Wednesday, August 13, 2014

God and his causes II - Primary and secondary causes

“We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universe, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act.” 
― Charles Darwin, Notebooks

Our study here addresses the debate between "Creationists" and "Evolutionists" on regard to the origin of species and life. We notice that the conflict between "Darwin and God" is sometimes devoid of fair argumentation. It is somewhat fabricated by both a religious fundamentalist view of the world and the way science has established itself in opposition to traditional views of this same world. Today, the last vestiges of dogmatic theology are billeted around controversies on the evolution of life. If the life forms that we know today were not the product of several direct interventions of a man's made God then,  he at least possibly gave birth to these forms at a single time in the beginning. 

So, we continue our study to get a fairer image of the question and of the idea of God as a "primary cause". Maybe such reasoning will also help to build a satisfactory solution to this question in the future, by showing possible points that could eliminate the conflict with the scientific authority.

Primary and secondary causes

1) Science depends heavily on "theories" (from Greek: θεωρία meaning "vision", "consideration") which is a way to generalize and systematize principles explaining certain phenomena in a causal way; 

2) The problem with old religious notions is mostly related to what is frequently understood as "explanation". According to such views, God created everything: water, the Earth, the animals and plants as, since time immemorial, some old texts are literally interpreted. Some state offhandedly that this is in fact a "theory" or scientific explanation that compete with scientificly accepted ones (see G. Witt);

3) However, science is most of the time in search for the so called "secondary causes" for the majority of Nature's phenomena. These are the phenomenological causes linked to the natural occurrences. To understand this idea, see Fig.1.
Fig. 1
Certain causes, 1 and 2, result in a phenomenon 1.  Such phenomenon is the cause of another, number 2. On the other hand, this last event is the cause of another two, 3 and 4. In this simple example, what is the "secondary cause" of phenomena 3 and 4? Although 3 and 4 cannot occur without the original causes 1 and 2, from a "sufficient" explanatory view, only phenomenon 2 (called cause 3) really matters.  Causes 1 and 2 (primary) are, therefore, not "necessary" to directly explain phenomena 3 and 4, although they are legitimate "causes leading to other causes". So, we can regard a good explanation for phenomena 3 and 4 a theory that postulates only phenomena 2 (cause 3) without  any reference to the primary causes 1 and 2. An improved theory however will probably find causes 1 and 2. There are dozens of examples - including very simple ones - in Nature that demonstrate the existence of such causal relationship among phenomena and their explanations.  

4) Examples of the dynamics between cause and effect according to Fig. 1 can be also found in many sciences, such as economy, biology and even pathology, a branch of medicine studying the nature of diseases;

5) A given theory is not more true because it is simpler than another one. In fact, there is no simpler explanation than admitting the idea of God creating everything - not in the sense of maximum explanation, but more efficiently, in the sense of explaining the maximum number of possible phenomena;

5) We can understand the idea of "efficiency" by the possibility of "falsification" of a theory. Let us take the very dogmatic idea that is imposed upon us: how is it possible to show that the notion of God, as creator of all things, is false? We mean with it that "how is it possible to show that this idea is false in the same way that we can show to be false, for example, to say that oil and water does mix? A very simple answers is: by making an experiment. An experiment allow us to observe not only that an effect results from a cause, but also the conditions for certain effects to occur, as resulting from certain (secondary) causes.

6) However, the idea of God as the creator of everything cannot be refuted because it is not a theory, but should be regarded as a principle that cannot be demonstrated because it is phenomenologically distinct of our way of grasping the world (1).  It is part of God's attributes, the notion of Divinity as presented in "The Spirit's book" (2), that he should be regarded as the primary cause of all things. Just as in Nature we see that phenomena are regulated by very specific laws (3), how is it possible to admit  that he, on mere whim (that seems to be a human condition imposed on God's idea by certain sacred texts), breaks his own laws and behave randomly? Such behaviour implies easy acceptance of the idea of God as a secondary cause, something that still needs to be demonstrated in face of the universal laws. We know that these laws exist and that they may be regarded as mechanisms of Gods actuation. In this way, there is no limitation to God,  but only lack of understanding about his way of acting in the world. 

7) Even if it were possible to admit and show that God acts in the world as a secondary cause sometimes (we know that the movement of the smallest particles in the Universe are governed by well determined laws showing no arbitrariness), it is much less defensible the idea that the creation of living beings could have happened at once by a direct act of the Creator. 

Fig. 2 Mythological view of the Universe: ancient people in the Middle East conceived the Earth as surrounded by the "lower waters" (because of the geographical location of those people). Above there was the firmament holding the Sun, Moon, stars and planets in place and around the Earth. Beyond the firmament, there were still waters (that caused rain to fall) and well above, the "Kingdom of God". This concept was compensated later by the idea of "hell", well below the Earth. 
8) From a historical perspective, we know that ancient people did not discriminate between primary and secondary causes. Therefore, old narratives of the Creation and their associated cosmology (Fig. 2) were modernly discarded, not as an "allegory of truth", but as the particular views of ancient people. Those who insist in literally interpreting old texts like the Bible are rarely aware of the ridicule they are exposed to since science will continue to describe Nature as something very different.

9) But, in the same way as it is illogical to dispense with the idea of secondary causes, we are also far from truth if we discard the primary ones. According to such a view, an effect is a succession of several causes. In this way, one cannot logically state that the idea of evolution of species or of any other that takes into account only secondary causes leads to the denial of God's idea as a primary cause. Rather, they are both correct, one is a consequence of the other, but, for the sake of explanation or rationalisation of natural events, the secondary causes are sufficient.  We see that it is possible to conceive good theories about natural events only admitting secondary causes. However, this does not mean that further secondary causes could not be found with the natural evolution of knowledge. This is what happens to the idea of God and his rule in Creation: we do not need God (as a secondary cause) to explain the evolution of species and, perhaps, the onset of life, but that do not mean he does not exist as a primary cause. 


From a logical perspective, there is no conflict between the idea of God (as a primary cause) and the evolution of species or any other mechanism that science will find out in order to increase our knowledge about living beings. The conflict is entirely originated in the peculiar way that certain dogmatic theologies see the world. By insisting in this vision, the gap between scientific knowledge and dogmatic religion will increase and become irreversible. The result is an increase in materialism and generalized belief in the "death of God".

Spiritism - according to the principles contained in "The Spirit's book" - endorses and openly supports all scientific theories which are viewed as knowledge about sufficient (secondary) causes, and that are needed for the correct explanation of natural phenomena, including all life forms. Additional forces will  be required, however, for improving our understanding about these things - mainly on regard to the origin of life. Science will reveal them at the right time and under the right methods.  

Notes and references

Original text in Portuguese: "Deus e suas Causas II - Causas primárias e secundárias",

(1) It is interesting to read the answer to question #10 in the "Spirit's book" (2):
10. Can man understand the intimate nature of God?
"No, human beings lack the capability for such understanding."
Therefore, the integration of God's idea to purely rationalist explanations about the world is something still very far in the future.  

(2) A. Kardec (1857). "The Spirit's Book". See question #1.