Levels and the Four Causes

As I point out in (I, 32) of the book, material things have the material and efficient causes natively; final and formal causes through humans.

Humans have in addition the final cause natively; yet the formal cause through God.

Finally, God has all four causes natively if vacuously (since He is uncaused).

Other Scientism

Paul Copan falls victim to a nowadays unusual error. He realizes clearly that the nature or essence of a human being is fundamentally different from the nature of rock, a merely material object.

Natural sciences have acquired such prestige that they have almost entirely eclipsed the contributions of moral and social sciences. It is considered a manifestation of the philosophical virtue of “tough-mindedness” to be a champion of exact quantitative sciences. Studying man has degenerated into a pissing contest of which philosopher is more thereby tough-minded. Human sciences have all but disappeared; those that have not have tried to imitate physics at least in their methodology if not always conclusions. The fallacy of reducing humans to inanimate nature or plants (in the extreme, humans are “really” “just” bags of chemicals or “just” colonies of fungus) or at best, to animals is known as “scientism.”

This is an infelicitous term, to be sure, because economics, ethics are sciences, too — as in, theoretical edifices, but we’re stuck with it, and that’s what I’ll be using.

Mises, on the contrary, as a preamble to economic reasoning recommends if not metaphysical than at least methodological dualism:

In the present state of our knowledge the fundamental statements of positivism, monism, and panphysicalism are mere metaphysical postulates devoid of any scientific foundation and both meaningless and useless for scientific research. Reason and experience show us two separate realms: the external world of physical, chemical, and physiological phenomena and the internal world of thought, feeling, valuation, and purposeful action. No bridge connects — as far as we can see today — these two spheres. (Human Action, 18)

Copan’s objections to scientism are different: they center not on what humans beings somewhat obviously are but on how they apparently came to be. Our author keeps hammering on that point throughout his paper:

affirmation of human dignity, rights, and duties is something we would readily expect if God exists — but not if humans have emerged from valueless, mindless processes. (143)

Why think impersonal/physical, valueless processes will produce valuable, rights-bearing persons? (146)

So anyone can know that humans have rights and dignity and obligations. But, more crucially, how did they come to be that way — particularly if they are the result of valueless, cause-and-effect physical processes from the big bang until now? Theism offers the requisite foundations. (146)

In the case of morality, we are still left wondering how value and obligation came to be thrust upon a valueless context of unguided matter in motion to have a context for the truth of “Murder is wrong.” (148)

How then do we best account for the existence of valuable, morally responsible, self-aware, reasoning, truth-seeking, living human beings who inhabit a finely tuned, beautiful universe that came to exist a finite time ago? Is this best explained naturalistically — namely, the result of disparate valueless, mindless, lifeless physical processes in a universe that came into existence from nothing? (149)

Thomas Nagel puts it candidly: “There is no room for agency in a world of neural impulses, chemical reactions, and bone and muscle movements.” (155)

If humans are simply more developed animals, why think there are moral duties to which they must subscribe — or that they are even morally responsible? (156)

I think these quotes are sufficient to bring to light Copan’s argument. He is obsessed with the problem of “where we came from.” Unfortunately, since little is known about it, Copan’s case is built upon sand as judged by his own standards. Theism, for him, is little more than inference to best explanation: if man could not have arisen by blind evolution, then he must have been created. Hence, God. QED, apparently.

We shall deal with this line of reasoning shortly; I, at any rate, agree with the atheist philosopher David Stove that “Such questions strike me, in fact, as overwhelmingly uninteresting: like the questions (say) where the Toltecs came from, or the Hittites, and how they came. They came, like our species itself, from somewhere, and they came somehow. The details do not matter, except to specialists. What does matter is, to see our species rightly, as it now is, and as it is known historically to have been: and in particular, not to be imposed upon by the ludicrously false portrayals which Darwinians give of the past, and even of the present, of our species.” (Darwinian Fairytales, vii, emphasis mine)

Not only is the question of our origins uninteresting, it is supremely irrelevant for theology.

For example, when challenged with an argument that the world must have began and was therefore created by something or someone, a skeptic may reply that for all he knows, the universe has existed forever. Recent empirical evidence from physics is inconclusive and is of little philosophical value. Leave physics to the physicists. The kalam argument, too, is unsatisfactory: it tries to show that it is impossible to traverse an actual infinite year by year or second by second. But, since time is neither infinite multitude (of real objects) nor magnitude — which I admit cannot exist — perhaps the infinitude of time was traversed in some other way. If there was no such way, then unfortunately, Copan (and Craig) would prove too much: that God, who is actually infinite, is also impossible. The argument is that if eternal existence is possible, then a fortiori, something much less amazing and spectacular that it, viz., everlasting existence, is possible, as well. Modus tollens.

