Why a Cause and Effect Can Occur Simultaneously

This isn’t the most exciting piece of literature I’ve ever created but it’s fairly well done and provides good information about how Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle viewed the world.

Thomas Aquinas claimed that an efficient cause (a technical term that I will explain later) must be simultaneous with its effect. First I will outline Aquinas’ metaphysical views regarding causes and principles and then turn to the specifics of the efficient cause and why it is simultaneous with its effect.

Aquinas cites Aristotelian doctrine for many of his philosophical views so some of what I attribute to Aquinas, strictly speaking, should actually be credited to Aristotle. This paper is concerned with the argument not the author so I do not feel especially obligated to be precise on this point. That said, first I will explain the distinction between principles and causes. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but as Aquinas notes there are a few relevant distinctions between the two. To understand the distinctions we must first delve deeper into the subject of causes.

There are four causes: material, formal, efficient and final. The material and formal causes are intrinsic because they are inside of the thing, the efficient and final causes are extrinsic because they are outside of the thing. More on this later, but for our present purposes it is only necessary to understand there are two categories of causes – intrinsic and extrinsic – and the intrinsic causes are inside the causer while the extrinsic causes are outside the causer.

This distinction is important to understanding the difference between causes and principles because the intrinsic causes (material and formal) are both causes and principles but the extrinsic causes are only causes and not principles. A principle is “what is first” regardless if something follows from it. For example in the act of lighting a dark room, darkness is the principle of that movement because it is that from which the movement of dark to light begins. However, darkness clearly cannot be said to be the cause of the movement. Now consider the example of an artist forming a sculpture. The artist is the/a principle of the sculpture because the sculpture comes into being as a result of the artist’s actions. That is, to a certain extent the artist (like darkness) is that from which the sculpture came. But in the case of the artist and the sculpture the artist is also a cause of the sculpture because the sculpture comes into being because of the being of the artist. Thus, a cause “is that from the being of which another being follows.”

So I hope to have established the difference between a principle and a cause. A principle is that from which a movement begins and a cause is a principle that has being and creates another thing with being. However, this description makes it appear that every cause is a principle but not every principle is a cause. We know this isn’t true because, as I have noted above, Aquinas believes that only intrinsic causes are principles while extrinsic causes are not. Next I will investigate the nature of each of the four causes and show why only intrinsic causes are principles in Aquinas’ metaphysical view. I will introduce the material, efficient, formal, and final causes in that order.

The material cause is that out of which the thing is composed. For example, the material cause of a gold coin is gold, the material cause of an oak table is oak, and so on. Again, this is an intrinsic cause because it is inside the final thing – oak inside the oak table, gold in the gold coin, etc.

The efficient cause is a little more complicated. In short, it is the thing and the act which brings about the change. For example, the efficient cause of a house is the builder building the house, the efficient cause of a gourmet meal is the chef preparing/cooking the meal. However, it is important to understand that the efficient cause is not the home builder or gourmet chef in themselves. The efficient cause is the builder in the act of building, the chef in the act of cooking. On the surface then it seems like the efficient cause is really two separate causes – the thing doing the act which brings about change and the actual act itself that brings about the change. While this is not exactly incorrect, it is not the best way to view the efficient cause. Strictly speaking, when the builder is not building he is not a builder. If he is at home with his kids he is being a father, if he is playing a game of pickup basketball at the local gym, he is a basketball player. So in this view the thing doing the act (e.g. the builder, chef, minter, sculptor, etc.) cannot be separated from the act itself because the identity of the actor is dependent upon doing the act itself. In other words, it is impossible for a man to be a builder and not be building, for a person to be a chef and not cooking, and for a sculptor to be doing anything other than sculpting. This is the correct way to view the efficient cause and the reason why although it may appear at first glance to be a combination of two separate causes, it actually is only one.

The formal cause is the other intrinsic cause (along with the aforementioned material cause). Like the efficient cause, the formal cause can also be seen as having two parts. First, it is the form of the final being. For example, the formal cause for the builder is the form or structure of the house, for the artist the form or physical shape of the sculpture, and so on. Second, while the change is taking place – raw wood to a table, building materials to a house, gold to a coin – the formal cause is also the form of the thing the other causes are working to create, kind of like an idea or abstract notion. So the formal cause is both the form of the thing to which the actor (builder, minter, artist, etc.) is striving to bring into being as well as the actual form of the finished being. Again, like with the efficient cause I (as did Aquinas) believe it is right to view the formal cause as one cause with two aspects rather than two separate causes.

