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Science, God, and How a Medieval Distinction about Causality Might Just Save Your Faith

One of the assumptions that is often made today is that science is on its way to giving us a theory of everything. The advances of science in recent centuries, especially recent decades, has been so great that we can look forward to a complete and exhaustive account of the universe in the future. This assumption also increasingly carries with it the idea that this complete theory of everything will exclude God. Once we understand how it all works, there will be no need, or indeed, no room for God.

There are two basic problems with this assumption, as I see it. First, as the physicist and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser argues in his recent book The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, science is not on its way to an exhaustive understanding of the universe. The more answers we get to our current questions, the more we realize we need to ask even more questions. As Gleiser puts it, “Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination… but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more we are exposed to our own ignorance, and the more we know to ask.”

Second, and more importantly from my perspective, this assumption that there is no room for God in a final theory of everything (even if that could ever be attained) makes a big mistake in thinking about the way God relates to the world. To uncover this mistake, we need to be reminded of an important distinction that was a crucial part of the classical conception of God in the Western Christian tradition. That distinction was between what medieval Christian philosophers called “primary” and “secondary” causality.

Although different thinkers worked this distinction out with different nuances, the basic idea is this: God and the natural world to do not occupy the same realm of reality, and therefore can be used to talk about the same level of explanation. While God may be the primary cause for an event, that doesn’t exclude secondary natural causes. In fact, God most often works through secondary natural causes.

A couple of examples: While we may believe all wisdom and truth is ultimately from God, the way we acquire this wisdom is usually through teachers. While God may be the Creator of all people, we also know how babies are made. While God may be the source of all healing, doctors are most  often the instruments of this healing. God is the primary cause of wisdom, people being born, and healing, but God uses teachers, parents, and doctors as secondary causes. In other words, God most often works through God’s creation, not over it or around it. That’s what this distinction is all about.

For a variety of reasons, during the Enlightenment period this distinction fell by the way side for many people, and some very influential thinkers started seeing divine causes and natural causes in competition with one another. As advances in scientific understanding moved forward, and with this new model in place where divine and natural causation were seen as occupying the same realm, there begin to be little reason to still attribute things to God that science can explain.

On this new model, for example, if you can understand what is going on in the brain during a supposed “spiritual experience of God,” then that explains away God. “See, it isn’t God, its just these particular neurons firing and bonding together,” some would say. But in the older classical conception of God and the world, this is no threat to faith at all. The Christian can accept everything that neuroscience has to say about religious experience, but simply add, “That’s how God does it. This is how God interacts with the brain to produce these experiences.”

In the older model, divine and natural causation are not competitive, but complementary

I don’t mean to minimize the real challenges that science offers to people of faith. And there are real challenges. If evolution is true (as I think it is), then why did God create through a process full of so much suffering? Why did it take God so long to create beings that could be aware of God? These are just a couple of many we have to wrestle with as thinking Christians. But we need to be clear that there is no scientific advancement that would of necessity exclude God from our understanding of the world, as long as we keep this important medieval distinction in mind. 

As simple and perhaps child-like as it may seem, even if one could, for example, give a convincing account of belief in God in terms of biology, neuroscience, sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc., the believer can still legitimately say, “So that’s how God does it.” God works through what God has made. We need to remember that.


Dr. Marcelo Geisler is lecturing at Vanderbilt this Thursday at 7:00pm in Benton Chapel. This event is free and open to the public. Wesley Fellowship students are invited to have dinner at the Mellow Mushroom at 5:45pm before attending the lecture. For more info, click here.

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