Causality, Primary and Secondary

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Causality, Primary and Secondary

In the history of Christian thought, the philosopher Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) refers to God as the "Primary Cause" of the being of everything; Aquinas refers to creatures as "secondary causes" whose activity reaches particular aspects and depends on divine action. These concepts are related to core Christian ideas of God and creatures. God's being does not depend on anything outside God, is self-sufficient, and is the fountain of the being of all that exists. Creatures have their own consistency but require the divine founding action that makes possible their existence and activity.

The Primary Cause is unique. It is not the first of a series of causes belonging to the same level. God's action is different from created action. God does not substitute creatures (except in miracles). God not only respects the activity of the creatures, God is its main guarantee, as created agency corresponds to God's plans.

These ideas have often been appropriated by religion to speak of God's complementary action in the world of creatures. God creates in order to communicate being and perfection, and creatures fulfill God's plans when they deploy their capacities and reach their perfection.

Empirical science studies the nature and activity of secondary causes. Metaphysics and theology study divine action and the spiritual dimensions of the human being. These two perspectives should be different and complementary, but are not necessary opposed.

Difficulties in harmonizing evolution and God's action often resulted from disregarding the distinction between first order and second order causality. Cosmic and biological evolution can be considered as the deployment of the potentialities that God has placed within created beings. Natural finality and God's plans also correspond to two related but different levels.

The modern scientific worldview shows that natural beings possess an inner dynamism that produces new results that have ever increasing degrees of complexity. In natural processes the concept of information plays a central role. Natural information exists coded in dynamic structures, and its deployment produces new structures. Natural activity shows a high degree of creativity which, in conjunction with the subtlety of natural processes and their results, could be seen as coherent with the existence of a divine plan. The new paradigm of self-organization was metaphorically anticipated by Aquinas who wrote in his Commentary on Aristotle's Physics : "Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship" (p. 124).

This worldview does not lead to metaphysical or theological consequences by itself. Reflection upon it, however, paves the way for an understanding of natural agency as supported by a founding divine action that does not oppose nature but rather provides it with its ultimate grounding. The world can be represented as an unfinished symphony where human beings have a role to play.

See also Causation; Divine Action; Thomas Aquinas


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gilson, Étienne. being and some philosophers. toronto, ont.: pontifical institute of mediaeval studies, 1952.

thomas aquinas. commentary on aristotle's physics, trans. richard j. blackwell, richard j. speth, w. edmund thirkel. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1963. reprint notre dame, ind.: dumb ox books, 1999.

mariano artigas