Must-read on Feser by Aquinas

I’ve spent a number of posts digging around various bits of Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics, especially with regard to causation. Notable examples here and the most recent, commenting on a piece by Ed Feser, here.

Why does it matter?

Well, it’s not because Aquinas is a good traditional authority to give a helpful shove to theistic evolution (as BioLogos believes) or Intelligent Design. Rather it’s because it’s one of the best-developed systems of thought that can enable one to have a view of nature in which God is truly immanent – that is, in which he can actually be involved in the outcomes, as he is in the biblical witness. How can nature have real causation investigable by science, and yet God have true government of the process? It’s a question just as applicable in daily life as in the origins question: how can God guide my life, or answer prayer, or fulfil his Scriptural promises, in a scientific cosmos?

Enlightenment metaphysics, quite simply, isn’t up to the job, and leads to endless intractable theological problems. You’ll remember, perhaps, that science dispensed with formal causation, ignored (and then denied) final causation, and limited itself to material and efficient causation – in essence, to the interaction of moving particles.

Arguably quantum physics should have rendered that reduction untenable. Biology is promising to reveal more and more signs of final causation, and the rise of information science has begun to show that information, ie formal causation, is as irreducible a truth as matter and energy in science (hence we need fundamental laws – information behind the behaviour of matter – which have proved increasingly to be irreducibly fine-tuned). One doesn’t see that reflected, however, in the public discussions of either infinite multiverses, explaining away fine-tuning, or the denials that DNA actually carries true information, but some analogous random thing that just happens to obey all the laws of information.

We all still tend to think in terms of simple cause and effect, and that ruins theology. If something is natural, it is reasoned, then it can’t be supernatural. If we have free-will (or even naturalistically determined behaviour), then God doesn’t govern human affairs. If there are natural (law-like or random) processes in evolution, then it cannot, and must not, be moving towards any particular purpose God has. If there is no formal causation, then Christ the Logos of God did not form all things as the Scriptures and creeds say, but merely allowed nature to create its own forms. This is fundamental stuff.

Hence modern theology, embracing this metaphysics, has made a virtue of necessity by elevating autonomy to the best good: it would be wrong of God to direct nature to its ends, or he would be a tyrant and puppet-master (a view that ultimately arises from the inevitable univocity of cause-effect thinking: God is just the first cause in a chain, so can be judged in terms of mechanistic dualities of dominance-submission, bondage-freedom and so on).

To preserve any sense of God’s reality in such a system, almost inevitably one ends up gravitating toward Process Theology, in which God is essentially in dialogue with creation. When that is rejected by Christians, incoherence results as its attractive conclusions are retained, but divorced from the metaphysics that made it workable. The result is that the whole of Christian faith becomes a dog’s breakfast of incompatible ideas in which God does nothing but suffer on the principle of love, allows even evil outcomes on the principle of autonomy, and wins out in the end, like Houdini and just as inexplicably, on the bare principle of his Deity.

Hence one is surrounded by hopeful but meaningless statements like “God leaves nature free but is so great he gets just what he wants” or “God doesn’t interfere with the world but cares for each one and answers our prayers.” One ends up with extremes like “weak theology”, which are only extreme because they are thoroughgoing applications of the metaphysics that most people adopt but are too scared to live by as Christians.

Aquinas provides solutions to all this which are, in my view, fully compatible with true gospel faith, and with the cutting edge of science, as efficient causation alone looks more and more threadbare in a non-Laplacian universe. He needs to be brought up to speed on modern discoveries, of course, and treated as critically as any other thinker. But his kind of metaphysics underpins historical Protestant theology as well as Catholic and Orthodox, and is faithful to those who went before right back to Jewish thinkers like Philo and, I would suggest, the Bible writers themselves.

That’s why it matters.

All that said, I’ve been troubled, in reading the recent articles on BioLogos by Thomists (such as this) and by prominent AT philosophers like Feser, by what seems to me to be an avoidance of certain central ideas in Thomas’s writing that I’ve noticed in reading the originals. In particular, the easy assertion that Aquinas’ teaching on secondary causation removes all theological obtacles to Darwinism seems to avoid the problem of formal causation.

