality in perceptual experience, then “qualia” are inevitably going to seem inherently both “mental” and “non-physical.”  But the Aristotelian regards modern physics’ description of matter as nowhere close to exhaustive, but rather as merely an abstraction of mathematical features from something which in its intrinsic nature is far richer than can be captured by mathematics.  Hence the Aristotelian is happy to regard qualia as material, in his sense of “material”; and where the mind is concerned, the material/immaterial divide has in the Aristotelian view to do not with qualia, nor even with intentionality considered as mere “directedness” -- even simple material causes have that -- but rather with intellectual activity in the strict sense: the grasping of concepts, the formation of judgments, and reasoning from one judgment to another.  See chapter 4 of Aquinas for more on this subject.]

Now, if there is irreducible efficient causality at a certain level of physical reality, there is also at that level (given what was said above) a correspondingly irreducible level of final causality.  For instance, if the capacity of a tree to grow roots is irreducible to efficient-causal activity within the physical microstructure of the tree, or if the capacity of an animal to have sensations is irreducible to efficient-causal activity in its nervous system, then the tree’s “directedness” toward the growing of roots and the animal’s “directedness” toward the having of sensations will constitute levels of finality irreducible to the finality exhibited by the components of the physical microstructure.  But then, given what was said above, there will also be levels of formal causality -- substantial forms -- at any such irreducible level of final causality.

Now, the Apologetics 315 reviewer appears to sympathize with my arguments in TLS to the effect that there is indeed irreducible immanent final causality at multiple levels of the natural world -- not only at the level of basic physics, but also with some higher-level inorganic natural processes, at various biological levels, and at the level of human thought and action.  But in that case he should acknowledge (given what has been said above) that such arguments indicate that there is formal causality at each of those levels as well.  Again, final causality and formal causality go hand in hand.

Nothing Dawkins says shows otherwise, because Dawkins lazily supposes (as, in fairness, so many other people do) that what makes something the kind of thing it is (i.e. its form) has something to do with its origin.  That may be true of artifacts -- a watch is a watch only because of the watchmaker’s intentions, since there is nothing inherent in the object itself that gives it its time-telling function -- but it is not true of natural substances.  If a natural substance has causal powers that are irreducible to those of its parts, then it has a substantial form.  How it came into existence -- special divine creation, natural selection, an infinite series of preceding natural substances -- is irrelevant.  To suppose otherwise is to commit one of many errors that follow upon the collapse of the Aristotelian distinction between natural substances and artifacts.

As to the suggestion that “there is no static 'Form', because life is constantly and mindlessly changing,” this sort of talk, though also very common, is just muddleheaded.  If species A gives rise to species B, that does not entail that the form of an A somehow morphed into the form of a B -- whatever that could mean -- but rather that organisms that had the form of A gave rise to organisms with a different form.  The form itself doesn’t change, any more than erasing a triangle from a blackboard changes the form of triangularity.  What happens in that case is that the matter which had the form of a triangle now has the form of a pile of dust particles -- not that the form of triangularity has itself changed, so that the geometry textbooks would have to be rewritten to make reference to dust particles instead!

So, the reviewer’s criticisms miss the point.  But he is right to say that TLS gives more explicit attention to final causality than to formal causality, at least in the latter part of the book.  The reasons for this are that final causality has been the main object of attack among critics of Aristotelianism and Scholasticism, and that among the various interrelated A-T concepts cited above, final causality is the most crucial.  It is not for nothing that Aquinas calls the final cause “the cause of causes.”  Deny that final causality is immanent to the natural world and the whole A-T edifice (the act/potency distinction, substantial forms, etc.) pretty much collapses.  Grant that final causes are immanent to the natural world, and the whole A-T edifice -- together with its implications for natural theology and natural law -- pretty much follows.  Which is no doubt one reason many people are so loath to grant it.
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