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Investigating The Causal Natures of Chance and Spontaneity Essay

After introducing the principle causes (efficient, formal, material, final), Aristotle talks about chance and spontaneity in Book II, (Physics) for the purpose of investigating their place among the said causes. Aristotle bases his enquiry on the observation that in history, these terms are conflictive in their interpretation. Some people say that everything that we consider luck or spontaneity really has some underlying definite cause. Yet there are other people, such as Empedocles, who invoke chance when describing the physics of air; or some, who “ascribe this heavenly sphere and all the worlds to spontaneity” (196a 25).

In setting out to elucidate the nature of these terms and their place among the causes, Aristotle contends that chance and spontaneity are not explanatory causes of their own, but concurrent causes. By drawing from Aristotle’s view on nature and deliberate intention, this essay sets out to develop a clear understanding of the term concurrent in relation to chance and spontaneity. Aristotle begins his account with the basic observation that some things always occur in the same way and some things occur for the most part in the same way.

Yet some occurrences are exceptional-this third category, according to Aristotle, is the class of chance and spontaneity: “…as there is a third class of events besides these two-events which all say are ‘by chance’-it is plain that there is such a thing as chance and spontaneity” (196b 12-14). He continues to state that events that occur, but that do not occur as a direct result of intent (thought) or nature, but rather incidentally, “are said to be ‘by chance’” (196b 24). Here, we can identify what constitutes an event of chance or spontaneity.

It seems that when the specific cause does not yield the intended result always or for the most part, then the result is produced by chance or spontaneity. Conversely, when the cause does yield the intended result always or for the most part, then chance or spontaneity has not affected the process. At this point, it is necessary to distinguish chance from spontaneity. Clearly then, when events directed towards an end “do not come to pass for the sake of what actually results, and (3) have an external cause” (197b 18-19) we ascribe this to spontaneity and chance.

Chance follows this same structure, but differs only in that the external cause is the deliberate intent of rational beings. In other words, chance exists only for “agents that are capable of good fortune and of moral actions” (197b 1-2); for rational beings that are capable of “intelligent deliberation” (197a 2). Spontaneity, on the other hand, “is found both in the lower animals and in many inanimate objects” (197b 14-15). Before analyzing the way that chance and spontaneity are concurrent causes, it is necessary to understand Aristotle’s example of the house and house builder.

The efficient (and determinable) cause is that which can build the house, while the concurrent cause (the builder’s skin tone or musical ability) is infinite in range, (and thus is indeterminable). By ‘concurrent cause’, it follows that chance and spontaneity are indeed some form of cause, for ”…just as a thing is something either in virtue of itself or incidentally, so it may be a cause” (196b 25-26). Aristotle further states that they (chance and spontaneity) come “to pass among events which are for the sake of something”. 196b 30-31) Thus, chance and spontaneity are causes by virtue of concurrence with a principle cause, and occur concurrently with events directed towards an end. Yet, what does it mean to say that chance or spontaneity occur concurrently with a cause directed towards an end? First, we will investigate chance as a concurrent cause. In the example in chapter 5, a man goes to the market with a specific purpose (to buy fruits for example), and by chance, he meets his debtor and collects subscriptions for a feast.

According to Aristotle, if “he had gone of deliberate purpose and for the sake of this [to collect the money]-if he always or normally went there when he was collecting payments-he would not be said to have gone ‘by chance. ’” (197a 4-6) We have established that, for this event to be one that occurred by chance, it is necessary both that the man travel to the market with a purpose other than to collect the money, and that the man not frequent the market with this purpose. It follows that collecting the money is not “a cause present in himself” (197a 1) because it is not his intent at the time.

Thus, we only invoke chance when the event is not intended to occur by the rational agents involved. It seems that the event can be explained by the coinciding of each of the individuals’ efficient causes. In the case of chance, and not spontaneity, we are dealing with “those actions for the sake of something which involve purpose” (197a 6); implying intelligent reflection. This is important to note, as the individual causes of each person stems from their own “intelligent deliberation[s]”-the haracterizing difference between spontaneity and chance. In Ethics (III), Aristotle argues that humans have control over their own actions, that they are able to choose the means to their end in view. Applied to this scenario, the act of going to buy fruits (the efficient cause) by the collector, and the separate efficient cause of the debtor, intersected to produce an unintended encounter. Yet exactly how chance occurs concurrently is still ambiguous-for it seems that chance is just an observation of the unlikelihood of the two events coinciding.

