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Ari s t ot l e on Ac c i de nt s ROBERT HEI NAMAN ONE OF THE MANY perplexing chapters in Aristotle's Metaphysics is his discus- sion of accidents in chapter 3 of Book E. Professor Richard SorabjP has recently argued that the chapter contends that coincidences lack causes with the aim of blocking the determinist' s thesis that everything happens of ne- cessity. This interpretation, as I will try to show, gives Aristotle a view open to ser
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   ristotle on ccidents ROBERT HEINAMAN ONE OF THE MANY perplexing chapters in Aristotle s etaphysics is his discus- sion of accidents in chapter 3 of Book E. Professor Richard SorabjP has recently argued that the chapter contends that coincidences lack causes with the aim of blocking the determinist s thesis that everything happens of ne- cessity. This interpretation, as I will try to show, gives Aristotle a view open to serious objections. However, I believe it can be shown that Sorabji s inter- pretation should be rejected. This leaves us free to search for a more defen- sible position to ascribe to Aristotle. But I will argue that such a search will be in vain because his views on accidents are seriously confused. 1. Here is the text of etaphysics E.3: lo27a29 That there are principles and causes which are generable and destructible 3 ~ without being in process of coming to be and being destroyed, is clear. For otherwise 31 everything will be of necessity, if whatever is generated and destroyed 32 must have some cause non-accidentally. For 33 will this be or not? If this comes to be; but if not, not. 34 And that if something else does. And thus it is clear that as time is constantly subtracted 1o27b t from a limited period of time one will arrive at the present, so that this man will 2 die by violence if he goes out; and this will happen if he gets thirsty; 3 and this will happen if something else does, And thus one will reach what holds now, or Necessity, Cause and Blame: Perspectives on Aristotle s Theory London: Duckworth, 198o ), chapter I. [3111  3t2 JOURN L OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 23:3 JULY 1985 4 something that has come to be. For exampl6, if he is thirsty; and he will get thirsty if he is eating something 5 salty. But this either holds or not, so that necessarily 6 he will die, or not die. Likewise if one jumps over into 7 what has come to be, the same argument applies. For this--I mean what has come to be- 8 is already present in something. Hence, everything that will be 9 will be of necessity, as it is necessary that what is living will die; for something has already come to be, lo e.g. the presence of contraries in the same thing. But whether by disease or violence 11 is not yet determined, but if this comes to be. So it is clear that it runs to 12 some principle, but this does not run to something else. This then will 13 be the starting point for whatever may chance, and there is no other cause of its 14 coming to be. But to what sort of principle and what sort of cause such a reduction leads to, 15 whether to matter or to what a thing is for or to 16 what effects a change, needs to be investigated. Sorabji interprets the chapter as follows. Aristotle divides states of affairs ~ into three classes: necessities, those that hold for the most part--which I will call 'regularities'---and accidents. Coincidences form a subclass of the acci- dental and these are the items which are to be shown to lack causes. By 'cause' we are to understand Aristotle's efficient cause, which is closest to a cause in our sense. ''3 An efficient cause provides a kind of explanation; it is that whence comes the srcin of change. T To understand E. 3 it is important to distinguish relative and absolute necessity. Aristotle is arguing against the thesis that whatever happens was ll long necessary. He concedes that an effect is necessary, given its cause. But this will not give us absolute (non-relative) necessity, unless the cause is itself absolutely necessary. And the cause becomes absolutely necessary only when it (or its causal ancestry) is past and irrevocable .... Aristotle's strategy in face of this is to deny that the causal ancestry of future events always 'State of affairs' and 'event' will be used loosely in this paper. 3 Sorabji, 4o. 4 Ibid., 4a.  ARISTOTLE ON ACCIDENTS 313 reaches back into the past. ''5 It fails to reach into the past in some cases because an uncaused coincidence occurs and causes the future event. Con- sider Aristotle's example in the chapter: a man eats spicy food, gets thirsty and goes to a well to get a drink; by coincidence some ruffians also happen to have gone to the well and they kill him. If we consider the man's death by violence as the effect, we can see that it was not necessary all along, for if we trace its causal ancestry the chain ends with the uncaused coincidence of (C) the man's going to the well at the same time as the ruffians. The man's being thirsty caused his going to the well, which coincidentally occurred simultaneously with the ruffians' going to the well. The coinci- dence has no proper cause, only the accidental cause of the man's being thirsty. Thus, before the man left for the well the future event of his death by violence did not have a causal history reaching back to the past or present and so was not necessary all along. In general, coincidences lack causes. Coincidences are a kind of accident, but other accidents have proper causes. Thus, in the example the accident of the man's death by violence has C as a proper cause. After arguing for this interpretation of the chapter Sorabji attempts to meet some potential objections. (i) Suppose the man and the ruffians both arrived at the well at 2. Sup- pose there is an explanation of the man's going to the well at 2 and also an unconnected explanation of the ruffians' going to the well at 2. It seems to follow that we have an explanation of C. But Sorabji argues that we do not because for a genuine explanation we would need a connection between the two stories. Suppose that for each of five airliners we have a sep r te explanation of why it crashed on March lSt: the damaged bolt, the drunken pilot, etc. Does it follow that we have an explanation of why the five crashed on the s me day? '6 No, because we would have such an explanation only if we could find some connection between the five crashes. Similarly, in the srcinal example, we would have a genuine explanation of C only if we could find some connection between the man's going to the well at 2 and the ruffians' going to the well at 2. But there is none, and hence there is no cause either. (ii) Since there is a cause of the man's going to the well, for some X it will be true to say 5 Ibid. 8. 6 Ibid. to.
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