On the terms, cause, phenomenon, law of nature, fc.

Nihil fieri sine causa potest. Itaque non sic causa intelligi debet, ut quod cuique antecedat, id ei causa sit, sed quod cuique efficienter antecedat.


We shall endeavour to lay more securely the foundation of our future structure, in a brief attempt to ascertain our ideas and give precise definitions of our terms. The terms enumerated above are sufficiently precise, and convey very clear and distinct ideas, and any further explanation of them would have been unnecessary, had they not been rendered confused and uncertain in their signification by some late disquisitions about them. Aristotle divides causes into four kinds, the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final. The material, denoted the substance or matter out of which things were formed; the formal implied that inward structure or form, from which proceed the outward figure and diversified appearances of objects; the efficient cause, was the principle or agent of motion and change, and the final, was the end or purpose which any thing is intended to serve. The distinctions of material and formal causes have justly been allowed to fall into disuse, since the decline of the Peripatetick philosophy. Efficient causes alone comprehend all that can pro. perly be denominated such in the technical and philosophical meaning of the word. The distinction of final causes, also, is retained in the schools, and implies the ends or purposes intended to be accomplished by the Creator, in the formation of the various parts of nature. Many final causes may have contributed to the formation of the same object. As for instance, one of the final causes of the exquisite construction of a human eye, was, no doubt, to enable us to see; another may have been to extend the sphere of our rational enjoyment, and a third to display the benignity and power of the Almighty. Final causes, therefore, while they furnish unanswerable arguments in proof of the existence of a Supreme Contriver, have nothing to do, except as motives influencing the mind of the deity, in the production of effects, and of consequence, do not enter into the views or occupy the attention of the philosopher, in his investigations of nature, whose province it is to trace the series of causes and effects, or, in other words, afford solutions of the various phenomena presented to his inspection. It was under this view of the subject, no doubt, and not to throw any slight upon the pursuit of final causes, when such pursuit is directed to its proper object, the proof of the being of a God from the wise contrivances of nature, that Bacon represents the final cause, as a virgin consecrated to the deity, (virgo Deo consecrata, by a most beautiful figure,) and therefore, sterilis barren, or unproductive of any important results to science.

In the true and philosophical meaning of the term, a cause may be defined to be any agent or principle, existing in physical or moral nature, which contains within itself a power or efficiency to produce an effect, and that effect is denominated a phenomenon, fact or appearance. A law of nature, is the manner or rule by which this cause, agent or principle operates in the production of its effect. For example—the electric fluid, as it exists in nature, is properly regarded as a cause, agent or principle; thunder and lightning, are the phenomena exhibited by it, and the laws or rules of its action are collected and ascertained from observation and experiment. To illustrate the matter still farther, One of the laws of electricity, is, that when one part of nature is positively electrified, and another, in its immediate vicinity, negatively electrified, (to use the language of Franklin) electric sparks pass from the one to the other, and restore the equilibrium. The same may be said of gravity. If there be, as Newton merely conjectures, (for he acknowledges, as will be seen in due time, that the cause of the gravitation of bodies lies under a veil to him impenetrable,) a subtil and elastic fluid which occasions bodies to be attracted towards each other, and towards a common centre; that fluid would properly be called the cause, agent or principle of gravity. The tendency of all bodies around the earth's surface to its centre, and of all the planets to the sun, are the phenomena, facts or appearances, and the laws of gravity, or the rules by which bodies gravitate, are explained and demonstrated in natural philosophy.

These appear to me to be the true and precise significations of the aforementioned terms, and by carrying along with us in our inquiries distinct ideas, we shall find many difficulties removed, and obstructions surmounted which might embarrass and impede our progress. The great object of philosophical investigation, as has been frequently remarked, is to trace the chain of causes and effects; and since it is impossible to the human mind, from the imperfection of its powers, to pursue causes originally through their train of operation to the production of their effects, it is evident, that the only legitimate mode of procedure, and that from a strict and close adherence to which the modern schools are characterised, is, in the first instance, to go in quest of phenomena, and after a careful collection, examination and comparison of these, to establish principles and attempt solutions. From an observation of facts to ascend to their causes, and when once adequate causes have been fully ascertained, apply them to the solution of future phenomena, is the great province of the inquirer into nature. Hoc opus, hic labor est. It is true that in the highest and most appropriate sense of the word, God is the only efficient cause or agent in the universe, since every thing in nature, throughout its whole frame and constitution, and all its diversified operations, must either immediately or remotely proceed from him; and it is probable, moreover, that it will ever remain an insoluble problem in science, whether he accomplishes every object and gives rise to every result by his own immediate presence and agency, operating always as the remote and ultimate cause behind the scene; or whether, after having communicated to matter and mind their several powers, and impressed upon them the laws of their action, he has rendered his farther interference unnecessary in conducting their various operations. There is nothing, however, unphilosophical or inconsistent with our ordinary habits of thinking, in supposing, that he has originally endowed both material and immaterial substances with a power or efficacy to produce certain results, and to these substances we give the title of secondary causes, agents or principles. He is the great primary cause of all things; all other things act in obedience and subordination to him. Every phenomenon in nature is one link in the vast chain, whose last link is fastened to the throne of heaven, or to use the language of lord Verulam, summum naturalis catenz annulum, pedi solii Jovis afgi.

As abstract truth is always best illustrated by examples, take for our present purpose, that to which I have already ad. verted. We discover from daily experience that all bodies upon the earth's surface gravitate towards its centre, and Newton has demonstrated that the planets gravitate towards the sun. This is the first link in the chain of causes and effects. When we ask the question, what can be the cause of this singular fact Philosophy answers, that it is referable to the law of attraction or gravitation, under which some undiscovered principle acts. This is the second link in the chain. Admit. ting that this principle, which occasions the tendency of bodies to each other, were discovered to be a gaseous and elastic fluid, if the inquiry be continued in what manner can this principle cause bodies to tend towards each other, the only satisfaction we can give to the inquirer, is, that it proceeds from some inherent virtue or efficacy subsisting in it. Should we be still farther interrogated and required to tell from

whence this power or efficiency is derived, we can trace it only to the hand of God. This is the last link in the chain. And we shall perceive, upon a slight examination, that every effect throughout the whole compass of nature, when traced back to its source, will be found to have originated in the power of the Almighty. The corn is ground by the millstone as an agent; the mill-stone is set in motion by a machinery adjusted to the purpose; the machinery is put into action by a wheel propelled by the force of a stream of water; the stream of water descends in its channel by the force of gravity, and the principle which occasions gravity derives its force from the Supreme Contriver. The first are all subordinate agents, operating under the controul and subject to the will of the prime mover.

Dr. Samuel Clarke, whose opinions are always to be held in profound respect, as in depth of penetration and clearness of understanding he is almost unequalled, in his answer to Collin's treatise concerning liberty and necessity, objects to the use of the term necessary agent, as involving an absurdity, since the very expressions imply that such objects do not act, but are only acted upon. Under this view of the subject he would restrict the term agents to those things only which have the power of originating motion, such as the Supreme Being, and those creatures which he has rendered capable of voluntary action. The meanings which we annex to our words are not, perhaps, very important, provided we take especial care, that the same collection of simple ideas shall always enter into the complex one denoted by them. If we adopt the definition of Dr. Clarke, and consider agents as those things only which possess the power of originating motion, then all those principles existing in the physical world, which are incapable of voluntary action, may be regarded as instruments, (as they undoubtedly are,) fulfilling the purposes of the real agents. I must confess, however, that I have a very distinct idea of necessary as well

« ForrigeFortsett »