Who is afraid of final causality?


A couple of days ago, we successfully finished our capstone INSOSCI book symposium bringing together neuroscientists, philosophers, economists and social scientists to discuss what emerged as the core topical concern: social neuroeconomics, the integration of the neurosciences and the social sciences under the auspices of economics. In my own contribution, I introduced the argument that semiotic mechanisms may provide the missing link between neuronal and social mechanisms. In this context, I argued that we need to adopt a broader concept of causality, as I already did in my ‘Foundations of Economic Evolution’ (2013). This is inspired by Aristotle (again! – see previous post).

Our INSOSCI collaborator Jaakko Kuorikoski commented that he feels ‘scared’ about introducing final causality, a stance shared by many philosophers of science. I do not agree, of course. To the contrary, I think that many problems of integrating the sciences with the social sciences and the humanities result from the fact that most scientists and philosophers of science reduce causality to efficient causality. If you do that, you get many other scaring things: mind / matter dualism, homunculi, emergence, first-person experience and consciousness as a ‘hard problem’, you name it. My position is very close to Terrence Deacon’s as elaborated in his book ‘Incomplete Nature’. Deacon makes a simple point: We have been socialized in the Western world that if we look for causes, that should be things that ‘exist’. One chapter has a telling quote from Lao Zi, who argued that what makes a vessel useful is emptiness, hence what not exists. Most generally, causes that do not exist are of two classes: constraints (which exclude possibilities from realization) and directions (towards realizing a possibility that has not yet materialized). Deacon introduces a new term for this type of processes or process characteristics: ‘ententional’ processes. Interestingly, this makes the argument even more scaring for our friend, I guess: Now even Aristotelian formal causality is added!

I do not want to elaborate on this in detail here but let me just fix the basics. Jaakoo is scared because he simply equates causality with efficient causality, as most people do. Obviously, a ‘final efficient causality’ is a non-starter. Something that does not exist cannot efficiently cause anything (a caveat: There is a substantial analytical philosophical literature about omissions or non-occurrences as causes). But Aristotle’s idea of causality was much broader. In simplest terms, we search for a cause when we ask the ‘why’ question. Think of an engine, a literal ‘mechanism’. We can look at this in terms of efficient causality, analysing the flows of fuel and the chemical reactions happening in a complex arrangement of mechanical parts that mechanically work together which ultimately results in movement. This is one answer to questions such as ‘what makes the car moving ahead’: Well, the engine is running. But we can extend our perspective. The analysis of efficient causality does not really account for the causal role of the design of the engine. Indeed, that matters much in mechanistic explanations as we employ it in the INSOSCI context: mechanisms are constituted by parts in a specific arrangement, which must be in place simultaneously (if not, the mechanism breaks down and nothing happens). This is a fundamental difference to efficient causality that is flow of events in time. In our case the arrangement is the design of the engine. Design is an example for formal causality. When dealing with ‘mechanisms’, Aristotle would certainly say that the mechanism as such is an instance of formal causality. Thus, I would argue that the difference between mechanistic explanations and other explanations involving efficient causality is exactly this: Mechanistic explanations include a role for formal causality. Think of a fundamental problem in all mechanistic analysis: What is the boundary of a mechanism? Since mechanisms are always are triggered by external causes, mere efficient causality does not allow for identifying that boundary (why should those causes not be part of the mechanism?). In other words, I think that standard mechanistic explanations combine efficient and formal causality, and that’s why they are not coterminous with the former.

The next question is, why does the mechanism exist? In the case of the engine, the Aristotelian answer is simply: by design. The engine was made by somebody. In the process of making the engine, design assumes the role of final causality. We can generalize, again. In analysing mechanisms, we always need to ask, what is the cause for the emergence of that mechanism, its stability, is recurrence through time and across space, and so on. In the context of the life sciences, this is the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes, and relates to the phenomenon of directedness of evolution and of the functionality of biological phenomena. Both functional and evolutionary explanations are instances of final causality, in my view. If we want to explain animal behaviour, we analyse this in terms of functions, and these are ultimately referred to analytical categories such as adaptation and reproductive success.

In my view, evolutionary explanations rely on final causality. This is not scaring because this relates to the role of emerging constraints in channelling evolution, hence endogenously creating directedness. If you look at evolution only in terms of efficient causality, you would only see the part played by randomness (which worries many thinkers). But there is no designer. Design, however, means constraints. Thus, the point is that constraints emerge and stabilize endogenously. This process is covered by the notion of final causality.

Deacon argues that this logic can also be applied on the mind/brain problem, thus enabling us to construct a physical theory of mind that nevertheless can account for the specific properties that we normally assign to the ‘mental’. If this succeeds, indeed, we should not be scared about final causality, but regard it as an essential element in our philosophy of science!


Deacon, Terrence W. (2013): Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. New York: Norton, 2013.





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