Tinkering with Thomas again

In our thinking here about origins theological and scientifical, and the metaphysical and philosophical issues related to these that can’t be ignored, the old scholastics, and particularly Aquinas, have provided us many insights. With that interest raised, one theme we’ve touched on a few times is the way that Thomas Aquinas is invoked to support the most common version of theistic evolution, in which (as far as it’s ever spelled out) God seems to set up the universe to evolve itself with neither intervention, nor even necessarily forward planning (aka “design”). Such drawings on Aquinas have been commonplace on BioLogos (with usually superficial treatments and the overall message “Look, even Aquinas is cool with Darwin”), but they have also been argued more seriously by prominent Catholic Thomists, of whom the most accessible is Ed Feser.

I’m sympathetic enough to Aquinas to have delved into his relevant texts, but am no Aquinas scholar. Nevertheless I’ve previously noted several points at which this analysis doesn’t seem quite right to me, and Eddie Robinson too, a Platonist rather than a Thomist, has made similar points both in comments and his own pieces, eg here.

Now there’s an essay on the Evangelical Philosophical Society website, by a serious Aquinas scholar, making a complete critique of this position and concluding that Aquinas would not admit the possibility of the kind of evolution mentioned above. Fr. Michael Chaberek, of Santa Paula, defines the type of evolution he has in view thus:

…the common point is that God doesn’t work directly or supernaturally, but, at least in natural history, operates entirely through natural causes. It is this definition of theistic evolution that I will employ in what follows. (As a result, any theory that invokes God’s direct causality at any point in the history of life will by definition not be theistic evolution.)

Now, there are a couple of things to say here as preliminaries. The first is that, to those who set no store by Aquinas at all, including most natural scientists, what he might have believed about evolution would be a matter of complete indifference. Let the mediaeval scholastic scholars slug it out in their ivory towers whilst the world gets on with science.

But you’ll be aware, if you’ve been here long, that I can’t go along with that. Modern science throws up serious questions in metaphysics and theology – causation, divine action, the inherent capabilities of matter and so on – that the exsanguinated metaphysics of post-Enlightenment thinking just doesn’t take seriously enough. I’ve shown before how deep thinking scientists like Arthur Eddington – and even Charles Darwin before he invariably got himself muddled – were forced to engage with such ideas to make sense of the world.

So if real Aquinas scholars disagree on them as they apply to evolution, it’s of significance, especially perhaps around the question of Intelligent Design, whose better thinkers like William Dembski realise these issues can’t be avoided when believers consider origins-science. It’s also significant to those Catholics who still treat Aquinas almost as canonical, which is enough to affect profoundly that Church’s position on these issues should current interpretations of Aquinas be overturned.

A second “preliminary” is that Chaberek makes it clear that he believes Aquinas would have been unhappy even with the concept of change over time (which even most Evangelical Creationists accept now), giving indications that both Aquinas, and himself, would take a Young Earth position. This, too, is of serious import where Aquinas is treated as authoritative in toto, but in terms of how others see the essay it’s helpful to realise that Chabarek is appealing to several different aspects of his thinking.

Aquinas constructed a whole system of thought in philosophy, metaphysics and, especially, theology, taking the Church doctrine he received as equally authoritative with the reason he took from Aristotle or added himself. Thus, for example, his teaching on transubstantiation is an attempt to justify it metaphysically, rather than to demonstrate its truth, which he took on trust.

Let me show one way this affects things. Chaberek rightly says that, to Aquinas, any act of “continuous creation” such as is supposed in Evolutionary Creation, or even in the most interventionist forms of ID or Old Earth Creationism, would be unacceptable, because God ceased creating after the sixth day. But Aquinas takes the word “creation” in Genesis to mean “ex nihilo”, whereas it’s now clear from biblical studies that this is not its Hebrew meaning, and that God claims to create many things after the world of Genesis. That’s not to deny that God does create ex nihilo, nor that that’s a useful philosophical and theological concept, nor that the initial Genesis creation is unique. But it does undermine the claim that Scripture excludes subsequent acts of creation. I’d also add that Aquinas has a category of divine action falling short of creation, which I don’t think Chabek mentions – another one for the real Thomists to sort out!

