ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Aristotle's Four Causes

Updated on November 2, 2009

To fully understand an object or an event, we need to be able to answer some basic questions concerning its nature. Aristotle argues we can only know a thing fully when all the causes of its existence are known. Furthermore, Aristotle believes each thing, whatever it may be, will have four causes, or types of explanatory factors by which that thing can be explained. The four types are material, formal, efficient, and final. Hence, if we are able to give these four causes of a things existence, we can claim to fully and completely understand the thing in question. However, some argue “chance” is a fifth cause or explanatory factor. In this essay I will argue that Aristotle is correct in his view that chance is not a fifth cause.

To begin, we must first determine what Aristotle means by each of the four causes. First, the material cause of something has to do with what a thing is made of. For example, oak is the material cause of the particular chair in front of me now. In other words, this chair is the chair it is in virtue of the fact that it is made of oak; if it were made of pine it would not be the chair it is. Second, the formal cause of a thing has to do with shape, arrangement, configuration, and so on. Therefore, this particular chair is the chair it is because of the shapes, curves, and dimensions that are unique to it. Third, the efficient cause of a thing is the source from which the thing becomes what it is. The efficient cause of this chair is the craftsman who has made it. Thus, the chair is the chair it is because of the particular craftsman who made it. Fourth, the final cause of a thing is its purpose, or end for which it exists. Thus, the final cause of this chair is to provide me with something to sit on because I had this particular chair made for me to sit on. There we have the four causes of things.

One might wonder whether there can be more than just four causes, or four ways in which a thing may be explained; for Aristotle, however, there are only four. Aristotle defends this position simply by saying that when we seek to understand a thing, we are really asking, “on account of what is this thing the thing it is?” to which there need only be four types of answers because these four answers fully and completely satisfy the question (198a15). In other words, why look for a fifth explanatory factor when there is nothing left to explain? Furthermore, it is worth noting, for Aristotle, every object or event will admit of all four explanatory factors (198a20-25).

Some have objected to the notion that there can only be four types of explanatory factors. Critics argue sometimes it seems things happen by chance, or on account of luck. For example, Tom and Robin are romantically interested in one another, but neither has dared to initiate anything beyond the friendship they have. Each separately plans a vacation to Cuba during the same week in August. They each arrive separately in Cuba at the same hotel on the same night. During their stay they fall in love. This situation appears to be an example of an event that occurred through luck or by chance: it is lucky because both had wanted the outcome, but neither was previously willing to initiate, however, due to the circumstances, a romantic relationship was made possible. The event occurred by chance, because both had gone to the same country, during the same week, and stayed at the same resort without prior knowledge of the others plans. It would seem this event could be explained only through luck or chance because there was no intention on the part of either agent to produce the outcome at that time. It was a meeting of chance.

Aristotle does accept that events occur out of luck (196a12). However, the fact that Tom met Robin in the same country, at the same resort, at the same time, etc, can be explained by efficient cause. The fact that Tom left for a vacation at the same time Robin left for a vacation, and they both intended to go to the same country, and they both intended to stay at the resort they stayed at for whatever reason, would have to, of necessity, cause this meeting. This sequence of events can be explained by reference to efficient causes: given the actions of the agents, event X had to occur. The final cause of this event is the love that developed between the two. By describing an event as occurring by luck or chance, we are not explaining what caused some event to occur, we are merely giving an assessment of the unlikelihood of such an outcome. In other words, the outcome was lucky, but the cause of the outcome itself was not luck. To say that a thing occurred by chance or luck goes no distance in identifying the cause of the thing. Chance and luck do not cause or produce events, they simply happen concurrently with the other four causes of the event. In other words, chance did not cause the meeting in Cuba, the meeting was coincidental, because two efficient causes (i.e., the actions of Tom and the actions of Robin) coincided with one another. Perhaps a different example will help explain what is meant here by the term concurrence.

Concurrence is the simultaneous occurrence of events or circumstances. So for example, when a man builds a house, he is the cause of the house. But, let us say the man is also a musician (Aristotle uses this example: 196b25). We can make no sense of the statement, “that which knows music was the cause of the house.” It is more sensible to admit that which knows music is a concurrent cause of the house, because the man is a musician, and being a musician happens simultaneously with the building of the house. Chance is no more the cause of anything than knowing music is the cause of the existence of the house: both are concurrent causes. To say that which knows music was the cause of the house lacks explanatory power; that is, it does not help explain how the house came to be the house that it is by explaining it was built by that which knows music. Likewise, chance does not help explain how anything comes to be. Chance is not an explanatory factor.

Thus, for Aristotle, chance is a concurrent cause of things. From what has been stated above, an argument might be formulated as follows: 1) when an event happens out of chance, there is no intention on the part of the agent to achieve that outcome at that time; 2) events are caused only by intentional acts, anything else occurring at the time of the cause of the event is merely concurrent with the event, and not the cause of the event; 3) chance is sometimes concurrent with the four causes; therefore, 4) chance is a cause only by virtue of concurrence.

While Aristotle does not explicitly make this argument, he does arrive at the same conclusion (197a5). Furthermore, I believe he would agree with each of the premises. For instance, Aristotle gives an example where a man coincidentally meets someone who owes him money (196b33). The man did not go to that place at that time for that reason (i.e. to collect the money). Thus, the man did not go to that place with the intention of collecting money. It happened by chance that he was able to fulfill that end. Therefore, I believe Aristotle would agree that events occurring by chance are unintentional acts. Furthermore, I believe Aristotle would agree that objects and events are caused only by intentional acts, because each of the four causes identified by Aristotle are intentional. For example, when a sculptor creates a statue, she intends to use the material used; she intends for the statue to take the form it takes; she intends to be the creator, or source of the existence of the statue; and she intends the statue to be created for a specific purpose. Therefore, the four causes must be intentional causes, and if the four causes are the only causes, all causes are intentional. Thus, events are caused only by intentional acts.

In light of the arguments presented, I believe it is fair to say chance and luck do exist, however, they are not the cause of events or phenomena. It is difficult to see how chance could be a cause of anything. Rather, it seems more reasonable to admit chance occurs simultaneously with the true causes of objects and events. For this reason, I believe Aristotle is correct in claiming the causes to be four in number.

Bibliography

Aristotle, A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J.L. Ackrill (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Azaz 

      5 years ago

      very very understandable......and very intresting

    • profile image

      Juantjie 

      6 years ago

      Chance is one thing, luck is another, so is fate and destiny. If you believe chance does not exist, then you believe in fate or destiny. In philosophy one should learn that you are never right until you have empirical proof that you are. As it is not possible to prove for or against chance, you cannot say that he is blind, or anyone who believes in chance.

    • profile image

      Charlotte 

      7 years ago

      Thank you,so much this is very very well written and easily understood. Thank you, very helpful.

    • profile image

      innocent 

      7 years ago

      There is nothing as chance to cause anything, lack of understing why events have occurred so is what you call chance, in other word chance is your blindness

    • profile image

      stephane86 

      8 years ago

      Your post is very interesting. I have had trouble understanding metaphysics, and mostly the distinctions between being and essence, and nature.

      As far chance is concerned, how does that explain how atoms come to form molecules? For example,how a hydrogen atom forms a molecule with a chlorine atom, packing in a crystal lattice.

      These processes occur by chance or by the laws of nature?

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)