What Does it Matter if Nature Acts for an End?

In the grip of extreme relativism, our world has abandoned basic principles of reality. More than ever people are starved of truth. Rarely do we encounter substance which roots a person in living well and gives order to the things that ought to be pursued in life. This is exactly why the Great Books matter, because they look back at thousands of years of the most important questions and ideas: what is man? Who is God? What is necessary to live rightly in this life? What is happiness? Why should man avoid vice? The Great Books ask, quarrel, and answer, building from the sensible things around us towards greater, albeit less apparent, truths.

One of the basic principles in Aristotelian natural philosophy is that nature acts for an end. The integrity and effect of this principle extends to many facets, but is especially relevant as a foundation for ethics, politics, and even metaphysics. If it is true that nature indeed acts for an end, then man by nature must have a purpose. It becomes Ethics’ realm to hone in on what that purpose is, but the whole scope of Ethics depends on whether it is true that nature does act for an end. If nature does not act for an end, then the moral law is nothing more than a construct. If appetites (eating, sexual) or abilities (speech, strength) do not have an end or purpose, then there can be no abuse of these faculties. To abuse something is to use it against its purpose. In a world which denies human nature, it is necessary to return to the Great Books and imitate their tenacity for truth. 

Natural philosophy is done for the sake of understanding natural things. How do we determine if nature acts for an end? Aristotle and his interlocutors exhaust this question from a variety of angles. They agree that there are regularly good outcomes in nature – for instance rain helps crops to flourish. Their opinions differ substantially as regards whether nature has an end. Aristotle believes that nature indeed acts for the sake of something. He posits that nature is ordered to an end, and that good is the cause of nature’s activity. Those in opposition to Aristotle, one of whom was the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, believe that good can result from nature but comes about by chance. They hold that in nature there is no final cause. 

Empedocles unites chance and necessity in his account of nature. In his view, natural action has no final cause, everything acts out of the necessity of its matter. Out of necessity, water becomes hot and evaporates, then cools and turns to rain. It is purely by chance that good results from the rain, nourishing vegetation and replenishing water resources. It is accidental that the rain causes vegetation to grow. Empedocles posits that there is no purpose for the rain, it does not have a final cause, there is nothing for the sake of which it rains. It is in virtue of water’s matter that rain falls, and only by chance does it produce some good.

Aristotle’s opponents deny that nature acts for good because sometimes in nature there are bad results. If rain is supposed to act for the good end, bringing forth grain, then why can rain destroy grain with a very heavy downpour? Rain sometimes ruins and sometimes helps crops, therefore nature must not act for any end, good or bad, but must move by chance.

In appearance, it could look as though nature acts for the sake of the good through natural selection. For Aristotle’s opponents, this is an appearance only because nature does not act for the sake of an end. Further, Empedocles holds the position that through natural selection the universe had a process of elimination. By chance that which functioned poorly or was weak fell away, the remainder being regular. In nature’s random process of elimination, that which was better endured, not by nature acting for an end but because of chance. The shape of our feet, for instance, are uniform, regular, and are the best shape possible for humans to utilize in walking. For Empedocles, it is by chance that deformed variations of feet were naturally eliminated. What is left now is regular and best – men have five toes on each food – that regularity came through chance and elimination of what was not best. 

Against the opposition, Aristotle gives five arguments, to prove that nature does act for an end. The first argument proceeds by the essential statement that what happens in nature “comes to be in a certain way, always or for the most part ”. In other words, things come to be in a certain way which is suitable for the thing’s good. In nature there is regularity, things are formed in the way that is proper to them. Nothing that happens by chance happens always or most often, for this is contrary to chance itself – because chance is an accidental cause, its effects are indeterminate. Taking snow for an example: It would be by chance for there to be snow in August, as that is a rare occurrence. Rather, most often there is snow in January, this is natural. So it is clear that all things happen either for the sake of some end, or by chance. As has been stated, in nature things happen always or for the most part, so must be ordered toward an end. Chance is accidental. Nothing that happens by chance happens always and for the most part. Therefore, nature acts for the sake of something. 

Aristotle holds that things happen for the sake of an end – that in nature things are “naturally apt to act for the sake of something.” When the courageous man acts courageously, he must be doing so for the sake of something. Since nature is disposed to an end, it aims for that end, and in this way it is clear that nature acts for the sake of something. 