Lastly, the final cause (appropriately titled) is the purpose or end of the thing that comes into being. This is easier to see with immaterial things rather than the physical objects that I have been using as examples to this point. For instance, it is quite easy to see that the final cause of recreational running is good health, not to go from point A to point B (or perhaps point A back to point A). This is true because the individual doesn’t run because he or she wishes to achieve physical displacement (which could be achieved a number of other ways) but because he or she wants to maintain or gain a certain level of physical fitness. If the final cause of recreational running were not good health then treadmills would have no use. Now I was careful to say recreational running has a final cause of good health because it certainly is the case that running in other situations can have a number of other different final causes. An Olympic sprinter’s final cause for running may be to increase physical abilities or, possibly more to the point, winning a gold medal. A number of other instances of running can be imagined where the final cause could be getting rich, avoiding jail, seeing something beautiful, talking to someone, or winning a game. Now the final cause gets slightly more complicated when we deal with material objects because the final cause isn’t the thing itself (because this would be a combination of the material and formal cause) but thing’s purpose. The final cause of a pen is legible writing, of a house is shelter, of a gourmet meal something edible that pleases the senses.

Now I have described the four causes, we can now try to understand why only the intrinsic causes – material and formal – are also principles, while the extrinsic causes – efficient and formal – are only causes and not principles also. First, let’s examine Aquinas’ third principle, privation. Privation is the absence of a quality in something that is capable of having it. A privation of a piece of white paper is the possibility of being green or red, a privation of me is the possibility of having a six pack of abs, a privation of ice is the possibility of being a liquid. Privation is different from the other two principles and Aquinas recognizes this, calling privation an accidental principle. It is not necessary to spend further time on privation, it is sufficient for our purposes to simply understand what it is and that it is the third of Aquinas’/Aristotle’s principles.

Now the question is – what do privation, and the formal and material causes have in common that the efficient and final causes lack? They are all internal to the object. The material cause, formal cause, and privation all deal with aspects of the thing itself that is undergoing the change. They don’t rely or depend on anything external to the thing. In contrast, the efficient and final causes are both external to the thing undergoing the change (which is obviously why they are called external causes). This is significant when it comes to the distinction between principles and causes because again, a principle is “what is first.” The external causes are dependent upon the internal causes for their existence in a certain respect, and for obvious reasons they cannot be “what is first.” One may argue the chicken or the egg but not the egg or the omelet.

At this point I hope to have explained the differences between a cause and a principle, intrinsic and extrinsic causes, and the four kinds of causes all according to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas philosophy. The purpose of this paper is to discuss why, how, and if an efficient cause must be simultaneous with its effect and now we are in a position to do so.

First, I’ll outline Aquinas’ view and explain why he believes the efficient cause is simultaneous with its effect. Let’s begin by understanding that although it is not possible for an effect to precede its cause, it is possible (generally speaking) for an effect to occur at the same time as its cause. Consider the following situation – a train engine car is attached to a freight car with a piece of metal with 0% absorption, meaning every ounce of force exherted by the engine is automatically transferred by to the freight car. In the case of the freight car moving, the efficient cause is the train engine and the effect is the freight car moving. The exact moment the efficient cause begins to act on the freight car (when the train engine begins to move) the freight car moves, which is the effect. Thus, in this thought experiment the efficient cause and effect are simultaneous. Now we have established it is possible for a cause and effect to occur at the same time, let’s turn to the efficient cause specifically and discover if it too is the kind of cause which can occur at the same time as its effect.

Recall the efficient cause is an extrinsic cause and is both the thing and the act which brings about the change; the builder in the act of building, the chef in the act of cooking, the artist in the act of sculpting and so on. So that is what the efficient cause is, now let’s determine the effect of the efficient cause. In the case of the builder the effect is the construction of a house, in the case of the chef the effect is the preparation and creation of a scrumptious meal, and in the case of the artist the effect is the creation of a sculpture. Note that in each of these cases by effect I do not mean the final product (house, meal, statue) but simply a physical step in this process. For example, the first effect of the builder is breaking the ground, the first effect of the chef might be portioning the meat, the first effect of the artist might be depressing a squared corner of clay.

So now we know what the efficient cause is and what the effect of the efficient cause is. The final task is to determine whether these two occurrences happen simultaneously and the answer I believe is yes, in fact it is necessarily so. Recall what I said about the builder and the efficient cause when explaining why the efficient cause should be viewed as one cause and not two. The builder is only the builder when he is in the act of building. Thus, the efficient cause exists only when building is taking place. Similarly, the effect of the efficient cause occurs when building is taking place. For the builder, the very first moment of ground breaking is also the very first moment of both the efficient cause and the effect. Therefore the two are simultaneous.

