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Causality in Science and Religion
May 1, 2015

One of the most appealing questions in the history of science is if science and religion can be reconciled. Since religion and science both present cognitive perspectives about existence, this is a problem waiting to be solved instead of a question to be answered. The heart of this problem stems from the religious and materialist perspectives of causality. Religious causality includes the “creation purpose” as a cause, whereas the materialist view of causality denies the absoluteness of this purpose.

Indeed, attaching a purpose to everything non-systematically is subjective and seems not to be compatible with the current scientific methodology. For this reason, some people tend to deny religious sources of knowledge, whereas other people tend to accept a dualist viewpoint where they separate the domains of religion and science. Such dualism pushes religion out of people’s lives and restrains it only to particular instances and environments, reframing religion with surrealist subjects.

The path to reviving religious spirituality in daily life, on the same objective domain with science, requires many approaches. One of them is to answer the following question: is it possible to find a systematic way of understanding the purpose of the phenomena that has been observed and discovered by scientific methodology?

Although scientific methodology has evolved throughout history, the common motive that fits all stages is exploring the causal relationship among phenomena and expressing causality with some set of laws and principles. If we traced back to the origins of the scientific approach, we would encounter Aristotle’s definitions. He stated in his book “Metaphysics” that there are four types of causes (Fine, G., 1987):

  1. Material cause – i.e. the materials that something is composed of. For example, water, sunshine, soil etc. are necessary to plant a tree. Therefore, these are material causes for the tree that was planted.
  2. Formal cause – in his original words, “the form or pattern; that is, the essential formula and the classes which contain it.” For instance, a drug can only be useful if its constituent chemicals are mixed in a certain ratio. Hence the specific ratio is the formal cause of the drug.
  3. Efficient (or motive) cause the prior conditions that lead to the resulting situation. This is what is usually considered as “the cause” in science, especially in physics. An example is the source of new cells, which was unknown until the 19th century. It was François Raspail (1794–1878) who first stated Omnis cellula e cellula, meaning that every cell is derived from another cell which tells the efficient cause of cell (re)production. (
  4. Final cause – i.e. the purpose or the goal of something. This is also known as telos. In our daily language, we often mean the final cause or telos, when we talk about “whys.” For example, the telos for a seed to germinate is to become a tree.

Considering these different types of causes, which all together become a complete explanation, we can see that the current understanding of science is diverged from this point. These four categories of cause survived in science until the 17th century. But then, by constraining science on the matter and its motion, as Francis Bacon stated in his Advancement of Learning (1605), only the material and efficient causes are taken into account as the major two subjects of science (Bacon 1605). During those days, Spinoza and Descartes deliberately rejected the final (teleological) cause and claimed that the efficient causes are necessary and sufficient to explain the universe. Thence, Newtonian physics was developed on the basis of the efficient cause. For example, the cause of acceleration is thought of as the force, in a sense that when a force F is applied to a mass m, the acceleration becomes a = F/m.

Causality in science is therefore reduced to the “efficient cause” and effect relationship. However, as we discussed, religions emphasize the purpose of events and accept God as the cause of causes. Therefore, religions use a different language, especially by underlining the telos, in terms of explaining phenomena.  For instance, one of the amazing properties of water is that its least absorbing spectrum corresponds to the optical regime (Gedik, N. 2005). To explain this phenomenon, science asserts the efficient cause and searches for the relationship between the absorption spectrum and the natural oscillation frequency of the water molecule. However, disregarding the temporal order, this purpose-based approach says that because it is crucial and vital for living beings to receive sufficient light, and since the atmosphere largely consists of H2O molecules, then water had to be transparent to the optical frequencies of light to allow creatures that have eyes and photosynthesis systems to get enough light.[1]

We should admit that the latter explanation does not sound strong enough to be generalized and be formulated. Therefore, we usually avoid using the adjective “scientific” for such explanations. But when our subjects or phenomena are chosen in the bio-world, we observe that the “standard” efficient causality does not give a satisfactory explanation, and the teleological causality is necessary. For example, the adaptation concept is teleological, which makes the usage of “final cause” indispensable in biology. Furthermore, in the early 19th century, in his book The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin deliberately employed the term “final cause,” as it was noticed by James Lennox (Lennox 1993). Although some people claim the opposite, by carefully investigating Darwin’s works, Asa Gray and James Lennox appreciate Darwin by stating that he is the first scientist who reconciled morphology and teleology. Simply put, every species are equipped with specialized organs so that they can maximally benefit from, or maximally defend against, their environment. The same idea is also valid from the religious point of view and does not necessarily deny natural selection.

