Aristotelian musings

Ed Feser has a helpful discussion on the way that, in Aristotelianism-Thomism, efficient causes can both be real, and subject to God as teleological first cause. In this way, the concept of evolution can be perfectly compatible with the God of Chriostianity who disposes all things according to his will.

A big part of his reasoning is to draw the distinction between the intrinsic nature of something, and its fashioning into an artifact. One example he gives is the liana vine that by nature grows through the tree canopy so that Tarzan can swing on it, and the hammock Tarzan makes from it, which derives only from the artifice of the man. Its “hammockness” is an accident of the vine rather than a result of its nature.

Feser goes on to repeat (and unpack) his disagreement with Intelligent Design, the big problem being that if God “imposes” on, say, living matter, something that turns the reptile into a bird, then the bird is not a creature with its own nature, but a mere artifact. That argument has some force from a number of points of view. However, it necessarily implies that in evolution the reptile, within its own nature, has the potential to become a bird, which is not a great problem if God created it thus.

At one level, the question being begged is whether the reptile indeed has that capacity in its nature, or more generally whether the capacity for evolution is a part of life – and beyond that, perhaps, a capacity of nature. For the whole question of first and efficient causes depends on the sufficiency of the latter. In classic Thomism, one assumes that the nature of a reptile has no potential to become that of a bird, which is why they remain separate species in experience. Thomas, no doubt, was happy to assume God created them separately, without stumbling over their being in some way mere artifacts. So Feser’s position depends on our discovering something new about the nature of reptiles, and the whole of reality, whether that be just the propensity of organisms to generate random mutations and be subject to natural selection, or an entirely new realm of physics by which complex natures emerge from simple ones. That, of course, is the factual controversy over Darwinism and Feser’s philosophical position does nothing to solve it.

But what I have said above also raises doubts for me over how valid the rest of his argument is. If, as Thomas probably believed, God created natures separately rather than by evolution, then the question of artifacts is a separate one. The limiting case is the original creation, which we can take to be the Big Bang for discussion purposes. At that point, we assume, God created the entire Universe, perhaps with all its potential to diversify and evolve, from nothing. In other words, there was, at the start, no “natural” efficient cause, and God simply imposed its existence upon it.

Does that, then, make the Universe a mere artifact – like Feser’s intelligently-designed reptile upgrade? Clearly not, for he created it with a real (Universal) nature to do all that it does and will do. But if, in Aquinas’ time, one wondered about the six day Genesis creation, one would simply say that God imparted new kinds of nature to each new kind of object. The fact that he caused the earth to bring forth vegetation does not necessitate evolution by natural efficient causes, but allows for God’s imposition of a new form on existing matter to create a true vegetable nature.

Or one could look at the creative miracles of Jesus, which though unique nevertheless raise the same issues. Water has no intrinisc tendency to become wine: so did the wine that Jesus created at Cana have the true nature of wine, or was it a mere artifact? One may assume that, once in existence, it did all the things that wine by nature does – it metabolised and intoxicated in the drinkers, and the dregs in the glasses degraded to vinegar and entered the food chain. The same is surely true of the loaves and fishes, which certainly didn’t appear by the usual natural processes of growth from seed or from egg. Yet once created, they did nothing but what such things always do by nature. It was as if Tarzan made not a hammock from vines, but a vine indistinguishable from the real thing from raw materials. Jesus did not transubstantiate his raw materials, but transform them: their wineness, breadness and fishyness were not “accidents” but true natures.

So were God to have acted in geological time to create the species we now have – whether by special creation, or by the addition of new information in some way either at the time of speciation or at the beginning, that “intervention” is not what determines the difference between a mere artifact and a true nature, but rather the way in which what he created unfolds.

So I conclude that whilst Thomism leaves room for both Creationist and Evolutionary explanations of life under God’s sovereignty (and all things in between), it does not, actually, decide between them. What it does do is exclude unguided evolution and autonomous nature – which is as salutory to some forms of engineering-biased ID as it is to materialistic Darwinism.

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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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6 Responses to Aristotelian musings

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    An interesting discussion; while we understand that Aristotle or Thomas were not discussing evolution/Darwin, they were trying to grapple with how we may understand nature. When we classify anything, we rely on a number of factors, including observation, scientific analysis (data), theoretical considerations and perhaps our own convictions regarding the world and ourselves. Thus Tarzan reasoned before he created his hammock, and part of his reasoning was the nature or characteristics of the material around him, and what a hammock ‘ought’ to be (before it became a hammock). This can become a discussion on how we decide something is what it is. Darwin’s problem has imo been that he can take what-it-is now, and somehow decide that it was other-than-what-it-is at a previous time. If you or I decide that a hippo is that, and a whale is that, it is preposterous to enter into a discussion of an intermediate half-hippo-half whale, or because this is preposterous, we may annul an argument or objection. The reasoning must be rigorous – if a reptile is identified as that now, it cannot be a bird, since we identify what a bird is. To then argue that the reptile became a bird, or even could become that, is indulging in the absurd, as my hippo-whale statement indicates. It is a simple matter to examine the language and sentences involved, to understand why this is so. Since we cannot identify a reptile that has the potentiality to become a bird, the argument is null and void. The protagonist must bring before us a different reptile that he can show has the potentiality he claims, and somehow show this conversion from reptile to bird is a unique property of that reptile and not present day reptiles. Their reply is again odd, in that we cannot go back into the past. In that case, what of the argument?