Aquinas attributes forms directly to God’s work in creation, by their very nature. Secondary causation in nature – in particularl natural generation – is characterised by the principle “like begets like.” Substantial forms (Thomas-speak for natural organisms) can only produce what is inherent in them (a mediaeval version of Dembski’s law of conservation of information). So for forms to change over time, either God must work a direct creative act at each stage, or the new form must be somehow nested in the original, as the form of a butterfly is within the caterpillar. In the case of evolution, the whole unfolding history of evolved forms would have to be built in – and in principle detectable – within LUCA. To put it another way, our DNA should contain the vestiges of the future as well as the past.

Clearly neither of those options is Darwinian: the first is progressive creation of a sort, and the second the opposite of Darwinian thought (as Thomist Etienne Gilson’s book shows well), in which brand new forms arise without any teleology.

gageNow, I’m no Thomist scholar, but I come to Aquinas with some feeling for ancient and Reformation theology and what he says on this he says plainly, so I began to chase this up both in Aquinas and on blogs like Ed Feser’s. And I soon found that my own doubts were being raised by others who had read Aquinas, but not adequately answered by these “modern Thomists”. To cut to the chase, I came across this important 2010 essay by Logan Paul Gage which states the case better than I could, and raises some other important issues I hadn’t even thought of. Please read it and tell me what you think.

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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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5 Responses to Must-read on Feser by Aquinas

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    I will comment on the Gage paper soon, but I have looked and looked at various papers, seeking some comment(s) on what I have felt is an obvious point, but as yet I have not seen anything on this, so I will put it here on the hope that someone may comment. As I understand it, Biology’s core truth is the classification of all bio-forms on this planet into three kingdoms, followed by subsequent sub-groupings, until we arrive (the bottom rung) at the identified and described species that exist. The (obvious) point to me is this. If we base our thinking and understanding on such a scheme, what other conclusion can biologist reach, except that all species ‘dove-tail’ and are thus ‘interchangeable’ in some way?

    If my point is valid (and I stress if, but I maintain it is relevant to these types of discussions), a valid criticism should be made of biology before we turn our attention to Darwinian thinking. If all species are simply three groupings (based on descriptions by biologists), than at the very least some are intermixed in some way and ‘form’ as a notion has to be re-examined. If on the other hand, the classification is arbitrary (this comment would upset biologists and many others), should we look for another way of understanding species? And I will not mention human beings (who I think counter the entire classification system through human agency).

    Hopefully these remarks may spark some interesting discussion.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD

    Your post raises a good question, but reveals the modern mindset that formal relationship must imply descent. But here’s a quote from Mayr:

    The biological species concept developed in the second half of the 19th century. Up to that time, from Plato and Aristotle until Linnaeus and early 19th century authors, one simply recognized “species,” eide (Plato), or kinds (Mill). The word ‘species’ conveyed the idea of a class of objects, members of whom shared certain defining properties… Such a class is constant, it does not change in time, all deviations from the definitions of that class are merely “accidents”, that is, imperfect manifestations of the essence (eidos). (Mayr, E. 1996. What is a Species and What is Not? Originally published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 63, (June 1996), pp. 262-277.

    In other words, from Aristotle until transformism appeared in the late 18th century, the unifying principle in everybody’s mind was not descent at all, but something in the creating mind of God. Not so odd if you consider a potter making every variation of pattern he can conceive on mugs, then plates, then teapots. Lo and behold, a Linnaean classification!

    So Linnaeus, whose classification we still use (though remember it also covered minerals, which don’t reproduce, as well as plants and animals), begins his work with Psalm 104 on the endless variety of God’s works, then argues (see Gilson, p 41ff):
    (1) There are no new species because like gives like.
    (2) There are more individuals in each species than before.
    (3) There was just one original of each species at the beginning.
    (4) Therefore those first representatives came from God, whose work is called creation.
    (8) Man was put here to admire and praise the great variety of creation.
    (10) The first stage in that is to know what’s there.
    (11) Which means if you can’t classify things properly, you’re stymied in honouring God properly.