That the universe has a beginning is not a deliverance of reason but an article of faith.

Now let’s take a further step. I hereby claim (purely philosophically) that humans, too, have existed forever. There is an endless cycle of deaths and rebirths. Each individual upon death goes to some sort of afterlife where he might linger for a few years or a few billion years, until he is reborn unto this world anew. Then Copan’s argument is immediately undone. The “impersonal/physical, valueless processes” have gone on forever, but so have the “personal value-laden” processes. Both will perhaps continue to do so.

It can no longer be said that a valueless world has mysteriously yielded values; for according to this particular skeptic, values have always been around, since human souls are naturally immortal and have been subject to this cycle from all eternity. Whence, then, God?

For example, the Nagel quote above assumes in a grotesque reduction that humans are “really” “nothing more than” neural impulses, chemical reactions, and bone and muscle movements. This assumption is false, but theism has no influence on refuting it.

Let’s continue to “objective moral values” (OMVs). I would use the term “metaphysical” values, reserving “moral” for personal character traits (whether virtuous or vicious) one might cultivate (perhaps at the expense of other traits) to make his soul lovely, rather than natural law like “You shall not kill.” And that’s what OMVs are: they are propositions of natural law as elucidated by, say, Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty.

On the one hand, to say that God, as conceived by classical theism, is the cause of OMVs is to do God injustice: God is the source not only of those fine things but in fact of everything, whether of objective moral values or of subjective metaphysical ideas.

Consider that level 1 creatures such as rocks, have their material and efficient causes deep inside of them. A rock is made of this-and-that and functions so-and-so.

Level 2 creatures, humans especially, have in addition their final cause inside: they live for the sake of their happiness. “What a man is for” is his own happiness. A 1st-level machine, on the other hand, has no purpose of existing other than to serve man in pursuit of this man’s happiness. A machine is a perfect slave; a man has no external to him purpose, and ethics rightly recognizes that “using” a person without giving proper consideration to that person’s own values is very wrong. A human being is (or has) an (or his) “end in himself.”

There are other differences between man and machine, such as than man has unique intelligence and a genuine personality or “traits of character.” Mises points out:

It is arbitrary to consider only the satisfaction of the body’s physiological needs as “natural” and therefore “rational” and everything else as “artificial” and therefore “irrational.” It is the characteristic feature of human nature that man seeks not only food, shelter, and cohabitation like all other animals, but that he aims also at other kinds of satisfaction. Man has specifically human desires and needs which we may call “higher” than those which he has in common with the other mammals. (HA, 20)

… reason, man’s most characteristic feature, is also a biological phenomenon. It is neither more nor less natural than any other feature of the species Homo sapiens, for instance, the upright gait or the hairless skin. (176)

But an exploration of these would take us too far afield.

As anyone can see, I have figured all this out without engaging in any theological reasoning. If we want, we can continue by saying that level 3 “Goodness” has at last the formal cause inside it, too. God is what He is, and His essence is uncaused. Yet humans are made by God, and God ultimately decides who shall become what. But only if we want.

If moral values are objective, then they must have a ground in something that is objective, too. I have suggested that it is human nature. Moral facts are part of our human nature and are inseparable from it. Hence, there is no “unexplained huge cosmic coincidence between the existence of these moral facts and the eventual emergence of morally responsible agents who are obligated to them.” (148) Moral facts come into existence with humans and go out of existence with them. This is a proximate cause. An ultimate cause may well be God, though that’s not saying much, because God is the ultimate First cause of everything. Why though go that far? At any rate, having gone that far, Copan produces no interesting attributes of God that his theologizing has revealed.

His output is that “humans have been made in the image of a faithful, truthful, rational, morally excellent, worship-worthy Being.” But humans, too, can be faithful, truthful, rational, etc. How does this description differentiate between humans and God?

Is God “really” “just” an unusually saintly person, according to Copan?

In a strange diversion, Copan shifts away from physics to psychology, declaring even it beyond the pale! A psychologist, he argues, would say that “Hitler, being bitter and angry, held many false beliefs about the Jews (for example, that they were responsible for Germany’s defeat in WWI). Hitler sought to destroy the Jews as a way of releasing his hostilities.” (156) Doesn’t he see that this explanation, though not involving OMVs, is already human, not material? Hitler’s bitterness is not the bitterness of caffeine. Anger is an immaterial subjective mental state. Moreover, this explanation actually seems enlightening. “Hitler was morally depraved” merely condemns Hitler without understanding him, though I’m sure there is room for both of these.

