4 Unexpected Aspects of Causation

Aristotle on Causation

This is likely going to come as a surprise to many, but many people today don’t fully understand the nuances of what it means for something to cause a particular effect. Do we need to see one process precede an effect? And if we do see it, does that mean that we have found the full answer to explain the effect? This topic is far more nuanced and much deeper than people see. Here, we’ll look at the four important ways in which we should try to understand causation as expounded by AristotleIIn Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2] II https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/#FouCau (accessed 9/3/2017). Hopefully, the result will be a greater appreciation for what it means for God to cause things.


Jenny picked up a tennis ball and flung it angrily at John’s face. The ball struck John right under his left eye. He immediately grabbed his face in pain and began to scream. Almost immediately the area that took the brunt of the force started to bruise, getting darker by the minute. Now, let’s ask this all-important question - what caused the bruising on John’s face? Now, you might think that to be a silly question with a straightforward answer - it was Jenny who caused it. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But let’s slow down and consider all the factors in order to have a complete answer; this will ultimately help us see causation in a much bigger light.

It’s true that Jenny is the ultimate cause, but it’s instrumental to distinguish the agency of the cause from the process of the cause. When we seek for a cause of something, we are asking for the why of the effect. But we have to be mindful that the why is far deeper than just what we directly observe. In actuality, John’s bruising was caused by four distinct types of causes.

The Four Causes

1. The Material Cause

that out of which

In our example, the material cause would be the material of the tennis ball. The material of the tennis ball was the material cause for the bruise on John’s face. If the material of the tennis ball was not as hard, then the bruising on John’s face may never have been caused by it.

2. The Formal Cause

the form, the account of what-it-is-to-be

The formal cause would be the physical shape and structure of the tennis ball. If the tennis ball had been much smaller, for example, it would not have caused the same type of bruising on John’s face. The particular shape and size of the ball allowed the physics of the force of the throw to cause the bruising.

3. The Efficient Cause

the primary source of the change or rest

As most people evaluating this example may have initially seen, Jenny was the culprit - the real reason for the bruise on John’s face. Jenny would be the primary source and the efficient cause of the bruise. She’s the one who took the ball and cast it into motion directed at John. After all, the tennis ball and its material would have no impact on John if Jenny had not thrown the ball.

4. The Final Cause

the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done

Lest you thought our causes have come to an end, remember that we are trying to get at ‘why’ something happened. And when we ask ‘why,’ as it relates to the agency of volitional creatures, we have to consider the ultimate reason - what is the ultimate aim or end of the effect. We have to ask why Jenny threw the ball. She threw it because she was angry for some reason and wanted to hurt John. Therefore, the final cause was Jenny’s desire to hurt John.

If you think that we’ve now traversed the richness of what it means to cause something, consider the fact that we’ve not even looked at the intermediate effects - the physical processes taking place in John’s facial tissue and muscles that lead to the bruising on John’s face. After all, the tennis ball hit the skin and quickly the impact made its way into the nerve endings in the skin. If we considered all the intermediate dominos of causes and effects inside the body, we’d likely be here all day.

Excluding the Efficient and Final Causes?

It’s evident that when a thing is not fully appreciated, we tend to construct more simplistic views. And the more significant role the thing in question plays in the fabric of reality, the more critically crippled is our view of reality. Causation happens to be one of those things. When we don’t fully appreciate its nuances, we’re bound to misjudge reality. And the more wrong we are, the more faulty our view is going to be.

To make matters worse, when we limit the boundaries of reality as such, we tend to misunderstand and even ridicule views of more complexity. But this ultimately happens to our detriment when we fail to examine the richness and beauty of reality adequately.

Causation and Telos

Unless we confront the telos or the chief end for why something happens, it would be difficult to have a complete answer for that "why." In our example, unless we have some way of knowing that Jenny threw the ball, we wouldn’t have a complete picture. We may have seen the ball flying towards John and hit him, but the force exerted on the ball could have been any number of things for all we know. If we never saw Jenny throw the ball, we would have the material cause and the formal cause. But we would have no idea of the efficient cause or the final cause. And unless we have those, we cannot have a complete picture of what happened and why. This is precisely why in a court of law prosecutors try to tie the events of the crime back to their suspect.

How Do These 4 Causes Impact The Discussions About God

When a potter molds pottery, he does so with the material (clay), the form ( the form of the pot), the way in which to form (efficient cause) and an aim or telos in mind (to hold liquid and/or food). If we try to explain the cause of the pottery without allowing the efficient or final causes to help us to determine its purpose, we will end up with an incomplete explanation. Even if we did not know the efficient cause (how it was made), seeing the effect of design and purpose, we’d have to include the final cause and attribute it to some agency.

As you may see, this helps us to understand causation as it relates to God. When the Bible states that God created the earth, the sun, and the moon, it would be too simplistic to expect some enormous cosmic finger or hand to form them physically. As for the physical ways in which heavenly bodies are put together, the material, formal and efficient causes can be observed and examined through science.

Nevertheless, if God chooses to employ a process by which those things come about, it does not mean He wasn’t in some way responsible for their creation. In many ways, the final cause is a far more important of a piece of the causal chain than the processes that bring about the desired outcome. The final cause cannot be discounted outright simply because we may have no way of observing it through scientific inquiry. So the next time someone says that God did not create the sun, the moon, and the Earth, tell them the story of Jenny and John’s bruise. Causation is not as simple as science describing material processes. It's time we appreciate reality for all its complexity.


I In Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2]
II https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/#FouCau (accessed 9/3/2017)