Such things aside, however, the writer raises cogent points once he gets down to metaphysics. Theistic evolutionists have made use of the much older writer Augustine, who taught that God created all things instantly, but with the seed, or inherent potential, to “evolve” into new expressions of existence. Aquinas, a follower of Augustine, was well aware of this and cited it in his writing on creation. To take this as a support for Darwinian evolution is by no means recent, even within the Catholic Church: I’ve just re-read (on Merv’s recommendation) the 1960 science fiction novel, A Canticle to Leibowitz, in which a post-nuclear holocaust Catholic monk recommends this idea of Augustine’s to a secular scientist as a possible mechanism of life, only to be poo-pooed. The whole point of the Catholic auther, Walter Miller, was that the Church can be wiser than her secular critics.

Chaberek points out that this is a gross misinterpretation both of Augustine and of Thomas’s use of him:

But in Aquinas’s view, no being can convey more act than it possesses.

In other words, though conceivably a species might contain within it, as it were, the seed of a new species, it does not support the Darwinian idea in which novelty arises without an inherent direction. Étienne Gilson, another Thomist philosopher, made this point in his 1971 study of Darwinism as philosophy. But Chaberek, on this head, adds several more arguments from Aquinas. To begin with:

Even though theistic evolution invokes final causality, it reduces “down” efficient causation to material causation. And, according to Aquinas, matter cannot be the efficient cause of anything.

In other words, an entity has to have an internal potential for change, according to its formal nature – which is directly given by God. In connection with this, those like Feser are keen to stress the sufficiency of divinely-created secondary causes in Aquinas, excluding direct divine action as “miracle”, by which they condemn natural theologians like Paley (Chaberek is down on Paley too, but for different reasons). Yet, as Chaberek rightly claims, Aquinas is at pains to point out not only that miracle is an essential part of God’s “toolbox”, but that he says direct creation is more glorifying to God than the outcome of secondary causes. This, of course, directly contradicts the (purely subjective) judgement of those, right back to Darwin’s time, who say that God is more glorified by making a world that makes itself.

To Aquinas, the whole TE idea of “cooperating in creation” is incoherent nonsense:

Moreover, theistic evolution presupposes that one nature can be a cause of another nature. However, according to Aquinas no “perfect thing” produces its own nature, but only participates in the nature that it inherits. A “perfect thing,” in Aquinas’s thinking, is a being that has a highly specified substantial form or essence.

In other words, one can be fully oneself because of the nature given one by God. But one cannot become something else with a different nature. To the reply that evolution teaches that it is not the creature itself , but random imposed upon it from the outside, which lead to tansformation, Aquinas would not concur either:

Another reason theistic evolution contradicts Aquinas’ doctrine is that it presupposes that the nature (or substantial form, or natural species)
of a living being can be changed into a different nature by an accidental change. However, this is impossible in Aquinas’s view: accidental change
can lead only to accidental differences whereas a change of nature requires substantial change. That is why transformation of species in any evolutionary scenario (i.e., through the  accumulation of minor accidental changes) is not possible. And because it is a formal cause (and not matter) which produces a substantial form, theistic evolution lacks formal causation which is reduced “up” to final causation alone.

In this quotation Charberek is, of course, using “accident” in the philosophical sense of “not inherent to nature”, such as a dog with a missing leg or a rabbit with a mutation for melanism. But in this case it’s just as valid in the modern sense of “accident”, as some random effect of mutation or environmental damage, which cumulatively change one true species into another.

I’ve already noted Chaberek’s apparent denial of the possibility of any substantial change after the week of creation (which would not only be problematic for the fossil record, but even for the degree of change postulated nowadays in Young Earth Creationist baraminology). I’ve also noted how this part of the thesis is based on Aquinas’ theological assumptions, which may be questioned. But it seems to me that the bottom line vis a vis theistic evolution, in the form he defines it, is that Aquinas would discount the possibility of species transition apart from some direct creative input from God in the process.

In a different theoretical framework this could be seen in terms of information: “You can’t get owt from nowt”, regardless of ones acceptance of God’s sovereignty as a principle. Now, as I said from the start, the Thomist scholars will have to toss this around and decide whether Charberek’s argument is valid. If a substantial number think it is, I suspect we may see support for theistic evolution in its present form waning within the Catholic Church, which would have a considerable bearing on the current debate.

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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13 Responses to Tinkering with Thomas again

  1. Cath Olic says:

    Several points:

    1)
    In evolution, regardless of flavor, every living thing is in the process of becoming something else. I think in Thomistic terminology one could say that, in evolution, “substantial being” does not exist.

