What are the Primary Cause and the secondary causes, according to philosopher Thomas Aquinas?

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After studying at the University of Naples, Thomas Aquinas joined the Dominican Order and studied under Albertus Magnus, who had written a paraphrase of the Aristotelian corpus. Influenced by Greek Aristotelian philosophy and the contrasting Franciscan rejection of Greek philosophy, Aquinas developed "new modus vivendi between faith and philosophy" that dominated Christian thinking until "the rise of the new physics" (Ralph McInerny, "Saint Thomas Aquinas"). Central to Aquinas's Christian philosophy are the concepts of Primary Cause and secondary causes.

Primary Cause and Secondary Causes

Primary Cause is that which is unique. It is not the first of a sequence nor the first of a series of causes that belong to the same level of causation. Primary Cause is the beginning of everything. Aquinas identifies this Primary Cause, this unique beginning of all things, as the Jewish, Muslim and Christian God, whom Muslims call Allah. God is self-sufficient, without dependence upon any cause or causes, whose activity springs from its own primacy.

Secondary causes are created beings, creatures, whose activity must have divine, Primary, founding action to make possible their being, their existence, ad their activity. Creatures have internal and integral consistency but are dependent upon the fountain of primacy for their existence and activity.

God and Creatures

These concepts of Primary Cause and secondary causes are integral to core Christian ideas of God and creatures. God respects creature activity since creatures' created agency of action corresponds to God's intentions. Except in instances of miracles, God does not substitute for creatures' agency, rather, God protects creature agency since Primary Cause is the guarantee of creature agency and activity: creature agency and activity derived from Primary Intention from Primary Cause.

This ontological argument has been appropriated by Christian doctrine to discuss "God's complementary action in the world of creatures" (Mariano Artigas. "Causality, Primary and Secondary") where God's creation, where Primary Causation, communicates the realities and concepts of being (I am, you are) and perfection (absolute truths and values; God is perfect). Creatures have agency for activity, which, when deployed, fulfills the Primary Intention as creatures deploy their capacity and attain their perfection.

Evolutionary Sciences and Primary Cause

Difficulties in harmonizing evolutionary sciences with Primary Cause, God's action, occur because of confusion over or disregard of "the distinction between first order and second order causality" (Artigas). Science: Empirical evolutionary and other sciences study secondary causes, animate and inanimate creatures and the activity or agency of creatures. Theology, Metaphysics: Theology and metaphysics study "study divine action and the spiritual dimensions of the human being" (Artigas). These two areas of study are distinct, different and complementary (one adding to the other) but need not be opposed to each other: "Cosmic and biological evolution can be considered [to be] the deployment of the potentialities that God has placed within created [animate and inanimate] beings" (Artigas). Natural continuity in creation and finality in creation relate to "two related but different levels" of first order causality.

Self-Organization Definition

Self-organization is the spontaneous often seemingly purposeful formation of spatial, temporal, spatiotemporal structures or functions in systems composed of few or many components. (Hermann Haken, "Self-organization")

Self-organization is a process where some form of global order or coordination arises out of the local interactions between the components of an initially disordered system. This process is spontaneous: it is not directed or controlled by any agent or subsystem inside or outside of the system. (Wikipedia)

[T]he paradigmatic meaning of self-organization [is that it is] the guiding principle of "how organizations work" through self-learning [self-initiated learning]. (Rüdiger G. Klimecki. "Self-organization as a New Paradigm in Management Science?")

Self-organizing is a method of generating sufficient information content in the limited time available; self-organization [is a] theory [of] formation of [being] from inert matter. (Dean L. Overman. A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization)

Self-Organization Related to Aquinas, Primary Cause and Secondary Causes

The worldview derived from contemporary scientific investigation holds that natural processes in natural animate and inanimate beings (i.e., creations, creatures) "possess an inner dynamism" responsible for the continuing production of new results having "ever increasing degrees of complexity" (Artigas). Information and information exchange play a critical and central role in these natural processes: "Natural information exists coded in dynamic structures, and its deployment produces new structures" (Artigas).

Considering self-organization in relation to Aquinas's Primary cause and secondary causes, "the subtlety of natural processes and their results," when viewed in light of and in conjunction with the "high degree of creativity" apparent in natural animate and inanimate activity, suggest that natural processes are "coherent with the existence of a divine plan" as described by Aquinas as Primary Cause (Artigas).

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 [artful manner], namely a divine [art], put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: [done] as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood [some art] that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship [by themselves]" (p. 124).

This [paradigmatic] worldview [of self-organization] 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 [metaphorically] represented as an unfinished symphony where human beings have a role to play. (Artigas)

[Images: Natural objects demonstrating self-organization: clouds organizing into cloud streets and a vortex; a snowflake; self-organization apparent in gas and liquid molecules.]


Ralph McInerny. "Saint Thomas Aquinas." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Mariano Artigas. "Causality, Primary and Secondary." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. Ed. J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen. Vol. 1. Gale Cengage, 2003.

Dean L. Overman. A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization.

Hermann Haken. "Self-organization." Institute for Theoretical Physics I, Center of Synergetics, University of Stuttgart, Germany

Rüdiger G. Klimecki. "Self-organization as a New Paradigm in Management Science?"

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