The Four Causes

A Little History

Despite attending multiple colleges and universities and obtaining two degrees, I did not encounter Aristotle’s “four causes” until several years after I had graduated. The few philosophy courses I took spent brief moments discussing Plato before moving 2400 years into the future to spend the rest of the time talking about modernism and postmodernism (one class in particular focused on the professor’s own written material).

I’ve since learned how much of a waste those classes were. The real meat of philosophy is in the ancient, medieval, and early modern world. There have been few philosophers since who have contributed anything of the magnitude that their ancestors did, and often their contributions led to errors repeated for generations. If you want to study good philosophy – and to paraphrase CS Lewis, you should want to study good philosophy if only to answer bad philosophy – you should start at the beginning. Not everything Plato or Aristotle or their successors said was correct, but you can learn a lot even in disagreement.

What Are the Four Causes?

Aristotle in particular had a conception of how to explain the nature of anything and everything, called traditionally the “four causes”: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause.

Consider the human eye for a moment. The material cause of something is the matter of which it is composed, so the material cause of an eye is the various molecular components which make it up. The formal cause of something is the shape or form it has. For the human eye, this includes the overall eye itself as well as the parts which make it up, from the iris, pupil, and lens to the retina.

An efficient cause is like the history of how a thing came to be. A human eye begins to grow early during pregnancy. The whole story of how the eye came to be where it is at the moment you consider it is part of this efficient cause. Finally and fittingly, there is the final cause. This is the telos or “end” of an object; it’s purpose. The purpose of the human eye is to see.

These four causes constitute a comprehensive explanation for anything you can think of, and virtually anything you can know about an object will fall into one of the categories. While this might seem esoteric, consider a very practical use of this information for a human eye.

In medicine (at least medicine traditionally understood and not the postmodern “choose your own adventure” style we increasingly see in mental health and now even in physical health), the goal is to first “do no harm”, but ultimately to mend things that are not working. A human eye can have any number of defects. To know what constitutes a defect, you first need to consider what the final cause of an object is; in our case, sight. So an eye that cannot see well or is blind to color or blind to everything is unhealthy, for it is not capable of realizing its end. Medicine which corrects these problems and enhances vision (be it surgery or contact lenses; even sunglasses depending on the situation) may be “unnatural” in the sense that it is developed by human beings – being artificial (from Latin artificium; a thing people make) – but it is not “unnatural” in the more important sense of going against the nature of the object in question. Medicine which restores sight to a blind person or which corrects nearsightedness restores natural function, because it enables the final cause of the object to be realized. In this sense, good medicine is eminently natural. Obviously, a good knowledge of the formal, material, and efficient causation of an eye is required to develop medicine as well.

An Interesting Discovery

In his book “Summa Philosophica”, Peter Kreeft answers the question “Whether there are four causes?” in his section on cosmology. He answers in the affirmative, but one of the notes he made helped me realize that even if today we don’t discuss the four causes in the language I used above, we still talk about them in language very similar to it. He proposes this objection to the idea that the four causes exist:

We no longer use the word “cause” to refer to the two internal elements or dimensions that Aristotle called “formal” and “material” causes.

He responds, in part:

We still use the word “because” for all four causes, even though we no longer use the word “cause” for the first two. E.g. we say that an enclosed plane figure is a triangle “because” it has three angles (formal causality), or that paper towels mop up liquid “because” of their capillary structure (material causality).

My entire life, and likely yours as well, you’ve used the language of the four Aristotelian causes and have never even noticed.

A triangle is a triangle because it has three sides. (formal causality)

A bullet pierces because it is made of metal. (material causality

A car is in your garage because you drove it there. (efficient causality)

An eye is healthy because it sees. (final causality)

My Thoughts on Speed Reading

Learning to speed-read is often touted as an incredible way to increase your productivity, learn things faster than anyone else, and get through more books than you would have ever thought possible. But how effective is it, really?

I’ve attempted speed reading in the past and have had very poor results with it. Even with practice, it never seemed to deliver on any of the promises that motivated me to try in the first place. What I learned in the process is that one form of speed reading (literally reading faster) is neither truly possible nor helpful, while another (skimming a book before really digging into it) is not a magical but is far more effective.

There’s a YouTube video on the topic I highly recommend below, although I have some additional comments. And to note, I didn’t create the video and have no association with the creators beyond subscribing to them on YouTube:

While I’m normally not a fan of video-based education (a topic for another post, perhaps), I think this particular channel does a good job by choosing relatively simple topics. Regardless, the video makes the point well: speed reading – in the commonly understood sense – is a myth.