    This is one of a number of reasons I am willing to discuss the intellectual content (or otherwise) of evolution, but am very hesitant at including theological discussions in that context. It is (and has been) a common ‘escape clause’ to either say, “well God imposed His creative power on nature and this makes it all possible,” or the converse, “since God does not exist, than this is the only viable explanation of what we observe of nature” . I agree with you that question begging takes place, as well as assuming Darwin was right, so consequently any data can only be data if it fits in with this Darwin rightness.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD

    Let’s follow this where it seems to lead… rather away from the point I made in the post, perhaps. Thomas’s thought was based on the idea that existence comes by combining form with matter, by some efficient process, under the final causation of God. So inherent to it is the idea of “forms”, not quite in the platonic sense that there is a realm of pure forms, but at least in the mind of God. So there is a reptile form quite distinct from the bird form, given their existence in matter.

    Modern materialism denies the concept of permanent form, making forms just extensions of matter and therefore, like matter, malleable. So the reptile we see today might well be capable of becoming a bird – though clearly not in one go, for reptileness can become birdness only infinitely gradually, if you exclude saltation on Darwinian principle.

    Materialism would point to fossil dinosaurs with feathers, even short of a positive phylogenetic path, as examples of blurred categories: this is a bird-ike reptile, or a reptile-like bird, arguing from there that these represent transitions, and that present species must be equally changeable, though we don’t see the changes in real time.

    To fit that into a Thomist frame, you’d have to say either that God gradually shifts, or extends, his form-specifications over time, or that his original idea of form was pretty generic, encompassing the capacity for change… in which case, one has actually jettisoned the idea that makes it possible to talk of a reptile or bird category at all: there are just individual organisms with similarities and differences. Alternatively, if one allows for saltations a la Woese, in Thomist terms God instantiates an entirely new form.

    Let’s suppose, in all cases, that we could pin down the genetic and other changes that occur: perhaps Lenski’s bacteria doing something rather more impressive than they have so far. We then suppose that God has changed, or created anew, the forms now being instantiated though “scientific” processes. In what way would that not be creation? Or if we held to the “malleable forms” idea, then it was creation at the start, now unfolding before our eyes as planned (a rare etymologically proper use of the word “evolution”!). Rather Deistic, of course, as the notion of “front-loaded” evolution always must be.

    That seems to me to be no more than a different way of seeing either Intelligent Design (God either adds new information or makes the original information so that it permutates), or special creation (God creating the forms, discrete or changeable, rather than tweaking the mechanics). Or it’s a guided form of theistic evolution with a bit of detailed application that’s usually missed out.

    As ever, the big divide (and I seem accidentally to have got back to my post) is between a God who acts and a God who merely allows action.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:


    We may be of topic but some of these things need to be discussed. While ‘forms’ have had lengthy discussions, and even ideas have at time being used in this context, the original idea of combining ‘forms’ with ‘matter’ is still somewhat Aristotelian, and if this is so, the act of God is to be a prime mover – thus concreteness of being and an ‘inert’ material are animated by God given motion. With Newton, the body at rest was replaced with a body and inertia. If we now consider how God went about creating (post Newton), we would consider an initial event where matter and energy were presented to form a dynamic universe.

    With biology, there are horrendous difficulties, since we are asked by Darwin and others to pretend there weren’t previous events, and the formation of the building blocks of life just came along – the rational is difficult to deal with, either as Hoyle discussed the formation of elements, or if we consider the relative reactivity of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and where did all that nitrogen come from? Now thinking past this to Thomas and the forms or distinct species in biology requires a huge leap. Nonetheless we are trying to understand how God would have gone about it. It fascinates me to then speculate – I cannot see science overcoming such hurdles, so I say we do not know enough. But I would speculate for the sake of discussion, by thinking that for us, God created the ‘entities’ such as particles/energy which leads to the ways stars and planets form, in such a way that they cannot do anything else but end up with earth and life. This is a brief statement at face value would not please ID’s nor TE’s, and it may also make God appear distant and non-involved (deism). This is a mistake because we would restrict God to space (distance) and time, and this is not so. Thus God is involved in the past, in the present and in the future (not was, is, or will be).