Even if humans are not “simply more developed animals,” and even if we properly reject scientism, I still do not see any reason in order to do ethics to wax theological. I might want to at some point, but the human and divine sciences are separate and distinct. Contributing to one science need not involve using the other.

Copan concludes: “If, however, we have been created in the image of a good, supremely valuable, and free being and have been endowed with moral value and ‘certain unalienable rights,’ then the theist is able to offer a much more plausible context for affirming human dignity, rights, and responsibility than the naturalist who wants to be a realist but doesn’t quite know how.” (157) That we are so created needs to be proven not just asserted as self-evident. “The idea that God could be evil or command evil is utterly contrary to the very definition of God (who is intrinsically morally excellent, maximally great, and worthy of worship).” (160) But we are not supposed to define God but to unfold His attributes one adequate argument after another and in such a way as to draw undeniable conclusions about the difference between Creator and creatures.

God is as much above me as I am above rocks. Nothing like this follows from Copan’s flawed theology and “reverse scientism,” wherein he confuses ethics with theology.

“Effectings” Quadriformity

Physical effecting (i.e., causation so called so that it is not confused with the Aristotelian 4 causes) has the cause before the effect.

Teleological effecting has the cause after the effect.

The Aristotelian 4 causes are co-present with the effect.

Grounding effecting has an eternal divine cause over the entire temporal effect.

Some Quadriformities

Aspects of wisdom:

Goodness: the will, objective real
Truth: the intellect, objective ideal
Beauty: power, subjective real
Unity: the union of the above, subjective ideal

Goodness of:

God’s 3rd level: objective real
Natures of all other things, including the 2nd-level God: objective ideal
Moral good: subjective real
Physical good (pleasure): subjective ideal

Aristotelian causes:

Material: Guardian
Final: Idealist
Efficient: Rational
Formal: Artisan

Time periods:

Past: Guardian
Future: Idealist
Timelessness: Rational
Present: Artisan

Time relations:

Before the effect: physical cause
After: teleological cause
During: Aristotelian 4 causes
Eternally co-present with: divine cause


A posteriori analytic: Guardian
A priori synthetic: Idealist
A posteriori inductive: Rational
A priori deductive: Artisan

The permutations of:

Exists / does not exist;
Has essence / does not have essence

Reference / no reference;
Meaning / no meaning.

Mental powers:

Recollection: past
Anticipation: future
Imagination: timeless
Perception: present


Guardian (yin) + Idealist (yang) = fruit of the virtue trinity, self-knowledge
Rational (yin) + Artisan (yang): = fruit of the happiness trinity, enjoyment

“Subvenience” As Regards Aristotelian Causes

Supervenience of a higher B on a lower A means that the same A entails the same B, or, alternatively, a difference in B for two things is due entirely to the difference in A in them. For example, some ethicists argue that moral propositions, such as “murder is wrong” supervene on the natural world. It’s a form of reductionism.

Let me define a relation called “subvenience” which is just like supervenience except that B is lower than A. I claim that the Aristotelian causes subvene on each other in a straightforward way.

The hierarchy is as follows: material, efficient, final, formal. Hence:

Probably the easiest subvenience to see that of the material cause on efficient. If X and Y have the same efficient cause, i.e., work or function in exactly the same way, then by that very fact they must have the same material cause, i.e., they are composed of the same stuff. Or: if any two objects are made of different matter (say, water and oil), then some of their behaviors will be different. (But not the reverse; e.g., the same metal can be used in both swords and plowshares.) How could we even say that X and Y are two different chemicals, say, if every test we ran on them produced the exact same results?

At the limit, if absolutely every behavior of X and Y were the same, then we’d have to conclude that X and Y are made of the same material.

Going a step further, if X and Y are, say, 2 identical wooden planks, then their having the same material and efficient causes does not guarantee that they will be used in the same way. For example, one plank can be made into a desk; the other, into a door. The reverse is more plausible. Or is it? Can’t a wooden desk and metal desk be equally serviceable to a person? Perhaps, and one can indeed be indifferent to what the desk he desires is made of. For example, a salesman in a furniture store can say, “We have two desks, but they are made of different stuff; one is woo…” The client interrupts: “Don’t even bother telling me; I don’t care.” By his own preference, the client demonstrates indifference.

Even if one disagrees, it seems possible for the customer to pick “at random” or based on an unrelated criterion such as which desk is shown to him first.

Again, one may buy a car which will serve him just as well whether the engine is made of steel or aluminum. For the practical purposes of an acting man, as long as, say, the gas mileage was the same, the two would engines would be completely interchangeable.

