A good many tourists make their way to a remote spot in the American West, the point at which four states – Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona (clockwise from the NW) — come together. A monument marks the “quadripoint,” with a bronze disk embedded in granite disk at the precise location. Visitors like to straddle it, thereby standing in four states at once.
The site reminds one of Aristotle’s view (spelled out in his Physics and Metaphysics), that four “causes” or factors were at play in all of nature. Using for an example, the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, we can speak of the material cause (the iron, copper, asbestos, and shellac), the formal cause (Bartholdi’s models, sketches, and prototypes), the efficient cause (the casting, hammering, riveting, etc. of the metal workers), and the final cause (to welcome newcomers to a land which shared France’s love of freedom).
The first three are commonplace in our scientific age. Imagine, for instance, an evening newscast, in which the anchor announces the discovery of a massive ice ball somewhere near Pluto. He might report that it was made of water (material), had a certain crystalline structure (formal), and resulted from the coalescence of moisture vented from a mysterious, passing asteroid (efficient). This could be astonishing, but still within the range of expected explanation. But were he to add, “. . . and it exists to bring glory to God (or provide aesthetic delight or a sense of wonder to earthlings; or prompt more deep space exploration; or provide for the development of life in the region), we would find that very odd, indeed, unwarranted. You just don’t talk that way when you do astronomy.
Today, the courts are indignant when a schoolboard wants to introduce a kind word for Intelligent Design in the classroom. (See the discussion of the Kitzmiller case elsewhere on this site.) If you presume to extend ID talk beyond biology to chemistry and physics, then you’ve left the realm of serious thinking and entered the land of religious devotionals. But that wasn’t Aristotle’s perspective. He was no evangelical, but he saw purpose and direction everywhere.
Twentieth-century science historian Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of “paradigms,” models under which scientists operated, models which may be displaced by subsequent discovery and reflection. In this case, Aristotle’s model for understanding nature was vegetable, as with the acorn. The point of this little object was to become an oak. It wasn’t simply an inert feature of the forest, but rather, it was pregnant with a telos, a developmental direction packed into a small package. (This was before the science of genetics, but you didn’t need the 19 th – century work of Gregor Mendel to see that things were cooking in that little oak seed.)
Problem was, Aristotelian scientists applied developmental telos to all matter, including metals. And by their reasoning, a base element like lead was yearning to be an exalted metal like gold. So they came up with the bogus science of alchemy to find a “hormone treatment” to help lower metals “be the best that they could be.” Then, in revolutionary fashion, along came Isaac Newton, and the clock became the new paradigm. In this connection, hour glasses aren’t developing into grandfather clocks, wrist watches into atomic clocks.
Still, Christians and theists in general are open to reflection on why God might have designed things as he did, what they’re here for, and how the universe would be diminished if they didn’t exist. And that includes us. Witness the Westminster formulation, that the “chief end of man” is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” You don’t exhaust the meaning of man by simply speaking terms of protoplasm, sexual congress, and musculoskeletal engineering.
In this connection, it’s good to recall the work of Thomas Aquinas (13 th -century Dominican friar), who developed a system of thought, “Thomism,” which wedded the philosophy of Aristotle with biblical revelation. He picked up on Aristotle’s four causes, applying them, for instance, to human law. In Summa Theologica, he said that all valid human law was based on reason (formal), applicable to a community of persons (material), the work of the magistrate (efficient), and directed toward the common good (final).
So, crazy rules (non-rational), applying to a single person (think Tom Hanks on a desert island with a soccer ball), tossed out by those without authority (non-magistrates), meant to serve special interests rather than the commonweal, are not so much bad laws as non-laws. No quadripoint, no law.