13 November, 2005

Efficient Cause of Transubstantiation

[This post is fiction, but also nonfiction. It is written in the style of "creative nonfiction", where the ideas behind the words are real, but the description of them are stylized. In this case, the text is written as though there are several successive blog entries that were written, but the truth is that this was written entirely as an assignment that was designed to be submitted to two classes simultaneously: Creative Nonfiction with Dr. Stephanie Girard and Philosophy for Theology with Dr. George Gilmore. The text also acts as though these words were just a first draft, when in fact this version of the essay is the final draft. The text also slightly misrepresents the way that I actually think about these things; here the author is presented as someone who only just picked up Aristotle's Physics, as someone who is more agnostic than atheist, etc., but these and other things are not actually the case. I apologize for any misunderstandings that occur in reading an example of one of my pieces of creative nonfiction.]

Dear Diary,

Today I was reading over Aristotle's Physics trying to understand how to apply his four causes to stuff in my everyday life.  It's odd because when I was little I always had this false interpretation of Aristotle as some harbinger of ultimate knowledge or whatever when really he was just this guy from a long time ago with a bunch of great ideas.  But can you really blame me?  Growing up, I thought CEOs were always really intelligent people and being President of the United States meant you weren't just some average schmuck.  Society had brainwashed me (through the distinctive voice of my own father, among others), and thinking Aristotle a towering giant among intellects was the least of my misguided childhood fantasies.

Anyway, I lost that view of Aristotle the first time I read him.  I still remember the day.  It was sunny out, and I was reading Stephen Jay Gould on my lunch hour at work, where I dealt with people calling me for computer help over the phone.  ("Oh, you must have ID10T error," I'd say in a serious tone of voice.  "We just need to fix the PEBKAC, which won't take too long, and then we'll be okay.")  Gould was saying something about the history of science, and he quoted a paragraph straight from Aristotle's Physics.  It read something akin to: "Obviously a ten gram ball falls more quickly than a similarly sized one gram ball.  But if we connect a ten gram ball to a one gram ball via rope, will the ten gram ball accelerate the one gram ball's descent?  Or will the one gram ball retard the ten gram ball's falling speed?  The answer is that the ten gram ball will accelerate the one gram ball, since, once connected, they will combined fall as an eleven gram ball would, if it were of the same shape as the combined ten and one pound balls."  Lest it not be obvious to today's readers, I should point out that they in fact fall at the same rate regardless of mass, and though all it would have taken Aristotle is simple experimentation to discover the flaw in his argument, it was blindly accepted as armchair truth, and would not be refuted until Galileo, some 1700 years later.

Nevertheless, much of what Aristotle did was important not just for then, but also for now.  His conception of the Four Causes is one such thing.

Aristotle's Four Causes are nothing special in themselves; they are merely designations of what most people already know intuitively, and they are important in that they give definable names to properties that we can then speak about with at least some modicum of clarity.  They are, in the classical order, the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause.  These are not causes in the sense of 'cause and effect', but instead are answers to the question "Why?".  They are causes of things, rather than causes of events.  The best way to explain is via example.

A chair, Aristotle would say, has many causes (in Greek, αιτια).  Its material cause is that which it came to be, i.e., wood.  Its formal cause is its statement of essence, i.e., its blueprint.  Its efficient cause is its primary source of creation, i.e., the carpenter.  And its final cause is its end (τελος), i.e., place to sit.  Without any one of these causes, Aristotle says, a thing would not exist.  (In the case of natural objects, he says, the formal, efficient, and final causes often coincide, in the sense that a chicken's end is to be a chicken, just as its form is that of a chicken, and its primary source is, of course, a chicken.  (Whereas evolution has taught us that in fact the egg comes first, Aristotle's view on the age-old question is that the primary source of any chicken is "chicken".)

But typing all this makes my hand hurt.  Really, why am I writing all this in my diary anyway?

