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.


DavidM said...

So, so wrong, hard to know where to begin. You seem not to know the first thing about Aristotelian final causality or metaphysics. Intent is an intrinsically cognitive category. Final cause is not. "Final cause" is not a synonym for "rational motivation." Final cause is a conceptual correlate of efficient cause. An efficient cause effects something; the *something* that it effects - unless this something is merely random - is its finality. These are basic and indispensable conceptual distinctions. When inquiring about the actions of a rational agent you obviously ask about rational motivation; when asking about the tendencies of non-rational agents you obviously do not.

Don Jindra said...


First, you may understand intent as an intrinsically cognitive category and therefore not applicable to "final cause" but you certainly don't speak for everyone.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, entry on Cause: "[T]he final cause is that principle on account of which the efficient cause moves towards the production of its effect. It is the effect itself formally considered as the term of the *intention* of the agent, or efficient cause."

John Carriero (Prof of Plilosophy, UCLA), in "Spinoza on Final Causality": "The final cause is, in particular, fundamental to how Aristotelians understand an efficient cause or an agent; part of what it is to be an agent, for them, is to *intend* an end."

So your charge of my supposed "metaphysical" ignorance needs to be directed at others as well. I think I'm on relatively safe ground. I say "relatively" because in a sense I agree with you. These "metaphysical" discussions tend to be vague and elusive. Sometimes I doubt anybody actually knows what he's talking about.

But my intent (or aim or purpose or "final cause") was to ridicule the idea that "final cause" explains anything. I deny it makes the world more intelligible. In searching for a place to start you missed my point entirely. So maybe you could explain why the concept is explanatory rather than descriptive. Maybe you can show me how it explains the *necessary* connection between cause and effect.

Second, nowhere did I claim "final cause" is a synonym for "rational motivation." I didn't mean for my example to be all-inclusive. I used that example to demonstrate the fact than no reasonable person would consider it an explanation.

Third, let's examine this:

"Intent is an intrinsically cognitive category. Final cause is not. ... Final cause is a conceptual correlate of efficient cause."

What does that mean to you? because it means nothing to me. The reason "final cause" fails is because it, like these sentences of yours, is (at best) vague. If I use what seems to be the meaning of your sentences, "final cause" merely "correlates" to efficient cause. In reference to the issue I raise above, correlation is not explanation. It's a relationship we allow ourselves to accept (conceptualize) only after we collect empirical evidence (observation). So to me your sentence means simply, Final cause is what we accept as explanation after we observe events. What I'm saying is this: It says no more than what Hume says of cause -- it's based on observation and at some point we make an intuitive (inductive) leap he loosely calls "custom."

IOW, "final cause" is a rhetorical game some philosophers like to play. They think they can hide their ignorance behind a wall of synonyms and loosely defined terms.

Rog said...

I like Heidegger's return to Aristole's four causes, but more to the point I like his existential premise as the "cause"; the formation of "intent" seems tied to a persons need to more convincingly exist in the world, a desire to experience being in the world with more intetsity, and not as some unattached vapor hardly noticed and or as a poorly defined object or concept presumed to be of no consequence, no 'real' existence.

Unfortunately perhaps for me, I see a syzygy, a Jungian synchronicity involving the parallel existence of both innate individual essence and individual material differences like gentitic 'fingrprint'. No causal relationship is even a consideration for me, I'm sure its way over my head, not something I could ever know as a human being...; )

The third point native to my perspective is the Art is what the materials of Science simply feel like doing...; ) The arson seems most explicable as simply anti-social 'art'; this performed for the sake of the 'artists' reduction of existential angst--to promote a 'souls' particular existence in the world by the production of a somehow relevent show of an intuitively 'self-similar', non-objective, abstract expression. The only purpose or "cause" seems to be the drowning panic of a soul aspixiating for lack of the spirit/breath of the Greeks. The choice of intentions is here seems most like the overly simplistic response required on the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory once administered to 11-12 yr old public school students,i.e., "Like me, or Unlike me."