Legitimizing Final Causes

The word "telos" in ancient Greek meant: "goal, target, mission, completion, perfection". The Greeks seem to have associated the attaining of a goal with perfection. Modern scientific thought is much less sanguine about teleology, the belief that causes are preceded by their effects. The idea is less zany than it sounds. It was Aristotle who postulated the existence of four types of causes.


It all started with the attempt to differentiate explanatory theories from theories concerning the nature of explanation (and the nature of explanatory theories). To explain is to provoke an understanding in a listener as to why and how something is as it is. Thales, Empedocles and Anaxagoras were mostly concerned with offering explanations to natural phenomena. The very idea that there must be an explanation is revolutionary. We are so used to it that we fail to see its extraordinary nature. Why not assume that everything is precisely as it is because this is how it should be, or because there is no better way (Leibnitz), or because someone designed it this way (religious thought)? Plato carried this revolution further by seeking not only to explain things - but also to construct a systematic, connective epistemology. His Forms and Ideas are (not so primitive) attempts to elucidate the mechanism which we employ to cope with the world of things, on the one hand, and the vessels through which the world impresses itself upon us, on the other hand. Aristotle made this distinction explicit: he said that there is a difference between the chains of causes of effects (what leads to what by way of causation) and the enquiry regarding the very nature of causation and causality. In this text, we will use the word causation in the sense of: "the action of causes that brings on their effects" and causality as: "the relation between causes and their effects".


Studying this subtle distinction, Aristotle came across his "four causes". All, according to him, could be employed in explaining the world of natural phenomena. This is his point of departure from modern science. Current science does not admit the possibility of a final cause in action. But, first things first. The formal cause is why a thing is the type of thing that it is. The material cause is the matter in which the formal reason is impressed. The efficient cause is what produces the thing that the formal and the material causes conspired to yield. It is the final cause that remotely drives all these causes in a chain. It is ?that for the sake of which? the thing was produced and, as a being, acts and is acted upon. It is to explain the coming to being of the thing by relating to its purpose in the world (even if the purpose is not genuine). It was Francis Bacon who set the teleological explanations apart from the scientific ones. A form there is and an observed feature or behaviour. The two are correlated in a law. It is according to such a law, that a feature happens or is caused to happen. The more inclusive the explanation provided by the law ? the higher its certainty. This model, slightly transformed, is still the prevailing one in science. Events are necessitated by laws when correlated with a statement of the relevant facts. Russel, in Hume?s footsteps, gave a modern dress to his constant conjunction : such laws, he wrote, should not provide the details of a causal process, rather they should yield a table of correlations between natural variables. Hume said that what we call ?cause and effect? is a fallacy generated by our psychological propensity to find ?laws? where there are none. A relation between two events, where one is always conjoined by the other is called by us ?causation?. But that an event follows another invariably ? does not prove that one is the other?s cause.


Yet, if we ignore, for a minute, whether an explanation based on a final cause is at all legitimate in the absence of an agent and whether it can at all be a fundamental principle of nature ? the questions remains whether a teleological explanation is possible, sufficient, or necessary?


It would seem that sometimes it is. From Kip Thorne's excellent tome "Black Holes and Tim Warps" (Papermac, 1994, page 417):


"They (the physicists Penrose and Israel - SV) especially could not conceive of jettisoning it