Episode 3 in the SHAPS Podcast Series: Professor Margaret Cameron

This episode of our podcast, Disaster & Change, is intended to help us think through our current situation during the global coronavirus pandemic. The focus is on understanding the phenomenon of change or, more specifically, how we understand the causes of change. This is a philosophical discussion, although it has been prepared in a way that presumes its listeners, namely all of you, do not necessarily have any philosophical background. It is also a discussion about how to think about living our lives – indeed about restructuring our lives – as a consequence of having had this collective experience. In sum, this episode will try to take you through how Aristotle might have understood the purpose of the pandemic.

Press play to listen or subscribe to the series on your favourite podcast player. You can also read along with the transcript below.

Professor Margaret Cameron is Head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies and a member of the Philosophy program. She received her PhD from the University of Toronto’s Collaborative Programme in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy before taking up positions at the University of Cambridge and City University of New York’s Hunter College. For ten years, Professor Cameron was the Canadian Research Chair in the Aristotelian Tradition at the University of Victoria. She publishes work in a wide range of philosophical areas, including ancient and medieval philosophy, the philosophy of language and mind, and the history of aesthetics. Her most recent research explores the philosophy of true crime.


In March 2015, billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates gave a short, eight-minute TED talk titled, ‘The Next Outbreak: We’re Not Ready’. To date, it has received 31,874,000 views on YouTube. Gates’s talk focused on what we could learn from the Ebola epidemic that killed 10,000 people a few years ago. This is what Gates said close to the start of his talk:

If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war … But we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.

Just a year before Gates’s talk, while parts of the world were still in the midst of the Ebola outbreak, President Barack Obama spoke at the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta, which was broadcast on C-SPAN. After briefing the journalists on the frontline work that was being undertaken in Western Africa, Obama made an announcement about the preparations that he was initiating in his government to prepare for an outbreak such as Ebola in the United States.

We all know what happened to those preparations late in 2019 when they were dismantled by President Trump. But let’s think about those speeches given by Gates and Obama. What was it that they recognised back in 2014 and 2015? For both of them, the likelihood of a major epidemic or even a pandemic was not just an idle speculation, or what we might call a ‘possibility’ that may or may not happen. No, for both of these men, the eventuality of a major epidemic or pandemic was not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. The question is, then, how do we understand the status of the pandemic – which we are experiencing as a global phenomenon today – when it was predicted as a certainty by Bill Gates and Barack Obama, as well as many other epidemiologists and other public health experts? Just because they all thought this might happen surely cannot be the reason, or the cause, of what has eventuated. As we all know, thinking does not make it so.

Quite obviously, the fact that some world leaders and medical experts thought that a pandemic was a certainty, that it would happen, did not cause the pandemic to happen. We know from news reports and from the word of the World Health Organization and sources from China that the source of COVID-19 seems clearly to be located in the Chinese city of Wuhan. If we ask, as Donald Trump, Scott Morrison, and other political leaders have been asking, “What caused the pandemic?”, one answer is that there was some starting point where the virus was transmitted from the animal population to the human population. That brings us a little closer to answering the question, “What caused this pandemic?”. But it very clear to all of us that this is only a very partial answer. It is an incomplete answer to the causal question, “What caused this pandemic?”

In fact, this question is very complex. Or rather, it will require a very complex answer. In order to recognise the complexity of this question, we need to get a philosophical grasp on the range of, and on the complexity of, types of available answers. Causation is a difficult phenomenon to wrap our minds around, and philosophers have been thinking about it for centuries, even millennia. If we are seeking causes of effects that we experience, that is, if we experience the effect of a global pandemic and we seek to know its cause or its causes (plural), what we are ultimately seeking to do is to explain the phenomenon of change. What caused the change from a world where people were not threatened by this disease to one in which we are? That is the question in its crudest form.

As stated at the start of this episode, I am trained academically as a philosopher, and specifically as an historian of philosophy. It will take thousands of experts across an incredibly wide range of specialisations – from public health experts and epidemiologists to biologists, sociologists, urban planners, economists and many, many others – to put together the various explanations, or causes, to answer the complex question, “What caused the global pandemic?” But what I can do is to help us to try to make sense of what we’re asking for when we ask this question.

