Another thought from Aquinas

Here’s another consideration from my very cursory reading of Thomas Aquinas on providence.

As I showed in the first post Aquinas, writing in the 13th century, deals with the common patterns we see in the world (what we should call “Natural laws” – things always fall down, fire always burns etc); he deals with chance (a man meets his debtor coincidentally at the fair); he deals with human will (people make decisions freely, for good or ill). All these he places necessarily under the detailed control of God’s determining providence. I didn’t mention it, but he also includes miracles as certainly part of God’s repertoire – whether elsewhere he says anything about their “mechanism” I don’t know, but it’s not important.

Through the Enlightenment, we have got a different handle on “natural law” and defined many. We have a statistical knowledge of chance, and have related it to deterministic physics, to chaotic systems and to apparently genuinely random quantum events. But it’s still the same chance that Aquinas covered in depth. And there’s been much discussion about free-will, which only a minority of eliminative materialists deny entirely. Miracles are more controversial, but as I’ve said elsewhere Christians, at least, are more open to them than they were a couple of generations ago.

So science has described no categories of event in the world beyond what Aquinas also described, and subordinated to God’s providence. So why is it that so many theistic evolutionists have a problem with teleology in nature? Why do they insist that for God to determine nature’s outcomes would be “breaking natural law”, or “interfering with nature’s randomness/freedom” (or “trampling on human free-will”, though that particular complaint ranges far wider than the scientific community)?

I suggest it’s yet another case of ill-informed people embracing a theologically inadequate metaphysic and grafting it on to their science. It’s bad enough when new atheists do it, but for Christians with an intellectual heritage millennia old there’s really little excuse.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Another thought from Aquinas

  1. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    You ask the question on Nature and miracles. The short answer is such people start with a given, or set, position. They begin with, “that cannot be so,” and continue to argue to a position that amounts to their initial assumption.

    We understand that knowledge by humans may be stated as laws, and also this knowledge contains details that are measured/observed. Let us take a miracle as an example. This can only be stated publicly by the person(s) involved in this, and by those who claim to have witnessed the event. The only other person who would be in a position to say anything more would be God who responded to faith with the event. The criteria accepted by our community, and one that conforms to reason, is to assesse the report, determine if this is by honest men and women, and come to a judgement on the truthfulness of the accounts given by those who report the miracle.

    All human beings involved in this would understand their limitations; those who believe in God would acknowledge His attributes (omnipotent and if it is a cure of an illness, caring); those who do not believe would not be able to understand the matter and simply say the event defies explication.

    Opponents to miracles usually do more; they would argue against the miracle because they do not want their position threatened. Their response generally goes along the lines of, “Conduct a scientific experiment to repeat and reproduce your alleged miracle, otherwise I will not believe you.” This of course is unreasonable, as the criteria we all accept is the veracity of witnesses; we have to accept our part in deciding their honesty or if we suspect otherwise, we must show that with proof. My take on this is these people are in some way trying to get us to deal with their disbelief. I struggle with how people deal with absence of belief in God and yet are always want to talk critically of belief in God.

    On God acting in nature (the term providence often is used for this); I am still unclear on how the opponents put their case. If we are to stipulate a natural event, a scientifically accurate description is sufficient. If our worldview is that all events in Nature are the result of God, then that would not change the description – if our worldview is the opposite, the scientific position would remain unchanged. Perhaps you can elaborate on this one.

    On teleology in nature, I again find the term nebulous; we human beings have the capacity to act with purpose and strive towards a goal. Is the term, ‘teleology in nature’ a way of attributing this to God in some way, or is it an attempt to convey additional meaning to scientific observations?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    Teleology: starting from Aquinas, he as a Christian assumes, and argues for, God’s providence in all nature, ie it’s working towards specific goals. Part of that is on first principles of his reasoning about God, and part (in Romans 1 fashion) on the observed order in nature, which cannot, he says, have happened by chance because chance doesn’t produce order. Specific mechanisms are not his concern, at least in the “providence” discussion. Nature, then, is teleological because of God whether he works directly, or through secondary causes (eg organisms created to follow some inbuilt law of “purposive evolution”, were such a thing ever to be observed.)

    Science, though, is all about mechanisms, and it seems to me that a Christian scientist ought to have some view, at least, on how God’s providence actually works out on their field. Some TEs reply that, effectively, it doesn’t: God sets up natural law, and sustains existence, but the rest is totally independent of God, or may even work against his purposes. So they posit an essentially ateleological nature almost indistinguishable from that of the atheists – what R J Russell calls “statistical deism”.

