October 12, 2005

Leibniz on "Efficient" vs. "Final" Causes in Physics: Its Application to God, Science, and Miracles

So I'm taking this class on Leibniz this semester (for those of you who may be unfamiliar, that is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the 17th century philosopher/scientist/mathematician, and the "other" discoverer of calculus), and I was reading his Discourse on Metaphysics today and came across this fantastic passage in section 19:

Moreover, it is unreasonable to introduce a supreme intelligence as orderer of things and then, instead of using his wisdom, use only the properties of matter to explain the phenomena. This is as if, in order to account for the conquest of an important place by a great prince, a historian were to claim that it occurred because the small particles of gunpowder, set off by the contact of a spark, escaped with sufficient speed to push a hard and heavy body against the walls of the place, while the little particles that make up the brass of the cannon were so firmly interlaced that this speed did not separate them, instead of showing how the foresight of the conqueror enabled him to choose suitable means and times and how his power overcame all obstacles.

The heading of this section is "The Utility of Final Causes in Physics." Now Leibniz, like me, sees no conflict between an event's being "miraculous" and its being explainable in terms of physics: as in the case of the conqueror, both explanations are correct, but only one is relevant. Leibniz borrows from Aristotle the terminology of "efficient" and "final" causes (Aristotle has two more types of causes, "formal" and "material," which are not relevant here). Today, we use the word "cause" to refer only to what Aristotle and later philosophers, including Leibniz, called the "efficient cause." The "final cause" is the purpose of a thing or event. For instance, the final cause of this post is (in part) to be read.

Now, for anyone who, like Leibniz and like myself, is a theist, the world is full of final causes. There are reasons why things are as they are. God has a design for the world. Leibniz, in this passage, tells us that it would be ridiculous to believe in God and not see final causes throughout the world. He also says, in a nearby section, that it is silly for those who study final causes of things to ridicule those who study their efficient causes, and vice versa. Both explanations are correct, but in a given situation one may be more relevant than another.

A while back, I wrote a post on Christian Naturalism. In it, I argued that Christians should not believe in exceptions to the laws of nature. This then leaves the problem of how to deal with miracles. In that post I said "A miracle is an event in which the 'higher functions' of the divine consciousness, i.e. the part equivalent to the conscious functioning of the human mind, that makes plans and designs regarding human lives and the like, are more apparent than the 'lower functions' which are the laws of nature. To put it more simply (but less precisely) a miracle occurs when the laws of nature conspire together to acheive some intelligent end." (Yes, the "conspire" language was in part a reference to Stephen Hawking's "Chronology Protection Conjecture.") Using the language of Aristotle and Leibniz I can now state this more precisely.

The difference between the "miraculous" and the "mundane" is purely subjective. A miracle is an event in which the "final cause" - the divine purpose behind it (or at least a part of that purpose) - is more readily apparent to the observer than the "efficient cause" - the physical laws which require that the event occurs. In this way, there is no contradiction between belief in the miraculous and naturalism.

A brief note on a related topic: I apply this same doctrine to all miracles, but one in which I have gotten very negative responses is in its application to the revelation of the Christian Scriptures. I believe that these are miraculous in precisely this sense: what came down to us turned out (not by any accident, but by divine purpose) to be the Living Word of God. This does not, however, mean that it was not produced in precisely the same way as any other work of literature. Therefore it is consistent with belief in the inspiration of Scripture to talk about the influence of earlier non-inspired writers (e.g. Plato, Philo of Alexandria, or Heraclitus) on the authors of Scripture, as I often do. I believe that the Scriptures are miraculously inspired, I just don't believe that they were inspired "in a vacuum" as it were, independent of the surrounding thought patterns. Where previous writers were correct, or almost correct, or provided good terminology for discussing a subject, God used their writings to bring it about that the authors of Scripture would write down the Living Word of God.

Posted by Kenny at October 12, 2005 3:36 PM
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Comments

Insightful post - many people should read it.

Posted by: GeniusNZ at November 4, 2005 11:56 AM

very interesting, but I don't agree with you
Idetrorce

Posted by: Idetrorce at December 15, 2007 6:06 AM

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