What is needed is a way to think about the phenomenon of causation in a way that is sufficiently nuanced and sophisticated to be able to track and capture its answers. Turning and pointing to a market in the city of Wuhan is just not going to be enough. So, to do so, I propose we turn to one of the most influential philosophers in history, namely, to Aristotle. What this fourth century BCE Ancient Greek-speaking philosopher can teach us today is how to organise our own thinking about the phenomenon of causation. This will allow us to have a more refined sense of what we are asking for when we seek to understand what caused the situation we find ourselves in today. Then, when we hear putative answers from scientists, medical professionals, politicians and the media, we will have a more nuanced way to determine for ourselves whether this pressing question about the cause of the pandemic has been fully and adequately answered

As a reminder before we dig into the philosophy, the rest of what follows presumes no background knowledge of Aristotle’s thought or of philosophy in general.

Let’s change gears altogether for the next little while and drop all talk of the coronavirus and the pandemic and just take a look at Aristotle’s philosophical views about change and how to explain what causes it.

Think about other, mundane instances of change in our daily lives. A seed becomes a plant; a litter of kittens is born; a blank canvas is covered in oil paint. We can also include examples of change in the broader social world: a politician is elected; the media loses its freedom, and so on. To explain these changes, think back to the verb I used in the first example: a seed becomes a plant. Becomes. This word is key for Aristotle, and he wrote an entire book called Physics to explain the phenomenon of becoming, or of change.

Let’s start with a simple example, and since we are all probably baking more than we have before, let’s consider a cake. How does something become a cake? Well, cakes are made up of ingredients, such as flour, sugar, eggs, milk, butter, baking soda and – we’ll make this a chocolate cake – cocoa powder. These ingredients are all the matter, or the material supplies, that we need. But other things are needed to explain how these material ingredients become a cake. First, we need a baker. We don’t necessarily need a professional baker, but just someone with the requisite competency to put all these ingredients together in the right way. Second, then, we need to figure out the ‘right way’ to make a cake, and for this we need a recipe. The recipe is the set of procedural instructions that enable the baker to assemble the ingredients in the right way and then to enact some further steps, such as finding the right cake pan and setting the oven and timer to the right degrees. The recipe is what provides, with the help of the agency of the baker, the structure or the form of the cake. But, for Aristotle, there is one more thing that needs to be accounted for if we are fully to explain how these ingredients became a cake. According to him, the answer to the question of “What caused this cake?” is fully and completely understood only when we also point to the purpose of the cake in the first place. In other words, the question, “What caused this cake?” is actually concealing another question, which is, “Why is this cake?” or “Why does this cake exist?”

This brings our answers to the question about how the ingredients became a cake to four in total. These are what came to be known as Aristotle’s four-fold causal theory. The ingredients of the cake are the material cause: the eggs, the flour, the butter, and the cocoa, which with the other ingredients, provide the material ingredients for the cake, which are its material cause. The baker is what is known as the ‘efficient’ cause, which is a transliteration from a Latin term. We can think of this as the “moving” cause, or the cause of the cake that explains how it was put into effect. The recipe is the formal cause, which we can think of as the cause of the cake that accounts for its structure as a cake. And, fourthly, we have identified the final cause, which is the goal, or purpose for which the cake was made. Perhaps it was made to celebrate your birthday, or perhaps you were just bored and had too many panic-bought supplies in your pantry. Whatever the aim or goal of the cake-making was, this is the final cause, which for Aristotle is also the most important when we are trying to explain the phenomenon of change, or in this case, the phenomenon of becoming a cake.

This is a highly simplified example, but it helps to distinguish these causes from one another in a vivid way. In some cases, of course, some of these causes may overlap in the sense that the same phenomenon is being identified as more than one type of cause. This is especially true in the case of biological reproduction, or biological change. Previously I mentioned the case of kittens being born. In cases like these, the parent cats will be both the material and the formal causes of the kittens, since they supply the requisite reproductive material and they transmit the requisite DNA – as structure, or form – for feline reproduction. They are also both the efficient cause, since their night of cat romance was what initiated the reproductive process. Aristotle was deeply struck by the uniformity of processes of becoming in the natural world: if a male cat and a female cat engage in reproduction, inevitably the result will not be a surprise. It will be a litter of kittens, unless something got in the way of a successful pregnancy and birth. As Aristotle said,

whenever there is an end, the whole prior sequence of actions is performed with this end as its purpose. Now, unless something intervenes, how an action is done corresponds to how things are in nature, and vice versa. But actions have a purpose, and so therefore do things in nature. (Aristotle, Physics, Book 2)

But, you may now be wondering, what on earth is the final cause of these kittens? What is the purpose of a litter of kittens? It is this type of question with regard to final cause – and more importantly our being able to identify formal causes in the world – that created problems for Aristotle’s theory of causation and change.