Dear Diary,

I've got an answer to last week's question.  You see, I was trying to jot down a few thoughts for my Philosophy for Theology paper due soon.  But now I've been handed this assignment in my Creative Nonfiction class, and it seems that I might be able to take out two birds with one stone.  (Not that I would ever literally do such a thing, but like the cockney "berk" being only mildly offensive despite its etymology, sometimes harsh words may be used while maintaining a connotation of idle pacifism.  But I digress [as I usually do in my private journal entries].)  The only thing is...  Will I have to submit two differently edited versions?  Or could I possibly fulfill both requirements simultaneously with one set of journal entries?  This will take additional thought.

Dear Diary,

Writing philosophy for an audience less familiar with my terms will make my philosophy writing more clear.  And writing creatively for my philosophy audience that is more used to formulaic papers will make my writing much more entertaining (I hope).  Aiming at writing both simultaneously seems to be a very good idea.

Dear Diary,

As an agnostic and strict philosophical skepticist (even to the point where the linguistic turn actually interests me), it is difficult for me to get into this whole idea of catholic sacraments.  I mean, the idea of sacraments makes sense to me (think of a random Greek god giving some mortal or another the power to defeat some enemy, without the god actually defeating that enemy himself), and the purpose of sacraments seems well-intended (the mortal feels proud of his accomplishment afterward, even with the help of a god), and even the material of a sacrament is exceedingly obvious (in cartoons, the mortal with imbued superhuman powers glows with a radiation of naked power).  But when it comes to the efficient cause, I just plain get confused.  What is, when all is said and done, the efficient cause of a sacrament?

I can already see that I'm going to have to work through this slowly, as my brain just is not capable of taking great leaps of logic in cases like this.  (I am reminded of Dr. Cyphert's lecture last class.  On the board he writes this horrendously difficult higher order nonlinear differential equation, and then below it he seems to write something completely unrelated.  It takes me four lines of algebraic factoring, grouping, expanding, and calculating before I understand how he went from one line to the next in his head.  By this point, he's already on the other end of the chalkboard, and I have to rush to catch up to him.)  But that's okay, I guess.  After all, isn't thinking my way through this stuff the whole point of writing papers like this?

I'll start with a sacrament, I guess.  How about transubstantiation?  That one's as good as any, I suppose.  And it's readily identifiable, for the purposes of making the discussion of terms less ambiguous.  I think it will make for a good start.

For those who don't know, transubstantiation is a sacrament in the catholic church which states that the bread and wine consumed during communion has changed its form (i.e., transubstantiated) into the body and blood of Jesus.  The efficient cause, then, is whatever makes transubstantiation happen.  Our options here are very limited.  Either God makes transubstantiation happen alone, or else God empowers humanity to make transubstantiation occur.  Since it is believed that transubstantiation occurs only when the appropriate words are said (or, as the more liberal catholics would have it, when the intent of the words is there without being spoken), then if God alone is the efficient cause, he only decides to exert his power in the very limited circumstances where humans have fulfilled certain conditions.  So, from an initial take on this topic, it seems more likely that it is humanity (through God's empowerment) that is the efficient cause of transubstantiation.

I say "more likely" because the only two options are (1) God does it and (2) Humans do it.  If God does it, then he just happens to only do it whenever humans perform a certain rite.  If humans do it, then they do it by performing that rite.  Occam's Razor seems to apply here, if you believe in that sort of thing: there is no reason to prefer (1) to (2), and since (1) requires additional assumptions, (2) is more likely to be true.

But I hesitate to use Occam's Razor here, because if we apply it purely, then why speak of sacraments at all?  But I figure since I have serious qualms with the validity of statements of comparative likelihood of causations anyway, I might as well bring up Occam's Razor where I figure someone else might think it has the possibility of applying.  (If ever there were a paragraph marked for rewriting in my second draft, this one will be it.)

So let's consider the case of transubstantiation more closely.  What is causing the sacrament to occur?  Well, God is, of course.  Even if one says that a human causes it, the "primary source of creation" is obviously God.  Remember Aristotle's efficient cause of a chicken?  It isn't the egg, which comes just before; it is the primary source, i.e., 'chicken'.  Then if we take Aristotle's definition of efficient cause literally, the primary source must be God.  (It is easy here to misunderstand what I am saying.  I do not mean that the efficient cause of everything is God, even if God is the first cause of everything.  I only mean that those things which come about by God's direct action has God as its efficient cause.  Primary here does not mean first in a temporal sense, but first in a ranking of all that directly effected the thing.)

