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four kinds of causes


Some atheists maintain that everything we see in the universe can be explained solely by natural causes.  

Oxford mathematician John Lennox makes an important point:  "Physical laws cannot create anything. They are a description of what normally happens under certain given conditions."  

In other words, what is called an explanation may actually only be a description.  A material process may be described but not be fully explained, unless all kinds (or levels) of causation are considered.  Lennox writes,  

Millennia ago Aristotle thought a great deal about these issues.  He spoke about four different “causes” that we can, perhaps, reasonably translate informally as “levels of explanation”. Thinking of the jet engine, first there is the material cause – the raw material out of which the engine is crafted; then there is the formal cause – the concept, plan, theory, and blueprint that Sir Frank Whittle conceived and to which he worked. Next there is the efficient cause – Sir Frank Whittle himself, who did the work. Fourthly, and last in the list, there is the final cause – the ultimate purpose for which the jet engine was conceived and built: to power a particular aircraft to fly faster than ever before.

The example of the jet engine can help us to clear up another confusion. Science, according to many scientists, concentrates essentially on material causation. It asks the “how” questions: how does the jet engine work? It also asks the “why” question regarding function: why is this pipe here? But it does not ask the “why” question of purpose: why was the jet engine built? What is important here is that Sir Frank Whittle does not appear in the scientific account. To quote Laplace, the scientific account has “no need of that hypothesis”.  (John Lennox, from God and Stephen Hawking)

So physics can't be separated from metaphysics.  A set of formulas on a blackboard don't actually create anything.  We may describe phenomena, say, a jet engine or an animal such as a cat, but describing is not the same as creating.  The how of the cat in its biological functions does not answer why there's a cat in the first place.  

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