    Thus the point of this discussion is to understand how we classify the things in nature, inorganic and organic, and how it is that we may be confident we can distinguish between a bird and a reptile, and then be asked to consider these as changeable from one to the other. My view is that we get confused between the vast variety that is characteristic of nature, with our classification and logical (or rational) treatment of human knowledge. There is, as part of my speculation, little to differentiate and Darwinian idea of gradual change from one species to another, with that of saying the earth has an in-built capacity to sustain life by providing a virtual endless variation with time. The latter view has this virtue, in that it confirms the commonality of all life, and protects our ability to consider that-which-is as distinct from another thing. But even this distinction is based on our senses and how they ‘keep us in the world’, and ensuring we do not loose our ‘identity’ as sense based knowledge creating beings.

    This does not say what God has done or is doing, but we see what God has/is/will be doing – it may be that some reptiles could somehow grow feathers while others do not – as a simple statement there is nothing to say from this that either observations prove changes from one form to another. Don’t forget that Darwin requires his previous non-selected species to disappear. Others say transitions are simply descriptions of species that show gradual changes. However I need to close this lengthy post – my key point is related to what we as human beings consider knowledge of the world and everything in it. I have provided more speculation here that I normally would.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    The speculation in your third paragraph is both the ultimate form of fine-tuning, and a comprehensive evolutionary view, in the sense of an unfolding of what is inherent in (this case) matter.

    Your point about God existing and creating in eternity, rather than at one point of time, is a useful one, but can be taken to support all kinds of arguments – for example, any continuous or intermittent process of creation in time is compatible with the one unfolding purpose of God rather than, as the TEs agonise about, being interference.

    The “unfolding of charged matter” idea isn’t that far from wtiers sympathetic to TE (eg Paul Davies and, I imagine, Polkinghorne) or ID (Michael Denton), and echoes the emergence theories of people like Woese (to name an example from my recent blogging) who have no particular brief for God’s involvement.

    It seems to me the problem there is empirical – there actually isn’t much evidence that such a capacity to produce what we see is inherent in matter, apart from the existence of what we see. There are suggestive details, of course, like the nature of carbon that impressed Hoyle or, of course, the properties of water that Denton says much about.

    But it may well be that matter is preprogrammed in that way, and if so it would indeed be the ultimate fine-tuning case. But it would still be unable to account for the Christian account of providence at the level of the individidual person or organism, and at several levels above that – it’s hard to separate the character of individual species from the contingency of their history. Or if it could account for such things, it would suggest a rigid determinism that challenges human freedom, God’s interaction with his universe, and, of course, the indeterministic cosmos suggested by quantum theory.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:


    Just as a reminder, I have speculated while underscoring this with comments on the way (limited capacity) we human beings may ‘obtain’ knowledge. Your summary may be summarised by me as, “well, I (GD) and a lot of other people you have mentioned, seem to ‘flay’ our arms about as we try to show how God creates/created/will create”. Personally I am satisfied with the admission that my/our best understanding of the Universe and of this planet is woefully inadequate; thus I draw confidence from what the faith teaches and not science or philosophy.

    Now I suggest that your (I mean evangelical in general) outlook may be permeated with a belief that requires you to identify ‘God in action’. This personalisation of ‘God in action’ presents great difficulty to me (and it seems to be the major difference between TE and ID). If someone believes that God has revealed Himself in this way, it would truly be a personal experience. I do not comment on such an experience, but instead settle for a difference between atheists and theists; the former choose not to believe and they must come up with their own world view (which I regard as woefully inadequate), the latter do (or hope they) believe, and commence with the teachings of the faith, and try our best to better understand the creation within that context. Since I/we commence with the premise that God is the creator, I cannot see a need to ‘catch God in the act’, so to speak. However, since any understanding of God is an act of grace, I cannot see why someone else may not receive such an abundance of grace (and has a lot more intelligence than I), that they may have deeper insights into these matters.

    On the areas you have identified (emergence, pre-programmed matter and so on), they are not scientific within my view and thus rarely interest me except on occasions when they are part of a general discussion. However, as a reasonable proposition, the sustaining of the Universe by the power of God’s word is a strong indication of both a creation that was brought forth with a specific purpose, and yet one that suffers from some problem and needs to be ‘kept on tack’, so to speak. Scientifically such statements cannot be given any measurable basis, so we are back to where we started (or as I prefer, back to endless speculation).

    I resist notions of emergence because of the generality of the reasoning by competent thinkers and because my counter is the capacity for human beings to identify and characterise things-as-they-are. We could have a lengthy discussion on this, but I suspect you would want to continue with the subject matter of your forum. However emergence (and variations thereof) has been around a long time and thus it is of considerable interest to many people. In terms of differentiating between various camps (ID, TE, EC, OE, YE, and so on), I do not think that I am sufficiently interested to make substantive or useful comments on these.

    I find it impressive that people such as you have put so much effort in trying to understand these various areas of human understanding. I do not see any general disagreement between us.

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