Explain Aristotle’s understanding of the four causes

Aristotle considered at the beginning of his Physics that we can only know something inasmuch as we can explain it, (‘Knowledge is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’ of it’). And for Aristotle, the word he used for the ‘why’ of something was aition, which has been translated as cause, although explanation could also be used.

 Aristotle draws a distinction between potentiality and actuality. He applies this to the process of change (or motion). Change is simply the process by which an object acquires a new form (very different from Plato’s idea of form). The object has the potentiality to become something different, and change is the actualization of the potential of one form of matter to become another form of matter. For example, the block of marble has the potential to become an actual statue. The statue is latent within the block of marble – the block of marble has the capacity to become a statue.

 There are two important things to note: firstly potency and act are distinct; the marble cannot be both a block and the statue at the same time. In another example a piece of wood cannot be both potentially on fire and actually on fire at the same time – so therefore change is this movement between potential and actual.

Secondly, as the object cannot be both simultaneously potential and actual, how does it move from one to the other? Aristotle says it needs an agent to move it, which he called the efficient cause. This must in itself be in a state of actuality, not potentiality, ie. it must exist to be a cause of the change in the object. Eg. you need actual water to effect the change of an acorn into an oak tree. We can see how from this Aristotle got the first two of his causes – there must be matter which undergoes the change from one form to another, so in one sense, if we say ‘what is it?’ of something or ask for an explanation of it we can say what it is made of – eg the statue is made of marble. This would be then the material cause.

But as we have seen this would not be a total explanation of the thing for Aristotle – he would want to know how the statue got its particular form. This ‘how’ as we have seen, Aristotle called the efficient cause. In the case of the statue, the sculptor acted upon the stone with his chisel in order to make the potential statue in the marble an actual statue.

But Aristotle did not believe we could stop with just the material and efficient causes, the what and the how, as you might say. He believed that as the material has undergone a change of form in going from a potential thing to an actual thing, that part of its explanation was what the characteristics of it were. If we were to say to a person ‘what makes you the person you are?’ they would normally not give a straight list of the elements that compose them such as carbon – they would probably talk about their upbringing or give a character trait, such as ‘I’m happy-go-lucky’. Therefore we need to add another cause other than the purely material to get at a full explanation of a thing – we need to talk about its characteristics – eg. a chair is more than just some wood, it is an object with four legs and a space to sit. Aristotle called this the formal cause.

In the statue example the formal cause would be its particular qualities of marble sculpted into the form of a body, head etc. The formal cause of something is the ‘form’ of the thing – the pattern which makes it what it is – in the case of a building it would be the blueprint. This is not as easily understandable as the other causes, and has been seen as slightly controversial. Clearly, though, much debate surrounds the notion of a form and many agree that Aristotle’s notion is no less flawed than Plato’s.

The fourth cause is called the final cause, and comes from the end of a thing, what it is for. This idea of a purposive cause is given by Aristotle because what something’s aim or goal is is also an important part of an explanation of the thing. Aristotle gives the example of the final cause of walking, medicine, purging, surgical instruments etc. as all being for health. For Aristotle the aim of something can be seen as its greatest good, this is brought out in our use of language when we ask of an object “what is it good for?”


Evaluate the claim that religious language can only be understood in the context of religious belief.

This claim comes from the school of thought that grew out of Wittgenstein’s work, especially his theory of language games, which works on the principle that the meaning of words is in their usage, and different areas of knowledge use language in different ways – they are like different ‘games’ – so that just as you wouldn’t take the rules of the game of football and apply them to chess, you also can’t take the rules of the scientific language game and apply them to the religious language game.

This was a challenge to Logical Positivism, whose strict interpretation of meaning along empirical lines represented by the verification and falsification principles implied that there was an objective viewpoint from which you could judge the meaningfulness of sentences. If science and the empirical method represented this standpoint that meant that the rules of their game should be applied to all the others.

It is clear that the theory of language games relies on an anti-realist theory of meaning. The anti-realist holds that meanings are to be understood by reference to what circumstances you would be justified in asserting them, as Michael Dummett calls them ‘assertability-conditions’. Clearly the phrase ‘I baptise thee in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ would gain its meaning from the context in which it was said – it is understandable among the community of believers participating in the ritual of baptism as a performative sentence uttered by a priest which announces the changed status of the participant to a full member of the community. This is a fairly specialised area, and the language is performing a specialised job. Language games theory’s greatest strength is that it accounts for the way in which much language is used; there is not one correct way of applying rules of meaning outside of the circumstances in which the sentences are being said – so jokes, cursing, blessings, cries of pain, analytical sentences, scientific sentences, all have their own internal coherence and meaning.