Aristotle likens nature to art. He fixes on the principle, articulated here by St. Thomas, “what is prior [in nature] is for the sake of what is posterior.” More specifically, nature has an end, a final cause. “…the last thing produced by natural action is not a good simply by accident, but is produced by natural action because it is a good.”  For just as in the art of housebuilding, a builder begins with a foundation, builds a structure, then fills in with walls and a roof. In the same way, we see in nature that plants do this same thing. Their roots are the foundation, stems or trunks are like the structure and walls, and the branches or blossoms are the roof. In nature there are determinate steps which are for the sake of the good, as in house building there are determinate steps ordered to produce a house. A house builder follows steps to bring about a good – the house. In this way Aristotle shows that if things made by art were made by nature, they would be erected in the same way as they are currently made by art. 

The reverse is also true – art imitates nature – nature has produced what is best for a certain end and so art replicates this. For example, false teeth are made to be like real teeth. There are determinate steps in nature which produce a certain end result. Art imitates this in laying out certain determinate steps for the sake of some end goal. Thus, just as in art things are for the sake of something, so too is the case in nature. 

Briefly, Aristotle considers the way animals act. They do not act through intellect but by nature. Observing any ant, spider, or bee, it is obvious that they act for determinate ends. Many examples can be taken to illustrate this point. For instance, bees have two stomachs and fill both – one is used for nourishing themselves and one is for the storing of pollen to make honey. By their nature they not only nourish themselves but act to a further end to collect pollen and produce honey. By their nature they act for the sake of some good. 

Finally, Aristotle says that nature is perfected as ordered to an end, just as matter is ordered to form. So, bronze is perfected when ordered through form to the end of being a statue. The final cause for the bronze is that for the sake of which the matter is formed. The presence of a final cause in nature is apparent. For, as St. Thomas says, “to be” and “to come to be for the sake of something” is proper to natural things.

Empedocles made the argument that nature cannot have a good end because bad things sometimes result from nature. To this, Aristotle says that even doctors make mistakes. Just as in art there can be mistakes, a house builder may not attach the roof correctly, so too can there be mistakes in nature. Further, the existence of flukes and mistakes goes to prove that nature does act for an ordered end, so when something results in nature that is bad or unusual, we see that there was a diversion from its naturally ordered end. In the words of St. Thomas, “The very fact, then, that there happens to be error in art is a sign that art acts for the sake of something.”

As to the notion of the “man-faced-ox-progeny,” which Empedocles believed to die out from natural selection, Aristotle responds: If such a thing had been generated, it was not according to its nature that it resulted in such a way, but it was a “corruption of some natural principle… corruption of seed,” that the progeny resulted as it did. For, in the generation of animals there are determinate steps which bring about the end. Nature is ordered to bring about a certain end. It is not the case that nature has no end because there are errors such as the supposed progeny. 

Aristotle also reasons, by analogy with art, that nature does not deliberate nor does it need to deliberate. For the artist who plays an instrument, he does not deliberate how to play it, but simply does. Since it is his art, it is natural to him to play the instrument – not deliberate about it. In the same way, nature does not deliberate but brings about the good. Both art and nature have determined steps by which they act and do not deliberate. 

An important distinction to make between art and nature is that “nature is an intrinsic principle whereas art is an extrinsic principle” (St. Thomas). Thus, things in nature are continually moved by an intrinsic principle, toward their end. This end is good, it is proper to nature to move towards its good – its final cause. In nature, things happen always or most often. By the design of nature, ends are determinate and not by chance. It is simply contrary to nature’s essence for nature not to act for the sake of some end. Those who hold that nature does not act for an end, deny nature itself. 

It is imperative to equip one’s mind with a formation in philosophy, because everything – the way we live, what we pursue, how we deal with people – depends on our answers to the primary questions. If we do not know why to seek virtue, beauty, wisdom, then how can we actually live well or educate our children in the love of the good? An encounter with the Great Books can be transformative: these texts relentlessly peel back the truth about the human person and about the ultimate End which nature acts for. 

All Aristotle quotations sourced: Aristotle, Physics. Translated by G. Coughlin. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press.

Love our Articles? Spread the word!

newsletter sign-up

Magnus News

Stay up to date on free courses, webinars, podcasts, and more. 
Bonus! Sign up today and get a FREE At-A- Glance Guide to the Liberal Arts, complete with recommended reading, available for a limited time. 

Subscribe Now and receive a free Guide to the Liberal Arts