Thursday, January 5, 2012

Final Cause and Arson

Yesterday 24-year-old German national, Harry Burkhart, was charged with 37 counts of arson. For those who don't know, Hollywood was on edge for three nights as a serial arsonist set dozens of car fires which usually spread to nearby buildings. Starting at dusk, helicopters flew like drones throughout the night. Every ten minutes one circled over our neighborhood. Sirens were constant background noise. Great job on catching that idiot.

But for most of us there's a lingering question. Why did he do it? The guy does seem a bit crazy. So is chance to blame? Was Burkhart an agent of chaos we should expect to surface now and then in a cold and uncaring universe? Hardly anyone would accept that as an explanation. Was it "rage against Americans" as the prosecutor said? Was he simply angry his mother was being deported? This seems more plausible. But now we discover he may have set fires in Germany too. Did he have rage against Germans as well?

Most of us expect a reason. He set those fires for a purpose. But suppose we stop there. Suppose we say: "The reason Burkhart set those fires is simple. He intended to do so. That, and that alone, makes his acts intelligible. It's crazy to look for more reason than that."

Is this an explanation? It's difficult to see how it could be. It's surely not a satisfying explanation for people who really do care to find one. I think most people would agree with me. I think most jurors will want to hear more from a prosecutor than, "Ladies and gentlemen, this man committed these crimes because he intended to do so!" Such a prosecutor would be laughed out of the courtroom.*

So why should we view Aristotelian-Thomist "final cause" any differently? Why would anyone think it's more than ridiculous rhetoric? We are told this line of inquiry is in the service of metaphysics? That's serious, right?

To paraphrase Edward Feser: The basic idea is that if arsonist A regularly brings about fire B - rather than ice C, or snow D, or sits at home drinking beer E - that can only be because there is something in the nature of arsonist A by virtue of which he is “directed at” or “points” to the generation of fire B specifically. What something is that? Intent.

Metaphysics is simple, folks. No sense in thinking hard. Why did Burkhart set those fires? He intended to do so. That was his "final cause." Why does the earth orbit the sun? It intends to do so. That is its "final cause." If we believe that, we can stop looking elsewhere. Newton wasted his time. Aristotle already had a sufficient reason for planetary behavior.

And that listlessness for answers is within the nature of "final cause." We can forgive Aristotle. He was a genius without the benefit of modern science and technology. But it's hard to see a trace of genius in modern advocates of "final cause." This metaphysics of "final cause" is no more satisfying as an explanation than a metaphysics of chaos. Some people are satisfied with premature metaphysical ejaculation, I guess.

-- Don Jindra

* Okay you sticklers, it's a spoof. But it ain't that far from the truth.