Final Cause, or, Hammers and Letters in a Lifeless Universe

Mechanical cause, which is sometimes called efficient cause or historical cause, is the description of an event, an object being moved, in terms of pressures and magnitudes of physical motions and forces acting on the event. Final cause is a description of an event, an actor acting, in terms of the end, purpose, intention, or that for the sake of which the event is done. A mechanical cause looks to the past, and asking what bumped into what to make the event; a final cause looks to the future, and asks what the actor feared or desired or anticipated.

In a recent discussion in this space, the question arose concerning final cause versus mechanical cause, and two objections were raised. The first, if I understood it, was that final cause, properly so called, did not exist because all final causes could be reduced to a recitation of mechanical causes. The other was that final causes are prescientific.

The second objection can be dismissed with a word. Physical sciences deal with identifying the mechanical causes of empirical events. Biological sciences deal with final causes. No biologists describing the mating dance of a peacock can avoid the language of attributing a final cause to the behavior: the dance is for something and meant to do something. Soft sciences like anthropology deal with final causes when they describe the mating rituals of various tribes and nations of man.

It is an agreement among physical sciences not to speculate on the final cause, if any, behind such behaviors as cannonballs flung from the Leaning Tower of Pisa reaching the ground at the same time despite a difference in weight, because such behaviors cannot be determined empirically, and therefore are beyond the grasp of science to determine.

Science is content to describe the form of what happens without saying for what purpose it happens.

But the silence of science is not the same as condemnation.

When science says “That is beyond what my methods can discover” she is not saying “That does not and cannot exist.”

No one can argue on purpose that purposeful acts do not exist, for either he contradicts himself, in which case his argument is suspect, or the words of his argument is the result of a blind natural process, in which case they are not words at all, merely noises conveying nothing.

So much for the second objection. Yes, physical scientists do not debate final causes. Baseball players also do not play football during their baseball games, and there is also no way to checkmate a king in checkers or go. But if we are talking about something outside of natural philosophy as it relates to physics, final causes are inescapable.

The first objection is more subtle, because it is a speculation grounded in metaphysics.

The first objection is that since everything is merely matter in motion, then anything in theory could be reduced to a numerical description of the position, vector, and mass-energy of small particles. Since the intention of an action is a thing, ergo, it in theory could be reduced to a description of vectors and masses.

The mere fact that no one ever has reduced even a simple final cause to a mechanical cause does not refute this argument, since it is based on a speculation that such reduction is ultimately possible in theory.

If an empiricist (or a guy from Missouri) says “show me” — reduce a final cause to a mechanical cause — the metaphysical materialist argument need only answer that the mere fact that such reduction has not yet been done does not mean that, several trillion millenniums from now the worm-things wallowing beneath a dying star lost in the supercluster beyond Indo-Pavus might not accomplish the task.

The only way to address the argument is to address the axiom that everything is matter in motion. The problem with the statement is that even if it were true, it does not follow that everything can be reduced to material motions without a loss of meaning. A list of numbers telling the position of moving parts or particles does not tell you what it means, or what purpose it serves. A list of numbers does not mean anything in particular. Even if you described in excruciating detail the position of every dot of ink on a page, if those dots do not form letters in a language I read, and the letters do not form words, and the words do not have some relation to concepts in reality, literal or metaphorical, and do not have logically formal non-contradiction, then the message is meaningless. The message will not somehow acquire meaning by describing the position of more and more dots of ink.

Let me use a clearer example to emphasize this point:

Once upon a time, there was a homicide case. The defense admits that the defendant shot the victim.

The Judge instructed the Jury that, as a legal matter (1) if the defendant did not form the specific intent to commit a criminal act in his mind before or during the act, he cannot be found guilty of murder in the first degree. Also, (2) a crime of passion, such as when a man suddenly finds his wife in his lover’s arms, is murder in the second degree, and carries a reduced penalty. Also, (3) If the man was acting in his own self-defense in a place (such as his own home) where he had no duty to retreat, then this defense might mitigate the crime and lead to a finding of not guilty. Hence, not just the brute fact that the defendant shot the victim, but the meaning of the act, will determine the verdict and the degree of punishment.

The defendant took the witness stand in his own defense. He was asked on cross examination: “Why was the victim shot?”

The defendant gives two answers:

ANSWER ONE. The finger, actuated by nerve-firings in the finger muscles, caused the trigger of the murder weapon to be depressed, which dropped the hammer, which ignited the primer, which caused the gunpowder in the cartridge explosively to expand, propelling the bullet from the barrel at such a velocity that it struck the victim in the chest, penetrating his heart and lungs, killing him instantly from hydrostatic shock. That is why he died.

