Efficient causes from the future, and Teleological causes

A short thought: I think that efficient causes are sometimes misunderstood by modern thinkers to be identified with the kind of causation which early modern thinkers bequeathed to us, though they got rid of Aristotle’s other three kinds (Formal, Material, and Teleological). However, the proper definition of efficient causes is wider than the notion of physical causation employed in the early modern period. For instance, efficient causes need not precede their effects in time; they may be simultaneous with them, or indeed they may be after their effects (those who subscribe to two-way causation think there may be such causes whose ’cause’ is in the future relative to its ‘effects’), or again they may be completely non-temporal. Even if these aren’t so of Aristotle’s philosophy, they are so of his category.

Is there a difference between efficient causes in the future, and teleological causes? I am not sure, but I want to suggest that there is a difference here. The teleological cause is oriented towards some end, let us say a natural end. The efficient cause which stands in the ‘later-than’ relation to its effects, however, has no such orientation.

This, however, requires that one agree that there are in the natural world, natural ends (and, ironically, that is the last thing a Naturalist, for instance, would admit – though the Naturalist who is a B-theorist with respect to time may not be able to escape admitting the possibility of efficient causes standing in the ‘later-than’ relation to their effects). However, supposing that God has some end in mind with some efficient cause (standing in the ‘later-than’ relation to its effects), would that suffice to make the efficient cause in question a teleological cause? No, I think not, since God could just as well have some end in mind with any particular efficient cause. We should recognize that the teleological category involves a view of Nature according to which Nature has ‘ends’ which are not assigned to it, but belong to it (which is to say, one does not conceive of nature altogether correctly without conceiving of nature as essentially teleological).

Whether one accepts or rejects teleological causes, one can make a distinction between them and efficient causes standing in the ‘later-than’ relation to their effects.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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9 Responses to Efficient causes from the future, and Teleological causes

  1. Grundy says:

    Can you provide an example of an efficient cause from the future so I can understand this a little better?

    • Well, examples may be hard to conceive of, but I could imagine prayers being the efficient cause(s) of events before themselves (eg. praying for the dead is not to pray for those people who have passed away that they may change from being in heaven or hell, but that God was already active in their lives, perhaps particularly in their last moments). A less Theologically loaded example might be something like using a time machine to make a goat appear thirty years earlier in the White House, perhaps during a press conference (we might imagine the goat wearing a sign around it’s neck saying: “we will invent a time machine!” or something). One might also think of some sci-fi like physical events (having to do with traversable wormholes or what-have-you) which some physicists like Stephen Hawking speak about from time to time (no pun intended). By this last one I had in mind physical events occurring deterministically, but without a causal origin in a free agent (i.e., a person).

      • Grundy says:

        So there are only hypothetical examples that run counter to everything we currently know and those that assume the deity you are using the example to prove?

      • Woah, slow your role there buddy. This post has, as you might have realized, absolutely nothing to do with God. It was a thought about a distinction between two different kinds of causation. If you think such examples run contrary to everything we know, then perhaps you’re just an A-theorist about time (I, myself, am a B theorist).

  2. Grundy says:

    I did not realize that because this post absolutely has to do with God, you even mention God twice.

    • Well, I also mentioned a time-travelling goat and traversable wormholes – the post was about causation, and it was really just about making a distinction between teleological causes and efficient causes, even if efficient causes were from the future.

      Probably, the reason why I mentioned God as many as two times is just because I happen to think a lot about God. However, you could just as easily subtract anything I said about God, and still get the gist of the post.

      Now, as a final word, I feel like our discussions, here and elsewhere, would probably go better and be more enjoyable if you were introduced to something sometimes called “the principle of charity”. Here, what I mean by the principle of charity is that you try to read what somebody else has written, and interpret it sympathetically, making an honest attempt to understand what it is they mean, what it is they really believe, and what it is precisely that they may be arguing. I’ve noticed here and elsewhere that you seem to pick up on the little things, and miss the bigger things, precisely because you seem to be fishing for an argument rather than honestly trying to understand an alternative view. For instance, I wrote a post on Augustine’s refutation of skepticism, which had nothing to do with God or Theism, and your response was to argue that if supernaturalism were true then we are in a no-holds-barred epistemic arena where anything is up for debate and nothing is certain. Or again here above, you seem to have tried to read something into this relatively innocent post about causes, some underlying argument in the province of Natural Theology. I can think of other examples elsewhere as well. In light of this, I feel compelled to make this point with you, as charitably as I can: maybe you should try to interpret other thinkers, like myself, in the most sympathetic and charitable manner possible, making absolutely sure you understand what it is that is being said, and only then launch into a thoughtful criticism. I submit to you that this would make for better discussions all around the board, for both of us.

      Just something to think about. Always appreciate your comments.

      • Grundy says:


        Let me tell you where I’m coming from. It may give you some insight and possibly make you not want to engage me further, which, at this point, I’m fine with. I’ve debated these arguments with a metric ton of apologists already, so you haven’t yet presented anything new. I find your arguments entirely unconvincing with the possible exception of the post that first made we want to comment–the fine tuning argument. You haven’t really wanted to talk about this and redirected to arguments you find more compelling and I find silly. So, I’ve been focusing on two things since. First, finding the weakest aspects of your arguments and seeing to you admit that they are circular/fallacious/pointless to test your intellectual honesty. If you admit fault of an occasional slip of the tongue, I can know that you are being reasonable and discuss your more compelling (at least to you) arguments, but you haven’t shown this.

