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.