The causality of the future

The main objection to teleology is that the future cannot cause the past or that causes must be temporally prior to effects. A response in notes.

-The proof would be something like this: make a bullet point causal account of how some event unfolded over time. If you don’t write the causes first, then you can’t give a causal account. Contradiction.

-But what if you write a physical law first? When does PV/T=C? The only answer seems to be “whenever”. It’s odd to refer to the law as first in time when the law itself has no temporal referent and – pace Peirce and Smolin – does to appear to need one. Asking when a law is true, or even when it exists, is like asking when a Euclidean plane, Dedekind’s cuts, or pi, two, or multiplication exists; if fact, they seem to be crazy for the same reason.

-Science has to appeal to interactions between sorts of things, even if only as a convenience. But when is a sort of thing? They are somehow causal, or at least can be spoken of in causal ways (water puts out fire, gasoline vapor is volatile, etc.)

-So just to give something first does not mean that it is in time. The first thing need not be in time at all. It could be a recipe, a blueprint (in the sense we use in “genetic blueprint”), a proportion, a mathematical law, a geometrical shape or property… or yes, even a mind or a god.

-The insistence that causes are first in time cannot account for the causality of form. Mathematics, quantitative relations, shapes, blueprints, or messages – which exist either not in time or throughout the time of becoming – all have to be seen as non-causal.

-For Aristotle, the question is one of relating act to potency. To make a cause first in time is to say that all causes, as causes, are potential as opposed to actual. They are potencies without intrinsic reference and dependence on actuality. Taken as far as it can go, we get the teaching of David of Dinant, who identified God with first matter.



  1. D.S. Thorne said,

    April 2, 2014 at 12:29 pm


    -what a thing is includes its characteristic behavior, which is that to which it is ordered, or its end.

    -Form and Telos are often tied to one another, as mentioned in Physics, II. And if, as you argue, Form exists outside of time, so does Telos in these cases.

    -Some of the problem here is linguistic. In our parlance, ’cause’ almost always corresponds to ‘efficient cause’. Returning to the Greek we get ‘aitia’, or “that which is responsible for the way something is”. Even if it looked like a soccer ball, if it did not bounce when you kicked it but instead turned into a toaster, it would not be a soccer ball. So along with looks, etc, it’s characteristic behavior – that it bounces – is responsible for the soccer ball being a soccer ball.

    ~DS Thorne,

  2. theofloinn said,

    April 2, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I always thought that the time-sequence objection was simply the shocking discovery that final causes were not efficient causes. But then there is this:

  3. Bob Kurland said,

    April 2, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    This is an interesting post. I wish I knew more of Thomism.
    What do you think of the conclusions from the theory of special relativity? There is no absolute time scale: what is in the past for one observer may be in the future for another, depending on the reference frame each is using. Moreover, many physical theories envisage, as a consequence of relativistic considerations, a “block universe” in which timelines future and past exist, and are unalterable. (I don’t like that view, because it eliminates free will.)

    • theofloinn said,

      April 2, 2014 at 7:30 pm

      That’s a consequence of the speed of light being finite. I sometimes think that relativity is an epistemological problem. If you are receding from a clock tower at the speed of light you will always see the time on the clock at the same point because you are simply keeping pace with the image. That doesn’t mean the passage of time has actually stopped at the clock tower.

      You can play the same game with the speed of sound. Imagine a chain of yodeling towers set one minute apart at the local speed of sound. Each yodeler lets loose when he hears the previous yodeler yodel. So Yodeler #2 starts at T+1 because it takes that long for him to hear Yodeler #1. Yodeler #3 will cry out at T+2. The sound from Yodeler #1 and #2 will reach him at the same time, so it will seem to him simultaneous. But Yodeler #1 will not hear #2 until T+2 and will not hear #3 until T+4, so the yodels will seem spaced out at longer intervals.

    • April 2, 2014 at 10:01 pm

      The arguments for a block universe are persuasive, but we have to be precise about what they show. They prove that the past, present, and future are all equally real; or that if we posit that the present is real we must posit that the future and past are also. They do not and could not prove that the past, present, and future are all equally real now. When we see freedom and the block universe as incompatible, it is because we are assuming that the block universe is a claim that all times exist “now”, and so what we will do is already set down “in advance”, and we can only fall into a groove already given. Just drop that one assumption and we can’t get the block universe and freedom to butt heads.

      The metaphor – and it is nothing but a metaphor – of a block that has time-worms burrowing through it fails in a crucial sense to capture what Einstein’s arguments and equations are showing. If all the parts of a block are real, they exist at once; but if all the parts of time are real, they do not exist at once.

      • Bob Kurland said,

        April 3, 2014 at 7:44 am

        “If all the parts of a block are real, they exist at once; but if all the parts of time are real, they do not exist at once.” What, in this context, do you mean by “real”? and “real” in the previous part of your comment? Do you mean “has been, is now and will be experienced”? or ??? I’m not contesting, just trying to understand.

      • April 3, 2014 at 8:43 am

        I’ll post on this later. I’ve got to re-visit the argument again. Relativity gives one reasons to think that if the now is “real” (whatever that means) then what is later or earlier must also be seen as real. The only work “real” does, I think, is to be something we are willing to admit about the present, though initially unwilling to extend to other times.

  4. May 12, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Objection to teleology? But in it, it’s not the “future” that causes the “present,” but rather expected future utility, a present vision of happiness still to be achieved, that causes present human actions that aim to make that vision a reality.

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