    2)
    “I’ve already noted Chaberek’s apparent denial of the possibility of any substantial change after the week of creation (which would not only be problematic for the fossil record, but even for…”

    No one has a problem with the fossil record.
    Some, including me, have a problem with the INTERPRETATION of the fossil record and with the DATING METHODOLOGIES used on the fossil record.

    3)
    “Now, as I said from the start, the Thomist scholars will have to toss this around and decide whether Charberek’s argument is valid. If a substantial number think it is, I suspect we may see support for theistic evolution in its present form waning within the Catholic Church, which would have a considerable bearing on the current debate.”

    A considerable bearing how, and for whom?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Cath Olic

      (1) I’ve seen some Thomists’ comments on the possibility of the transmutation of substantial forms, so that they seem to hold that evolution and substances can co-exist. I’ve yet to read a definitive account, though. Since Realism regarding essences is fundamental to Thomism, they clearly have some ideas on the matter. If I could afford David Oderberg’s book Real Essentialism he’d have somewhat to say on it, I think.

      This problem is essentially only one for gradualism, though, as are most of the philosophical problems with evolution. Saltational change, like the old “hopeful monsters” idea or more modern versions, in which macroevolution is a fundamentally different thing from Darwinian microeveolution, doesn’t pose the same problems, but of course drives a coach and horses through Darwin. Indeed, it has to be pretty indistinguishable, empirically, from progressive creation.

      It does become, of course, a problem if substantial change is excluded after the week of creation, hence…

      (2) The problems of this idea for any evolutionary scenarios are obvious, and I mentioned the problem for Creationist baraminology in the OP – one would have to say that the divergence of species after the Flood from original “kinds” all took place within the same substantial form, which contradicts more substantial elements in Aquinas about the specificity of natures (you might as well say that “life” is the only substance, and allow for all evolution).

      But a second problem occurs to me in the YEC scheme from this – if creation and so on are impossible after the 6th day of creation, then so are the formal changes necessary for vegetarian animals to become obligate parasites, carnivores etc, the loss of the serpent’s legs, etc. The whole creation gets a redesign after the week of creation, which is suggested to be impossible – or you have to say that God created all the original forms with potencies for fangs, poison glands, digesting meat, etc etc.

      Not a problem in my own scheme (or Aquinas himself, for that matter), because he and I don’t believe there were such physical changes after the fall, on biblical grounds, but it would seem that nobody in the discussion gets to benefit if Aquinas were right on that issue.

      (3) Well, off the top of my head, within the Catholic Church, though wisely no official doctrine on evolution has ever been made, quite a lot has been said by Popes and others in support of old earth/transformation of species (with provisos about the separate creation of Adam and Eve, etc). Not only would a shift, on Thomistic grounds, to official endorsement of Young Earth Creationism, look like backtracking, but there would be problems for Catholic scientists who, like most other natural scientists, aren’t tied to Aquinas but are tied to evolutionary science.

      Outside the Catholic Church, Catholicism is still a major player in science-faith discussions. I don’t know how a substantial shift in Catholicism away from the very possibility of evolution would play out, but it would certainly change the dynamics of the debate: Dawkins and Coyne would be having to inveigh against “ignorant Creationist Fundamentalists and the Pope…”

      In all seriousness, I don’t see that as a possibility. I think that if Chaberek is correct on the main points at issue with his Thomist opponents, it would primarily be unguided Darwinian gradualism, including those versions of theistic evolution that want to keep that naturalistic open-endedness and God too, that would prove to be incompatible with Aquinas. God’s creative and/or providential governance of species transformation or succession would have to be treated much more seriously than they have been.

  2. Cath Olic says:

    1)
    “This problem is essentially only one for gradualism, though, as are most of the philosophical problems with evolution. Saltational change, like the old “hopeful monsters” idea or more modern versions… doesn’t pose the same problems…”

    If the issue is substantial being, the philosophical problem is the same for both gradualism and saltation.

    2)
    I didn’t understand your first paragraph.

    In your second paragraph you say “if creation and so on are impossible after the 6th day of creation, then so are the formal changes necessary for vegetarian animals to become obligate parasites, carnivores etc,”

    Creation after the sixth day is not impossible for God. He just didn’t do it after the sixth day. Vegetarian animals becoming carnivores is no more a substantial change than man becoming a carnivore.

    “The whole creation gets a redesign after the week of creation, which is suggested to be impossible – or you have to say that God created all the original forms with potencies for fangs, poison glands, digesting meat, etc etc.”