Without doubt, Aristotle’s four-fold causal theory was extremely influential, and it dominated the way that people in many parts of the world thought about causality in their scientific research. In religiously dominated cultures, such as in Europe and the Middle East during the medieval period, which is when Aristotle’s philosophy held a firm grip, it was tempting to think that the final purpose for all living and non-living things could be explained by pointing to a divine creator, who willed all things into creation and who sustains them still. But, even for religiously minded thinkers, there was something about the identification of the final cause – either as being God, or as being some other type of general purposes in the world that are inherent in things – that didn’t sit right with many people.

If we start to think of the world and everything in it as somehow purpose-driven, or as having its own species-specific goals, things start to look at little strange. Many philosophers and scientists began to challenge the existence of, or the need for identifying, the final cause. There just seem to be too many phenomena for which we could not begin to identify their purposes or their ‘aims’. I keep referring to the final cause in terms such as ‘purpose’, ‘aim’, ‘goal’ or ‘intention’. All of these terms are being used to gloss the original Greek word, which is telos. This is why the final cause is also sometimes referred to as the teleological cause or explanation.

Critics of the final cause began to pop their heads up in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Francis Bacon, the famous English Renaissance scientist who is often considered to be the ‘father of empiricism’, argued that final causes should be consigned or relegated to metaphysics, that area of philosophy which, at the time, was thought to posit only unanswerable questions. Real scientific research, Bacon thought, should take into consideration only what is observable in nature. As such, he retained both the material and efficient causes in his scientific arsenal, but got rid of the unobservable formal (or structural) and final causes. Famously, David Hume went even further than Bacon and questioned the very need to appeal to causality at all! Criticising Aristotelian causes as ‘secret powers’, he wrote:

It is allowed on all hands that there is no known connection between the sensible qualities [i.e., the things that are able to be sensed by our five senses] and the secret powers; and consequently, that the mind is not led to form such a conclusion concerning their constant and regular conjunction, by anything which it knows of their nature. (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1737)

I want to argue, against thinkers such as Bacon and Hume, that there is something worth holding onto regarding Aristotle’s four-fold causal theory, especially when it comes to explaining phenomena in our human existence. Reducing or eliminating causality altogether just simply will not work: we know this because we see things that move from one state to another, things that become other things, all the time. There are causes in the world, and there are ways for us to identify them. Aristotle’s four causes – the material, formal, efficient and even, controversially, the final – might provide us with the right amount of complexity and nuance to handle questions such as “How did this litter of kittens come to be?”, or “How did the pandemic come to be?

Recall that at the start of this podcast I referred to the speeches given by Bill Gates and Barack Obama over five years ago in which they both saw the eventuality of a major epidemic or pandemic. I had said that both men, along with many other experts, saw this as a certainty. They did not know where it would start or precisely when it would be, but there was no question in their minds that this was going to happen. I also asked what is in fact a metaphysical question, which was this: “What was the status of the pandemic before it happened?” We can see that we have undergone a change from a world in which the pandemic was not in existence to a world in which it really and truly exists. How can Aristotle’s four-fold causal theory help us to explain this change?

Given the problems I referred to about the appeal to final causality in our explanations for change, I realise that I will have to do some work to show how this type of explanation is useful and viable as we seek to understand this recent global change. Let us look first at the three other Aristotelian causes. Clearly what Gates and Obama were able to recognise several years ago was that the material conditions for a major epidemic were already in place. The existence of coronavirus was well known: we experienced this with the SARS and MERS outbreaks in past. The presence of coronavirus in certain types of animal species was also known, as was the fact that those types of animals come into close human contact via things such as the Wuhan market. (I am singling out Wuhan because it is the place that has been identified, but it could have been in many different locations.) The very presence of the virus in animal species that are known to interact with humans constitutes the material cause of the pandemic.

Is this fact alone sufficient to explain what caused the pandemic? Of course not. To start the process, there needed to be the actual and successful transmission of the virus from an animal to a human being. Think of the baker who bakes the cake: there has to be a trigger, a starting-point to the changes and motion that ensue. In this case, whomever turns out to be “patient zero” of COVID-19 is what Aristotle calls the ‘efficient cause’ of the pandemic. (There will be other efficient causes identified, but for simplicity let’s start here.)

