formal causation in QM
Wed, 5 Feb 97 07:50:00 -0500

Bob's inquiry for Terry about formal causation
and QM was really for me, as the quoted paragraph
was mine. Paul has answered most of the rest of
his questions splendidly, certainly better than
I could have, but I'll try to answer this one.

For the benefit of all (I suspect Bob knows this),
Aristotle's theory of causes identified four types
of causes operative in all processes of change
(which is what he thought natural events were). To
use his own example, the making of a statue has
four causes: the material cause (stone, clay, etc),
the efficient/secondary/immediate cause (hands & tools
of the sculptor), the formal cause (shape the statue
is to have), and the final/first/primary cause (the
purpose the statue is to have). The first cause
in a sense determines the others, but each can
be investigated to a good degree at its own level.

Beginning in the 17th century, scientists began to
focus mostly or entirely on efficient causes, to the
exclusion of the others. Discussions of final
causation tend to get more scarce from about 1650
on, partly the influence of Cartesianism. However
final causes don't disappear entirely (or almost
entirely) until after Darwin. (Obviously metaphysics
and theology continue to invoke final causation;
I'm talking about science here.)

Formal causation is generally assumed to have gone
the same way as final causation in science, but this
I believe is wrong. A couple of years ago I witnessed
a conversation between Bob Russell and astrophysicist
Joel Primack in which Bob pointed out that QM lacks
efficient causation but has formal causation, in that
the equations (rather than "causes" in the mechanical
sense) determine what happens. I think Bob was
absolutely right, though Joel wasn't admitting it.
One can make a good case that formal causation of
a sort was the driving force behind Einstein's
development of STR and GTR, as well. And formal
analogies, rather than mechanisms strictly speaking,
led Maxwell to apply mechanical equations to e/m
phenomena. One could go on.

I hope that clarifies things enough.


Ted Davis
Professor of the History of Science
Messiah College
Grantham, PA 17027
717-766-2511, ext 6840