Clark on Causation

Which came first, the cause or the effect?  Cause, you’d probably say.  Isn’t it obvious that since causes cause effects they must be before them?  Nope.  Not to everyone.  Take a minute to think of a definition of the term “cause.”  How do you use the term?  Why do you use it that way?  Do you think that people have always used the term that way?  Once you’ve got a definition of cause firmly in your mind, see how it compares to Aristotle’s definitions below.

A theory of causation is foundational both to a philosophical system and to the way we understand occurrences in our everyday life.  Aristotle accounts for 4 types of causes; formal cause, material cause, efficient cause, and final cause.  When we speak of causes today, it seems that we mean something like what Aristotle means by efficient cause.  Aristotle’s 4 causes might be better understood as 4 types of answers to the question “Why?”[1]

The material cause is what a thing is made of.  Moses’ staff is made of wood.  The formal cause is the shape it takes.  Moses’ staff is generally a tall cylindrical staff, it also took on the form of a snake in Exodus.  The efficient cause is the source of the change.  Moses’ staff stands straight up because Moses is holding it that way.  It turns into a snake because God made it do so.  The final cause is the purpose.  Moses’ staff is to aid him in walking, parting seas, and, possibly, as a weapon.Moses staff

Before diving into the Clark material, think for a minute about the final cause.  The final cause happens after the effect.  I put the quarter in the gumball machine for the purpose of eventually getting a gumball, but I do not receive my gumball until after I put the quarter into the machine.  You might wonder if the final cause should be considered a cause at all.  But, before you dispense with the final cause, think about whether or not I would have gotten a gumball without that purpose; i.e. the final cause.  Purposes certainly seem effective, yet, most of your atheist chums, and your Christians for that matter, don’t think that something as abstract as a purpose could actually cause atoms and gumballs to move.  If, however, a final cause for all things is admitted, then who purposes the rain to fall when it does?

25“Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain
and a way for the thunderbolt,
26to bring rain on a land where no man is,
on the desert in which there is no man,
27to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground sprout with grass?

28“Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
29From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?
30The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen. (Job 38:25-30)

Well, the atheist would say nobody has purposed those things, but if some things are caused by a purpose, it is intuitive to keep purpose as a viable option for other things.  But this is just 1 of the 4 causes.  Clark makes an interesting point about the interrelation of the other causes.

Upon reflection it will be seen that the formal, efficient, and final causes are the same. The formal cause of the statue was Zeus [the form of Zeus]; the efficient cause was said to be the sculptor, but, more exactly, it is the form of Zeus in the sculptor’s mind; and the final cause or aim of his activity is also the form of Zeus. The same may be said of exercise, too: for the end is health, and health is the form of man. Therefore, in a sense there are but two causes or two parts to the explanation of anything: form and matter. For an understanding of Aristotelianism these two causes and the relation between them must be studied with care, and the first point will be the significance of form as final cause. In this regard there was an omission in the chapter on Plato which must now be filled in, and a reference to Democritus is needed for contrast.

Clark makes an interesting move here by pointing out that Aristotle’s 4 causes are essentially two causes; formal cause and material cause.  I am, personally, not yet far enough into the Aristotelian literature to know whether or not Aristotle would agree with Clark here, but I would not be surprised if he would.  I think he should.  The identification of formal cause with purpose naturally flows into a discussion of teleology; purpose in the world.  Note the difference between the determinism of the mechanical theory and the purpose-driven nature of the teleological or formal theory.

In the Phaedo, Socrates complained that Anaxagoras had promised but had failed to offer a teleological explanation of nature; and of course Democritus did not even promise: On the contrary, he insisted on a strictly mechanical analysis of all phenomena. Qualities such as hot and cold were defined by the geometrical shape and arrangement of atoms; class concepts such as plant and man would receive definitions similar in character; and natural events such as weather, nutrition, sensation, and so on would be explained in terms of mechanics alone. Nature exhibits no purpose, and if men have purposes, there are merely more complicated mechanisms.

For Plato this was unsatisfactory. If reality were entirely physical, perhaps mechanism would be acceptable if it could escape sophistic skepticism; but if Ideas constitute reality, not only is mechanism out of place, but a much better possibility is provided. Mechanism does not explain Socrates’ sitting in jail conversing with his friends; purpose does. Similarly, weather, sensation, and all class concepts must be understood teleologically. The Ideas are purposes: Purposes are what we know when we know anything. Suppose the latest model automobile has a new gadget, and we ask what it is. If the salesman or engineer should give us its mechanical description down to the fraction of an inch, should reproduce its blueprint in words, should enumerate its wheels, ball bearings, electrical circuit, or whatever else it might have, we would still not know what the gadget is. But if he should tell us that it is a new windshield wiper, a better timer, or a stronger shock absorber, we would be satisfied. We would know it when we know its purpose. What is it? It is its purpose. The purpose defines it. The Idea is the purpose.

