WHAT IS NATURE?

Part 3

In Metaphysics Alpha, Aristotle pursues this idea further ["And so there are two kinds of production ( poietike ), the one human, and the other divine."]. Following his report on the Ionian speculation, he asks himself how matter could be the cause of change, since wood does not make the bed, nor bronze the statue. How could fire, earth, or any other element cause things to be good and beautiful? Since these qualities of things cannot be attributed to automatism or chance, one must look to other causes ( aitia ) besides matter, above all, for an arche of the movement.

In the midst of the confused ideas of his predecessors came a moment of sobriety (Met. 984b15) when a certain thinker (Anaxagoras) declared that nous is present ( eneinai ) not only in animate beings but also in nature, and that it is the cause ( aition ) of order (kosmos) and all arrangement ( taxis ) .

It now becomes clear why Aristotle patterned his concept of nature on the model of an artifact, even though he was aware of the philosophical inadequacy of this procedure. This otherwise shocking feature now becomes understandable in light of the experience of a demiurgic God.

Under the pressure of this experience the image of God and the image of man are mutually coordinated. I emphasize the mutuality, since the correspondences would be grossly misunderstood if one, using the cliché of anthropomorphism, wanted to maintain that the forming God had been inferred from the image of a forming man. This assumption would presuppose that there exists an autonomous and exclusively immanent experience of man, according to which one could derivatively shape a secondary image of God; but this presupposition would violate our previously established principle of the indivisibility of the ontological complex.

The differentiating achievement of the experience of being rests precisely on gaining clarity about the attunement of the reality of the order of being with the truth of knowledge, of einai with noein, of the divine creation of the order of being with human participation in it through a knowing ordering of man's own being. The ordering of man and society through right action is a part of the ordering that governs the cosmos throughout.

As we recall, for Aristotle the spoudaios is a man who is in the highest degree permeable to the movement of being that proceeds from the unmoved mover; and ethics acquires its dignity as a human creation in which the ordering movement of being is articulated for the human realm. Thus the accord of the image of God with the image of man is to be understood as a symbol expressing the human experience of attunement with the divine ground of being.

Even though the demiurgic experience of God forces an emphasis on nature as form and figure, the broader philosophical horizon that also encompasses being as becoming still remains open for Aristotle. Of special interest in this context are the remarks regarding aetiology, the question of cause and becoming, in Metaphysics Alpha, because they deal directly with the Ionian experience of being and analyze its meaning.

The text begins (994a1 ff.) with the statement that there must be a definite beginning ( arche ) , and the reasons ( aitia ) for things are not infinite in number. There can be no infinite regress ( ienai eis apeiron ) in the production of things from their materials ( hyle ) , as flesh would come from earth, earth from air, air from fire, and so ad infinitum. Conversely, one cannot follow the chain of causes in descending order infinitely so that, beginning with the higher term (e.g., from fire, water; from water, earth; and so on, forever), some other kind of being is generated, without coming to an end product. In particular, however, an infinite regress is impossible in the area of human action and its purpose (Met. 994b9 ff.):

The wherefore is an end [ telos ], i.e., an end of the sort that is not for the sake of something else, but for the sake of which other things are. Hence, if there is a last term of this sort [ eschaton ] , the process will not be infinite [ apeiron ]; and if there is not, there will be no wherefore. But those who argue for an infinite regress fail to notice that they thereby destroy the nature of the good [ten tou agathou physin]. For nobody would try to do anything if he were not going to arrive at a limit. Also, there would then be no intellect [nous] in the world; for man, who has intellect [ noun echon ] always acts for the sake of some end: for the goal [ telos ] is an end [ peras ] .




The Three Meanings of Causation

The passage stands in need of a discursive loosening-up to be fully comprehended. The crux of the matter is the concept of aition and of the finiteness or infinity of the series of causes ascending to the origin, arche. The difficulties of understanding the text stem from the fact that the compact term aition stands for three different complexes of meaning.



