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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As easy as falling off a blog

Only a couple of years ago, we kept up with friends by reading their blogs.  By now, gone are most of the family blogs, because they have migrated to Facebook; we are the only people we know without active Facebook pages.

And here we are, not only failing to catch up with the times but willfully falling further behind by actually starting a new blog instead.  Why would that be?  Why not take the easier path?  Several reasons:

  • Facebook as a medium encourages short statements of fact or opinion, but militates against sustained narrative prose or reasoning.  It is Twitter’s more respectable cousin.
  • Facebook as a networking system puts pressure on users to accept unlimited contacts by couching itself in terms of friendship:  unless you accept someone’s request for admission to the show, you are not his or her “friend”.  Just this week, Facebook said to me concerning my live-in brother-in-law, “You are not Robert’s friend.”
  • Facebook in fact uses the metaphor of face-to-face contact systematically to suggest that being “connected” is equivalent to being “in community with”, that “connectivity” is the same as “communion”.  By taking this line, it actually tries to demote true personal communion to its own level.  It is the enemy of actual face-to-face exchange; it is Facelessbook.
  • If we all give in to Facelessbook, it will become socially and professionally required, like the cell phone my employer imposed on me.  It already is in some fields.  Resistance is futile in the end, but in the meantime one can make a symbolic gesture, like hoisting one’s native flag over invader’s camp.

More positively, this was an opportunity to build my own website, use a web hosting service, and do all the FTP and Admin and other cool stuff, and it’s geeky fun to learn.

A blog actually encourages me to write, and writing is food for my soul.  My wife wants to write more, too.  While some argue that lengthy prose is inappropriate for the Internet, lots of blogs out there prove them wrong every day; while the blog lends itself well to short stuff, it is not opposed to long stuff like PublicSpace, Facelessbook, or Twitter (no need to parody that last one!).  For more, see Fr. Hardon’s “Writing and the Spiritual Life”.

So you still won’t see us on Facelessbook, even though it is an easy way to stay in touch with lots of people–as easy as falling off a blog.

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