    I don’t know if “redesign” is the right word. I’m thinking that, as a result of the Fall after the creation week, a Divinely-allowed and UNIVERSAL change occurred in all living things. That is, ALL living forms experienced and were subject to essentially the same change, most specifically, the change to experiencing mortality. In still other words, the fangs and poison glands, etc. were always present from the time of creation but after the Fall they had different affects.

    But getting back to my original point in 2), no one has a problem with the fossil record, per se.

    3)
    “Not only would a shift, on Thomistic grounds, to official endorsement of Young Earth Creationism, look like backtracking, but there would be problems for Catholic scientists who, like most other natural scientists, aren’t tied to Aquinas but are tied to evolutionary science.”

    So what? Such scientists most likely aren’t really Catholic anyway. They’re Catholic-in-name-only. They’d have a final rationale to be more transparent on what they believe, which is Protestantism.

    “Outside the Catholic Church, Catholicism is still a major player in science-faith discussions. I don’t know how a substantial shift in Catholicism away from the very possibility of evolution would play out, but it would certainly change the dynamics of the debate: Dawkins and Coyne would be having to inveigh against “ignorant Creationist Fundamentalists and the Pope…”

    Again, so what? Same old same old.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    On (2) here – cf Russell Mixter’s comment.

    Such scientists most likely aren’t really Catholic anyway. They’re Catholic-in-name-only. They’d have a final rationale to be more transparent on what they believe, which is Protestantism.

    . Or maybe they just read Humani generis, unless that was a clandestine Protestant document too.

    But I see you don’t rate Aquinas overmuch either, when he says: “In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon.”

    In this he both denies that animals before the fall were not carnivores, and also that they could become vegetarian without a change of nature. Funnily enough, I agree with him on both of those points.

  4. Cath Olic says:

    “Or maybe [Catholic natural scientists who aren’t tied to Aquinas but are tied to evolutionary science] they just read Humani generis, unless that was a clandestine Protestant document too.”

    No, it wasn’t a clandestine Protestant document. It was a document such “Catholic” scientists either didn’t read or wouldn’t abide by.

    “But I see you don’t rate Aquinas overmuch either, when he says: “In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon.”

    No, I rate Aquinas very highly. He’s a saint and a Doctor of the Church, after all.
    But not everything that came from his mouth was infallible teaching. I’d say he’s unreasonable, and certainly not infallible, in saying beasts now fierce could not have once been tame. Thomas can be forgiven as he lived long before Siegfried and Roy, et al.
    And Aquinas’ predecessor Augustine had musings about all of creation being immediate (as opposed to over six days) and about when the infant in the womb became human and/or ensouled. Augustine was great, but not perfect.

    “Funnily enough, I agree with [Aquinas] on both of those points.”

    So what? Just matters of opinion. Funnily enough, you have no way of knowing this side of the grave that you both were wrong.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Funnily enough, you have no way of knowing this side of the grave that you both were wrong.

      Unless we all have you to tell us, Cath Olic 🙂

  5. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Cath Olic, your manner of interaction reminds me of what was said of a prominent, late American scientist who was high in policy circles and apparently had the ears of policy makers and presidents. Not known for possessing any humility on any given matter, it was said of him that … “he could be wrong, but he was never uncertain.” Of course, I’d wager he actually did have science of the day on his side most of the time to get where he got.

    Also interestingly enough, that scientist probably fancied his genius merited an immortal status in history, and here I am unable to even remember his name. More a reflection on me than on him I guess.

    • Cath Olic says:

      Merv,

      I don’t know the name of that prominent, late American scientist you’re talking about either.

      But I suppose if I was really like him – “Not known for possessing any humility on any given matter… fancied his genius merited an immortal status in history” – I would be using my real name, and not Cath Olic.
      My mind actually possesses many uncertainties. But not exclusively uncertainties.

      But it’s a funny, and sometimes true, saying:
      “Frequently wrong, but never in doubt.”

      I suppose if I had to choose, I’d take that over “Frequently wrong, but ALWAYS in doubt.”
      Yet, so many Christians settle for constant doubt about so many fundamental Christian things. God wants us to KNOW, to BE CERTAIN of certain things (e.g. 1 John 5). Still, so many Christians, like Jon, can read a 1 Timothy 3:15 [“if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth”] or an Ephesians 3:10 [“that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places”], and think such a church never existed or no longer exists.

