Jimi Hendrix on Aristotelian causation

August 1970 – It was the end of my gap year, men had walked on the moon twice and I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival just a couple of weeks before he died.

hendrixHendrix started his set with a local incarnation of his celebrated Star Spangled Banner, by doing the British national anthem. The Murray Lerner film shows him backstage beforehand asking an English roadie to remind him: “How does The Queen go?” (this just before playing it for 350,000 people!).

I wonder what would have happened if the roadie had replied with the time-honoured musician’s retort: Q: “How does it go?” A: “You push it.” If you think about it, that joke hinges on providing the wrong kind of “how” – a different form of causation from that required, specifically the efficient causation instead of … well, we’ll see.

Contextualised to the concert, the roadie might have replied to “How does The Queen go” with “You just walk on, and place your hands in a certain sequence of positions.” That too would be a description of efficient causation, and just as inadequate as “You push it.”

But our roadie might alternatively have responded to “How does The Queen go” with “On a Fender Stratocaster, through a curly lead and three Marshall 100 watt stacks.” That would be the material cause. Together, those two answers provide (within my space constraints) a complete mechanistic cause and effect sequence to explain the resulting sound. A man with a guitar moved his hands around, his guitar was amplified and, lo and behold, The Queen (though few of the hippies stood to attention).

One senses a few things are still missing from this account. So does Hendrix, so he asks (stupidly – too much cocaine probably) a third time, “How does The Queen go?”, and the jocular roadie replies, “At the beginning of the set, to get the English punters going.” This too, is clearly an important element of causation – what Aristotle called the final cause – the end which the music serves. It’s rather taken for granted in this case – anyone who said Hendrix had no reason to play this tune – or any tune – and that he just did flaky things sometimes would be demeaning him as an artist.

Early modern science also took final causation for granted. When Newton asked, “How do the planets stay up?” he assumed that God willed it to be so for his own good reasons, and investigated instead the efficient and material causes God used. This was to a large extent because science had come to be seen as a practical pursuit: to understand the cause and effect of nature enables one to manipulate it to ones own ends, rather than bothering (as ancient science had done) to enquire too much over God’s ends for it. When planning a spaceship trajectory one can forget about why God wanted planets around the sun in the first place.

Notice, though, that though final causality is immaterial it is nevertheless utterly real. And though, by definition, it appears last, it actually precedes cause and effect both in logic and importance. Nothing whatsoever in the efficient and material cause-effect train of hands, guitars and electricity can possibly reveal why Hendrix decided on that song, because it is an immaterial purpose. Intentions cannot be measured, in principle. So final cause cannot be predicted or measured, but only deduced from effects which are observed. Yet without it there would be no train of mechanical causation, as Hendrix would still be in New York.

As we know only too well, when science went all secular during the Enlightenment it began to be thought by many that the full discovery of efficient and material causes removed the need for final causes altogether. (But in fact only secondary efficient causes can be measured – God’s original creation is opaque to science). Why final causes should be discounted is not clear, given their obvious indispensibility to all human activity, including science itself. To conclude they cannot be determined with certainty is understandable, but to decide they don’t exist simply because they are not the efficient or material causes you’re studying is obtuse. Perhaps people became so obsessed with Deism’s divine clockwork that they forgot that clocks are not really an end in themselves, but a means to measure time. Yet in Aristotelian terms they did not remove final causation at all, but blinded themselves to their constant reliance on it simply by wishing it away.

For as soon as you ask how the planets stay up, you’re making some kind of an assumption that they’re supposed to. If in biology you ask how the Krebs cycle or the immune system work, you’re assuming these as final causes to be explained. You’re unconsciously invoking teleology, whether that be internal (ie immanent) or external, from God or some other prior cause. This again is obvious from the Baconian aims of science: if you’re harnessing a process for some end like nuclear power or the eradication of polio, then it had to have its own end in the first place. You can’t train a horse to race if it didn’t already run for its own reasons (not necessarily conscious, of course). Nobody studies why dust drifts aimlessly so that they can drift aimlessly too. The universe has ends – we can only divert them, not conjure them from nothing. As Charles Kingsley said of evolution:

[T]he whole universe must be one chain of final causes. …[I]f there be a Supreme Reason, He must have a reason, and that a good reason, for every physical phenomenon.

Note that in Christian terms, though creation is the work of the whole Godhead, final causation is especially the expression of the Father’s determining will.

So we now know broadly what Hendrix planned (if the roadie is correct), and have a complete scientific explanation of how he did it. But we still haven’t answered his question. And we won’t until the roadie realises that what Hendrix was actually enquiring after was the last category of causation, the formal cause, and hums, “Da-da-da-da, di-da.”

