Friday, April 17, 2009

Failing to ignore Aristotle

I had hoped not to have to spend much time with philosophy, but this sentence from Arbuthnot reminded me that I need to brush up on Aristotelian causation:
"it is no Heresie to believe, that Providence suffers ordinary matters to run in the channel of second causes."
Easy for Arbuthnot to say, but this is precisely the issue that concerns people in the century before.  A casual EEBO search for "second causes" turns up 796 works... and a quick survey of the results suggests that many are relevant.  I don't know why I haven't come across more references to Aristotelian causation in the period. Well, I guess I do know. It's because the language turns up mainly in religious works -- which is why my student handout on it is in my Milton folder :)  More on this later (lots of work needed first).
Actually, Aristotle's first two causes, final and efficient, are both familiar to us. Modern science admits only of the efficient cause (#2)- the means and manner in which something comes into being, but in the human world we care mainly about final causes (#1)- the purpose for which something comes into being.  The other two causes are somewhat more obscure (they don't seem like causes to me). Chance, of course, is in the modern world a second or "efficient" cause.  Understanding this requires one to realize as Arbuthnot puts it, "that Chance ... is nothing but want of Art" and that therefore the mathematics of probability is kind of a second-best approximation.

Oh, one piece of news. My article on Daniel has actually passed its peer review at Appositions. One thing that can be said for baby journals is that they're fast.

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