But we should have known it was a myth all along for three reasons.

First, when you are speaking with a friend in a conversation, notice how quickly you and your interlocutor are saying words. You’ll find the speed to be nearly the same as the average reading speed; perhaps a little slower, but then you are both coming up with things to say at the moment. Does it make sense that this universal method of communication is a magnitude slower than you can read? Speaking precedes writing, so this seems to make little sense.

You’ll find that as you read, you naturally subvocalize the words. In speed reading courses, this is considered a pitfall to avoid; something which training can force you to stop doing. But without vocalizing the words, it becomes much more difficult to understand what you are reading. After all, that conversation you are having with your friend is understandable precisely because ultimately, you hear the words he is speaking. You don’t translate those words into text that you then read in your mind, even though you naturally do the opposite when you read.

Second, if you’ve ever listened to the radio long enough, you’ve likely encountered commercials that end with someone who is a professional “speed reader” (in the sense that he speaks a disclaimer extremely quickly). If you’re like me, you never quite understand what’s being said. You might hear a word occasionally, and after hearing the same commercial over and over you may come to finally grasp what is rattled off, but it is an unnatural and difficult process.

And yet, this process is the audio equivalent of speed reading. Since we all learn to speak and listen before we learn to read, why should we presume that reading is something we’ll do a magnitude more efficiently? It isn’t very compelling.

Finally, and probably most straightforward of all, simply think for a moment. You can think about anything you’d like. As you think, you’ll probably “hear” (in your mind’s “ear”, so to speak) words.

Now, think as quickly as you can. This might seem like an odd request, but try it. In my own experience, this isn’t something that can be performed on command, but even if you try to think about many things in quick succession, you’ll find that the speed at which you can “hear” the inaudible words you are thinking is about the same speed at which you subvocalize words you read on a page. It seems strange that, through the mystical arts of speed reading, you’d be able to read faster than you can think and still comprehend what you are reading.

While I recommend skimming before diving into a book (at least with nonfiction), I think speed reading is best avoided. If you really really want to remember and understand what you read, read slowly and subvocalize or even speak the text aloud.

After years attempting speed reading, I’ve found it to be ineffective and unhelpful. I’m finishing up my first reading of “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” (which will get a review and even a series if I have the time) and this point was reiterated when the authors suggested that, to really understand and remember the Bible, we need to speak the words out loud. If such a method works for the most important of books, surely it works for others as well.

Life Organization Part 1 – What is it? Why do it?

Note: This is the first in a series of posts, and as the others are written, I’ll update a table of contents with links to the whole series here.

Part 1: What is Life Organization? Why do it?
Part 2: Life Goals
Part 3: Yearly Goals

For the first 20 years of my life, I didn’t make much of an effort to keep myself organized. My parents did most of the work and were better at it, so why even bother?

As I completed college, however, I realized that I would just drift through life if I didn’t sit down and figure out what my goals were and how to achieve them. This began as it probably does for a lot of people: I had really lofty dreams and I wanted to make them reality. Over several years, I read hundreds of articles and several books on the topic of life management and organization, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the ideal system.

After getting married, and especially as my wife and I began to have children, I changed my approach completely. This post is the first in an intended series of what my new method is, and why I think it works better.

What is “Life Organization”?

Planners and calendars are more common than people in the Western world. Everyone who has a smartphone has at least one (I’m not among this group just yet, but I’m told by my wife that I am an endangered species). But a planner or calendar alone is not the whole crux of what this term means.

Admittedly, “life organization” sounds too simple and too simplistic. Life, in truth, cannot be organized comprehensively. Nor should it be.

For our purposes, the term “life management” means the tools, methods, and behaviors a person uses to keep track of and accomplish their long-term goals. It involves figuring out what your own goals are, creating a plan to achieve them, and learning to stick by your plan even when you don’t want to.

Dreams vs Goals

If you’ve ever attended a high school graduation, you will have heard teachers and students alike speak of the virtues of “pursuing your dreams”.

But what if your dreams are bad? What if they are truly impossible? What if the risk of failure isn’t worth the pursuit?

These are the sorts of questions you are not allowed to ask, but which are important to answer. They can change the whole course of a life.

Goals are a bit different than dreams. Instead of being esoteric and ambiguous, goals must be concrete. This is best demonstrated by way of example:

Dream: I want to be important.
Goal: I want to own my own company.

