More on Aquinas and contingency

The conversation on the BioLogos thread I mentioned previously has continued, with Catholic Thomist biologist Mary B Moritz taking the part of Neil Ormerod, the original author. From her writing she takes a line that seems to be the commonest amongst Thomists interested in evolution (such as Ed Feser), pointing specifically to the allegedly simplistic shortcomings of Intelligent Design, but having no problems to speak of with the Neodarwinian scientific model. I’m commenting here, rather than on BioLogos, which would be appropriate, simply because of space.

St-thomas-aquinasWhat Moritz (or Ormerod) gets from Thomas, it seems, is a strong doctrine of secondary “natural” causes under divine providence (which is fine), including those causes we term contingent or chance (which is also especially fine by me). What is less obviously Thomistic is the suggestion that this categorically discounts the possibility that God might use any other means than secondary natural causes in the evolution of life – discounting it mainly on the grounds that it implies a crudely architectural view of God as a static, non-interactive “designer”. This is in itself inconsistent as she is firmly committed to the Catholic teaching on the separate creation of man (presumably not by secondary natural causes).

I’ve written before that it’s a risky thing to cite Aquinas as a supporter of evolutionary creation, since to him creation was, by definition, the direct production of things by God, ex nihilo (Summa, Part 1, Q45). Specifically, he followed Aristotle in hyelomorphic dualism, that is that all created things (“substances”) are the combination of form (the particular work of Christ the Logos) with prime matter. Naturally in the 13th century he assumed the creation of all substantial forms to be part of the 6-day Genesis creation, and secondary natural causes to be acting on those original creations, particularly in the process of generation.

I have no doubt that Thomistic ideas adapt well to modern science – and indeed can broaden its view – but there is more than one way to apply it, and Thomas would have thought long and hard about how the transition of forms in evolution related to creation. I believe that, if he’d concluded God was actually creating through evolution (ie, “Evolutionary Creation”), he’d have hesitated to ascribe it all to secondary causes. It would have meant backtracking on his entire doctrine of creation.

Mary Moritz did, in fact, accept my criticism of her narrow (polemical) description of design, not least because I showed where Aquinas uses the actual word in relation to creation, and in my view ID (as a discipline, regardless of individuals’ particular biases) uses it in the same broad sense as Aquinas does. In the discussion our friend Eddie goes on to demonstrate specifically how the ID authors with whom he is most conversant, Michael Behe and Michael Denton, take such a broad view of design and even accept evolution.

Unlike Eddie, I don’t see myself as “a supporter of ID”. Rather, I see many ID concepts as part of what has been sidelined in Christian scientific thought during the last century, and worthy of serious consideration. So I’d like in the rest of this post to add the approach of another ID writer, Stephen Meyer, to this discussion of Aquinas and chance. This is not because I am a Meyer scholar, but because I had dinner with him once (albeit at the other end of a long table).

Meyer’s two books, on the origin of life and on the Cambrian explosion, in essence take the form of arguing against the evidential adequacy of all so-far proposed secondary natural causes for those two events. His argument runs that, since these are found to be inadequate, the inference to an Intelligent Designer is the best cause, that being the only cause in our experience for complex specified information analogous to that found in living organisms.

Whether the case against the proposed scientific mechanisms is adequate is a matter of opinion: it is exactly comparable, in a historical science, with the subjective judgement of a court about a course of events based on imperfect evidence. But the form of argument is legitimate, and for the most part, critics have not dealt with his objections directly (most of them he gleaned from scientific literature anyway), preferring to make general criticisms of his competence or nit-pick minor issues.

What is relevant in this context is how this relates to Aquinas. Aquinas teaches about God’s providence in secondary natural causes – he says nothing about whether any particular cause is true or adequate. Indeed, a strong part of his argument is that any means God uses are the most suitable and effective for his ends: secondary causes must be adequate. Therefore it would be vain for a mediaeval Aristotelian to argue that God doesn’t move falling bodies miraculously, but that all things tend to fall to the lowest part of the universe, and that this is proven by Aquinas’ teaching on secondary causation. The preference for secondary causation is reasonable, but gravity still needs to be discovered.

So Meyer’s arguments against current evolutionary and OOL theory are orthogonal to Thomism: they are purely evidential. The inference to design is not actually an argument against secondary causation, but (rightly or wrongly) against specific secondary causes, notably those that, as they are often expressed by scientific sources, deny an intelligent final cause. Be it noted that intelligent final causation in creation was axiomatic to Aquinas.