    I’d prefer to see suggestions like the following developed, at least in outline (since I agree science cannot attribute divine action). So…

    Q: How does God’s overseeing providence work in the four conceivable areas of action:
    (a) Natural Law: Easy. God’s original creation set up original conditions and law-like processes which continue in an orderly fashion to this day.
    (b)Chance: Chance is seen in the interaction of laws, chaotic systems, consequences of humans choices and quantum events. None of these is independent of God’s determining providence, so they are not chance to God: he not only foresees, but plans their outcomes. This would seem to require some direct ongoing divine action, eg tipping the balance in chaotic systems, determining quantum events etc.
    (c)Human Will: Human choices are genuinely free, and affect the real world. However, they are not independent of providence, being at very least anticipated and channelled by God but, according to Aquinas, actually ordained by God, without negating their freedom. This is probably at heart a paradox irreducible to human reason, at least before the parousia.
    (d)Miracle: Nothing in Scripture or science precludes miracle during the course of natural history, because creation ex nihilo is, by definition, miraculous, and we have no way currently of knowing for certain that God has not continued his eternal creation within our time frame, eg at the onset of life, the origin of humanity – or even at biological events like speciation or new phyla. To insist all must proceed naturally is pure presumption.

    For God to act miraculously must be outside the usual workings of natural law, but at least in a historical science like evolutionary biology, I suggest we would be unable to distinguish a miraculous event from a chance event. However, one could say that if a chance event overseen by providence is so unlikely as to be statistically implausible, one might as well call it a miracle anyway.

    So if one found evidence that life began with the spontaneous formation of a specific 100-base molecule, a Christian has a choice between an extreme chance event (under God’s directing providence) and a miracle – which would seem purely a semantic question. But I have heard Christian biologists insist that such an event would simply be a fluke, with nothing irrational or unscientific about it. That seems metaphysically infantile to me.

  3. GD GD says:


    I would need to write a book about this.

    The first point I need to make is on the ‘how’ and ‘what’ a human being can know. I addressed part of this before by stating that a human being observes, measures, and hypothesises (epistemic), but he/she is part of the world (or the creation). We cannot be ‘outside’ of the creation and in this way make statements on the validity of the operations of the creation and its creator. Therefore, your question on how God oversees His creation is more difficult then your response may indicate.

    Scientists have identified certainties in the Universe, and combined with our limited understanding of the Universe, have concluded the extreme improbability the Universe can be anything other than what it is. I look to the constants in Nature; others use a more elaborate idea of fine tuning. Both agree with what Paul is saying, in that the things that cannot be observed are shown or indicated by the Creation, so that we are inevitably drawn to the conclusion on the Creator.

    Once this is affirmed, Christians have the big answer to the major question; God is the creator of the Universe. Atheists have to work very hard to come up with non-sense such as an infinite number of possible Universes. Clearly their vanity and determination not to believe in God is amply demonstrated.

    On things like laws of nature and chance, I take a different view; we human beings are just scratching the surface in terms of understanding Nature at the quantum level. To then try and define how God may act in this way is problematic. I can speculate (more like science fiction) that there may be numerous dimensions by which the phenomena we call Nature may be comprehended, and even manipulated. We are severely restricted in our understanding of these (thankfully), but what we can say is that if we did understand such various aspects of Nature, we will not be interested in God and His workings, but look to how we may exert our will on Nature, often with horrible consequences.

    We should be careful on what we may wish to know.

    The point is that we are limited; it does not mean that God is limited. In fact the obvious answer is that we are beginning to see that God may determine the past, present and future in many ways, as I alluded before. I know this outlook would not satisfy the mechanical minded, who think they need to state every event, in endless detail, and in doing this, loose any perspective and cannot see their understanding is extremely poor in the process. We may begin with the most fundamental equations which deal with matter and energy of any system stated as a wave-function; this points to a complete system that in theory is comprehensible. Most would say that only God would completely comprehend this. Additionally, we may look at myriads of chemical structures that constitute matter and note each is identifiable, even though the number of these is almost infinite (I can go on). Again the entire limit of molecular combinations may be infinite; this is not a problem for God.

    These matters are certainties of science.

    I agree with the proposition that if we knew how life began, we would take a huge step in understanding ourselves and the Universe. However, as I stated regarding the constants re the Universe, even if we knew this, those of the Faith would again say, “This proves God created life”, while the atheist would say, “This is the result of this and that”, as long as it removes God from their thinking.

    I think these points show us a profound truth, on how we may believe, and how we may not believe. On how scientific we would be on the question of life however, we would still be divided into those of us (like myself) who would say, we do not understand it sufficiently, and into those who would go on about chance and circumstance, and how they have finally understood it all, yes how life itself began. These people have published a great deal of this speculation, and it is humbug, but that does not deter them.

    I ask, how many times do these people need to claim they know everything? If they had the answer 50 years ago, it would all have been settled and dusted. Yet keep coming up with how they have known things over and over and over, and again?

    I look at this as showing us what it means to be human.

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