      I’m not uncertain about that Church. Christ doesn’t want anyone to be.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Unfortunately, Cath Olic, when every opinion you offer is presented as certain truth (even when it is not Catholic dogma), and when you have never offered a shred of supporting argument for any of those opinions (unless Siegfried and Roy are supposed to have some sort of equivalence to Aquinas), it’s in practice indistinguishable from mere self-importance.

        You’re shocked and offended when pointed to sources that incidentally critique your tradition (though those critiques have been common knowledge for 500 years), and you use that as an excuse not to read sources from your own tradition that may disagree with you. That’s a recipe leading to invincible ignorance.

        You may be tolerated, or tolerance may wear thin as it did at BioLogos, but you’ll be fated never be listened to. And it’ll be nobody else’s fault.

        • Cath Olic says:

          “You’re shocked and offended when pointed to sources that incidentally critique your tradition (though those critiques have been common knowledge for 500 years), and you use that as an excuse not to read sources from your own tradition that may disagree with you. That’s a recipe leading to invincible ignorance.”

          Yes, I’m shocked and offended when reading any of the Protestant critiques of Catholicism of the last 500 years. Or at least my senses of Scripture, history, and logic are offended.

          But I don’t disagree with ANY of my own Tradition. However, I may, and often do, disagree with sources FROM my own tradition (small “t” here meaning Catholic population including clergy). And I have every right to do so as a faithful Catholic.

  6. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    I find it ironic that Cath Olic accuses of Catholic scientists of degenerating toward Protestantism, as if Protestantism is something to be avoided at all costs, when his own mode of Biblical exegesis is straight U.S. of A. Protestant, literalist, Biblicist, YEC fundamentalism, alien to the spirit of Catholic exegesis. If I didn’t know Cath Olic was Catholic, and someone asked me, “What branch of Christian faith is this writer from?” I’d unhesitatingly answer: “Protestant, free-church, fundamentalist, probably supporting the Chicago statement, probably donates money to Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.” I don’t feel an ounce of Catholicness in his writing. I grew up surrounded by Catholics of a very traditional, pre-Vatican II kind — Italians, Irish, etc. None of them read the Bible the way Cath Olic does.

    If Cath Olic is certain that he is in line with true, orthodox, Catholic teaching, he has no reason at all not to publish, under his own real name, a statement of faith, and submit it humbly (as any good Catholic would) to the Church for judgment regarding its orthodoxy. After all, on Cath Olic’s own premises, the Church cannot err, and the Church will discern what is true and false in his writings, praising him if he is right, and correcting him if he is wrong. So if Cath Olic refrains from publishing his theological credo with his name attached, he is avoiding Catholic instruction and discipline — which no good Catholic would ever do. He is in fact doing something very Protestant: he is saying that he can read the Scriptures alone and know what they mean, and that no authority, not even the teaching magisterium of the Roman Church, has any right to tell him how to read the Scriptures.

    This is the attitude of individualistic American Protestants — for whom Christian truth is a matter between “me, my conscience, and God” rather than an objective teaching of the Church. Cath Olic thinks and acts and feels and debates like an American Protestant fundamentalist, all the while claiming he is loyal to a notion of Church which is incompatible with that kind of Bible-thumping individualism. His position is a mass of contradictions. That is why it is not credible, and why he has not made a single convert. No Protestant will tolerate his Romanism and his authoritarianism, and no Catholic will tolerate his Protestant-style individualism and Biblicism.

    I don’t know Cath Olic’s real identity (though I know three or four of the other internet identities he has used, prior to being banned from various websites); what I do know is that unless he reveals his real identity to the authorities of the Catholic Church, and submits his doctrine to that Church for adjudication, he is not being a faithful Catholic.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Eddie,

      I know Cath Olic does his best to clone Seenoevo and his alter-egos. But whilst the latter once condemned me unmercifully for liking one point from Aquinas but rejecting another, I tested the issue with Cath Olic and he regards Aquinas as fallible, and only accepts Thomist teaching that’s in line with YEC. The two positions are quite incompatible.

      So they would probably not get on at all – it almost seems a shame we had to ban Seenoevo, because the dialogue between them would be interesting (certainly more interesting than having to explain why a book on the reliability of the Old Testament is unlikely to comment on Jesus’s miracles. They’re in the New Testament, see?).

      But I agree that his position (as far as one can ascertain it when he presents no actual arguments apart from Fundamentalist proof-texts) is unusual. Certainly very different from Popes Benedict and Francis, the former of whom wrote:

      While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5–4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.

      You have to wonder if the Pope’s a Catholic almost as much as whether Cath Olic’s the Pope.

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