In particular, Meyer’s books exclude the chance hypothesis, which is our main subject here. In Signature in the Cell for example, he mentions it only to show how the OOL research community has now more or less ruled it out. This means that the main contenders against his arguments are threefold:
(a) He is wrong about the inadequacy of Neodarwinian mechanisms – a matter of evidence.
(b) We don’t know the real secondary mechanisms involved, but they must exist – a matter of faith. In this case Meyer is absolutely right to point out that science cannot be done on hire-purchase. If you have no explanation, you can only come to the table once you’ve found one, not offer a promissory note.
(c) There are no discoverable mechanisms, but perhaps there was an extraordinary fluke – a matter of luck.

Now scientifically, the last answer is by far the least satisfactory, as it offers no scientific insights at all. There is no intrinsic reason why this chemistry should come together, but maybe if the universe is big and old enough, it did happen once. It happened, in other words, against the usual course of nature. Yet it is actually this last answer that Ormerod’s interpretation of Thomism offers to Meyer. Answers (a) and (b) above are purely about finding adequate efficient causes that God would employ, and Aquinas, as I’ve shown, has absolutely nothing to say on that – nor much interest, being a philosopher-theologian rather than a scientist.

In any other field than historical sciences answer (c) would not see the light of day – even amongst Thomist scientists. Imagine an oncology drug-trial, for example, in which obliteron suphate proved no more effective than placebo. But the researchers say, “God’s providence covers contingent events, so he can easily make obliteron curative for your patients!” No Nobel Prize there, you’ll agree. Note that this is a completely different scenario from the same oncologist saying, “The drug’s complete rubbish, but amazingly one of our 250 cases had complete remission – which suggests that miracles still happen occasionally, praise God.” The Thomist who attributed the feeding of the five thousand to contingent secondary causes would be pushing the envelope too far.

Yet such an argument was made by British Christian biochemist Keith Fox in a debate with Meyer back in 2011, having accepted the possibility that no adequate theory of the origin of life may exist:

We’re inferring events billions of years ago that may have been a fluke event. But there’s nothing irrational or unscientific about it.

Now what did he actually mean? It’s hard to be sure, in detail. That something found to be a fluke, against the normal course of nature, was caused by the normal course of nature? That’s strange logic.

That God had no influence on the origin of life? That’s clearly not what the president of Christians in Science meant, since he explicitly stated that every part of the world is under God’s detailed control… I guess he’s singing from a different hymn sheet from Francisco Ayala or Karl Giberson then.

That it may turn out to be just such an astronomically unlikely event, but that (in Thomist mode) God’s providence oversees chance? Well that at least concurs with Aquinas that God acts through providence designedly, not fortuitously:

Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

But there does come a point when extreme contingency may as well be called “miracle,” for they are indistinguishable in any meaningful way. But in any case, this last view would still be absolutely firmly in the category of “design”.

And as Meyer pointed out in reply to Fox, such a conclusion would remove any very significant difference between them.

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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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8 Responses to More on Aquinas and contingency

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    While I find your point of view interesting and Aquinas’s view of causality stemming form a primal cause relevant today, I am particularly sympathetic to your point (c). I guess I have made more than a few comments on this topic, but hopefully this comment may be sufficient (without drawing angst from opposing sources):]

    The notion of laws is strictly speaking derived from metaphysics. Science provides theories and models which approximate “what is out there”. The most basic premise that I can think of for science, is that nature is derived, or the result of, real entities I we need to be careful how we use the term real within theoretical physics, but nonetheless….). We can illustrate this by considering the physicist’s particles, or the chemist’s periodic table of the elements. All substances in Nature are derived from these particles, and are the result of combinations to form molecules that make up all substances we know. The diversity in Nature appears almost infinite to a chemist, because the ways the elements may combine has not been exhausted – and we cannot see how a limit to such combinations may be reached.

    Metaphysical discussions are focussed on laws as regularities in Nature, or as governing principles that perhaps may be given within a causal chain. I do not wish to speak more about philosophy; scientifically however, the instruments used to measure properties show us what is uniquely characteristic of molecules, and with this, the ability to visualise atoms that make up molecules, gives science a realism that is associated with sense certainty. When we extend this outlook to constants that to us are immutable and independent of how (and who) obtains these, we are left with a staggering certainty that the world MUST be as it is. I conclude from this that underpinning the Universe are real entities (real now means ultimate, indisputable, absolute, etc.). This I see as consistent with the Faith teaching us that the word of God created – the logos is more than a principle thought by Hellenic philosophers – it is the ultimate act of creation.

