If you haven’t already read my article Some Things Never Change – A Metaphysical Reflection, please go do so. I’m going to presume a point or two from that article.
Let’s dive right into the depths of it. One of the most important pieces of my thesis, Thomistic Linguistics, is the existence of certain philosophically necessary forms. But what are these forms?
Recalling my previous article on change, I articulated the specific way a changeable thing can be reduced from potency to act. At the start, there is a thing. This thing undergoes a change. It has a thing that it is going to become as a result of its change, and this change is foreseen in its potency. This foreseen goal is the essence of what the thing is, or what it is supposed to be. This is the formal cause. There is the material of the thing, that which composes it, that is what makes it up. This is the material cause. There is something external to the thing which is how the formal cause is imprinted onto the material cause, how the act is brought onto the thing, called the efficient cause. Lastly there is the final cause, the end for which the thing is most inclined to do or be with its new state.
For Aristotle, these four causes answer the most important identifying questions you can ask about a changeable thing. What is it? We look to the formal cause. What is it made of? We look to the material cause. How is it here? We look to the efficient cause. What is it for? We look to the final cause. In sum, the formal, material, efficient, and final causes form Aristotle’s teleology (the study of the telos, the end cause).
Here what we are going to focus on in this article is the formal cause of something. The essences of things. For Aristotle the essence, the formal cause of something, is not just some imaginative thing. It is a real thing that exists in the universe.
This is the crux of this discussion.
We can all conceive of a concept, an image of something. But these things are hardly tangible. They are abstract images we think of in our minds. How does an idea that we think of translate to a necessary, invisible, intangible form? The answer lies in processes outside of human interaction.
Take the example of an acorn. An acorn is a seed, a thing of definitive size and nature. An acorn is not an oak tree. It doesn’t have leaves, it doesn’t have roots, it doesn’t have a stem, and it does not produce other acorns. It just sits there. But it does not mean an acorn cannot become an oak tree. Within the acorn is the potency to become an oak tree. The mere fact that acorns always become oak trees and that oak trees always produce acorns is a natural regularity within the flow of nature. It is a pattern of regularity that is entirely independent of human interaction.
What is it that guarantees the regularity of the oak tree, that it will always become an oak and not some other tree? What is it that guarantees the regularity of the acorn, that it will always be the fruit of an oak tree? DNA seems to be the most regular answer, that it genetically is set to occur, but even if we equate the regularity of the oak tree (and the acorn as its fruit) to the regularity of DNA, we must be forced to ask about the regularity of the DNA itself. The regularity has to have an origination point, not at some point in the past, but at some point in the present. There must be some cause which keeps and maintain the focus of regularity at any given point in time, otherwise the thing in question would lose its integrity and fall apart.
If you remember from my previous article this logic sounds quite similar to the argument for the Unmoved Mover, and you would be correct, but we don’t need to go back quite that far in the metaphysical order. Somewhere between the metaphysically necessary Unmoved Mover (an immaterial being, remember) and the unnecessary oak tree (or acorn, both quite material), needs be a thing that predicts the specific structure of the oak tree or the acorn.
This thing, that predicts the structure, should it be material like the acorn or immaterial like the Unmoved Mover? Remember the predictability of the acorn to become an oak tree. That potency is something that exists within the acorn, and not within a pine nut, for example. Somehow or another, the form of an oak tree already exists, then, within the acorn. The acorn has the potential to properly become an oak tree. But the acorn does not have the qualities of an oak tree. Neither does the DNA. The DNA does not have leaves, does not have a trunk, does not have roots. Therefore the existence of an oak tree, only a potency, does somehow exist within the acorn. Obviously it does not physically exist, so we must conclude that the form is immaterial.
This is the first premise for my thesis:
Everything that changes, that suffers a reduction of potency to act, has an immaterial formal cause, or an essence, just like the oak tree, and this formal cause actually and truly exists.
If all changeable things have forms…wouldn’t man have a form?