So language games theory lets each area of knowledge have meaning based on its own rules, so that someone else cannot stand outside of the religious language game and judge it by different rules – one criticism of this is that then believers can say anything that they want – any old nonsense can be passed off as religious truth. Related to this criticism is the fact that many religious statements do seem to be making assertions that exist at least partly in other areas, historical, even statements about the world like science, so surely it is an oversimplification to think that each area is self-contained with its own rules, and therefore that in some sense religious language must be at least partially open to judgement by say, historical or scientific rules .

This criticism reflects a real misgiving many have with language theory that makes it become a kind of fideism – the belief that faith is independent of reason, and therefore not open to criticism from it. D Z Phillips also notes the common criticism that if religious beliefs are isolated, self-sufficient language games, it becomes difficult to explain why people should cherish those beliefs so much: “religious beliefs begin to look like hobbies, something with which men occupy themselves at weekends”.

D Z Phillips maintained that to some extent these misgivings were justified, but he also believed they were partly based on misunderstandings about the nature of the theory. For instance, he argues that there are definite distinctions that should be made in the use of words in religious contexts from other contexts. The use of the word belief is one instance. He uses Wittgenstein’s example of a person saying “I believe in the Last Judgement”, and his friend says “I’m not so sure”, and in another case where the person says “I believe there’s a German plane overhead”, and his friend says “I’m not so sure”. Clearly the gap between the two people in the first instance is fundamental – whereas in the second instance there is really not much between them. D Z Phillips says that this highlights the really foundational way some religious language is used, such that the calling the argument between the believer and the non-believer a ‘disagreement’ or contradiction is really insufficient – the two arguing about the German plane were having a disagreement – the first two not. You can’t disagree with or contradict  someone over something unless you share a common understanding of the thing. Phillips uses the examples of the man who says the sun is ninety million miles from the earth contradicting the man who says it is twenty million miles from the earth – they contradict each other because they share a common understanding. But the person who says ‘God does not exist’ does not contradict the person who says ‘God exists’ because for the believer – the question of God’s non-existence is literally meaningless – God’s definition includes his necessary existence – he is not a being among beings who might not exist.

Language games theory’s value to the debate on religious language was that it helped to bring out the ‘grammar of belief’, that it doesn’t involve the weighing of evidence, or reasoning to a conclusion, but seeing how it regulates a believer’s life. Phillips likens religious belief to a picture, which to some people is constantly in the foreground, shaping how they act, and to others (non-believers) it just doesn’t figure in their life at all, it plays no part in their thinking. Therefore, there is a real and important sense in which religious language can only be understood properly in the context of religious belief. Wittgenstein and his subsequent followers showed how important mistakes could be made if people outside of the religious context judged the beliefs on the basis of assumptions that the language the believer was using was being used in the same way as the language from another context.


Evaluate the claim that religious experiences are just delusions.

One key objection to the validity of religious experiences is the possibility of their interpretation in ways other than that put forward by believers. Bertrand Russell said that some people get drunk and see snakes, other people fast and see God.

Whether religious experiences are personal experiences like visions or voices, or whether they are corporate, one criticism of them is that they rely on personal testimony, not on empirical evidence. The obvious problem here is the multitude of problems that surround taking personal testimony at face value. I might want to believe someone when they say they saw a vision of Christ, and even if the person themself is not lying and entirely believes they saw Christ, does this mean they actually did, and the vision was not down to a lack of sleep, drugs, or a psychotic episode. Schizophrenia is a mental illness where it is common to feel that God is speaking to you, or that you have been chosen by God in some way. How are these delusions separable from ‘real’ religious experiences?

Freud felt that Religious experience is explicable in terms of psychological factors acting on the personality, factors that are ultimately based on childhood traumatic experiences involving the parents. For Freud the human condition is one of fear in the face of our mortality, and helplessness in the face of nature. Thus we need comfort – as children this comes from the father, later in religion the father-in-the-sky. This religious comfort is wish-fulfilment – Freud believed that powerful wishes could find outlets in dreams, but also in other delusory states – essentially then religious visions, voices and experiences are hallucinations which come from our powerful need to feel control over our own helpless state.