So it seems that God must be the efficient cause of transubstantiation, if we take Aristotle's definitions literally.  Is this the final word on the topic?

Unfortunately, no, it is not.  .:sigh:.

Although I am not an atheist per se, I do have sympathies with the non-agnostic believers-in-nonexistence-of-gods that make up a significant portion of the secular humanist movement.  And they would have an entirely different take on the efficient cause of sacraments.  Transubstantiation, they would say, is not a changing of the substance, but is rather a changing of the view of a substance.  And, as such, the efficient cause of transubstantiation is the very group of believers in transubstantiation themselves.

This viewpoint, while originating from an atheistic viewpoint, does have some level of relevance even to the religiously motivated.  You see, the efficient cause of a thing, as the primary source of the thing's creation, is directly related to the secondary (and tertiary, etc.) of source of the thing's creation.  The efficient cause of a chair is the carpenter, even if the carpenter had an assistant who brought him tools.  The tool-bringer is not the efficient cause, but he is nonetheless necessary for the object to exist.  The set consisting of the carpenter and the carpenter's assistant is more correctly said to be the efficient cause than the carpenter alone.  The set is more of a primary source than just the carpenter.  That doesn't mean it is wrong to think of the carpenter alone as the efficient cause, nor does it make it right to consider the carpenter's assistant to be the efficient cause, but, when combined, the carpenter and his assistant is more fully an efficient cause of the chair than either are alone.

In that vein of thinking, the believers in transubstantiation, while they do not consist of the efficient cause on their own, do in fact make up a necessary part of transubstantiation's existence.  Without believers, the change in form would not occur, since it has already been made clear that transubstantiation only occurs in the context of certain rites.  This means that whether you choose (1) or (2) as the efficient cause, you will be even more correct if you add in the believers of transubstantiation as well.

I feel a need to stop here even though there is more to say, if only because my hand hurts from too much typing.

Dear Diary,

What does causality matter anyway?  I mean, it's religion, for god's sake!  You pick one and believe in it.  Why bother arguing for one way over the other?  How can you argue for one way over the other?  We cannot presume to know what God does.  And even more important: we cannot choose what we would prefer — sure, I want humans to matter, but wanting it does not make it so.

Are humans justified extrinsically, through God?  (Pessimism at its worst.  Humans can never do anything worthwhile, so why try?)  Or intrinsically, by themselves?  (Optimism at its most decadent.  Humans are able to earn grace through good works.  What arrogance!)

Dear Diary,

Icky day today.  Computer's hard drive is full.  Had to make decisions on what to delete.  Almost like deciding what to cut from a creative nonfiction essay.  But I need to go back to work now.  I think a quick summary is in order.

Argument for (1):

Efficient cause is "primary source of creation".  God does more to make transubstantiation happen than humans.  Then God is the primary source of effecting transubstantiation.  Thus God is the efficient cause of transubstantiation.

Argument for (2):

Either God or Man is the efficient cause of transubstantiation.  If God is the efficient cause, then God just happens to only cause transubstantiation when Man performs certain rites.  If Man is the efficient cause, then man necessarily performs certain rites in order to cause transubstantiation.  Since the former disjunct requires additional premises and does not explain more phenomena nor explains this phenomenon better than the latter disjunct, Occam's Razor states that the second disjunct is more likely to be true.  Thus, it is more likely that Man is the efficient cause of transubstantiation.

We cannot use as an argument that we want the participation of humans to matter.  Either the participation of humans matter, or it does not matter; either way, our desire for the participation of humans to matter is irrelevant to whether or not human participation actually matters.

This last entry is written just past the deadline for turning in this paper.  .:sigh:.  There are a number of changes I'd wanted to make, but this will have to do for my first draft.  I wonder how much either of my teachers will mind that I've combined their assignments?  (For reference, Gilmore and Girard.)  Come to think of it, I have a math assignment due later this week, too.  If only I could have tied that in as well...  But alas.

I'd better turn this in before I'm even more late.