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No Purpose in a Pea: Aristotle’s Final Causation

by Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.


In Aristotle’s works, he came up with four causes that he meant to apply universally to all things attempting to find the one causative principle that would unite all instances of causation. These are efficient cause, material cause, formal cause, and final cause. Modern physics has all but taken over efficient causation (one thing acting on another and the second thing acting in return, billiard ball style); but most of the other forms of causation talked about by Aristotle have all but been forgotten aside from philosophy students. Material cause is known (it is wood, so we can make houses out of it), it’s just not known in modern times as material cause. Formal cause (what it is that makes it what it is) is just not used, because there isn’t anything in an entity that makes it what it is, it is what it is and there isn’t any special cause making it be what it is, it just is. In a way, formal cause can be considered for man, as in his ideals make him what he is, but that is not used in modern times either, at least not explicitly. But there is one of his causes that ought to be used more often, and that is for conscious beings aiming for some future goal or purpose and striving to reach it, and that is final cause. Final cause is the projection of an end that is aimed at guiding one into accomplishing that projected task to completion. Aristotle phrased it as doing something “for the sake of”; such as going to the grocery store for the sake of picking up some lunch meat for lunch tomorrow.

However, Aristotle seemed to have an ambiguity about final cause, attributing such a cause to the growth of plants. He states that the final cause of an acorn is the oak tree it will become. Similarly, for any growing living entity, one can say that Aristotle would say that final cause was involved. So, if we take a pea, and plant it in the ground, and water it, and it becomes a pea plant with more peas, Aristotle would claim that the pea grew for the sake of becoming a pea plant and providing more peas. One can see where final cause would be involved in the projection of the planting and the projection of it becoming a pea plant, say for a farmer. But in such a case, the pea growing to provide food is the final cause of the farmer, but not of the pea. Since an acorn or a pea has no ability to project the future (having no consciousness), it is difficult to ascertain how final causation can be involved for living entities that have no ability to project a future. There is no purpose in a pea. It is a pea, and grows the way it does, due to the fact that it is a pea, and under the right conditions will grow into a pea plant. It is not something the pea is aiming at, though Aristotle would say that the pea grows for the sake of becoming an adult pea plant. But, since there is no purpose in nature (aside from conscious beings who can project the future), and not enough of a similarity between a man going to a grocery store and an acorn growing into an oak tree and a pea growing into an adult pea plant, I think Aristotle was mistaken in his assessment of what he was trying to say when he used the phrase “for the sake of.”

There is no purpose in a pea, and no purpose in nature. Raw nature without a consciousness simply is, and acts the way it does due to the fact that it is what it is. There is no future projection in a plant growing, or in anything else happening aside from those living entities which can project the future with their consciousness.


Also see my take on the issue of causality in general.