The First "Why?"

Professor Plato said, “We can follow the chain of causality by asking why of everything. Everything has a reason for being the way it is.” I imagined a baby endlessly asking its Mommy, “Why?”

Welcome to article 9 of a weekly series on the formation journey of Br. Josh, MIC, a second-year seminarian at the Marian House of Studies in Steubenville, Ohio. It is the continuation of Br. Josh's previous column, "Novice Notes." Watch for a new column every Friday.

By Br. Josh, MIC 

I walked up to Professor Alex Plato, the teacher of my “Philosophy of the Human Person” class, as he stood behind his tall desk a couple minutes before the class would start. He had his laptop open in front of him.

We had been assigned to read some arguments for the existence of God by Bl. John Duns Scotus, a brilliant Franciscan theologian, and I read through them earlier that morning. 

“Professor Plato,” I said, “I understood Scotus’ argument from "First Efficient Cause." It was really clear, but I didn’t get his arguments from "Formal Cause" or from "Perfection." Do you think you could explain those?”

“I’ll try,” he agreed, glancing up at me.

But almost an hour later, as we neared the end of the class, we hadn’t touched those arguments. I felt disappointed, and hoped we would get to these arguments another time.

The Four Causes
With two minutes left in class time, Professor Plato said, “Now, we only have a little time left, but I’d like to try to explain Scotus’ argument on ‘Formal Causality.’”

He went through Aristotle’s "Four Causes," explaining how the "Material Cause" is what a thing is made of; the "Efficient Cause" is that which makes it; the "Formal Cause" is what a thing is made into; and its "Final Cause" is the goal or purpose for which it is made.

Professor Plato began to teach us about Scotus’ approach to the Final Cause. “The Final Cause asks why something is done, what the purpose or point is. A spider spins a web. Why? To catch flies. Why does it want to catch flies? To get healthy. What’s the point of it being healthy? To make more baby spiders.”

And why make more baby spiders? Because of instinct, genetic wiring. And why are the genes wired to do that? Etc., etc.

Professor Plato said, “We can follow the chain of causality by asking why of everything. Everything has a reason for being the way it is.”

I imagined a baby endlessly asking its Mommy, “Why?”

That was Scotus!

The Ultimate Goal
Professor Plato then said, “We can ask what the purpose is of the cosmos existing. Aristotle said there is no purpose. He said there is no goal. 
“But Scotus said there has to be a first or ultimate goal to explain why all other goals nest together in the way they do.”

The word “goal” is perhaps a poor choice, as it implies a mind with deliberate purpose, which we don’t want to presume. Continually asking “why” is better, to me, because it doesn’t risk logical oversteps.

After the class, I went outside and paced for ten minutes in the cold. 

“I’m still thinking about it!” I told Professor Plato when he walked by. He laughed.

The sky was overcast and gray, and a very light rain drizzled on me.

I wanted to take some time to really digest what I learned.

The image came into my head of an atom with a strong positive charge ripping an electron away from an atom with weak bonds.

Why does the electron go? Because of the positive charge. Why is there the positive charge? There’s a reason for that, too.

The Ultimate Purpose
I glanced down at a decorative campus rock formation near my feet. Why did each stone have the cuts and little markings that made it distinctive from all the others? Why was it there instead of somewhere else, like on a hillside or in the ground? 

If we went back, asking why this, why that, always getting the answers, we would eventually get back to the churning of magma, the origins of Planet Earth and, eventually, the Milky Way, etc. There is a reason why each movement of a particle or an energy wave takes place. 

Ask “why” long enough and you would come to the original “why” for the first thing’s existence. This is Professor Plato’s “ultimate goal.” It need not be explainable in human words or concepts, but infinite regress is impossible and there must be an original reason “why”— the “Ultimate Purpose.”

I saw that this is similar to the First Cause argument. 

It was the first time I met this “first why” argument. I liked it.

Next: "The Feeble and the Fantastical Imaginations."
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