  3. Grundy says:

    Second, I’m more interested in the psychology of people who accept apologetics. Trying to understand how you and others think and where specifically (I’m sure you disagree with all of this, but since we’re being honest here I’ll continue) that thinking goes wrong. For example, I’m pretty sure that speech about “the principle of charity” was externalization, while still acurately seeing what I was doing.

    Even so, I’ll take your comments as constructive critizism while providing some of my own. Your language has been consistently dismissive and condescending. Considering those you debate will often think your position is the one worthy of dismissal, it will likely be met an end of the debate, or simply with defensivness and closed mindedness.

    Thanks for the conversation.

  4. Well, I’m not sure that excuses your behaviour (which is for you to decide, and not me to judge), but I’m glad you were so honest and straightforward with me about that, as that does help me get a better idea what your purpose is. Obviously I make mistakes all the time – if you simply read enough of my posts you’ll find some where I admit straightforwardly that I have made a mistake, or more than one mistake. For instance, in recent memory I wrote a post about maximally specific propositions, God’s knowledge, and subjunctive counterfactuals of creaturely freedom – I was, I think now, just wrong. Part of the point of exploring ideas on this blog is to better myself intellectually, and so I am always quite ready to admit that I’ve made a mistake if and when I find that I have. If that doesn’t yet qualify me, in your eyes, as an intellectually honest person, then I’m not sure what more I can do. I can say that I don’t think I’ve made any mistakes in my conversations with you, nor in the posts on which you have decided to comment – but that doesn’t argue to my intellectual dishonesty necessarily (after all, I could just be right :P).

    As an aside, have you read my ‘About’ page, where I recently updated it to describe, in basic outline, how I came to hold the views that I do hold? If my movement from one position to another is an indication of intellectual honesty then why do I not qualify?

    If you want to discuss what I think is the most compelling argument for the existence of God, then we need to continue our conversation, on your blog, about the Cosmological argument from Contingency. This is the theoretical argument for God’s existence which most compelled me, and continues to compel me today. I provided you with expressions of the argument which are not my own only because those seem to me to be the best available expressions of the argument, and if I were to give the argument I would likely just be rehearsing one or another of those forms. I did not provide you with those because I wanted to avoid discussion with you, but because I wanted to introduce you to serious and well thought out expressions of this argument which I have found to be very compelling.

    Concerning my psychology, well that can be a very difficult thing to measure, even for myself. I can tell you that I make a constant effort to be charitable (I would have hoped that you consider my comments charitable, though apparently you think I’ve been consistently condescending, which I’m both sorry for and a little perplexed at). I also make an effort to be intellectually honest and critical. I have found myself in debates, and find myself in debates all the time, with Atheists. In fact, some of my closest friends are Atheists, and rather intelligent. I very nearly became an Atheist myself, and I have a profound intellectual and emotional sympathy for Atheism. I find that debates with them go surprisingly well, precisely because both sides know how to be charitable, and are anything but dismissive.

    You say, “For example, I’m pretty sure that speech about “the principle of charity” was externalization, while still accurately seeing what I was doing.” In response, I guess I would say that, as far as I can tell, it honestly wasn’t externalization – I always make an effort to be charitable. However, what if it were? If it were, and you were convinced it was, then you would be reading me without the principle of charity (even if you were right about my being uncharitable, presuming that of me would itself be uncharitable). I could just as easily say that when you say that the speech I gave about the principle of charity was externalization, that you were externalizing – but what good would that do the conversation? I haven’t accused you of anything, and I don’t intend to. I believe we should take people as they come – we don’t really have a choice in the matter anyways. There is no way for me to know what your motivations are, so I make an effort not to put too much stock into any of my guesses.

    Finally, if you have seriously felt me to be condescending then I want to say I am deeply sorry. I have tried to be charitable with you, and if I haven’t done a good job of it then I will redouble my efforts. I am always happy to see you post on my blog, and I will always make an effort to get back to whoever posts on my blog, while being as charitable with their comments as possible.

    Also, as a last note, I think perhaps I’d like to introduce you to some Atheists who are very brilliant, and charitable, as perhaps you would both enjoy their arguments, and learn how to be very charitable (as I have also learnt a good deal from them) with other people’s arguments. Michael Long and Ben Wallis both run a counter-apologetics podcast called ‘Goodness Over God’, which you can find a link to at the bottom of the page. Just to throw in a bonus, I can point to another miserable mistake of mine which you can see for yourself, when I was invited onto their show to discuss miracles and epistemology. In retrospect I did a horrendous job, and I know I could have done better than that (though it was my first time being invited onto a public podcast, so I was a little nervous). You can check that out, and perhaps my admitting that I made a number of mistakes during that broadcast will help you see that I do make an effort to be intellectual honest and admit when I am at fault (though I will also say that I did a particularly bad job during that podcast, so it is something of an intellectual embarrassment for me – as such I don’t think my performance there is really reflective of me at my best).

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