ANDREA SANGIACOMO: In this video, we will try to reflect on how the use of scientific notions is deeply connected with broader philosophical, metaphysical, and theological issues. In particular, we will focus on the notion of cause and on the difference between efficient and final causes. Since Aristotle, science has been defined as the quest for the reasons for why things happen in the way in which they do. Look, for instance, at this statue of Aletta Jacobs, the first woman who completed a Dutch university degree. What is the cause of this statue? An immediate answer that comes to mind is that someone made it by arranging the raw materials in such and such a way.
This kind of cause, usually called the efficient cause, fits well our expectations about what the cause is supposed to explain, namely, how something came about. But is this the whole story? Some early modern philosophers such as Descartes and Hobbes would say yes. Once you know the efficient cause, you know pretty much all what you need to know about the nature of a thing. You know how it is produced. And eventually, you can even reproduce it by imitating the efficient cause. However, when we ask why is this statue here, we are mostly interested in the reasons that led the city of Groningen to dedicate a statue to Aletta in their square.
These reasons refers to the sake for which the statue has been made. This kind of cause is usually called the final cause, and historically speaking, has been the most controversial. It might seem that final causes have more to do with human intentional actions, and they do not really have to do with natural philosophy. Stones, for instance, [CLATTERS] they drop not because they want to reach the ground. And trees, they grow roots, not because it wants to get nourishment. Other authors, such as Boyle and Newton, however, contended that final causes are necessary to better understand natural processes, especially in highly complex domains such as those of biology and anatomy.
How can we account for the nature of an eye if we do not consider its function, namely, the fact that the eye is designed to see? How can we understand the functioning of a living being such as a bird if we don’t consider that birds tend naturally to preserve their life, reproduce, and avoid destruction? However, admitting final causes in nature has some broader philosophical implications. Most philosophers in the 17th century agreed on the fact that final causes entail some form of intentionality. In the case of human beings, it is easy to say that I’m walking in the square in order to contemplate the statue of Aletta Jacobs.
In this case, I can think about my goal and accomplish it because I’m a rational being. But what about stones and plants? Even assuming that they do operate for some sort of end or goal, they do not seem to have any intelligence to establish their own goals. Mediaeval scholastic philosophers were ready to say that all natural beings deprived of reason operate for an end that they do not decide for themselves. In fact, the ends or goals of non-rational beings are set by God himself. In Western Christian theology, God is a supremely intelligent architect of the whole universe.
Despite all disagreements between early modern natural philosophers and scholastic authors that we discussed during this course, early modern defenders of final causes were ready to take up this scholastic suggestion. Authors such as Boyle and Newton were very happy to keep the connection between final causes and nature and divine design. They argued that, in fact, recognising final causes in nature can be used as an argument to show the existence of a supremely wise creator of the natural world, namely God But wait a minute. Isn’t this appeal to God exactly what science should not make? After all, science is about the natural world, not about God. Right? This question is very common today.
If we look at the 17th and 18th century context, we see that science worked very differently at the time. Scientific practises were integrated in a culture that made it necessary to deal with issues that are now associated with religion and theology. The case of final causes is a good example of how scientific notions were surrounded by broader philosophical and metaphysical issues. The next steps will try to investigate more the different facets of this early modern attitude.