We can find more examples of teleological causality in systems biology, which studies biological concepts in a holistic way and therefore utilizes a teleological language. For instance, during mitotic cell division, chromosomes are replicated only once and then separated into two new cells. But note that something, indeed a checkpoint, prevents the cell from replicating its DNA more than once. This situation appeals for attention and can be explained in two ways. First is the teleological, or what biologists sometimes call the “biological explanation.” DNA is replicated once because otherwise it is severely defective or even lethal for the cells. Such a teleological explanation is perfectly compatible with the mechanistic explanation (efficient cause) based on the chemical interactions of some related proteins, which can be modeled by thermodynamic equations. As the system is complex, it is often hard to fully fit into a model using thermodynamic formulations. However, system biology offers another way that mixes the language of teleological and efficient causes by considering the system as a signaling network, on which the signal (or information, as in the information theory) is carried out via specific protein phosphorylations or reactions. If we were to analyze the spectrum of the words used in systems biology, such as commitment, robustness, checkpoint, decision etc., we would see that its language is more similar to our purpose-based daily language. For such irreducibly complex systems, the employment of teleological concepts does not arise as metaphorical; rather, it is indispensable as the whole cannot be purely explained by its parts.

Other sciences also provide teleological examples. Beginning in the early 20th century, quantum physics emerged, bringing along some very unintuitive experiments. For example, Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen offered a paradox called EPR. This states that measurements on two spatially separate but entangled particles can demonstrate correlations that cannot be simply explained by efficient causes. Later on, this phenomenon, called quantum entanglement, was empirically validated and can be explained by the final causes, introducing a retrocausal relationship.

Theoretical physicist Ken Wharton argues that the process known as frustrated spontaneous emission is naturally explained by such teleological causality. A light-emitting atom stops emitting light when the surrounding atoms are no longer able to absorb light. The decision of the atom whether to decay or not depends on the other atoms’ absorption, which has not happened yet. The idea that “the atom is probing the future” is not only counter intuitive, but also difficult to accept on the basis of the efficient causality, as Wharton states. (G. Musser, 2014).

Although teleological explanations are not always indispensable and can always be accompanied by efficient causality, the urge for the simplest explanation usually brings teleological language to science. Because science has been facing complex systems in various fields, teleological (purpose based) causality has become necessary since the beginning of the 20th century. As a purpose-orientated understanding of existence is fundamental for almost all religions, it would not be strange to observe the engagement of science and religion in the near future.

Returning back to the initial question, of whether the purpose-oriented view can be reconciled with scientific research, we see that this is already widely evident in the scientific community. But there are still some people who think religions oppose science, owing to their purpose-oriented view. The judgment is left to the reader.

Yusuf Malik holds a PhD in physics. He is a freelance writer based in Boston, USA. 


  1. Fine, G.. 1987. “Forms as Causes: Plato and Aristotle,” in A. Graeser (ed.), Mathematics and Metaphysics in Aristotle, Bern: Haupt, pp. 69–112.
  3. Bacon, Francis. 1605. “Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human.”
  4. Gedik, N. 2005. “The Miracles of Water,” The Fountain, Issue 49.
  5. Lennox, James G. 1993. “Darwin Was a Teleologist.” Biology and Philosophy 8 (4).
  6. George Musser. 2015. “The Quantum Mechanics of Fate,” Nautilus, February.

[1] The difference between this explanation and the anthropic principle may seem subtle here, but there is an enormous conceptual gap which extends beyond the scope of this article.