17 December 2010

Aristotle's Causality

This is an acquisition of Aristotle's Causality that I use in my work. I frequently combine this with Donella Meadow's hierarchy of systemic interventions, which I will post my understanding of later. I do not go into the differences between 'potential' and 'actual' here. That distinction is useful in understanding the appearance of change, but creates a very complex matrix. This is just meant to be a useful sort of rubric for beginning the consideration about one's own model of causality. I hope you find it entertaining at least.


Causality (Aristotle)

Ask yourself, how do things happen? If I am imagining something coming about, or someone “getting something done,” how do I think this works? These are questions about agency and causality and are related to any theory of change we may have. So how do you think things are caused? Most people involved in commerce and business, or living in the current modern paradigm would answer the question about causality by talking about cause and effect. This probably seems so obvious to you that it may not be a meaningful statement. “Of course if we speak of causality and how things come about we are speaking of ‘cause and effect’.” This way of thinking about causality is so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we don’t typically notice that it is a way of thinking about causality and change, rather than a description causality or change itself. Essentially we have a belief that something happens because we do something, or because some observable causal action takes place that creates some observable, measurable effect. If we think about causing something, we are usually thinking about if x, then y. We are thinking about only the active means as causal in the matter. This type of if x, then y causality was called by Aristotle, efficient cause. It represents the means by which something is brought about through action.

For the ancient Greeks there were four distinct types of cause. We have collapsed this set of distinctions down into one. This 'reductionism' is consistent with the kind of objective materialism of today and efficient cause can initially seem the cause most closely related to and appropriate to a subject-object orientation in the world, the purpose of which is the manipulation of objects. For something to be at the effect of something else usually implies some degree of objectification. Consider being at the effect of your circumstances. This can seem a situation in which you have lost control. Now consider causing something to happen in this sense of taking specific action that produce some desired effect that you relate to as an outcome, or contributor to an outcome. What do you notice about this?

Aristotelian Causality
Aristotle distinguishes four causes, final cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and material cause. Lets consider these individually and also as distinctions of and within something larger called cause or change. We will consider each one briefly with respect to time, since we need to understand how we might be thinking about time and space when we are considering change models. Consider the causal forces involved in a statue coming into existence. Begin with material cause. If the statue is made of mud, or ice, or granite, or light – you can see that all of these would actually cause a different statue to come into existence. Typically we might think of this as material constraint and you can see how it might be considered causal, in that the material causes something about our statue. The material is past based, taken as preexisting in some way. It is the fundamental content. Now consider efficient cause. This is the “if, then” of the statue. It means what is done and the effective means involved. It assumes a kind of direct or indirect agency that is readily apparent, e.g. an artist, but also involves the means. We might use a process like lost wax casting, or a chisel, or the sun or other elements in some way, or simply our hands. You can see how the difference in the effective means we use will also cause a different statue to come into existence. Efficient cause might be thought to represent any present time set of actions, or action through time taken as a kind of present whole. So far our statue has no form or at least intentional form, though it is already being caused to exist in time and space by material and action. We are merely chiseling rock or shaping clay or some such. Formal Cause is the idea of the thing. It is the vision, usually projected out into the future from this point in time. You can imagine that a statue in the form of Michelangelo’s ‘David,’ or one of Bugs Bunny, or anger, or harmony might all cause a different statue. Final Cause is sometimes referred to as “that for the sake of which,” something exists – what it is in service of. Even if we kept the material, efficient and formal causality the same, a statue in service of making money, or self expression, or necessity will all be very different statues.

Teleological or final cause is mostly about the quality and “direction” of our attention and in the absolute sense eventually has to do with the sacrifice or uprooting of our attention itself. Final cause asks what we are in service of or being lived by. It turns out that fundamentally this is the only place where we have any choice at all, though that realization irrevocably alters us and our basic ways of relating in a way that includes how we imagine things come to be or are caused.

It was also the case for Aristotle that the universe was subject to and isomorphic with a single final cause, the Unmoved Mover. The Unmoved Mover is both a being and the universe as a whole. Movement, even time and space, are the result of desire or attraction. We are attracted to the Unmoved Mover. In essence the universe is lived by the Unmoved Mover, as are we. For the Unmoved Mover, there is no distinction between thought, action and material. There is no time/space continuum, as such, because there is no delineated attentional point of view. All is one, or perhaps more accurately the Unmoved Mover is a manifestation of prior unity. Of course from our point of view, any delineated point of view, we may not experience ourselves as an expression of this. We are in motion in perceived time and space. Paradoxically it is from the very delineation of a specific point of view with respect to totality that time and space, and so motion, arise. Movement in that arising pattern of space/time is an expression of the desire (or resistance to, usually experienced as fear or a kind of contraction of our attention) in relation to the Unmoved Mover. The Unmoved Mover’s existence, as totality, is the source of all movement and even all (and all possible) points of view, for Aristotle.

Because of our nature and this reductionist view of causality that we have been discussing, this full expression of causality can be imagined to be acausal. Typically what we seem to mean by acausal is apparently arising phenomena in which we cannot identify the efficient cause, in particular. We mean something about that which is outside of normative time and space. We might even describe these sort of phenomena as miraculous. We suppose that for something to be causal that a subject (formal causality) or subject-object relation (efficient causality) or an objective world (material causality) must exist, as separate, separately knowable and objectively observable.. What we tend to miss in this is that the universe itself is self-existing, not merely anthropomorphized according to our normative view of subject and subjectivity, but as a whole. That self-existing reality-itself as real final cause is both transcendent and source of the other views of causality that we have. This maps to the conditional reality of day to day life if we begin to understand cause as a system, the context and source of which is final cause. This implies a very different way of understanding cause, acausality and therefore how things come about and what our role in that might be.

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