Aristotle’s forms, like Plato’s Ideas, are purposes, and all science is teleological. Take rain, for instance. Democritus would have said that warm moist air must of necessity rise – a strictly mechanical action; that when it cools in the upper air, it must condense and fall as rain. If it rains on a wheat field, the wheat grows by mechanical necessity; but the rain does not fall for the purpose of producing wheat. Sometimes rain falls on a threshing floor, and the wheat there is spoiled. No one would say that the rain fell for the purpose of spoiling the crop; it is just a matter of mechanical necessity. Similarly, men and animals have teeth through a natural process of growth; and having teeth men and animals chew; but the teeth did not grow for the purpose of allowing men to chew. Or, the teleological view can be ridiculed as Voltaire did by suggesting that noses were made for the purpose of holding spectacles.

Now the age-old argument between mechanism and teleology has been stated.  The mechanists do not admit purpose.  Rain doesn’t fall so that crops can grow, it falls because of mechanical necessity.  However, for Aristotle, purpose is a cause.Camel

Yet, says Aristotle, it is impossible that the mechanistic theory should be true. Why it is impossible involves a theory of nature in which form is the dominant factor. Mechanists, insisting on the necessity and inviolability of mathematical law, deny the popular opinion that some things happen by chance. But Aristotle, more closely in accord with actual observation, distinguishes between those natural processes, such as the revolution of the stars, which occur always in the same manner, and others, equally natural, such as the growth of a plant, which are regular or usual, but not strictly invariable. In these latter processes, exceptions or irregularities occur, such as mutations in plants or freaks of nature like a two-headed calf. In matters of human deliberation all the more there are irregularities, some of which are lucky, as the case of the man who went to the marketplace and accidentally found a debtor who paid him off. Irregularities occur when the normal process does not attain its natural end or when the end arrives without the normal process. Regularity, conversely, is the process actually producing its end. Nature is thus like art: It begins with matter and produces a form. If nature could grow a house, it would proceed on the architectural principles that a builder uses; and if architecture could build a tree, it would parallel the natural stages.

Some of Aristotle’s reasons for choosing teleology over mechanism are coming to the fore.  A strict mechanist believes that nothing happens by chance.  Aristotle thinks that there are too many exceptions in nature to make this plausible.  Sometimes, things seem to happen according to a design plan, as when a builder builds a barn.  Without the builder’s purpose or plan, the materials would not take the form of a barn.  To make the case stronger, there also seems to be irregular exceptions as when a person plans to make bread yet forgets to put in the yeast and gets unleavened bread.  If there is a fluke in the plan, there has to be a plan to begin with.  This seems more in accord with common sense, whatever that means.Matzah

To return to an earlier example, the rains of spring, since they permit of exceptions, are not to be explained or understood in terms of inviolable mechanism; but since they are regular and are not themselves exceptional, they cannot be chance events; hence they are purposive. In the case of ants and spiders, the evidence of purposive action is too strong to deny; and if teleology be admitted in these cases, it cannot be denied on principle.

Or, take the case of life in general. A physico-chemical explanation of life would probably attempt to reduce it to some form of oxidation, and Aristotle, using ancient terms, asks whether life can be explained in terms of fire. The following reasons imply a negative answer. A fire can be made to take any shape. There are round bonfires. Once, to burn a field of weeds, the writer sprinkled gasoline around its edges, and the fire was for a time a hollow rectangle. Obviously there can be all sorts of shapes. There can also be all sorts of sizes, produced merely by adding more fuel. If the supply holds out, there is no limit to the size the fire may be. But in life there are limits. Even the fat woman in the circus, though she is not shapely, still retains a recognizable human shape. And long before her food supply runs out, she stops growing bigger. The difference between fire and life, therefore, is a form which controls the size and shape of the living being. And unless we understand the processes of nature as teleologically directed, we have missed the main point. Even fire itself is purposive and is directed by a form; but it is a form that controls the direction of its motion rather than its size and shape. And the supreme form overarching all the subsidiary purposes is the Unmoved Mover, the ultimate cause of all change.

The cause/form/purpose of a thing is what it is, and the form/purpose makes the thing what it is.  But what comes first, the thing or it’s cause?

Thus, in opposition to mechanism, the cause or explanation of any natural phenomenon is a purpose to be attained in the future rather than an event that has occurred in the past. While the mechanists claim that past events are causes because they necessitate their effects, the facts are otherwise. No past event or condition necessitates anything. So long as there is a distinction between the event called a cause and the event called an effect, so long as these two are separated by an interval of time, it is possible that the effect will not occur. The mechanist might say that eating food is the cause of nourishment and growth. But obviously in the case of seasickness or of death in battle, a good meal immediately prior will not cause the effect. Or, to use Aristotle’s example, if bricks and wood and saws exist, it does not follow that a house must be built. But if a house is to be built, the bricks and wood and tools must of necessity pre-exist. Causality, therefore, works from the future to the present or past; it does not work from the past to the future. The cause occurs after the effect, not before it. This is the characteristic of purposive explanation as opposed to the mechanical theory, now shown to be untenable.