We can see that the mere presence of the virus on the globe is not sufficient to cause the pandemic. We also need to account for that initial point of transmission to humans. However, even when we have identified two different causes of the pandemic – the material and the efficient – we still have not answered the question about what caused the pandemic.

A very important cause turns out to be the formal cause. I have also called this the ‘structural’ cause because, like the recipe for the cake, or like the DNA of the kittens, this is what provides structure for the materials to be organised the way they are. It is useful to mention here that there has to be a special relationship between the matter and the form in order to generate a particular effect. In other words, not all matter can be structured in any way whatsoever. Take an example of a very simple type of structuring agent such as a cookie cutter. The cookie cutter’s shape, or form, can be transferred to many different types of material, but not to every type of material, such as water or dry sand. Once the shaping agent is removed from the water or sand, the material will once again lose its structural integrity. The transmission of forms or structures to things require a particular matter in order to be successful: the case of species-specific biological reproduction is a case in point.

The particularities of matter-form relationships will allow us to begin to identify the structures that are relevant for providing an explanation of the existence of the pandemic. For the high level of transmissibility of the coronavirus to be possible, structures such as urban density and open markets are explanatory. Very extensive and frequent global travel at rapid rates of speed are also structurally relevant. We already know that most places in the world are being compelled to rethink from a very fundamental level how we will live in urban centres, which like here in Melbourne are deeply reliant on mass public transit and therefore on close human proximity. How will we organise our sidewalks? What will it be like to stand in line or sit adjacent to strangers in restaurants and pubs? With airlines currently nearly grounded to a complete halt, we need to rethink what it means to travel, to visit relatives and friends abroad, to fly to other parts of the world to attend meetings and conferences. Our whole conception of “taking vacation” will be re-thought: we have seen the devastating effects of cruise ship travel on the passengers and crews aboard, not to mention the contagion they brought to the people with whom the holiday-makers interacted when they returned to land. Do we really need cruise ships? It was astonishing to hear that, even after word of the pandemic had become known in places such as China and then Italy and Spain that people were still aboard cruise ships across the globe, some having only recently embarked.

Travel, public transport, the geography of our daily lives in an urban centre: these are all structural components that, when triggered appropriately by an efficient causal agent, namely patient zero, with the right sort of matter, namely a novel coronavirus, that enabled the pandemic to come into being. But the structures are even more numerous, and here is where we begin to start thinking about the social and political structures that we have created. Although the coronavirus does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, great disparities in income and wealth will nonetheless mean that the rich are more likely to be spared, given access to better health care, the ability to quarantine without being declared an essential worker, as many of low income people have been as they work in low-paying but apparently essential jobs, such as supermarket clerks and hospital cleaning staff.

There are other structures that we have created that have enabled the spread of the virus more quickly and more ferociously. Large-scale hospitals, aged care facilities, prisons and detention centres as well as refugee centres worldwide have experienced very high rate of contagion. We saw the need to close two hospitals in Tasmania as a means to control the spread, and many prisoners around the world have experienced early release as a result. We need to ask ourselves about why we have created a system in which health care is delivered in what are essentially mega-centres where the healthy and the sick are located jowl-to-jowl. We have become accustomed to the scale and scope of very large hospitals, but is this the structure that we want to continue given the risks we have just witnessed? Aged care homes are another good instance of the need to think about structure. Non-medical staff at aged care homes are not well remunerated, and often not especially well trained. We have heard of many centres that completely lack any of the essential PPE equipment that is required for interacting with patients and other staff. These same arguments follow with regard to prisons and detention and refugee centres. These are structures that we have created. But they are structures that are highly vulnerable to coming into direct contact with the right sort of material, namely a novel coronavirus.

There are many things to say about these structural features of the pandemic, but it is important to recognise that the pandemic is a construction of matter and form. Materially, it is a virus. Formally, or structurally, it is much of the structures that we have created ourselves. As a matter-form construct, then, we must consider these existing structures as actually being constitutive of the pandemic. The question, “What caused the pandemic?” turns out to include things we might not have previously considered, such as they ways we organise and house our sick, how we organise and contain criminals and refugees. It also includes the way we have structured our lives in geographic terms, including the ways we engage in travel, how and where we vacation, and what we consider “essential” versus “non-essential” travel. And it includes how we organise ourselves in our daily urban lives, including tolerating a world in which it seemed perfectly normal and unremarkable to be the last person to squeeze into a tram packed with so many people that we are all wafting in each other’s body odour. There were times I caught a tram home from work when passengers would share in a collective sense of amusement and laugh with each other at the silliness of being so crammed in together. That structure will no longer be realistic given the existence of the matter that so easily adjoins this type of structure and generates an epidemic or a pandemic.