    So his whole classification depends on species fixity. Why then similarities and gradations? Two immediate thoughts from recent reading in Aquinas, etc.
    (1) As each species reveals some different facet of God’s truth and wisdom, the max possible variety was required (I may be wrong, but I believe there was some idea that every possible species actually exists so as to fully reflect God’s wisdom)
    (2) Aquinas also has an idea that all degrees of perfection must exist in God’s good creation (or it would not be complete) – therefore classification has an idea of hierarchy from lowest worm to highest man – an idea retained by Darwin but now, often rejected in evolutionary thought becausae complexity doesn’t increase – Linnaeus was concerned with perfection, not complexity, though.
    (3) Both of these ideas might well have been interpreted by pre-Darwinians, had they discovered the earth’s antiquity, as evidence of God’s wisdom: there wasn’t room on earth for all manifestations of God’s glory and all the degrees of perfection, so God spread them across time. Way to go, Lord! Again, even progress over time wouldn’t be any reason to them, of itself, to infer descent rather than stages of creation.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Your comments show the term species has been around for some time. Gage makes a number of points; I want to comment on some of these by ‘trying to see through the eyes of a scientist’. Initially the discussion includes essence and form (and of course species). The term ‘essence’ lacks scientific meaning (we cannot measure it, weigh it and so on). Species on the other hand, as employed in biology, seems to me to be destroyed by Darwin’s outlook (as noted by Gage). Yet biology is the study of species, and Darwin claims to have discovered their origin. This has caused some Darwinians to redefine the term species (I have given one or two references in past comments), and thus I find this puzzling as the entire field of biology is based on a classification system of all life-forms as three kingdoms. Thus more questions than answers.
      The discussion on form is intellectually acceptable. Form can at be represented visually and we can add considerable description, to enable us to claim that it can be scientifically meaningful (although some discussions eventually collapse into ‘species’). However we can use form, description, and information within a scientific discussion – this should lead us to something akin to ID – but we are still left with the ‘mechanical description’ of molecules and such like. It is here that the notion of complexity may be interesting, but this imo is not well developed and thus is difficult to examine scientifically. For example, we may argue that, in principle, the small difference in the genetics of monkeys and humans should enable us to modify the chimp into a human being? Or vice versa – Gage refers to the arguments regarding the animal nature (but not human nature or spirit) made by Darwinists – I dare say someone may try to do that.

      So (for the sake of brevity) I agree with the Thomistic outlook as a reasoned outlook, and I find it difficult to see a bridge built to link it with Darwin’s outlook. I suppose I prefer the notion of intelligibility to support the notion of distinctly human nature (instead of ID as a scientific theory), and the creation made accessible to us. I am convinced that arguments that seek to find God through science are an exercise in futility – but we may find more about us within nature (the world) through science. In essence (!) we may show creative capabilities within the creation itself. This is a big reason to turn to God for help and guidance, since we know what we humans are capable of doing.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        Just one small comment on yours. The question of transhumanism (or transchimpism?) is, in practical terms, an open one, and an example I wondered about in writing the post.

        To Aquinas a natural form is God-given but not sacrosanct – it can be changed, but only with difficulty. Thus on rare occasions, a failure in natural means may create defects of nature (the deformed goat, etc). Another example would be the efforts all creatures make to retain their nature by avoiding death – but you can still kill them.

        I suppose that if modifying a chimp genome did produce a successful human it would be what Aquinas considers an artifact, and raise interesting questions:
        (a) the information you altered would have been learned from the human genome, so the form derived via DNA from that.
        (b) DNA is far from being the only known source of form – one would also have to access and change cellular codes, histone codes etc to say you’d done the job – certainly not likely to happen any time soon.
        (c) The fact that you did it in by intelligent manipulation in the lab does nothing to show that it could happen in nature: an argument I first heard from a priest on a cruise ship in the Aegean in 1968 – and still true!
        (c) The question of the human soul might or might not have been addressed. Thomas assumes each soul is created directly by God rather than derived from the natural form – there are some theological arguments against that. But your ersatz human might well turn out (though you would have no way of knowing) to be a type of philosophical zombie, less than spiritually human though physically indistinguishable. You’d only know when he didn’t turn up at the final judgement.
        (d) The whole question remains theoretical given our incomplete understanding of speciation. If entirely natural common descent were not true, presumably the genetic manipulation would be very likely to fail. But they’d keep trying anyway and put it down to technical issues rather than metaphysical issues.

  3. Lou Jost says:

    Jon, I strongly disagree with almost all the assertions in your paragraph that begins “Arguably quantum physics should have rendered that reduction untenable…” I can’t deal with them now because of work deadlines, but I hope we will be able to come back to this post next week. The (non-theological) points you make here are important and fundamental to your position, so they deserve a close examination.

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