In his Metaphysics Aristotle gave us four causes. These causes are used to understand what the thing in front of us is. For example, a rock and a hammer can be used to drive a nail. They differ in causes though. Our minds “understand” this, and thereby differentiate between the two. They causes are:
The material: What something is made of.
The formal: the plan for something.
The Efficient: That which caused something to come into being
The Final: The purpose of the thing.
The causes for the rock might be:
Formal: Solid mineral object
Efficient: Proximally: volcanic action Distally: God
Final: Foundation of all dwelling on the surface of the earth, minerals source for all living animals, etc.
While you say you know the difference between the rock and the hammer just by looking, Roughly, scholastics would say you know because your mind, through a process whereby the eyes take in the image, put it in imagination, forms a phantasm, which then is conceptualized, and can now be recognized in all causes and is seen to be a rock.
What if you are looking at a rock hammer like Steve builds in Minecraft? The formal, efficient, and final causes change. The distinctions between the different causes for the rock and the rock hammer are quickly identified in your mind allowing you to know the hammer to be a hammer, and not just a fancy rock.
I don’t think this stuff is mere heuristic, or mental model. I’m coming to believe these causes actually exist.
Even if they don’t ACTUALLY EXIST, identifying these causes is useful in creating knowledge of something.
What are the four causes of a turtle shell
Extra Credit: What are the four causes of evil?