Let’s turn our attention back, for a moment, to Aristotle’s fourth cause, known as the ‘final cause’. Think of the final cause as a thing’s purpose or aim, but without thinking of that thing as having something such as human or divine volition. Earlier I asked, but did not answer, the question, “Why does this litter of kittens exist?” The litter qua litter did not form an intention to be conceived and then born. Nonetheless, we can explain its existence in terms of the purposes or aims of the parental cats who, as cats, carry within them the goal of reproduction. Think here of a Darwinian explanation, according to which traits are selected for in order to enhance or ensure survivability. The purpose of the cats, then, is to produce more cats. If the right matter and the right form find themselves together under the right circumstances, kitty pregnancy will be an inevitable outcome unless something impedes its natural progression.

How, then, should we think of the final cause of the pandemic? When we think just about the virus, about the material conditions of the pandemic, it is easy to see that as a living entity the virus seeks its own survival. Its final cause is very easy to identify. The virus behaves as it does in order to ensure its best chances of survival. The fact that this coronavirus was so highly contagious shows its adaptability, enabling it to propagate at rapid rates. The pandemic inherits at least part of its final cause from one of its components. The definition of a pandemic, after all, is a disease that is prevalent throughout significant portions of the world at a given time. Materially speaking, then the purpose of the pandemic just is the goal of the virus that causes the disease.

But as we have seen, to explain the pandemic in its fullest extent requires also that we point to the very structures that enabled the virus’s spread. These too are constitutive of the pandemic, as we have seen. And these are all our own structures. We made them and we sustain them. We invest them all with our own purposes: supermarkets, malls, cafes, airports, cruise ships – these all belong to us and they are successful when our goals and purposes in creating them are fulfilled. There are also the structures of our activities: frequent air flights, overly subscribed public transport, and even the very idea that a vacation is something that needs to take place away from home. We created these structures too, and they are successful when our intentions are realised in them. Thinking of the structural elements of the pandemic, then, the pandemic has inherited at least a portion of its final cause, or its purpose, from the aims and goals we ourselves have invested in these structures.

Seeing the pandemic in Aristotelian terms allows us to begin to answer the question “What caused this pandemic?” by identifying multiple causes. There is the material cause which, when combined in the right way with the right sorts of structures and triggered by an efficient cause, creates a pandemic. I had previously said that for Aristotle, the question “What caused x?” also conceals the question, “Why x?” or “Why did the pandemic come into being?” And it turns out that seeing how so many of the structures in our daily lives facilitated its coming into existence should make us realise the extent to which we all caused the pandemic, at least when considering its formal features and the way in which they interact with the viral material.

Let me conclude by going back to the speeches given by Barack Obama and Bill Gates and try to answer the question, “What was the status of the pandemic which Obama and Gates were so certain would happen before it happened?” Given that two of the causes – the material and the formal – were already present in the world, Aristotle would say that the pandemic before it actually existed was “potentially existent”. This is not to say that it was a possibility or some sort of probability. Sure, we can talk about probabilities when trying to predict when something will happen in the future, or how many people will be impacted by it. But this is not the sense of ‘potential’ that Aristotle meant. Something is potentially existent in the sense that, in the right circumstances and as long as nothing impedes it, a gum nut will grow into a gum tree. The gum tree is potentially existent as soon as there is a healthy little gumnut in existence. So, Gates and Obama were so certain that a pandemic would actually come into existence because it was already potentially in existence. Being potentially existent doesn’t make it any less real, however. And, at this moment, there are many other potential pandemics that exist but are just not actually in existence at this moment. Now is the time to begin to take a look at the elements, or causes, of the pandemic that are in our control – all those structural features that gave rise to the actualisation of this global threat. They need not just to be tweaked or eased back into once the scare is over. They need to be structurally rethought altogether, which will be a massive but essential human undertaking. Perhaps it is best to think that the final cause of the pandemic – its goal or purpose as a particular combination of matter and form – was to force us to rethink the structures that made it actualised.

Banner image: Monarch Chrysalis, Danaus plexppus, on milkweed. Photographer: Rabbitti via Adobe Stock