Cause in the usual sense: Temporal Progression

In the first place, it has the meaning that we use today when we speak of "cause and effect," i.e., causality as a temporal progression of immanent phenomena. This first meaning of aition brings into discussion the nature of existent things in the world this side of God; the nature of things both in their autonomy and in their relation to each other, among which relations is included the possibility of an indefinite regression from any point in the present, temporal or spatial, state such as in a causal series. In the Physics, Aristotle explicitly upholds the infinity of the temporal dimension of the cosmos. Thomas follows Aristotle's lead in that he invokes revelation in support of his conviction that the world was created, since there exists no philosophical argument against the infinity of the world in time.



Cause Related to Organisms  

The second meaning of aitia is superimposed on the first. It signifies the four causes (causa materialis, efficiens, formalis, and finalis), which pertain less to existent things at large than to things that primarily belong to the class of organisms. The experience of organism figures in Aristotelian metaphysics as an independent factor that, by becoming operative in the definition of nature, colors also the conception of human nature, insofar as the forma of organism is suited to support the definition of nature as form, dependent upon the demiurgic experience. The idea of man as an innerworldly formed thing that achieves fulfillment in an innerworldly eudaimonia is principally influenced by the model of organism.

It is only with the third meaning of aition, when the discussion turns to the causa finalis of human action, that we run into the question of the order of human existence that came through nous , and only in this realm does Aristotle reject the infinite regress in the chain of causes as inadmissible. With respect to action, he insists on imposing a limit ( peras ) on the series as an indispensable requisite, since otherwise the nous, the highest good, and the meaning of action would be destroyed.

The various meanings of the term aition must not be dismissed as equivocations; in fact, they must be acknowledged as a phase in the unfolding of the thinking about being. In this phase the problems of the order of being are already differentiated but have not yet become entirely separated from their background of Cosmological thought.

In the light of our analysis of the ontological complex one could say about the first meaning of aition that it refers to that being which, as a consequence of the experience of transcendence, was given the index "immanent." In this being of the "this-side-of-Godness," which we call "world," the problem of arche does not arise (except in the sense of what transcends the world), but only the concern with indefinite regression.

If we ask whether the "world" has a beginning in time or not, a hypostatization of the order of being into an existing thing has slipped itself into the question, since we have forgotten that there is no "being" and "world," but that being and world are ordering relationships pertaining to the cosmos in which we are living, now as before.

The question concerning the arche, the origin or beginning, does not arise from the experience of being but belongs to the pre-philosophic primary experience of the cosmos. It can only appear in a variety of forms limited by their various degrees of symbolic differentiation, up until the point of philosophical differentiation of being, at which point it expresses itself as such: In the sphere of myth it takes on the form of cosmogonic speculation; in the symbolism of revelation it figures as the divine creation out of nothing; in philosophy, as the question of the ground of being of the world.



Cause as the Meaning of Human Action

What is newly differentiated in philosophizing is the concomitant experience of man as the entity who experiences the order of being and his own order as something in attunement with it. This is the experience whose problems come to the fore in the third meaning of aition, as the question of the meaning of human action obtrudes itself, which in turn makes urgent the reformulation of the question of the arche, of the origin.

The question of the arche is reformulated in the sense that it no longer inquires about the beginning of the world but is concerned with the integration of man into the order of being through the attunement of the human with the divine nous.

In order to grasp this integration in its uniqueness, the following misunderstandings must be avoided: The nous must neither be confused with the Israelite ruach of God, nor with the Hellenistic, Christian, or gnostic pneuma, nor with the ratio of the Enlightenment, nor with Hegel's Geist.

It is to be understood strictly in the sense of the Hellenic thinkers as the locus where the human ground of order is in attunement with the ground of being. However, since Aristotle raises the question of this locus by linking the limit of human action with the nous, he goes behind the demiurgic image of God and man to the ground itself, which gives the congruity of the images its legitimacy.

