Shrinking sources of causality
David Bentley Hart on the loss of a recognition of inherent meaning in the natural world
“For the philosophers and scientists of premodern times, stretching back to the beginning of philosophical and scientific thought in the West, no absolute division could be drawn between physical and metaphysical explanations of the cosmos, or at least between material and ‘spiritual’ causes. The universe was shaped and sustained by an intricate interweaving of immanent and transcendent agencies and powers. It was the effect of an inseparable union of what Daniel Dennett likes to call ‘cranes’ and ‘sky-hooks’: that is, both causes that rise up from below, so to speak, and causes that descend from above. The principal way in which late antique and medieval thinkers understood the order of nature was in terms of Aristotle’s four categories of causation: the material, formal, efficient, and final. The first of these is simply the underlying matter from which any given thing is formed — say, the marble upon which a sculptor works or the glass from which a bottle is made — the lowest and most ubiquitous level of which is ‘prime matter,’ the substrate of all physical things, so absolutely indeterminate as to be nothing in itself but pure potentiality, with no actuality independent of the forms that give it substance and shape. The formal cause is what makes a particular substance the kind of thing it is — say, a statue or bottle — along with all the attributes proper to that kind of substance, such as cold, static solidity, and representational form, or such as fragility, translucency, and fluid capacity. The efficient cause is the fashioning or prompting agency that brings form and matter together in a single substance — say, the sculptor or glass blower, along with the instruments of his craft. And the final cause is the ultimate aim or purpose or effect of the thing, the use for which it is intended or the good that it serves or the consequence to which it is innately (even if unconsciously) directed, which in a sense draws efficient causality toward itself — say, commemoration of a great event or evocation of aesthetic delight, or the storage and transport of wine or whisky. Perhaps, however, I ought not to choose only human artifacts for my example, since in the classical view all finite things are produced by the workings of these four kinds of causality: elephants, mountains, and stars no less than statues or bottles. And then, beyond all these four, at least in the Christian period, there was another kind of causality, not always explicitly delineated from the others as it should have been but far more exorbitantly different from them than they were from one another. This we might call the ‘ontological’ cause, which alone has the power not only to make, but to create from nothing: that infinite source of being which donates existence to every contingent thing, and to the universe as a whole, without which nothing — not even the barest possibilities of things — could exist.
“We are not much in the habit today, of course, of thinking of ‘form’ or ‘finality’ as causes at all, especially not outside the realm of human fabrication. As a rule, we think of physical realities as caused exclusively by other physical realities, operating as prior and external forces and simply transferring energy from themselves to their effects. We may grant that, where a rational agent is involved, purposes and plans also may act as causes in an analogous or metaphorical sense; but nature we tend to see as a mindless physical process, matter in motion, from which form and purpose emerge accidentally, as consequences rather than causes. This is in large part because the intellectual world in which we have been reared is one whose master discourses — its sciences, philosophies, and ideologies — evolved in the aftermath of the displacement of the ‘Aristotelian’ world by the ‘mechanical philosophy,’ as well as by the more inductive and empirical scientific method that began to take shape in late scholastic thought and that achieved a kind of coherent synthesis in the early modern period. . . .
“It is not true, strictly speaking, that the rapid and constant progress of scientific understanding and achievement in the modern age has been the result solely of simple unadorned empirical research, but very little of it would have come about apart from the revision of scientific thinking that the new empirical approach demanded. This makes it all the more poignantly sad that, as was probably inevitable, the new anti-metaphysical method soon hypertrophied into a metaphysics of its own. Over the course of a very short time, relatively speaking (a few generations at most), the heuristic metaphor of a purely mechanical cosmos became a kind of ontology, a picture of reality as such. The reasons for this were many — scientific, social, ideological, even theological — but the result was fairly uniform: Western persons quickly acquired the habit of seeing the universe not simply as something that can be investigated according to a mechanistic paradigm, but as in fact a machine. They came to see nature not as a reality guided and unified from within by higher or more spiritual causes like formality and finality, but as something merely factitiously assembled and arranged from without by some combination of efficient forces, and perhaps by one supreme external efficient cause — a divine designer and maker, a demiurge, the God of the machine, whom even many pious Christians began to think of as God.”
— from David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013). Hart discussed this book on Volume 122 of the Journal. Another excerpt from his book is here.