The Four Kinds of Explanations

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments…. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament.

...Most of us have, of course, no very definite intellectual temperament, we are a mixture of opposite ingredients, each one present very moderately.

...Temperaments with their cravings and refusals do determine men in their philosophies, and always will.

― William James

When a curiosity in the world draws your eye, and your mind begs for an explanation ― what kind of explanation do you offer it? Every effect is driven by an infinitude of causes, and each cause among them is driven in turn by yet another infinitude. Picking apart this vast interconnected web, we can see four kinds of explanatory strands, four kinds of relations which might satisfy your mind’s quest to understand.

Each of these kinds of explanations lives in its own world; communicating between these kinds is quite difficult. Much frustration might arise when we ask for an explanation, expecting some human-centric story of motivation, and instead are given some story of chemicals or atoms, or vice versa. These explanations are tools, and as tools are useful for different kinds of things. Depending on the problems we try to solve in our daily lives, we might tend towards one kind of explanations more than others, or perhaps we might tend towards one kind because of our personality, or perhaps because of some random synaptic connection in the brain…

To think and to communicate clearly about the kinds of explanations we do and should want in any situation, we must first understand them. Despite any natural tendency, we should resist the urge to ignore any explanation simply because we do not prefer its type, so that we do not build in ourselves a fragile understanding of the world which is blind to any kind of knowledge.

The Realm of Ideas: Aristotle’s “Formal Cause”

'Cause' means: ...The form or pattern, i.e. the definition of the essence, and the classes which include this (e.g. the ratio 2:1 and number in general are causes of the octave), and the parts included in the definition.

― Aristotle

Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.

― George Orwell

We start in our minds, where philosophy starts as well. Circling around our heads are patterns and theories, worlds of unchecked possibilities fueled by our imaginations. Every “might have been” or “could be” can make its head in your mind, free from influence in the world. In our heads, our ideas can shift, or multiply, showing off some new facet of a thing, or else some new mirage.

In our minds we make categories ― we say that “chairs” are all one kind of thing, that they have certain attributes and follow some definition. In our minds, we use patterns to make predictions ― “that chair looks shaky; it will likely break soon”.

None of these categories or patterns are “actually” in the world; they are at best “mostly correct”. The infinite complexity of the world cannot fit between our ears. In some sense, the models we impose from our minds onto the world tells us what we can ignore, so that our minds are allowed to grasp only the scantest pieces of information. But without these patterns, we would be overwhelmed, and so we tolerate their constant inadequacy.

The Realm of Intents: Aristotle’s “Final Cause”

'Cause' means: ...The end, i.e. that for the sake of which a thing is; e.g. health is the cause of walking. For 'Why does one walk?' we say; 'that one may be healthy'; and in speaking thus we think we have given the cause. The same is true of all the means that intervene before the end, when something else has put the process in motion, as e.g. thinning or purging or drugs or instruments intervene before health is reached; for all these are for the sake of the end, though they differ from one another in that some are instruments and others are actions.

― Aristotle

If literature isn't everything, it's not worth a single hour of someone's trouble.

― Sartre

From the static patterns in our minds that filter and form our perception, our emotions rise within us to move us towards goals. As living beings interacting with our environment, much of the order or chaos in the world is impossible to understand except as the results of our intents.

In stories, we weave together these intents into coherent wholes of roles or personas, so that we can grapple with them and reason with them. Sometimes we find our intents in disagreement; by fitting ourselves into some or other role, we can see which parts do not fit. As social creatures, ever intending amongst ourselves, often our biggest obstacles are each other, unless we can find a way to deconflict the intents that we all have. And so we tell more stories, about ourselves, to solicit aid and deter hindrance, and we listen enraptured to the stories of others, to find roles to emulate, or causes to join, or threats to avoid.

Intent is an excellent descriptor for intentional effects, so excellent that humans are wont to see intent where it does not exist. We anthropomorphise that the lightning was intended to serve the whims of Zeus, or that the plant dying in our living room “wants to be closer to the window”, or that the cashier who spilled our coffee did so to intentionally hurt us. Some of these perceived intents can still be useful (our hallucinations about the thoughts of plants might guide us to better care for them), yet our propensity to see intents where it does not exist makes this kind of explanation untrustworthy as well.

The Realm of Actions: Aristotle’s “Efficient” Cause

'Cause' means: ...That from which the change or the resting from change first begins; e.g. the adviser is a cause of the action, and the father a cause of the child, and in general the maker a cause of the thing made and the change-producing of the changing.

― Aristotle

..."the doer" is merely a fiction added to the deed―the deed is everything.

― Nietzsche

From intent, we are brought to action. To effect some end, we must do something in the world. The realm of actions governs cause and effect, and deals in verbs. When some agent does some action onto some subject, the verb, the action, sits squarely sandwiched between the cause and the effect.

When paired with intents, actions are tools used to achieve some end. Sometimes the tools cause the desired effect, sometimes not, sometimes they cause other effects unforeseen, and sometimes they do all of that at once. The efficacy of actions-as-tools can vary greatly between contexts ― a toaster does not perform as designed when submerged in a bathtub. Of course, some actions have no intent; the laws of cause and effect work anyway.

Actions are dynamic, by their very nature transforming their target from one state into another. Because of this temporally-dispersed nature of information in cause-and-effect, we often try to guess at causes without fully investigating them. This tendency is cautioned by the statistical warning “correlation does not equal causation”, and by the logical fallacy “post hoc ergo hoc”. Like with intents, because of the usefulness of understanding the effects of actions, we often hallucinate answers to this kind of explanation when we don’t have enough information to actually know. And like with intents, because of the dynamism of the realm of actions, we can easily persist in mistaken assumptions about causes and effects, unless we intentionally go out of our way to test them.

The Realm of Things: Aristotle’s “Material Cause”

'Cause' means: That from which, as immanent material, a thing comes into being, e.g. the bronze is the cause of the statue and the silver of the saucer, and so are the classes which include these.

― Aristotle[^four-causes]

Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.

― Democritus

The results of our actions bring about effects in this strange thing we call “reality”. It is the one realm which we truly share, the medium by which we all interact with each other.

When seeking the most objective explanations possible, as we do in science, we turn to this neutral realm of things, to bypass the difficulties of communicating amorphous ideas between diverse minds, or the challenge of knowing the true intents of others (or even of ourselves), or to navigate the chaos of an infinitude of causes co-occurring into some effect. Like the realm of ideas, the realm of things is a static realm, so that we can freeze a material explanation in time, and study it in detail to our satisfaction.

A Palette for Understanding

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

― Abraham Maslow

We can paint our understanding of the world around us in these four hues. When we see the explanations offered by another, we can identify what kind of explanation it is, and ask ourselves if another kind of explanation might suit us better for the problem at hand.