At the limit, however, if we (i.e., together as a race) could find absolutely no employment of X and Y at serving human ends wherein their efficiency or utility differed, then we wouldn’t be interested in differentiating their efficient causes.

Just as in first subvenience, we could not know if two identically working things are in fact composed of different substances, so in the second subvenience we would not care if the two identically used things worked differently. In both cases, the differences in the lower causes fade and become of no import upon the similarities of the higher causes.

Lastly, if any X and Y be designated formally the same (recall that the formal cause of X is the answer to the question “What is X?”), then their final causes are also identical, and through that, also efficient causes, and in their own turn, material causes. “What X is” includes into itself but is not limited to all the information provided by answering “What is X made of?,” “How does X work?,” and “What is X for?” Surely, we powerless to use in different ways any two things that are the same simply in every respect.

At the same time, all three answers may be the same for X and Y, yet their forms may still be different. One wooden door to the storage room could be 1 mm higher than the other yet secure the room and all that that implies equally well.

Identity: Technological Progress

Recall that for material things, their material and efficient causes inhere in them, while their final cause is subjective, i.e., mind-dependent.

There are thus natural kinds: snowflakes, rivers, the chemical element silver, etc. These are eternal: a snowflake has been a water crystal since forever and will remain such forever. Silver will always be in its proper place of the periodic table. The formal causes of these things, their essences, what they are, are fixed for all time.

Adding purpose to things complicates matters. The formal cause of a tire no longer depends so exclusively on what the tire is made of (the material cause) or how it works (the efficient cause) but more on what it is for (the final cause). A tire that is re-purposed from one task to another literally becomes a different thing.

The essences of artificial man-made kinds, like tire, transistor, rubbing alcohol, are more subjective and fluid.

And of course, natural kinds themselves can become artificial kinds as raw materials.

Entrepreneurs in the market constantly change the purpose and extent of use of every resource. Today it may be profitable to manufacture artificial snow for skiing. A year later the technologies and the economy change, such that doing this would, according to careful calculations, result in a loss. As a result, the snow-making machines are sold and put to a different use.

From my book:

“Every economist from Marshall to Rothbard linked price formation of factors of production with opportunity costs, and these costs are most preeminent for non-specific goods which can be used in multiple projects with multiple aims. Schumpeter considered it the essence of economic progress that entrepreneurs find novel uses for old things. Hayek argued that the fact that production has a structure is instrumental in explaining business cycles.”

From this the profundity of the statement that “nature [natural kinds and the sciences describing them], in order to be commanded [used to make human art], must be obeyed” readily follows.

One God, Many Distinctions

There are three major distinctions in God.

First, in the levels: goodness on 3; the Father-Son-Holy Spirit on 2; and simple matter on 1.

Second, between the persons of the Trinity.

Third, between each person’s intellect, will, and power.

Regarding the first, just as a human being is a machine-like spirit who features both level 2 and level 1 united into a single creature, so God by His nature consists of all 3 levels.

God’s 1st level is almost vacuous: His material cause is simple; and further He is efficiently free. (Thus, God is not composed of any pre-existing material parts, nor operates according to any prior laws of nature.)

God’s 2nd-level final cause is His unconstrained enjoyment of perfectly knowing His infinite self.

And God’s formal cause — the answer to the question “What is God?” — is goodness.

Regarding the second, we can picture the intellect of God as composite and split logically between the persons, such as the Father as “mind or subject knowing,” the Holy Spirit as “thought,” and the Son as “object known.”

His will can be considered similarly: the Father as lover, the Son as the beloved, the Holy Spirit as everything God loves about Himself.

Finally, power: to think (Father), to comprehend with the thought (Holy Spirit), and to be revealed in full, to self-actualize (Son).

Regarding the third:

God’s essence as a thinking being is manifested in God’s having thoughts. What are the thoughts about? Himself. God comprehends Himself in a single self-image or self-conception.

But comprehending oneself which in this case is holding of one’s image in one’s mind is owning oneself which pertains to power as possession. (God’s power to create the world is due to His 3rd level of goodness.)

Further, since God’s happiness lies not in anything outside God but rather within Himself (such that God suffices Himself), for God, again, love of concupiscence is the same as love of self. In keeping Himself in His mind, God ipso facto unites Himself and His understanding of Himself. But love is the only 2nd-level unitive force. Hence, God to His thought is as lover to the beloved. Insofar as God loves the thing He owns, He loves and enjoys Himself.

We can see that the act of God’s intellect, the act of His power, and act of His will are one and the same thing, namely, God’s conceiving and contemplating Himself. Consequently, the distinction between the three faculties is illusory. God is one (and so is a simple pure act) and supremely so.