    I think the notion of randomness as is often discussed in BioLogos for bio-forms and evolution, is more often a confession of ignorance, and not as a scientific insight. An inexhaustible range of substances for bio-forms can be derived from combinations involving C, H, O (with smaller amounts of S, N, P, and other elements) – this is not due to random things, but the Nature of Nature. Science makes observations that are related to energetics and kinetics of chemical events, and more complex events such as found in genetic science, and these can be understood (in principle) by appealing to regularity statements or theories when these systems are of a limited complexity. When the complexity is very large, science finds it difficult to obtain regularities at this point in time – this does not mean that these complex systems will always be beyond science – it is an indication that we have reached our limits as scientists, and we need to progress. This line of thinking will take us to complexity and emergence, and is unnecessary for this post. It does, however, argue against the claim of some sort of ‘stuff happens’, and as one person stated it, there is no reality in physics, but simply our consciousness that makes it appear as such – another of the endless versions of ‘we are imagining from mind(s) in a vat’. I state such claims a absurd!

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I avoided reference to emergent life-friendly processes in nature. There is, of course, a whole range of such mechanisms postulated to account for the apparent contingency of life, in particular. I’ve mentioned some in the past – Denis Noble’s physiological approach, for example, structuralism such as Sternberg’s or even whatever Simon Conway Morris envisages to explain convergence. But all, at present, are far from actually being demonstrated or explained, so I tend to count them under the “promissory note” heading.

    Unexpected emergent properties certainly exist – that’s what an ID-friendly (possibly vitalist) like Michael Denton likes to point out – the properties of water, for example, are astonishingly individually tailored for its biological role (in which I include its pivotal importance to the whole planet as oceans, ice, vapour etc as well as within molecular biology).

    Two further things. Firstly, as Lou pointed out re Denton on a BioLogos thread, even the most finely-tuned emergent properties of matter might explain life, but probably not H sapiens and certainly not Jeremiah the prophet or Jon the Garvey – so providence is much more than emergence. And as you seem to suggest, emergence might turn out to be so complex that we never find the tools to investigate it, and it continues to look like contingency as long as we study it.

    Secondly, the more emergence emerges as a finely-tuned instrument, the more it confirms the inference of design, considered broadly. Should the properties of primary matter (does modern physics allow us to redeem that Aristotelian concept?) turn out to contain all the seeds of substantial forms like us, then it would be as truly miraculous as the separate imposition of form on matter.

    One further (only partly-related) thought is that emergence (considered as matter/energy operating in ways that teeter on the edge of the whole variety of highly organised forms we see) would be another example of the way much of the universe is on the edge of chaos – neither rigidly deterministic nor disordered. That’s the kind of universe that’s malleable by God, by human choices and, of course, to some extent the rest of the creatures as they shape their world. It’s a home for us all in God, rather than just being the blueprint that produces us. All very remarkable – but not due to random things, ultimately.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      I have just read an article on thinking and language, and although it is not related to emergence and your point(s) on contingency, it seemed appropriate to these types of discussions. Thus when we use language, e.g. emergence, we may have in mind the meaning as a word, described using other words, i.e.: emergent – the process of coming into being, and of a property arising as an effect of complex causes and not an analysable thing known from the sum of its parts. Coming into being and process are words that invoke a dynamic state or states, and we like to conceptualise these as steps or causes – e.g. evolving into …..Yet we also consider something as being-itself, so that we can point to it and say we know what it is (a piece of meat, I can cook it, eat it, and so on … all conceptualised within our manifold of experience). Many of these may seem mundane but they are also sensible concepts that are grounded in experience and sense.

      Considering a finely tuned universe that ultimately gives rise to anything fits in with a process – we may create a concept that is grounded in theory (physics) and be satisfied that it has explanatory properties that will enable us to relate such concept(s) and theories, with our understanding. But as human beings we adopt a scheme, or manifold, that is meaningful both as language and thought. I have regarding comments by people such as Lou that if our scheme is that there is no God, than one must provide to oneself some sort of scheme that supports such a notion. This may be the usual position of atheists, in which they adopt a ‘non-belief’ and seek to use language which has explanatory properties within that non-belief scheme. On the other hand, if I start with a scheme that is grounded on the phrase, ‘God is Creator’, than the rest of my scheme, meaning, and subsequent explanatory power and terms such as emergent (and chaos, at the edge, etc.) would follow in a coherent manner (hopefully) within the phrase ‘understanding the creation’. The third option is I think, an aggressive anti-God attitude, and this implies to me that such a schema would be based on negating the ‘there is a God’ schema, and would not have explanatory power, but in all probability, would seek to use science to oppose or negate the ‘God scheme’. This is a misuse of science (I may add, adopting the understanding of science to somehow ‘understand how God creates is also a misuse of science).

