causes in modern physics
Fri, 7 Feb 97 08:03:00 -0500

Paul Arveson wonders about revising Aristotle's
causes: has it only been recently that this has

No, not really. One of the main themes of the
Scientific Revolution (basically the 17th century)
was that scientists ought to focus their energies
on the discovery of efficient causes, which mechanical
philosophers (not others) wanted to restrict to
"mechanical" causes, such as the collisions of
particles or (for some of them) forces between particles
as well -- though others thought forces were not
legimate, for they seemed "occult." The goal here
was to "understand" nature; mechanical operations
seemed intuitively obvious to people who lived in
the age of clockwork machines. Also to "control"
nature, since by understanding it better we could
use it more effectively to improve the human

Bacon, who is well known for his belief that science
CAN lead to knowledge of final causes, nevertheless
cautioned against focusing on final causes at the
expense of pursuing efficient ones, for reasons stated
above. Boyle felt likewise, though he too believed
that final causes could be part of natural philosophical
discourse. Descartes, however, thought that it was
sheer presumption for humans to think they knew God's
purposes, and gives that reason for sticking to
efficient ones.

The idea of nature as a machine, with purposes imposed
from the outside by the will of God rather than with
purposes immanently within parts of nature (as Aristotle
had thought), tended to move the search for final
causes out of natural philosophy and into metaphysics.
Increasingly this would be so.

My point about formal causation is that, even though
modern science is supposedly about only efficient
and material causation, in fact formal causation is
still employed extensively, at least in mathematical
physics. My impression is that scientists don't
generally see it this way, but that they should.