Even in this example, the goal could use a lot of definition. What sort of company? What products or services will be produced? Will you simply have a managerial role in the company? Is this a company you will start on your own or acquire from someone else? By what date does this need to be accomplished?

These questions may seem to suck the fun out of making goals, but in truth, they infuse the goals with purpose, realistic constraint, and urgency. Without asking and answering such questions, you’ll never achieve the goals except by accident. I wouldn’t want to plan on my greatest accomplishments being achieved by accident. I don’t think you’d want to do that either.

An even better example is this:

Dream: I want to be a famous musician.
Goal: Within ten years, I want to play piano with the proficiency of a concert pianist and I want to be performing in city-level orchestras.

This goal is lofty, but achievable. It has a time limit to give it some urgency and to help you plan year-by-year what you need to do to achieve it. It has concrete objectives (playing in a concert is a real and tangible thing; having a level of proficiency can be further expanded to listing pieces of music that, when performed without error, prove it).

Why spend the time doing it?

You don’t have an infinite amount of time in this life. If you want to make the most of it, you need to know what “making the most of it” means. What are the greatest things you can do and how can you do them? This is the heart of life organization.

Planning too much is just as bad as not planning enough, and most of us are guilty of doing one or the other. Everyone needs to plan and organize their time effectively, but not waste time in the process. There’s no secrete formula here, and it will be a lot of hard, irritating, headache-inducing work.

In the coming weeks, I plan to continue this series by discussing what sort of life goals you ought to establish, how to break those goals up yearly, how to use a planner and calendar to accomplish the tasks required, how to cultivate the behaviors and rituals you will need to succeed at them, and anything else I can think of that’s on-topic.

Concept – Using Ideas to Guess Words

Have you ever played Catchphrase? It’s a fast-paced game where representatives from two teams try to get their teammates to guess a word by giving clues before a time runs out . It’s a great game, and one that many of my friends and family love.

What if you took that idea and removed all speaking and gesturing? You’d have an impossibly difficult and boring non-game that no one would like. Thankfully, that’s not what Concept is.

Concept is still a word guessing game, and it doesn’t permit speaking or gesturing by the person giving clues. Instead, Concept includes a game board which has dozens of icons grouped into categories (e.g. colors, shapes, and eponymous concepts). By connecting various icons with tokens, the clue giver can hone in on the correct answer.

What Comes in the Box?

Concept’s box insert is perfection.

A ton of tokens of various colors, a stack of cards with lots of words and phrases, a game board with a slew of icons on it, a pile of tokens to keep track of scores, and several sheets to help give ideas of what the icons on the board might mean come in the box. The components themselves are good.

The box itself is worth discussing. The insert holds all of the pieces wonderfully, and a small bowl that fits into the insert can be passed around the table with the tokens inside of it to keep everything easily accessible. The box insert is outstanding.

How Do you Play?

There is a ton of variety here. A huge stack of cards with nine words and phrases each.

A giant stack of cards, each with nine words or phrases grouped into three difficulty levels, will be your source for hours of confusion. A player selects a card, chooses a word or phrase, and tries to get his teammates to guess it. This might be something as simple as “Superman” or as difficult as “Remember, remember, the fifth of November,” although length is not directly tied to difficulty (I spent over half an hour trying to get my teammates to guess “bottle opener”, thinking the card could not have possibly been printed correctly to label it as difficult).

There are five colors of clues (green, red, yellow, blue, and black), with each color having a primary token used to describe a major category and a pile of small cube tokens to go along with the primary token. Green includes a question mark, while the other colors have an exclamation point, in order to indicate the fundamental category of which the word or phrase is.

Does that sound really, really complicated? It isn’t. But the best way to prove that it isn’t complicated is to offer an example. This is one of those games that makes a ton of sense once you see it played.

Can this board represent everything that has ever existed? The designers think so. The word to guess in this image is “George Washington”.

For a quote like “Merry Christmas”, the clue giver would likely place the green question mark onto the “Quote” icon. It might be helpful to add a subcategory, too, which is what the other colors are for. Placing a red exclamation point (the color doesn’t matter) on the “Holiday” icon and then a corresponding red cube on the “Green” and “Red” icons would likely tell other players “This is a quote about a Holiday which is associated with the colors red and green”. Clearly, it’s a word or phrase about Christmas. Other clues might be added (a “Smile” icon, for example), but the team may just guess the right answer from the clues already on the board.