As he leaves the images behind, his inquiry about the peras of action explodes the definition of human nature as form, for when the question is raised about the limit of action set by the nous, this does not involve form, but form is realized only through action.

Hence at its core human nature is the openness of questioning knowing and knowing questioning about the ground. Through this openness, beyond any contents, images, and models whatsoever, order flows from the ground of being into the being of man.

I have spoken of questioning knowing and knowing questioning in order to characterize the experience that I have called noetic, for it is not the experience of a "something" but of a questioning arising from the knowledge that human being does not have its ground within itself.

The knowledge that human being is not grounded on itself implies the question of its origin, and in this question human being is revealed as a becoming toward what is, albeit not as a becoming in the time of existing things, but a becoming from within the ground of being.

In the experience of enduring and recurring figures [ Gestalten ] within being as temporal becoming, we encounter being as form; in the noetic experience that delves into the background of being as form and of the demiurgic images, we encounter becoming from within the ground of being—becoming expressed pre-philosophically in the mythical tales of the genesis of things.

The myth expresses, through its Time of the Tale, which is not the time of the becoming-in-the-world, the becoming from the ground of being. The great questions of a philosophy of myth that result cannot be treated here. The problem has been mentioned here in passing, only because it resonates within Aristotle's aetiology.



Becoming from the Ground:
Not Causality in World Time

The passages cited from Metaphysics Alpha are noteworthy because the elements that function in the Ionian speculation about being as the arche emerge there as links in the causal chain, for which a limit is required. Thus the postulate of a limit for the causalities really has nothing to do with chains of causation comprising phenomena in world time, but instead involves the becoming that issues from the ground of being, which does have its limit in that ground.

Hence the limit postulated by Aristotle is already inherent in the premise in which the elements figure as entities of the ground of being. However when the becoming that issues from the ground of being, which is expressed in terms of the cosmogonic and Ionian speculation about being, is subsumed—granted for valid historical reasons—under the concept of the aition, the concept also serves to designate causalities in world time. As this becoming is represented by a chain of causes, it provides all the prerequisites we need for the whole class of derailments called proofs for the existence of God.

For statements like "The great Mighty one is Ptah who gave life to all gods," or "The origin of existing things is the apeiron," or "In the beginning God created heaven and earth" are not propositions about events in world time, but myths that tell, in the Time of the Tale, the story of the becoming that issues from the ground of being.

The ''existence" of the divine beings who appear in these myths as actors cannot be "proved" by world-immanent means. This type of existence does not stand in need of any such proof, for the truth of the myth is constituted in its adequacy as a symbol of the directly given experience of being as a being that is not grounded on itself.

This experience always implies also the question of the origin of being; the question of the origin in turn implies knowledge about the ground of being addressed by that question; the knowledge about the ground of being implies knowledge of its character as a being that is grounded on itself. Proofs of the existence of God cannot add anything to this complex of experiences.

These proofs, by the way, which have their beginnings in Aristotle, remain an unexplained phenomenon to this day, for Kant's demonstration that they are based on fallacies does not explain why they were conceived in the first place. One would likely come closer to the solution of this problem if one recognized it as a sui generis form of myth that arises only when nous is demoted to a world-immanent ratio, and that ratio is at the same time hypostatized as an autonomous source of truth.

We have come to the end of our exploration of the question "what is nature?" Let us recapitulate its principal phases.

In the first part we had to examine the definition of nature as the form of things, and found it to be inadequate. The second part addressed the question of why, in the history of Hellenic thought, the broader philosophical concept of nature, which marks the beginning of the experience of being, has been narrowed down to the metaphysical concept of nature as form.

The third part explained this narrowing down as motivated by the demiurgic experience of God. The fourth and last part dealt with Aristotle's noetic experience that delved into the background of the demiurgic experience of God, and it showed that the core of man's nature is the openness of his being for questioning and knowing about the ground of being.


ANAMNESIS
CW Vol 6
Chapter 7, "WHAT IS NATURE?"
pp 169-174.




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