      What does all this have to do with science? I think it makes science a way to understand what things are; I also think that those who believe God, and those who have a non-belief, can perform scientific work of the highest quality without rancour, as both would do science for its own sake, and each would still maintain their schema regarding belief or non-belief. I cannot place an aggressive anti-theist in a similar place.

      I also have considered such things a chaos as preceding form and ‘definition’ of matter and energy, but as you know I find poetry an easier way to express such thoughts.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Loosely replying, the Ed Feser linked in today’s post covers the idea of Finality being independent of belief in God too, though its very existence tends to support belief in him (Aquinas’ 5th way). His point on anti-theists is that, in order to avoid God, they try to avoid teleology too, fail and so see the world in an incoherent way.

    That appears not a million miles from your treatment of emergence, above – which shows it’s a similar concept (eg water molecules have an innate tendency to behave in certain often surprising ways en masse).

  4. Avatar photo GD says:

    An interesting treatment of creation, God’s Sovereignty, and a counter to proposals that talk of God as a ‘weak force’ who is taking a ‘risk’ with creation, and thus avoids becoming a tyrant and puppet master, is given by BRIAN D. ROBINETTE, “THE DIFFERENCE NOTHING MAKES: CREATIO EX NIHILO, RESURRECTION, AND DIVINE GRATUITY” in Theological Studies, 72 (2011) p 525.

    A quote from the introduction gives a feeling of the arguments he counters:

    “Working in close company with Catherine Keller and Jacques Derrida, among others, Caputo maintains that creatio ex nihilo represents the “dream of metaphysical theology” enthralled by the idea of God’s absolute dominion over creation and nonbeing, and thus a God who excludes and expels all that evinces liminality, ambiguity, and process—that is, the “chaos” of the deep. With deconstructive interests at hand Caputo interrogates the scriptural narratives to retrieve disruptive nuances and creative possibilities that he believes have long been suppressed in the theological tradition.”

    Robinette appreciates the effort of early Christianity to provide a clear and comprehensible view of God as Creator, within the turmoil and argumentation from Hellenic philosophy – and emphasises the clarity and Biblically sound doctrine provided in Patristic writings. The paper gives us a feeling for the thinking that preceded Aquinas, and also increases our awareness of the turmoil and undercurrents of post-modern thinking by various theologians and atheists.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks GD

      Downloaded for later persusal. There’s a whole modern zeitgeist in all these departures from the tradition (and, I would argue, the biblical substrate), which seem to permeate the entire academic theological effort. It’s hard to pin down, but revolves round things like chance, freedom, ambiguity and maybe centrally the hatred of authority, of which God is the ultimate representative.

      It’s tempting to relate that to my social psychology studies 40 years ago in which concepts like “The Authoritarian Personality” loomed large and, always, negatively. They largely arose from leftist critiques of fascism (a word then applied to anyone not sympathetic to Marx). So are the changes in theology important new corrections to millennia-old errors, or capitulation to the spirit of the age? A valuable study is waiting there for a sociologist of theology, if there exists such a thing.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        ” modern zeitgeist” is the correct term Jon. The undercurrents behind this, I find, are ambiguous, and like you, I struggle to find a clear reason for this ‘spirit of these times’. I have speculated, and have found the notion the impact of two world wars, revolutions inspired by atheistic and nihilistic reactions to the excesses of our capitalistic and materialistic/Darwinian forces, unleashed on a weary population, may be some of the reasons behind it all. The Faith continues notwithstanding.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          I was interested to find the following self-mocking passage in Stephen Gould’s 1993 review of his punctuated equilibrium theory – notice he says that the modern trend in all fields is theories of chance, uncertainty etc. So the question is, why such “insights” in theology should convey any lasting truth when they patently downplay the revealed truth in favour of what they feel God must be:

          In summarizing the impact of recent theories upon human concepts of nature’s order, we cannot yet know whether we have witnessed a mighty gain in insight about the natural world (against anthropocentric hopes and biases that always hold us down), or just another transient blip in the history of correspondence between misperceptions of nature and prevailing social realities of war and uncertainty. Nonetheless, contemporary science has massively substituted notions of indeterminacy, historical contingency, chaos and punctuation for previous convictions about progressive, predictable determinism… Punctuated equilibrium, in this light, is only palaeontology’s contribution to a *Zeitgeist”, and *Zeitgeists*, as (literally) transient ghosts of time, should never be trusted. Thus, in developing punctuated equilibrium we have either been toadies and panderers to fashion, and therefore destined for history’s ashheap, or we had a spark of insight about nature’s constitution. Only the punctuational and unpredicatable future can tell.

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