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Categories of Causation

A mini-essay looking at the nature of causation, with especial emphasis on the relevance of this subject to practical Qabalah 




This page will take a philosophical look at the nature of causation and its classification into distinct categories. It will show that our usual conceptions of cause and effect tell only part of the story, and that there are causal influences at work in our lives and the world around us that we do not generally recognize. I personally think that this is a fascinating subject even from a purely philosophical perspective, but it also has clear and important implications for students of the practical Qabalah.

            The model of causation described here was first proposed by the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle identified 4 distinct categories of causation – material, efficient, formal, and final.




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            Material and efficient causation are the two which we in the modern world are most familiar with, and which many people presume to encompass the entire range of causal influences. Material cause simply relates to the substance of the bodies involved in any given interaction; density, chemical composition, number of electrons etc. are all parameters of material cause. Here is an example of purely material cause: wood is caused to float because it is less dense than water, whilst metal is caused to sink because it is denser than water. Whereas material cause depends on matter, efficient causation refers to the energy imparted to an object. So if you push someone into a swimming pool then the action of pushing is the efficient cause of them falling into the water and the water itself is the material cause of them being wet. These actions of matter and energy define our usual conceptions of cause and effect, but according to Aristotle they are only half of the full range of causal influence.

            Just as material and efficient causes are tied together by there nature, being interdependent on one another, so are formal and final causes interdependent. The classic example of formal and final causation is the tree and the seed. In studying a seed you can talk about the specific interactions between chemicals, sunlight, particles and so on (material and efficient causes) all you like, but you just can’t make any real sense of the processes involved without referring to the tree that it will grow into. This is the final cause. The process by which a system develops towards this final form, reaching basically the same end point regardless of different external conditions or interruptions, is described by the action of formal, or formative causation.

These principles are even more obvious in the growth and development of a human embryo, in which identical cells (stem cells) grow into completely different structures. There is just no way to explain what causes one cell to divide and develop into an eye, and another identical cell grow into a heart, or a leg, other than by recognizing that the cells have a ‘final destination’ which they are trying to reach – a human body. This end point, or final cause, defines and controls the specific interactions between and within the cells, just as the form of the tree is present within the seed, controlling its development. Without the action of this final cause the removal or death of a cell from an embryo at, say, the 6 cell stage, would lead to a fetus missing parts of the body; but it doesn’t, it leads to a complete, if smaller fetus. In this example the information contained within the genetic code as a whole (as opposed to the physical structure of genes themselves) performs the functions of final cause, and the influence of any particular gene on the workings of the body can be said to be a kind of formal cause.

The implications of this fuller understanding of causation to the way we view the world around us are manifold, but there is one particular context in which this understanding is most deeply relevant to the student of Qabalah. The idea that form itself can be a causal influence alongside matter and energy is fully consistent with the philosophy of Qabalah and its theory of emanations (see: Emmanations: Qabalah as a neoplatonic philosophy).

The ten spheres and twenty two paths of the tree of life, all the archangels and planetary influences that are described in Qabalistic texts can sometimes seem very far removed from our ordinary experience of the world around us and how it works. But in actual fact these powers and the way that they influence and define the world around us can be clearly understood as manifestations of formal and final cause. The perfect states described by these powers are aspects of the final cause of our own lives, and of the universe at large – they are the seeds of our true selves waiting to sprout and flower, they are our true will and purpose. And the manner in which they manifest their power in our lives, for good or ill, is the mechanism of formal causation.

An interesting web-page looking at these issues from the perspective of the Chinese esoteric concept of Yi can be found at: http://esotericmartialarts.com/id205.html



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