ANSWER TWO. Coming home unexpectedly, I found my wife in bed with the mailman copulating like weasels. When she saw me, she screamed that she was being raped and tossed me the revolver I keep in my bedside nightstand for self protection. The mailman advanced toward me in a threatening manner. I decided to kill him, not because I believed he was a rapist, and not because I thought his manner was threatening, but because I hated him for soiling my wife, and therefore I wanted him dead. It was my intent to shoot him in order to kill him.

Now if only Answer One is given to the Jury, and not Answer Two, then the legal meaning of the act of (1) whether it was murder in the first degree or (2) whether it was murder in the second degree or (3) whether it was in self-defense cannot be determined. This meaning defines of what crime the defendant can justly be found guilty.

On the other hand, if Answer Two and not Answer One is given to the Jury, the legal meaning of the act is not defined, or even addressed. Answer One fits all three legal meanings of the act. Answer Two does not.

My question is this. Does Answer One, the mechanical cause, contain the same information as Answer Two, the final cause?

If there is no distinction between mechanical cause and final cause, then the two answers must contain the same information. Please note that if Answer Two can be deduced from Answer One, it would indeed contain the same information, merely in an implied or derivable form, much in the same way the shape of a bird is material in the genetics in the egg.

Is that the case here? Can the information in Answer Two be derived or deduced from the information in Answer One?

Is it the case in this example that there is no distinction between mechanical cause and final cause?

Now, let us suppose for the sake of argument that Answer One is found to be insufficient, in that it only describes the mechanics of the firing of the murder weapon, but does not trace the mechanics of the act back far enough.

We must expand Answer One: “The trigger was pulled because the finger was actuated by a charge of electricity stimulating the finger muscle. The charge came from the nervous system, through nerves and nerve-trunks from a set of ganglia in the cortex. A charge of .05 microvolts appeared in the Sylvan Fissure area of the brain at 103, and a charge of .03 microvolts appeared in the thalamus complex at time 102, and a set of impulses from the optic nerve stimulated the thalamus at time 101, and lightwaves consisting of various frequencies and patterns stimulated the chemicals in the back of the eye at time 100. The lightwaves bounced off the surface of the victim, and came from the window, and came from the moon, which was full, and came in turn from the sun, and came in turn from atomic reactions taking place in the sun to produce light.”

Now, what is missing? Have we not told the thoughts and the passions in the mind of the defendant at the time involved? Of course not. Saying .03 microvolts in the thamalus does not saying what meaning from the point of view of the defendant that neural message held for him. That is because “he” and “him” and “meaning” and “message” are all concepts related to final causes, to act and to the intensions of acts, whereas “force” and “magnitude” and “voltage” and “duration” are all concepts related to the mechanical causes, that is, related to the description of how a passive bit of matter is acted upon by the external forces of another passive bit of matter.

But this merely pushes the objection back by one remove. If we accept metaphysical empiricism, then all reality can be described empirically and there is nothing left over which is non-empirical. On the other hand, if it is true that the meaning of a message, or the meaning of an act, or the final cause of a tool,  cannot be reduced to a list of numbers describing the magnitudes of matter in motion, then it would be true that there is a reality that cannot be reduced to empiricism.

Let us use the example of a tool, as this is the clearest example. The word ‘tool’ is distinguished from the word ‘object’ only because of the final cause involved. A tool is meant for a task. A hammer is meant to pound nails, a screwdriver to drive screws, a crowbar to pry. You can use a hammer to drive a screw, or a screwdriver to pry, but these uses are outside the design of the tool.

Now let us suppose that a tool exists in the woodshed of a handyman in Winona, Minnesota. It is a sledge hammer. It was constructed by the Mississippi Welders Supply Company, and bears its maker’s mark.  Now, while it is true that the handyman could pick up a rock and use that as a tool to drive a fencepost the next time he wanted to drive a post, it is also true that the presence of the sledgehammer in his shed is not an accident and not a meaningless event. If called to the witness stand in a court of law, and asked to testify whether or not the sledge hammer was a tool he keeps in his shed, it would be perjury for him to answer in the negative.

The fact that the rock is not a tool but is being used as a tool does not logically imply that the hammer, when used as a tool, is not a tool when not so used. The rock was produced by blind natural processes and the hammer was designed.

On the other hand, if called before an tenured professor who convinced him that no tools existed because no final causes existed, perhaps that professor could get the handyman to say that the sledge hammer was merely a meaningless object and not a tool: but no matter what he said to the professor, the next day, if he had to drive a post, in the normal course of events, he would go to his toolshed and get the sledge and use it as it was meant to be used.