Again, God’s integrity and fusion of the intellect, will, and power is a separate unity from the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is precisely my previous conflation of the two that introduced a defect into my system which has now been fixed.

There are two extra unities in God, specifically the Son:

(4) between Jesus’ divine nature and His human nature;

(5) between Jesus’ human body and soul or between His human will, intellect, and power.

Hierarchy of Aristotelian Causes

Consider the hierarchy of the Aristotelian causes in the order of increasing dignity:

  1. material
  2. efficient
  3. final
  4. formal

For prime matter, its material cause is within it; all other causes are outside. This includes even the efficient cause, because prime matter does not “work” or function in any way; it’s completely inert. Someone else must make quarks and electrons with it.

For merely material objects, their material and efficient causes are within. When we ask, “What makes this car exist right now?” the answer is, “The fact that it’s made of such and such materials and works in a certain way.” However, the car’s final cause is outside of it.

A machine has no purpose other than to serve man by performing a useful function. Its “goals” do not differ from those of its creator. It wants nothing for itself. It is a perfect slave. A human slave might try to hide his abilities so as not to be swamped with hard work; a machine would not “think” of anything so clever. Or, a master must make sure that the slave will prefer to comply with the master’s orders over rebelling; a machine does not in this manner calculate benefits and opportunity costs. A machine has no internal life or experiences that are inaccessible to anyone but itself. Where the machine ends and raw materials and the environment begin is an arbitrary decision.

For humans, now also their final cause is within. A man’s purpose is his own happiness, his own joy. He is essentially no one’s tool, though of course people do make use of each other, say, in the market or within a firm. A human being is an end in himself.

However, a man’s formal cause, i.e., the answer to the question “What / who am I?” is still external and will only be revealed to him upon entrance to heaven in glory: God “shall give him a white amulet upon which is inscribed a new name, which no one knows except the one who receives it.” (Rev 2:17) Even then, we will be what God makes us into. In order to find out what a person is in all his unique individuality who is in the process of becoming, we’d have to query God and His mysterious designs.

Lastly, God has even the formal cause internally. He is 100% what He is, complete and perfect.

God’s Formal Cause

Recall that man has his material, efficient, and final causes within, but his formal cause, the answer to the question, “What am I?” is external to him and is determined by God.

God in turn has all 4 Aristotelian causes inside natively. This has two implications.

First, God is His own eternal act of self-actualization, such that His self-discovery and self-creation are one and the same act. God “comes to be” upon understanding Himself, as His act, essence, and existence are numerically identical with each other.

Second, God must agree to be God. He must approve of it and like it. As a result, God even upon grasping His own simple essence is free to become anything. If God had been annoyed at being God and preferred to be a horse instead, He had the right to become a horse. Thankfully for all concerned, it pleased God immensely to be Himself.

How the Ultimate Aristotelian Causes Prefigure Divine Attributes

1. The ultimate material cause of the universe is some sort of elementary particles. These particles themselves, as far as we know right now, have no substructure, thus are not composed of other particles, and so are simple.

As a result, the term “simplicity” has a very clear unambiguous meaning. It’s a property of an electron. When we ascribe simplicity to God, we speak neither equivocally nor univocally (since divine simplicity need not be exactly like an electron’s), but analogically.

2. Next, I have explained how the efficient cause of X — that which makes X work and explains how it works — is the system of which X is a material cause. I even suggested an argument for the existence of God from this, which I now withdraw.

However, we can at least see that the working of no system within the universe can be fully understood without considering the universe as a whole. And just as parts of the universe are law-bound, so the universe as a whole is not and is efficiently free.

This is because there is no law that the universe as a whole must be this as opposed to that.

Complete freedom then is an easily tractable and meaningful notion. When we say that God is free, we again make an analogy to the freedom of the universe.

3. Further, by studying our own human nature and via introspection, we understand that a human being is a unity. The complexity of neither the body nor the soul destroys this unity. A healthy human being is sublimely one or one person.

There is nothing mysterious about oneness: we humans embody it sufficiently well to grasp the point. When we argue that God is one, we speak analogically from the unity of a man. The analogy is now weaker, since the divine unity is so comprehensive.

4. In regard to the formal cause, human beings make all sorts of art. Some of this art is beautiful or let us say good. But how much greater is the maker than the thing made! The goodness of the art is a pale reminder of the goodness of the artist.

It is then entirely meaningful to speak of the goodness of God whose art is the created universe, though now our analogy is strained almost to the breaking point, because the divine goodness is unique and causes “good things” via “self-diffusion” of itself. Hence no one is good but God alone, yet for all that we are still able to apprehend and judge God’s formal cause.