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The Strongest Force in the Universe

Published on 6 September 2021

Spoiler alert: it's not love.

To educate and pass on knowledge we need to explain things. An explanation, in Aristotelian terms, is a sequence of premises and conclusions that lead us from one point to another. Aristotle, having many firsts under his belt, described these basics of logical and analytical discourse in Posterior Analytics, which is probably the first treatise on philosophy of science and tackles the subject of "what does it actually mean to know something".

The four causes

In Aristotelian terms, the way one acquires knowledge is by discovering and demonstrating a "middle term" between two different things, preferably starting from first principles (that is, propositions that are self-evident and do not need to be demonstrated). Aristotle, to this effect, identified four types of explanations why and/or how anything exists:

According to Aristotle, any middle term falls into one or more of these four types. This allows us to create complex explanations and stories which make explanations rigorous and true, but also memorable. It might be a remnant of the oral tradition of our past that we remember things better if they form a coherent story.

For example, a familiar story: on your car, on which side is the fuel cap? It should be very simple to remember, because it is either "left" or "right." Yet I would always forget this when approaching a petrol station until I learned that the placement of the fuel pump symbol on the gauge indicates on which side the fuel cap is. Quantitatively speaking, that entire story is more information to remember than just simply "left" or "right", but it is easier to remember than just the side itself because it has a logical cause and effect.

Approaching this example from a different direction, we can see that it is an example of the final cause at work. Why is the fuel pump symbol on the right? Because the fuel cap is on the right. The missing middle term is: "the fuel pump and cap being on the same side". So the full demonstration is: "Why is the pump symbol on the right? Because the pump and cap are on the same side, and the cap is on the right."

Aristotle posits that everything in the universe has a final cause and this is one of the most contentious points of his metaphysics. Denying it means that it is possible that the universe does not have an end in itself and everything might actually just be pointless. Indeed, if one asks someone in the street whether he or she believes that everything in the universe has a purpose, I would be surprised if the answer were anything other than "no."

Survival of the fittest

I suppose one might at this point smile indulgently and say that while this concept of everything having a final cause (we also call this teleology from Greek telos meaning "end") could have certainly made sense in Aristotle's day, surely Darwin's theory of evolution proves it wrong. After all, we know now that all creatures were not intelligently designed with a specific final cause in mind, but evolved over time in order to have certain traits.

Theory of evolution by natural selection is used widely as a hammer on metaphysics (especially of Aristotelian and, later, Christian variety) and on intelligent design. One could argue, though, that it does do only one of these things well, namely, offering an answer as to why certain traits in humans or different species are as they are without involvement of God, demiurge or any other kind of intelligent designer.

Even if we argue within the context of materialism that rejects any sort of metaphysics, we still are stuck with a question why certain traits evolved as they did. Evolution optimises for something. "This evolved to do that."

We tend to just throw the phrase "survival of the fittest" around and move on, but actually every trait that is a result of natural selection has some final cause. Otherwise, the extent of our discussion on natural selection would have to be factual statements of what happened and not why it happened.

And on one hand, we want to avoid the "why" (because that's metaphysics, which thanks to the "Enlightenment" we really want to consider illegitimate), but on the other we want to have a narrative explanation for certain traits in humans or animals. (Why do giraffes have long necks? Why do we speak? Metaphysics.)

Was Darwin wrong? Probably not. He cleverly smuggled in a metaphysical final cause into a philosophical framework. That's a significant achievement, although it puts him along with Galileo into the hall of fame of successfully subverting scientific principles and being lauded for it by cultists of Science.

Chance is teleological

To be honest, it appears that Aristotle himself was not exactly convinced about how bulletproof the idea of the final cause is. He seemed ready to concede that events caused by chance are not always subject to the final cause.

However, this is later convincingly refuted by Boethius (in De consolatione philosophiae), who claims that it is not possible for an event not to have a cause at all. Actually, we might consider events random because we do not have prior knowledge of their cause, or because they occur at the intersection of two strands of fate. In either case, perhaps a more appropriate word would be "unforeseen."

First consider an example of a dice roll. We think this is a random act that has no definite end, that is the dice are not necessarily going to end up with snake eyes or two sixes or any other combination. However, if we had divine knowledge of the precise state of the universe at the time of the throw, the weight of the dice, their angle and position, we might be able to predict the way they will fall.

Another type of event is what Boethius poetically describes as two strands of fate — two different causal chains — intersecting in an unexpected way. For example, if I dig in my garden and find a crate full of gold nuggets, I might consider this a random event. However, there is a different causal chain of why that crate was placed there. Perhaps someone was on the run and hid it there for ease of escape long ago.

(Boethius then goes deeper into this as an argument for reconciling teleology and divine omniscience with free will. The argument, abridged, goes like this: if one were able to look at time, space, and the entire universe from "outside the system," one would see that everything is deterministic, including the actions of humans. However, since we possess reason and live "in the system," we have the ability to make free decisions within it.)

Narrative fallacy

The issue of "why" is dreaded metaphysics, but understanding the final cause is actually essential to understanding the thing itself. Knowing something's purpose is key to knowing how it fits into the world. As such, the chains of demonstrations which show the final cause as the middle term are the most informative of all four options.

This is both a blessing and a curse, because while correct demonstrations are thus appealing and easy to remember, bad demonstrations that show false causes that compile into a nice narrative are very tempting to believe. Even if there is no causality between events (or the link is not known, or even unnknowable, to us), we seem to be more likely to believe the person who presents us with a nice story of their relationship, even if it is fake, than the person who says that they are truly unrelated.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb devoted an entire chapter (six) in The Black Swan to this phenomenon, which he calls "the narrative fallacy:"

"We like stories, we like to summarize, and we like to simplify. (...) Explanations bind facts together. They make them more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding."

Interestingly, Taleb considers this a bug in the Platonic understanding of the world. I suppose this shows a certain difference between the Platonic and Aristotelian views on phenomenology.

Plato thought that the patterns (the Forms) are the phenomenological causes of what they signify (i.e. that we perceive something as beautiful is because the Form of Beauty causes it), whereas Aristotle thought the opposite (i. e. in the absence of beautiful things there would be no Beauty).

"We fool ourselves with stories that cater to our Platonic thirst for distinct patterns: the narrative fallacy."

It is very useful for believers in scientism to get everyone to ignore final causes because it makes it a lot easier to fall into narrative fallacy if everyone is not used to identifying them all the time. Likewise, when we lament that as we grow older we lose the childlike curiosity, perhaps the reason is not inherent in the process of growing up but in being exposed to more materialism.

We all long for stories, and the ability to truthfully and narratively explain the final causes of things is a superpower that cannot be rivaled. It is the ultimate tool of rhethoric and the magic spell to convince the masses. Storytelling and careful exploitation of the narrative fallacy is the strongest force in the universe.