Could it be any other way? Could the efficient cause precede the effect? No, because as I have established the efficient cause and its effect are inextricably linked, it is impossible to have one without the other. By definition, if the efficient cause is happening so to must its effect because without an effect no efficient cause is at work – without actual building taking place (the effect) it cannot be said that that an efficient cause is under way, and without an efficient cause no actual building can take place. This is simply a matter of definition from how Aquinas establishes the meaning of “efficient cause” and “effect.”

In conclusion I believe Aquinas is correct in maintaining that the efficient cause is simultaneous with its effect. To show support this view I established what causes are as opposed to principles according to Aquinas, explained the four causes (material, efficient, formal, final) and the difference between the intrinsic and extrinsic causes (and the consequence of this distinction), established that it is possible for an effect to occur at exactly the same time as it’s cause (recall the railroad car thought experiment), and finally that because of how the efficient cause and effect are defined it must necessarily be so that they happen simultaneously and it really can’t be any other way.

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9 Responses to Why a Cause and Effect Can Occur Simultaneously

  1. Prerna says:

    thats nice

  2. Jose says:

    Hi Joe, was doing a little googling to get the distinction between cause and principle and ran into this little piece of yours. As an added benefit I gained a little more insight into the 5 Ways for proving God’s existence, viz. the way you demonstrate efficient causality must be simultaneous with its effect, hence “vertical” vs. “horizontal” which means for Thomas, God is causing the cosmos right now and not at some time in the past. This is something that was touched upon as we went through the proofs in the Summa Theologiae, but not explicated. Also you had a very nice explanation of the 4 causes. I’m still a little dark on principle vs. cause. I’ve been working on the Trinity, and somewhere around ST1, q.30, Thomas argues that the Father is the principle of origin of the Son and Holy Spirit, but it does not follow that he is the cause of either (since that would introduce accidentality into the persons of the trinity as I’m understanding it). Somewhere around q.30 he makes a distinction between principle and cause and states that principles are not necessarily causes but I’m not finding it. At any rate thanks for giving me another little bit of knowledge to hang my brain on… Regards. Jose

  3. Jose says:

    Oops, found what I was looking for. q.33, a.1, ad1. Thanks again for a good read. Jose

  4. Joe Cure says:

    Thanks for stopping by Jose, glad you found your answer. Just for fun, my understanding of (Aquinas’) principle v cause with respect to the Trinity is:

    1) A principle is that from which a movement begins. In the case of lighting a dark room, darkness is the principle. In the case of molding a sculpture, the artist is the principle.

    2) A cause is a principle that has being and creates another thing with being. In the case of lighting a dark room, that which creates light (eg a person, lightning, sun, etc) is the cause. In the case of molding a sculpture, the artist is the cause.

    3) 1&2 show that principles can sometimes be causes (the artist) but not always so (dark room).

    4) Thus, if “the Father is the principle of origin of the Son and Holy Spirit” then by (Aquinas’) definition, The Father is a principle.

    5) But for The Father to also be a cause, there must be some kind of link between a) an act by The Father and b) the creation of The Son and Holy Spirit.

  5. Thimble says:

    Nice argument but completely baloney. Einstein proved that cause and effect could not be simultaneous in our universe because the speed of light is constant and finite. If cause and effect could be simultaneous we would live in a completely different kind of universe.

  6. Joe Cure says:

    Not baloney, just a difference in definition. Aquinas and Einstein define “cause” very differently. Their theories are actually compatible, they simply use the same word [cause] to represent two very different concepts.

  7. Thimble says:

    It isn’t just ’cause’ that would have to be defined differently. It would also have to be simultaneous. The idea of simultaneity is pretty much dead in modern physics too, because time is indisputably relative to the observer. There is no universal clock. Person A seeing two events as simultaneous means nothing; pretty much everyone else will see them as not simultaneous. Since simultaneity is relative to the observer, the order of two things occurring simultaneously for one person could vary for others. So if A and B are seen as simultaneous for Joe, Bill could see it as A before B and Mary as B before A.

    Now suppose A and B are cause and effect. Well I don’t think it matters whose definition you are using, I would think in all cases effect can’t happen before cause. I think both rationalists like St Thomas and empiricists like Einstein would agree on that.

    So if we have simultaneous cause and effect there is a big problem, because for some people it would look like effect is happening before cause. This is not going to work.

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