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I’m really enjoying Alasdair MacIntyre’s new book God, Philosophy, Universities. I appreciate MacIntyre’s ability to get succinctly to the heart of bewildering and perplexing philosophical concepts. Especially, reading MacIntyre on the great Muslim philosopher ibn Rushd (Averroës), I finally feel like I have a handle on Aristotle’s theory of “causes.” We are often told that Aristotle believes in four kinds of causes – formal, material, effective and final – and that these causes lead back in a chain to a First Cause, which later theistic philosophers like ibn Rushd would come to identify with the Islamic or Christian God. This all left me bewildered. How can a thing’s final cause (which is to say its purpose) be considered a cause of it? Can God really be reduced merely to the first link in a causal chain of events? Such a god barely seems to matter.

MacIntyre notes that aitia, the Greek word usually translated simply as “cause,” also means “explanation” – as does its Arabic equivalent, illat. And Aristotle and ibn Rushd identify an aitia or illat as “that which explains, that which makes intelligible.” All of which suggests (MacIntyre doesn’t go quite this far) that we should render these phenomena as the “four explanations,” not the “four causes.” Then suddenly it makes sense that only one of these four (the efficient cause, the agency that brought a thing about) sounds like a cause to us – it’s the only one that is a cause in the way we understand the term. An “efficient cause” is just a cause; then there are formal, material and final explanations.

So to explain something means to be able to answer four questions about it: its form (what it is), its matter (what it’s made of), its cause (in a conventional sense), and its purpose (what it’s for). I don’t know if I think that these questions are exhaustive of explanation, but it seems reasonable enough to propose them as the questions one must ask of a thing in order to understand it. Understood this way, Aristotle now makes a lot more sense to me.

But perhaps more importantly, with this reading, I gain a new respect for the “First Cause” argument for God’s existence – with God now being understood as the First Explanation, not the First Cause. Rather, when we offer explanations of anything, those explanations in turn need explaining. Suppose we’re trying to explain a table in front of us. We ask:
What is it? It’s a table – but then what’s a table?
What is it made of? Wood – but then what is wood made of?
What produced it? A factory – but then what produced the factory?
What’s it for? Putting stuff on top of it – but then what’s the purpose of putting stuff on top of it?

Each such “but then” question can be answered, but the answer leads to a further question. Does this series of questions ever end? Aristotle and ibn Rushd, according to MacIntyre, consider the possibility that the series is simply infinite, that the explanations never stop. But if that’s the case, if there is an infinite chain of explanations, the infinite chain itself still needs to be explained. And explaining the series “can terminate only with a being, not itself a member of the series, which makes it the case that this particular series exists.” (MacIntyre, p. 53) That being must be a necessary being, not contingent or dependent on anything else; it must also be unchanging, and therefore immaterial. This much comes from Aristotle; ibn Rushd then identifies the being with the Abrahamic, monotheistic God.

Does this argument work? I’m skeptical, at the least. But here’s the reason I’m excited by all this: as with Anselm’s God, if this God exists, he (or she?) matters. He’s no longer just an empty First Cause, an ethically neutral Divine Watchmaker that creates the world and then wanders off to have a beer. He’s also the first formal and material explanation – so that in more than one sense, everything ultimately is God. More than that, he’s the first final explanation – so that God is the purpose of everything too. I doubt that all this is true. But if it were true, it would really matter – and that makes it worth investigating.