With this interpretation, it must be remembered, Freud did not mean to dismiss religious experience as untrue, he said that just because religious experiences are illusions, it doesn’t mean they are false, an illusion like this is not an error, as it is based on one of the oldest, strongest wishes of humankind. Presumably he meant by this that there is a certain meaningfulness or significance to religious experience because they come from such a deep-rooted and universal source, but it is hard to see how I can retain my belief in the veridicality of my experience whilst also seeing it as a wish-fulfilment. If it is caused by my desire for security and meaning in my life its source can’t be in the divine or supernatural realm.

The question of whether religious experiences are false if their source is in the mind has been explored to some extent by Jung, a disciple of Freud. His critique of religion is more nuanced and less reductive. He thought it was wrong to think of the mind as ‘merely’ or ‘nothing but’ as if the mind was a known thing. He used the Greek word psyche for mind, which has connotations of soul, and he bleieved that what we call mind – consciousness – is a tiny part of the the psyche which is mainly unconscious. For Jung, religious experience was an irruption of unconscious contents into the conscious mind, threatening its stability, and bringing numinous feelings of awe and wonder. The individual’s task is to accomodate these powerful experiences into the conscious ego. If the ego tries to ignore them they will end up overpowering it and causing neuroses. If the ego allows them to take over completely, they will also cause damage.

This kind of psychological account of religious experience can be fruitful for an understanding of it. It improves on Freud’s account because it doesn’t make assumptions that the source of religious experience lies in fear and helplessness. Freud doesn’t convincingly show why religious experience must come from this state, but rather assumes the non-existence of God as part of his world-view, and therefore begs the question whether religious experiences are veridical. Freud’s theory also doesn’t seem to account for the vast number of religious experiences that are terrifying, troubling, painful and life-changing. If religious experiences are caused by our needs to placate our sense of fear and helplessness, as he says, would they not be uniformly pleasant and comforting?

Jung, however, remained agnostic about how to interpret the contents of the unconscious mind – he once said “I don’t believe in God, I know God”, thus implying a direct personal connection through experience. Jung, like James, believed that a good guide to the validity of an experience is the effect it has on one’s life: “Religious experience is absolute….it cannot be disputed. Those who have had it possess a great treasure, a source of life meaning and beauty which gives a new splendour to the world. It is overwhelming and healing and is therefore of great validity”. If this is a delusion then it is one that has produced the most profound effect on a person’s life.

William James essentially avoids the problem of the veridicality of religious experience on the grounds that it cannot ever be settled. We have seen that this is the case – Freud may argue that the experience is of the mind, another may argue that God works through the mind. We are reminded of John Wisdom’s parable of the Gardener – the same scene is regarded by two different people in fundamentally opposed ways – how are we to distinguish the ‘correct’ view? Instead James takes a pragmatic view – if such experiences ‘work’ for a person, then that is more important than where they came from. Certainly in many areas of our lives, we have no problem in having powerful, sometimes life changing responses to things that are essentially made-up – look at films, drama, literary fiction, art, games – on a strict view, some level of artifice or lying lies at the basis of all of these, and yet we willingly accept these fictions as true for us while we are involved in them.

Nonetheless the modern empiricist challenge to religious beliefs and assertions is powerful, and is not entirely taken care of by James’ pragmaticism. There remains the problem that although my delusion is having an important and profound effect on my life, it is still just that – a delusion. It surely matters to the believer that the source of their deepest experiences is what it appears to be to them – ie. a reality greater than them and independent of them, rather than just an aspect of themselves. The fact that the character of many religious experiences is of this very nature makes it harder to get round the problem – either the experience is your own mind deluding itself that it is a higher power and reality separate but involved with you, or it is in fact this higher power. For  Positivism, this problem of verifying the experience was key. It was anticipated by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who asked what the difference was between saying ‘God spoke to me in a dream’ and ‘I dreamt that God spoke to me’.

For Ayer, the problem of the ineffability of religious experience led to his dismissal of its meaningfulness: “If a mystic admits that the object of his vision is something that cannot be described, then he must also admit that he is bound to talk nonsense when he describes it…in describing his vision the mystic does not give any information about the external world; he merely gives us indirect information about the state of his own mind’.

Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony provide convincing reasons to reject the empirical challenge and the alternative psychological explanations challenge to religious experience. He claims that the principle of credulity is one we all use already in everyday life, without which we would be stuck in a sceptical bog. He says that it is a principle of rationality that if it seems to someone that x is present, then probably x is present. How things appear to be is usually good grounds for a belief about how things are. He says that apart from special considerations, such as if a person has taken hallucinogenic drugs, that if someone claims to have had an experience of God, that constitutes evidence that the person has experienced God. The principle of testimony follows from this – if I say I have experienced a table or God, that constitutes a reason for you and me to believe that I have experienced a table or God.

Of course, we should not believe every report of an experience that is presented to us – there are lots of things that could make us sceptical. These are the ‘special considerations’ already mentioned, such as drugs, but Swinburne argues that these limiting conditions do not apply in all cases of religious experience. Sometimes reports will be unreliable, sometimes they will be made in circumstances where it is rational to think that the experience has been caused by something else, but this is not a general refutation of all religious experience.

Swinburne has provided a powerful argument against the empirical challenge that would restrict the principle of credulity only to non-religious contexts – he has shown that there is no special reason to do so. However, some object that he has no answer to psychological challenges such as Freud’s: that religious experiences are acts of self-deception. There are plausible alternative explanations (this is Dawkins’ main argument against them). I have already shown some of the limitations of Freud’s theory – but there are some other problems with it. There may be many alternative plausible explanations – psychological, physiological, societal, medical, dietary, political, but what reason do we have to believe that the explanation really works in the way it says? We need evidence, because just assuming that the experience is non-veridical is question-begging. Stephen T Davies says that we only seek explanations for why someone believes something when we are convinced that what the person believes is false.

All the ‘alternative explanation’ challenges fall into the trap of the genetic fallacy – the mistake of thinking that you have refuted a claim when you have explained why a person has made it. ‘You only believe in God because your parents brainwashed you into believing it, therefore your belief in God is false’. This kind of challenge then is obviously incorrect, because the question of why you believe something is unrelated to the truth of what is believed.

It is clear then, that no convincing argument has been made to show that religious experiences are nothing more than delusions. Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony, backed up with his related cumulative claims argument, provide good reasons to take many accounts seriously as veridical.

Advice on a question on the meaningfulness of religious language

‘Philosophers have proved conclusively that religious language is meaningful.’ Discuss


Some comments from the Exam Board


AO1  Select and demonstrate clearly relevant knowledge and understanding through the use of evidence, examples and correct language and terminology appropriate to the course of study.  Weighting 65%


AO2  Sustain a critical line of argument and justify a point of view. 

 Weighting 35%


AO1  Strictly speaking the question does not ask for a survey of challenges to the meaningfulness of religious language, but that would be an acceptable way of demonstrating appropriate knowledge and understanding for this question.  Alternatively, such knowledge can be integrated with the AO2 response.


AO2  The meaningfulness of religious language might be demonstrated in a number of ways, for example the argument that it amounts to meaningful bliks; that it is significant as a declaration of ethical intent; that it is meaningful cognitively through eschatological verification; that it is meaningful in an anti-real sense within the believing community, that it is locutionary and represents an action (J L Austin) and so on.  The proposal in the question might be rejected by an insistence on empirical ratification.  Candidates could explore the question of ‘meaningful to whom?’ in a number of ways, for example suggesting that religious language is meaningful to those who use it. 


You must use some of the following key terms effectively:










Verification Principle


Falsification Principle






Via Negativa














You must refer to at least some of the following philosophers in order to demonstrate your understanding and ability argue the question.  The ones in bold are those you should perhaps be particularly including in order to ensure you cover a variety of views.






TheViennacircle – Schlick


















These are not a complete list. Choosing other philosophers not in this list will not in any way prevent you from getting a high mark.  There are many ways to answer this question.  The Exam Board says this:  ‘…candidates are rewarded for what they ‘know, understand and can do’ and to this end examiners are required to assess every answer by the Levels according to the extent to which it addresses a reasonable interpretation of the question.’


The key to a high mark is linking it to the question i.e.


  • By making constant reference to the question – have or haven’t philosophers proved conclusively that religious language is meaningful


  • Link each of your arguments/paragraphs to the quote – do they support or challenge the view?


  • Don’t just explain what a particular philosopher said  – make sure you contextualise it within the question framework


  • Good (but brief) quotes are always worth the effort of learning!

Discuss the suggestion that it is pointless to analyse religious experiences


The point is to show the examiner you understand the requirements of the question. You do this by briefly showing you are able to recognise that there are differing viewpoints which are supported by different scholars.

