Many of today’s human problems—war, crime, disease, incarceration, starvation, lack of love, abuse of others—could be dealt with far better without an accompanying supernatural belief, which so often diverts us from doing the things necessary to deal with such problems constructively and humanely. This “spirit causality” means simply misattributing effects in our world to spirits. For primitive peoples who embraced animism, spirits make the wind blow, the flowers bloom, and caused everything else they didn’t understand.
Some scientists theorize that belief in spirits is an innate human propensity. As children we may naturally look to spirit causality when we encounter a tough problem we can’t otherwise successfully tackle. Of course, it’s not just primitive people or children who accept spirit causality. Gods are such spirits, existing in a realm beyond the natural world but who are thought to affect events here.
Many people don’t see any problem with others depending on spirit causality. What’s the harm, they ask? Consider how negative human acts are often claimed to be the result of supernatural evil. These evil spirits are imagined to control our minds and cause us to do such things. So in seeking solutions people are focused on magic and spirits rather than the real issues. Using spirit causality retards our efforts to find the real causes that move everything in the universe.
Giving up spirit causality is essential in order to develop a new foundation for building a society where tough problems are always seen as solvable, and where efforts are made to find solutions that work for everyone.
The development of the scientific process of investigating, learning, and applying knowledge has been a critical step in becoming able to produce a new foundation. However, understanding science is itself an empirical process that requires knowledge and experience.
The ancient Greeks developed essential elements for laying a foundation for science. Sixteenth-century Europe picked up the ideas of the ancient Greeks and provided the next step when Francis Bacon helped natural philosophy become science. But defining science had its own problems, which still need to be solved, and is necessary in producing a new foundation.
Francis Bacon’s definition of science as the search for knowledge and providing a process for doing that was widely interpreted as the search for true knowledge (truth). So, in this context, science (like religion) for a time became the search for truth.
However, modern scientists do not define science as the search for truth or true knowledge. They recognize that truth doesn’t apply to the universe, but only to statements about things in the universe. True knowledge would be something that wouldn’t change. But in science our understanding can change with more knowledge and experience. And the history of science is the story of these changes.
Although current science has discarded Bacon’s definition of science, an adequate replacement has not been universally understood. I think this is because of our difficulty in understanding religion and how it fits into an adequate understanding of human beings and science. Properly understanding religion is essential in understanding this problem.
A measure of the depth of the problem in science is demonstrated by how quantum mechanics is currently understood. When Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg defined quantum mechanics, they stumbled over the postmodernist puzzle which Bohr dealt with by saying, “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” I attribute this to his following in the path of David Hume, who discarded cause and effect due either to his own lack of understanding of religion, or his unwillingness to question religion’s supposed domain.
So all this ended up removing cause and effect from quantum mechanics and putting it into the realm of statistics. In my mind, this practically moves quantum mechanics into the same domain as spirit —having effects with causes that can’t be studied—the very problem that lies at the core of the issue.
Fortunately many modern physicists are working on this problem through the exploration of string theory, which is causal—see Lee Smolin’s Three Roads to Quantum Gravity for more. And I predict this theory, or something like it, will eventually replace the way quantum mechanics is most frequently understood today, or lead to new underpinnings that include causality.
The article is part of Arthur Jackson’s “A New Foundation For Civilization” series.