The distinction between a rock and a hammer is clear enough in everyday speech. It is only after talking to a tenured professor would the handyman speak of his hammer in a circumlocution, such as “A meaningless object produce by blind natural processes, including human thought and deliberation, which I chose to use as a tool, but which is not innately a tool” rather than using the more natural language and calling a hammer a tool and a rock not a tool.

In such a case, the words used to talk to the court of law would fit reality better than the words used to talk to the professor, because the professor’s words are being used outside their ordinary meaning, and are being stretched or shrunk to fit into a particular intellectual theory.  This is not to say the professor cannot make his word-game logically self-consistent, but he is violating Occam’s razor, and adducing a complex explanation rather than a simple one to save an article of metaphysical faith.

Now let us further suppose that there exists another dimension, whose laws of nature have nothing in common with ours, and only our laws of metaphysics are shared in common. The speed of light is different, the gravitational constant is different, the way strong and weak nuclear forces act is different, and that universe has phlogiston as well as N-rays. The universe is completely uninhabited, and no life and no intelligent life exists there or ever will. By a blind and unintentional natural process, in one place an object comes into existence that has a wooden haft fitted, quite by accident, to a metal head. It looks like a sledgehammer, in fact, to make the hypothetical interesting, let us say that it looks exactly like the sledgehammer in the toolshed of the handyman from Winona, down to the scratches and the manufacturer’s mark.

Is this a tool? It was not designed nor built by anyone for any purpose, nor does it serve any purpose during the span of time while its parts retain their shape.

I would argue that it is not a tool, but merely an object. The shape is an accident and has no meaning. The handle was not designed to fit the human hand and arm because there are no humans in that universe and no human arms and no designers of any kind.

I would furthermore argue that the difference between a mere object and a tool is not an empirical fact. Empirically, the sledge hammer in Winona and the hammer-shaped object in the phlogiston universe are identical and interchangeable. No material property or quality is different in any way.

But one is a tool. It has a purpose for which it was made by the Mississippi Welders Supply Company. It has a purpose for which it is used. It has a purpose not only in relation to the handyman, but in relation to the whole human world. Any human person seeing that sledgehammer, if he were intelligent, would grasp that it was meant for hammering. The shape of the handle and the shape of the human hand and arm would be fitted or suited one to another, by design.

If the handyman suddenly and for no reason says that the sledgehammer is a doorstop, or a screwdriver, or a prybar, he is acting beyond his powers: he is making a statement he does not have the authority to make. If he took the stand in a court of law testified that the sledgehammer was a prybar, he would be committing perjury. The purpose served by the sledgehammer is not up to him. It is not a matter of taste or opinion.

Now, in theory, if every human being on the planet, and retroactively back through time, suddenly had (and has always had) tentacles or crab claws instead of hands, the sledgehammer would no longer be a tool. It would be useless, something no human could hold or use. Maybe we could use one as a doorstop, but then this would be like the handyman picking up a rock and using the rock as a hammer. It would be a tool by use, but not by design.

As a third hypothetical, let us consider a letter, dated February 14th, written by the handyman to the manufacturing company praising the hammer. By pure coincidence, in another part of the uninhabited phlogiston universe, a square bit of matter remarkably like paper unintentionally and accidently comes into existence by a blind natural process, and is splattered during a phlogiston explosion by something remarkably like ink and just so happens to form what look like the exact same letters in the exact same shapes, including the man’s signature and the misspelling of the word ‘nuncupatory’. The two are so similar that the handyman’s letter and the random bits of matter that look like a letter could be swapped with no one telling the difference.

But there is no observer to observe the square bit of matter. It is not a letter, since there is no letter writer, and the ink marks on the surface are not words, since no languages, no signs, no calls, no symbols, can or could exist in a universe with no life. It has no more meaning than the billions and billions of other square bits of matter common in the phlogiston universe, splattered with countless trillions of possible combinations of ink-shapes, none of which mean anything because there is no one in that universe to whom anything has meaning.

I submit that there are only two choices here: either at least one thing ultimately has a final cause, or nothing does. If anything ultimately and irreducibly has a final cause, even one thing, then empiricism is insufficient to describe reality, and a distinction must be made between final and mechanical cause.

On the other hand, if nothing has a final cause, then not only are designed and manufactured tools indistinguishable from meaningless and accidental objects, but by the same logic, words are indistinguishable from noise, and the patterns of electrons in a sane human brain are indistinguishable from white noise, or the meaningless scurry of electrons from cloud to cloud during a lightningstorm. In which case no words, including those that argue that all final causes can ultimately be reduced to mechanical causes, have meaning.