We know that every effect begins with a cause. Also, every cause produces an effect (otherwise it wouldn't be a cause because it wouldn't cause anything to happen).

Likewise, we know that every purpose begins with a reason. And even though most deny it, every reason produces a purpose.

Here is an example I'm sure all determinist are familiar with:

I say...

"You don't have freewill. Everything has been determined".

You then begin to flap your arms in the air like a mad-man (this seems to be the universal effect that hearing "You have no freewill" causes)

I ask...

"Why are you flapping your arms?"

You reply:

Because I wanted to show (CAUSE/REASON) that I have freewill (EFFECT/PURPOSE)"

From what I understand (and please correct me if I'm wrong), cause and effect apply to that which is either conscious and unconscious, whereas reason and purpose only apply to that which is conscious. I'm considering the first time the past sequences of cause and effect produced the first reason and purpose.

Did an unconscious cause produce an effect of a conscious reason and purpose, or has cause and effect always had a reason and a purpose?

  • 1
    If you accept "hard" determinism, there's really no such thing as cause and effect. Everything that happens in the universe at any time was already predetermined to happen. Cause, effect, and reason are all illusions. If you're going to flap your arms 20 years from now, that event is pre-determined. Any cause/reason you assign to it is also pre-determined.
    – user935
    Sep 25, 2016 at 12:48
  • @barrycarter: Really? I think even if the world is determined, in another world following the same laws (which is determined as well) it could be different. But if A causes B, then in no such world there could be A, but not B.
    – celtschk
    Sep 25, 2016 at 13:13
  • @celtschk I would argue that if two universes have exactly the same laws and exactly the same set of events, they are actually the same universe, since they are indistinguishable.
    – user935
    Sep 25, 2016 at 14:34
  • We do not know that every effect begins with a cause. Determinism is generally recognized as logically coherent and empirically unfalsifiable, so "refuting" it is pointless. The thing is, its negation, indeterminism, has the same properties, and is the most straightforward interpretation of modern physics. So the more likely response you'll get from a free will proponent would not be the flapping of hands but two words "Prove it". Since you can't they are free to dismiss determinism as an unmotivated metaphysical dogma. Some call this the "dumping strategy".
    – Conifold
    Sep 25, 2016 at 18:55
  • The philosopher most congenial to your point of view is probably Spinoza. On his account the world can be equivalently perceived under two aspects, extension and thought. What is seen as cause under the first is seen as reason under the second, what is seen as physical causality under the first is seen as logical necessity under the second, what is seen as Nature under the first is seen as God under the second. And that God=Nature is the first reason and the first cause plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/#GodNatu
    – Conifold
    Sep 25, 2016 at 19:01

1 Answer 1


You seem to be re-deriving Aristotle's Four Causes: material, efficient, formal and final.

Vaguely, material causes are what make up the object's state (it is made out of this kind of matter in this kind of motion), efficient causes are the chain of effects that lead to its current state (it has come from this previous motion because of these physical laws), formal causes are the meanings it has taken on in getting here (it was put into that form by these choices to put it in these categories), and final causes are the reasons it has gotten here (it ultimately serves this purpose).

I have a chair made of wood and glue, by lathing and joining, to play the role of a chair, because people sit.

I think that once you solidify the ideas it becomes obvious the four have to be simultaneous, presuming determinism or otherwise. You can ask which is more basic, and try to decide between idealism, materialism, process philosophy, and Deism, but none of the four comes temporally prior to the other three.

You can claim that all final causes precede all efficient causes, for instance, but the specific final cause of this chair did not precede the specific efficient cause of the last stage of its assembly. If someone startled me in assembling it and I beat them over the head with it, then its final cause was to be a weapon and not a chair.

Likewise something's material cause precedes its efficient cause, in a general sense: The wood has to be there to be lathed and assembled. But the specific material cause of this chair does not precede the efficient cause -- a different glob of glue could hold the last leg on, so the chairs exact material cause would not be exactly the same.

The question turns into a matter of scale and perspective, rather than actual logic. In general final and formal causes recede into the future as they get farther from the immediate instantiation. Things take on meanings and purposes and then retain them until the object itself is actually changed. Material and efficient causes recede into the past, as things come out of apparently unrelated things and become more noticeably themselves via processes that roll forward in time.

  • Thank you for the answer (+1) for sure. I'm trying to think about this, but I need some clarification. I understand that 'made of wood and glue' is the material cause; 'by lathing and joining' is the efficient cause; 'to serve the purpose of a chair' is the formal cause; and 'because people sit' is the final cause and ultimate purpose. But what is 'I have a chair'? If you 'have a chair', then you've completed its purpose.
    – Cannabijoy
    Sep 26, 2016 at 13:38
  • Whether anyone sits or not is irrelevant, because for at least a second, it's useable. So if you beat somebody over the head with a preassembled chair, then you didn't really beat them with a chair; you beat them with a clump of wood and glue. Is this correct?
    – Cannabijoy
    Sep 26, 2016 at 13:38
  • True. Things end up having mixed purposes, and there may be a clearer example than the use of a chair as a weapon, I will edit if one occurs to me. This is part of the problem with the idea of final cause, and one of the primary difficulties with Platonism, even in the diluted form that makes it into Aristotle. The intuition of purpose is deep, and slippery.
    – user9166
    Sep 26, 2016 at 14:01

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