Some words or phrases can be guessed within seconds and some take quite a long time. I recommend a timer of some sort. In many of the games I’ve played, we’ve given up on the team and score systems. Instead, we just took turns trying to get the other people at the table to guess our expression. This works just as well and is just as fun as the standard game.

Who is This Game For?

Party games tend to be great choices for all sorts of people. They tend to be fast, easy to learn, and fun to play.

Concept is no different, especially if you drop the competitive elements of the game. It typically takes a few minutes for someone to take a turn (or to give up), and while it may be difficult to grasp without pieces in hand, the game is easily understood after a turn or two by new players.

I’ve found that this game is more thought-provoking with some groups and more intense with others. The amount of energy and reservedness depends on the people who are playing it, and I’ve seen both extremes. Thankfully, both extremes have been a blast to play. I recommend this game for practically anyone with friends and family around. Out of the hundreds of games I have played, this is one of the few that works with everyone. People who like long strategy games, war games, party games, introductory games, and even no games at all still seem to enjoy this one. If you don’t own it, pick up a copy!

You can pick up a copy of Concept here.

Escape: Curse of the Temple – A Game of Increased Heart Rates

Escape: The Curse of the Temple is a chaotic ten minute cooperative game where up to five players are faced with their own mortality.

The rules are relatively simple.

Everyone rolls dice, which have custom symbols on them. Three of the symbols allow you to explore rooms, move around the board, and discover hidden gems. The symbols themselves appear on the game board so you never need to consult the rules to know when and how to use them. Another symbol prevents the die on which it appears from being rolled, “locking” it, while the final symbol can unlock up to two such locked dice.

Delicious custom dice.

Players add new rooms to the board, trying to find an exit tile and ultimately, trying to escape. However, in order to actually leave the temple, players must not only find and reach the exit, the must also each roll a number of keys greater than the number of hidden gems which have not already been revealed on the game board. This means that a number of challenges throughout the temple must be completed before victory is possible or probable.

You need to roll more keys than there are gems on this tile. You have five dice. You can do the math on how close to victory this is.

None of this is enough to warrant the description, though. What is enough is the small text on the bottom of the game box: “A REAL-TIME Adventure Game”. Players don’t take turns rolling dice. Players roll dice and use them as fast as the laws of physics permit them to. And they have exactly ten minutes to finish the game (the accompanying audio CD adds not only atmosphere, but also a timer in the form of audio cues). But that’s not all! Players also need to return to the starting chamber about three minutes and six minutes into the game, else they will lose a die permanently.

What Comes in the Box

This game looks great, but don’t let the delightful colors fool you. It wants to kill you.

The game is loaded with tiles which are used the build the temple dynamically through exploration, as well as 25 custom dice (5 for each player), wooden tokens to represent players in the temple, and a bunch of green gems. There are also two advanced “modules” which can be added to the game together or separately to help or hinder the players. One adds curses to the game, which make the game harder to play when discovered, but which can be lifted by wasting time rolling a combination of dice. The second adds treasures to be discovered, each providing a powerful bonus whenever it is used.

Everything about the game evokes the theme. The artwork is great, the CD soundtrack is excellent, and the player tokens even look like Indiana Jones (very small, wooden, monochromatic, pancaked Indiana Jones’, but I digress).

There’s also an hourglass if you, either out of necessity or silliness, decide not to use the soundtrack. I don’t recommend it, given how great the soundtrack is. We also noticed that the sand got stuck sometimes, making the game easier. Not that we minded.

Who is This Game For?

All archaeologists wear fedoras. And are small and painted wooden figures.

Do you have friends who like social experiences more than strategic choices? Do you enjoy rolling dice? Do you like cooperation more than confrontation? Do you like to lose? A lot?

This game is great in all of those cases. It’s a hard game (especially with the added modules). The trade-off is that everyone is on the same team, so when you lose, you ALL lose. This has the neat effect of causing players to demand another round after losing. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the game is exactly ten minutes long, making the whole experience something that you’ll play over and over again every time you pull it out.

However, this game is certainly not designed for people who want a more thoughtful or strategic experience. There’s strategy, sure, but it’s secondary to everyone talking over each other in the most uncoordinated team apparatus ever conceived by man. If you don’t like intense experiences, this probably isn’t one for you, either.

But I love this game, and I think most people will find situations when and groups of friends for whom it would be unforgettably good.

You can by Escape: The Curse of the Temple here.