Religious experiences are generally, although not always, personal and individual – they rely on one person’s testimony and there is no empirical proof that they are genuine experiences of God.  This applies equally to corporate religious experiences.  Scholars like Freud would regard all evidence of religious experiences as neuroses. However, William James would argue that it is perfectly possible to analyse them and provided a framework for doing so, while the Logical Positivists argued that all religious experiences are meaningless and therefore analysis would not only be pointless but irrelevant.

In the main body of the essay you develop the points you made in the introduction, always, always keeping the question in mind and referring back to it in each paragraph to show the relevance of those points. Give a point of view and then show how a different scholar or angle can challenge it – say whether you think the challenges are strong or weak.


The Logical Positivists believed that statements are only meaningful if they can be verified (proved true or false) either analytically or synthetically –either the truth or falsity of the statement is clear in its own terms or you would know what to do in order to verify it.  Since religious statements could not be verified in either way they were meaningless. Therefore they would have said it was indeed pointless to analyse accounts of religious experiences. However, since huge numbers of religious people do use religious language and describe religious experiences it can be argued that they must convey meaning, and thus that they are capable of analysis.

William James would have supported this view since he did believe it was entirely possible to analyse such accounts …..

Omniscience question from Jan 2010 – with mark scheme

Critically assess the philosophical problems raised by the belief that God is Omniscient. [35]
Candidates may begin by placing this particular aspect of beliefs about God within the general discussion about God’s attributes, briefly discussing the context of believing in a God who is Omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.
They may then go on to explore the meaning of omniscience, discussing what it might mean to know everything, possibly unpacking the biblical notion of God being intimately involved throughout His creation, having limitless knowledge of all that exists within and because of his creative act.
Credit may be given to those candidates who use this question to discuss the problem of evil provided their discussion is put forward in the context of ‘omniscience’ and is not just a general problem of evil response.
They may then raise questions form a number of philosophical positions; for example the may discuss the status of future knowledge within this understanding of God’s attributes. Some may make use of their knowledge of Boethius and talk of Gods knowledge not being future but being eternally present.
Others may raise question of what it might mean for humans to be genuinely free in a philosophical sense if God knows all we are doing and all that we will do.
Some candidates may evaluate this concept by exploring what kind of knowledge God can be said to have; unpacking some of the philosophical ideas present in any discussion of God’s knowledge such as the idea of knowing eternally.
Others may look at the idea that if God knows how we will behave in any given situation and that he does not stop us from acting immorally should he not in fact be held at least partly responsible for our actions.
This may lead some to assess the extent to which believers can hold the view that they are free agent before God as some would argue that god’s foreknowledge holds within it aspects of predestination.
Any valid and relevant approach should be given credit provided the assessments are justified and not just asserted.

Tillich Jan 2010 question and mark scheme

Critically assess the views of Paul Tillich on religious language. [35]
Candidates may begin their responses by explaining what is generally understood by the nature and problems associated with religious language. Some may take the opportunity to try writing their ‘religious language’ essay which could focus too much on verification or falsification or even analogy. However to gain more than a general topic grade the bulk of the essay must address the views of Paul Tillich.
Candidates are likely to recognise that Tillich’s main contribution to the debates in this area was to develop our understanding of the use of symbols when trying to describe God.
Their explanations are likely to explore his belief that it is religious symbols which communicate the most significant beliefs and values of humanity. He would argue that when trying to put difficult concepts into words we are most successful when we use symbols. However it is important to keep in mind that the meaning attached to symbols is culturally dependant.
Tillich also recognised that the meaning of symbols can change over time and even be lost entirely. Candidates may explain that in searching for understanding different generations may interpret the same symbols in different way. The genesis myths for example may still be held by creationist to be literal in some sense while most would agree that the myths have symbolic content but no place in history.
In critically assessing these views candidates may argue that Tilloch was successful in using symbols to further the ability of religious language to express religious beliefs meaningfully and point to the use of symbols in religions they know; water in Christian baptism or the Stupa in Buddhism.
Alternatively they may use their knowledge of the scholars such as those in the Vienna Circle to assess Tillich’s work as pointless arguing that all attempts at religious discussion is by its nature meaningless.
As with the AO1 though, whichever route they take, it is important that they address the central issue of the question and not just fit a general religious language response into a Tillich first and last paragraph.