The foregoing account of form, emphasizing the antithesis between teleology and mechanism – a modern as well as an ancient subject of contention – has kept close to matters of scientific interest. At least it has not gone very far across the indistinct boundary between physics and metaphysics. A concluding section on matter might well push on a little farther into the subtle territory beyond.

If cause is identical with a future purpose, then it follows that the cause of an event happens after the effect.  One might object that we have forgotten the material cause.  The last heading of Clark’s chapter on Aristotle discusses Aristotle’s theory of individuation and shows that matter is an unintelligible concept in Aristotle’s theory.  A form/purpose can be known, the matter which is “formed” is unknowable.  If one is willing to follow Clark’s argument and dispense with matter, causation is nothing more than purpose. [2]


So, with what are we left?  Clark and Aristotle have dealt a knockout blow to mechanistic determinism in favor of teleological causation.  Cause is purpose.  On a more practical apologetic note, you might someday try to hold your atheist’s feet to the fire here; asking him whether or not purposes can cause events and whether or not causes precede their effects. Undoubtedly, these issues get sticky and complicated and most of the anti-Christians that I talk to would just get mad if I brought this up, but I think there might be a few effective ways to breach the subject with a thinking person.  But first, maybe pick up a copy of Thales to Dewey and painstakingly work through the chapter on Aristotle.




[1] Clark’s exposition of Aristotle’s four causes:  Starting with the problem of explaining generation, decay, and every kind of physical change, Aristotle works out his theory of the four causes, of which form and matter are the chief. One is not said to know a thing or to be able to explain it until one has grasped the “why” or the cause of it… the being from which anything comes to be is both being and non-being, but in different senses. This that is both being and non-being is matter, and matter is one of the four causes. “That out of which a thing comes to be, and which persists, is called a cause, e.g., the bronze of the statue, the silver of the bowl, and the genera of which the bronze and silver are species.” The bronze exists or is being insofar as it is the substratum of generation; but it is non-being insofar as it is not the statue. On a lower level the earth or metals of which bronze is made are its matter, and in this relation it is their form. And on a still lower level the elements themselves are forms imposed on a prime matter, which, however, is not physically separable. Then by extending the meaning of material cause beyond gross physical objects, it may be said that letters are the matter of syllables, and premises are the matter of conclusions.


The second of the four causes is the form. To continue the first example above, the form would be whatever the statue was, Zeus for example, or a satyr. The other examples, however, show that form is not so much the physical shape of an object, as it is the essence or definition of the object. It is what the object really is. The form of the octave is the ratio of two to one. The form of a tree is the kind of tree it is – a form imposed on its matter. The soul is the form of the organic body. And as on the lowest level there is a prime matter, so on the highest level the unmoved mover is a pure form entirely apart from any matter. Form requires lengthy explanation, but first the other two of the four causes must be listed.


The third cause, called the efficient cause, is the primary source of the change; for example, the father is the cause of the child, the sculptor of the statue. And the fourth is the final cause, final in the sense of being that for the sake of which a thing is done; as health is the cause of physical exercise. Why is he exercising? we may ask; and the answer or explanation by which we understand his activity is that he wants to be healthy. (Thales to Dewey)

[2] All quotes taken from:  Gordon H. Clark (2014-10-09T04:00:00+00:00). Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy (Kindle Locations 2461-2462). The Trinity Foundation. Kindle Edition.

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  • gus gianello

    No matter which denotation of cause you wish to use, if you take Clark seriously you must finally ask a question: Is there such a thing as a secondary, or intermediate cause or instrumentality? Edwards, one of the greatest Christian minds said “no”, and Clark implied it, I think in “What do Presbyterians believe”. If cause is efficient and teleological, necessitating viewing it from future to past only God who lives in eternity and predestinates everything can be a cause. But that creates a problem when dealing with evil. Is not then God who causes all evil so how can he hold man responsible? Clark deals with this question in his book on theodicy, “God and evil”

    Dr. Gus Gianello, Issachar Biblical Institute,

    • To me, it has always seemed clear that Clark affirms secondary causes. I’ve never seen any evidence to the contrary. For example:

      The doctrine of creation, with its implication that there is no power independent of God, does not deny but rather establishes the existence of secondary causes. To suppose otherwise is unscriptural, and to avoid the notion of causality is illogical.

      Gordon H. Clark. Religion, Reason and Revelation (Kindle Locations 5271-5273). The Trinity Foundation.

      The secondary causes in history are not eliminated by divine causality, but rather they are made certain. And the acts of these secondary causes, whether they be righteous acts or sinful acts, are to be immediately referred to the agents; and it is these agents who are responsible.

      Gordon H. Clark. Religion, Reason and Revelation (Kindle Locations 5327-5329). The Trinity Foundation.

      And it isn’t too hard to find Clark’s discussion in What Do Presbyterians Believe? which affirms the same. The question isn’t whether or not Clark affirms secondary causation, it is what Clark means by “cause”.

      Some people have gotten pretty confused by Clark’s occasionalism and have also thought he denies secondary causation, but nobody has ever given me a reason why he can’t affirm both on a teleological notion of causation.