Clearly the conclusion here is that chance does not provide the true cause of the meeting, “it is not the cause-without qualification-of anything” (197a 14). Aristotle’s example in chapter 5, in which “the pale or the musical” (196b 27) are incidental causes of the house builder, seems to be analogous to the example of the market place. By this, it seems that chance occurs concurrently with any or one of the 4 causes in the same way that musical talent is a concurrent cause of the house. Plainly, the house builder’s skin tone or musical ability does not provide an explanatory cause for the construction of the house.

There are an infinite number of accidental traits that the builder could have which would be irrelevant to the construction of the house. Thus, the only way to see this chance as concurrent is to conclude that it is simultaneously present in the builder (who is an efficient cause). By equivalence, “the causes of the man’s coming and getting the money are innumerable” (197a 16), (for he could have gone to the market for many reasons). Yet, it is clear that only one intended action could cause the unintentional result of the meeting.

Given these assertions, it seems correct to say that events occurring by chance are unintentional (the agent had no intention of this result at that time). The reason for this is because the primary causes are intentional. In the building of a chair, for example, Aristotle would agree that all 4 causes are intentional: for the creator intends a final purpose for the chair, builds it purposefully with a certain material, builds it according to a form which he has chosen, and knows that he is the cause of its’ existence as a chair.

Thus, the causes of events are always intentional, while chance events are unintentional (on the part of the rational agents); and like the accidental traits of the builder, occur simultaneously with the primary causes. Given that there are an infinite number of acts that a rational being may choose, it is clear that only some of these actions can result in an event of chance. As Aristotle puts it “some incidental causes are more relevant than others” (197a 24). It follows that we invoke ‘chance’ only when the purposeful actions of a rational agent coincide with other actions and produce an unintended event.

Thus, it now seems reasonable to say that only a specific chance ‘cause’ (going to buy fruits) could produce the event deemed chanceful (the meeting). Since only some intentional acts will result in an event of chance, (an event unintended by the person’s actions), it makes sense to say that a chance cause occurs simultaneously in the individual with the efficient cause, for it is this cause in him (the efficient cause) that leads him to the improbable result. It is at this point that we turn to spontaneity, which according to Aristotle, is in the realm of lower animals and the inanimate-things incapable of deliberate intention.

Aristotle views natural things as those which, “by a continuous movement originated from an internal principle, arrive at some completion…” (199b 18). He uses the example of the doctor doctoring himself to illustrate how natural things have within them a final cause, by which form guides material to achieve this end (Physics II:8). So while man can deliberately choose a means to an end, and in doing so may accidentally intersect with another individual and deem their encounter chanceful, natural things do not deliberately chose.

The natural motion is “seeking an end” (199a 5)- but this final cause within the natural thing is not a deliberate choice of intelligent deliberation. Unless impeded by a chance natural event that is irrelevant to the end in view, the natural process will realize it’s end; for nature “does nothing in vain, nothing superfluous” (On the Heavens). The rain clouds forming and dropping over the crops for example, are not the result of chance of spontaneity (198b 19). All natural things have a function in a greater whole and within their being have a final cause to which they form.

It is for this reason that Aristotle says that when a natural process does not attain it’s end according to it’s final cause, the means to this accidental result were “in vain” (197b 24). How does spontaneity occur concurrently then? Since natural things have a “cause that operates for a purpose” (196b 32), it must be when this end is not attained, as we have seen, that spontaneity has occurred concurrently. In the case of chance, as we have seen, the event of chance occurs because humans have an infinite number of actions to chose from.

With nature, however, Aristotle does not suggest that nature itself has a deliberate intention. Necessarily then, it is when a natural process is affected by another natural process or human deliberation that it diverts from it’s final cause, and in doing so, can produce events of spontaneity. Thus, while a human may chose the way in which he achieves his end, and in doing so may unknowingly chose an action which will lead to an improbable event, natural things change from potentiality to actuality in strict accordance with the final cause within them.

Spontaneity occurring concurrently with another cause of a natural thing does not constitute a fifth cause, but is only an indication that the process did not follow completely it’s natural course (it’s final cause) and was impeded by an external event (either natural or a result of intelligent deliberation). Conclusively, chance occurs concurrently with the efficient cause of the individual in the sense that it is a simultaneously present, for only this specific efficient cause could lead to the chance event.

Chance is however not an explanatory cause of it’s own, and the event considered chanceful can be explained solely with the individual efficient causes of the persons. Spontaneity occurring concurrently is thus identical to the way chance occurs concurrently, yet natural processes have specific inherent purposes-they are not events resulting from deliberate intent. As a result, spontaneity is said to occur when natural processes do not attain their end (the process was ‘in vain’), and are affected by an external event (deliberate or natural), thus producing an improbable event.

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