Formal causation too, like final causation, is in itself immaterial, but absolutely real. Indeed, it is what finally explains to us what material causation couldn’t, nor even final causation (though form might follow function) – what that particular tune is. The tune is instantiated in material entities (the roadie’s humming, Hendrix’s playing, the vibration of 700,000 eardrums, the magnetic pattern on the recording tape, the biochemical state of my memory cells  etc), but is in no way accounted for by them. The same idea is represented in numerous different material states.

So final cause is immaterial and cannot be directly observed, whereas formal cause, though equally immaterial, can be seen and measured as it is actually instantiated. But neither can be discovered or predicted by the material and efficient causes, as they are conceptually unrelated.

In modern terms, formal cause can be seen in terms of information – and the similarity between those words is entirely purposeful, because in Aristotelian thought form is nothing but the addition of information to matter to produce the things and processes we see.

In Christian terms, it is also the specific contribution of Christ, the Logos of God, to Creation. John’s gospel says, “Without him nothing was made that was made.” Aquinas, describing the Trinity in creation (Summa 1.45.7), says:

According as it has a form and species, it represents the Word as the form of the thing made by art is from the conception of the craftsman.

So we should think of the Father’s will determining what shall be and why, the Son forming it by his wisdom, and the Holy Spirit as the active agent bringing it to pass, by his own efficient causation and, secondarily, through the processes derogated to the natural realm – that restricted area studied by science.

The central and irreducible role of information is beginning to be appreciated across academic disciplines, mainly because we have identified it and studied it so intensively in the last half-century through information technology. In physics, Paul Davies sees this well. His symposium Information and the Nature of Reality  contains much food for thought (though some dross as well, as is to be expected in opening up new intellectual territory).

Physics has been at the forefront of this understanding (outside of the specific information fields) because it has run up against what appear to be fundamental, and arbitary, values in the universe itself. You trace efficient causes back as far as you can go, and appear to run out of them … but information still sits there smiling at you.

heisenbergJust like it does at a Jimi Hendrix concert – provided somebody reminds the man with the guitar what it is so all the other types of causation can proceed.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Jimi Hendrix on Aristotelian causation

  1. pngarrison says:

    Here’s a relevant little bit of Aristotle for you. It’s from near the start of the Metaphysics where he is recounting the opinions of those who went before him.

    “When one man said, then, that reason was present – as in animals, so
    throughout nature – as the cause of order and of all arrangement, he
    seemed like a sober man in contrast with the random talk of his predecessors.”

    Aristotle – Metaphysics, Book I, part 3.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    …in contrast with the random talk of his predecessors.

    And his successors?

  3. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:


    This is a truly brilliant post. I have no idea how you do this, time and again. And by how, I mean mostly the material cause. I also love that you chose music as the theme of your educational lecture on causation, since the formal cause of music, much like other non reducible human activities (humor, art and mathematics being some others) is not easily expressed in any other way. If the roadie had been tone deaf, he would not have been able to hum the song correctly. (There is one minor caveat here, which is that the tone deaf roadie, knowing that Hendrix was American, could have said that it was the same tune as My Country tis of thee, but that would imply a British roadie with quite a bit of trans Atlantic knowledge).

    Back to the issue of final causes, it is a fascinating one in scientific research. Since most American (and all) research is funded by governments, or the society at large, it behooves those applying for grants to include something about the final cause of the work intended, generally related to curing a disease (for biology). But in many cases, that simply isn’t true. The scientist wants to find stuff out, often just because…. well, they want to find out. A perfectly valid reason to do anything, since knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a good thing. (at least I think so). But then the question becomes why is that true? I think the answer, which is also the answer for so many questions related to final causes, comes back to the reasons we exist, and invoking accidental lucky blind events that led to the evolution of who and how we are, just seem to fall terribly flat. Such an answer is one of those that is not satisfying, and leads one to think (as it did me) “there must be something else”, a fairly common thought among scientists who come up again this sort of thing quite often.

    In the case of the final cause of Jimi singing The Queen, (aside from his question on how it goes), the answer is the magical, soul pulling effect that his musical genius had on his listeners (yes I am a fan), and the way his music, like all great music, points directly to God, and His splendid creation.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Why thanks, Sy.

      You’d be pushing your luck in 1970 to find a British roadie who knew the National Anthem here, let alone clocking the American equivalent. Hendrix played the last line wrong anyway, but we’ll forgive him that.

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