There are three parts to this post. First I want to explain the four ways we speak of causes. Second I want to relate these four ways to the causes that are the subject of modern science. Third, we will see how it is possible for God to act in ways to which modern science modern science cannot even relate, let alone comprehend.
First: there are four ways that we speak of causes or explanations. The goal of science (in both the broad and narrow senses) is to explain, and to explain is to discover causes. Aristotle observed that four general categories of cause are present in all changes of our everyday experience. This will be clearer with an example. To explain the existence of a lamp, we need to know
- what is it made of? —brass (material cause)
- what or who made it? —the lamp maker (efficient cause)
- what is it? —a lamp (formal cause)
- what is it for? —to illuminate the room (final cause–purpose, end, goal)
The material, efficient, formal, and final causes are just a more systematic way to use ordinary language, the possible exception being the formal cause, which may seem so obvious as to be pointless. But it is important to clarify: the formal cause is not just the shape of the thing, but something much more radical: it is what the thing is. In common experience, lamps come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but yet they all possess a commonality we’ll call “lampness” that we all know and recognize but could never capture in a drawing.
As Aristotle says, humans and their human productions are a subset of natural things, so it makes sense to ask analogous questions about nature. In nature, the four causes are more difficult to distinguish. We find that the agent that makes a natural thing is the thing itself. The tomato plant as a whole itself gathers the elements (solar energy, water, and carbon dioxide) and assembles them into itself. Likewise the purpose of a natural thing is the thing itself, for example, the purpose of the reddening of a tomato is the redness itself. (This coincidence of the formal and final causes fits nicely with the theology of Genesis, where God declares his creation, “Good,” that is, fulfilling its purpose simply by existing.)
Higher in the hierarchy of being, we find increasingly articulate manifestations of teleology or purpose. Purpose in human action is the most obvious, because it is external to the agent, e.g., a man saves money to buy a house. It’s also not too hard to see that other living things also act for ends. The roots of a tomato plant take up water and magnesium from the soil in order for photosynthesis to take place in the leaves. What almost everyone misses is that purpose extends even deeper. In the most basic sense, the very regularities of nature manifest purpose. That confetti is always attracted to the static electric charge on a balloon shows the order and purpose of nature. Teleology or purpose is not limited to the immediate action of intelligence, but has deep roots that penetrate all creation.
Now that you (hopefully) understand Aristotle's four causes, we will turn to understanding how modern science deals with but a very limited part of this schema. Michael J. Dodds's explanation is without peer:
The noton of "action" can be ascribed not only to efficient cause, but also to formal and final causes. In Aquinas' understanding, to act means "to make something to be in act." This can happen in a number of ways. When the artist shapes the clay into a ball, we can say that the artist (the efficient cause) makes the clay round. But we can also say the form of "roundness" makes the clay actually round. For all the artist's efforts, the clay will remain only potentially round until it possess that form or shape. We can also say that the final cause or end "acts" on the agent or "moves" the agent to act. If the artist works in order to make money, money (as a good to be attained) somehow induces the artist to work.
The action of an efficient cause may sometimes, but not always, be described in terms of quantitative force. The action of an artist on a block of clay, for instance, can be described in terms of how many pounds of pressure per square inch is exerted on it. The efficient causality of the teacher in directing the activity of the artist, however, cannot be so described.
Formal and final causality can never be described as quantitative force. The formal cause acts on the clay to make it actually round, but it does not act as a quantitative force. The clay is not actually round until is possesses the form or shape of "roundness," and that form in some way makes it actually found. But it does not make it round by exerting any sort of force on it. It acts according to the mode of formal causality by causing something (in this case the clay sphere) to be actual. Its action is quite different from that of efficient causality, especially from that brand of efficient causality known as "force."
The final cause acts on the agent to influence or induce her to act. If the artist works "to make money," making money is in some way the cause of her action. But we cannot describe this influence in terms of quantitative force. The final cause acts, but it acts according to the mode of final causality, as an end or good that induces the efficient cause to act. The mode of causality proper to the final cause cannot itself be reduced to efficient causality, much less to the mode of efficient causality we call "force."
Of the four causes in the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, only the efficient cause remains in Newtonian science. The formal and final causes disappear since they can neither be quantified nor empirically observed. Matter is not viewed as a "cause" or anything so unmeasurable as a principle of "possibility." Instead, it is viewed as the fundamental actuality or "stuff" of the universe (the atoms or ultimate particles). Only the efficient cause remains since it alone can be empirically observed, quantitatively represented, and experimentally manipulated.
We have seen causes completely beyond the ken of modern science, so now we can turn to explanations of how God acts in such ways. One type of formal cause is the exemplary cause. In terms of the sculpture analogy, the exemplary cause is the idea of the formed sculpture in the mind of the artist. Similarly, the exemplary cause of the universe is the form of creation in the mind of its Creator.
In the context of Christian theology, the mind of God is the Logos, the Word1 of God, which St. John identifies with Jesus. This is clearly what St. John intends in the prologue of his Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word...," which parallels the beginning of Genesis ("In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.... And God said"). God's speech or Word, not only made the universe, but also made it intelligible.2
Beside exemplary causality, there are other ways invisible to modern science that God is a cause. God acts as an efficient, though non-physical, cause. As St. Augustine says, God created time along with the universe. Science can only measure (and treat) movable things, that is, things that exist in time, so we know that God must act as an efficient cause that cannot be measured by modern science. Additionally, he is the ultimate final cause ("the Omega" of Revelation) for which everything acts, the ultimate good that all creation seeks. There is no need for special scientific methods to see the signs of God’s rational power, as the world manifests it to all, as St. Paul says in Romans 1:20.
It strikes me that today's Christians shouldn't fall into the trap of letting the secular world dictate the terms of discussion. Instead of letting God be boxed into the Enlightenment's one-dimensional notion of causation, modern Christians should reclaim their ancient patrimony in which God (through Jesus Christ) is the atemporal cause of all that is temporal, the reason by which anything is intelligible, by which everything is, and for which it exists.
1. Jaroslav Pelikan lists several other meanings of the Greek Logos: mind, power, deed, reason, structure, purpose (58). The ideas of creatures within the Logos are the logoi. See the book cited below for a great exposition of the history of notions of the Cosmic Christ.
2. Cf. Col 1:15-19; John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 3: "Eternally begotten and eternally loved by the Father, as God from God and Light from Light, he is the principle and archetype of everything created by God in time."
Mortimer J. Adler, "The Four Causes," (chapter 6) Aristotle for Everybody.
Michael J. Dodds, "Science, Causality And Divine Action: Classical Principles For Contemporary Challenges," CTNS Bulletin 21:1 (Winter 2001), 3-12.
Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Cosmic Christ," (chapter 5) Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture