How bad imagination can kill final causality

For this post, the Dr. is in. Although family doings are better blog material than academic musings, nonetheless academic music is much of what happens inside my head. From that perspective, academic musing is in fact family doing–it’s about my life, just not about the part you would have caught with a camera.

At any rate, for many years I have passed on to others what I myself received from Francis Bacon, namely that modernity is built on a rejection of formal and final causality, matter and efficient causes being approved. Recently, as I meditated on ST 2-1.1.2, new light was granted me from Renee Descartes about what Bacon’s maxim means. It begins with the distinction between substance and accident.

In the modern imagination—only early theorists like Descartes really thought about it, so now it’s passed down by way of unexamined habits of imagination—a “substance” is an inert thing like a Mr. Potato Head doll, while all of its accidents are “qualities” attached to it, as the ears, eyes, and nose are attached to Mr. Potato Head. This means that everything active about a substance derives from accidental “qualities” rather than from the substance itself.

This makes sense, given the denial of substantial form. Because every inclination to action arises from form, matter without form would be inert; in the terms of Aristotle’s Physics, because nature is a principle of motion and of rest in the thing, to deny that substances have natures is to deny that they have any principle of motion in them. All inclinations to action would come from accidental forms, but these accidental forms would all be only incidental to the substance—attached like a Mr. Potato Head part—because the only essential connection between prime matter and accidental forms comes through a substantial form.

It follows that no substance has a natural motion, but all motion comes from something extraneous to the substance. Or to put it another way, even the motions arising from a substance’s own accidents are only incidental to the substance itself, something like violent motion. Or to put it still a third way, all motion is like the outcome of different causes interacting with one another—chance—because every motion arises from the incidental combination of accidents and their inert host.

This means that a non-intelligent substance acting for an end is entirely unintelligible. Of course, this is exactly what Bacon meant when he denied the existence of final causality, but I think I’ve made some forward progress: I have discovered a source in the imagination of modern resistance to nature acting for an end. Once a person imagines substance itself as inert—which is what matter without form would mean—then he will simply not understand what anyone is talking about when it comes to natural motion toward an end.

If we undo the error by embracing form, then the substance itself (a) has something fundamentally active about it and (b) gives rise to “properties” or accidents that are not incidental to the essence of the thing. So the substance itself gives rise to its motions and to the accidents by which it carries out those motions. In other words, the substance itself is fixed on moving toward a definite thing that is relevant to the substance—to its good. Now, a good which is the terminus of a non-random motion is an end. So movement following on a fixed inclination toward the good is action for an end.

Just as final causality vanishes when substance is imagined one way, so it intuitively reappears as soon as one grasps that being is a kind of act. As Aristotle remarked upon making the act/potency distinction, “Had they grasped this nature, all their difficulties would have been solved.”

P.S. In the second-to-last paragraph, the phrase “to its good” sparked a long and fruitful conversation with my brother-in-law. I hope he’ll write down the results for everyone to enjoy!

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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[…] be an expression of something deeper than mechanical structures.  (I have also meditated here on one way our imagination can hinder us from seeing that human nature is […]