Zegiestow, Poland. 2019/8/10. Stained-glass window depicting the Creation of the World with the words "And God said, Let us make..." Roman Catholic Church of Saint Anne.
Zegiestow, Poland. 2019/8/10. Stained-glass window depicting the Creation of the World with the words
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Catholics and Intelligent Design

Published at Evolution News

Part Two

This is the second in a series responding to certain Catholic critics of intelligent design. In this installment, we discuss the (proper and improper) role of philosophy in Christian theology, and then explore how Thomas Aquinas uses and modifies Aristotle’s distinction between nature and art. This may seem like an obscure issue, but it’s actually central to this debate. Finally, by way of contrast, we consider Robert Boyle, a Protestant “teleo-mechanist” who was a staunch critic of Aristotle.

For part one of this series, see here.

If creation cannot be recognized as the metaphysical middle term between nature and artificiality, then the plunge into nothingness is unavoidable.”i

Pope Benedict XVI

Handmaidens or Slavemasters? The Role of Philosophy in Theology

Traditionally, theology was seen as the “Queen of the Sciences,” since it involves the totality and greatest of truths. Philosophy and science, while valuable in their own right, have been understood as “handmaidens” to theology.ii For theology, philosophy at its best can help the Christian explain and articulate the core truths of the “deposit of faith.” This deposit includes the truths described in the Apostles’ Creed: that there is a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all of whom are one God; that the Son was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was raised from the dead, and so forth. This content of the faith precedes our philosophizing about it.

As important as philosophy can be to theology, however, no single, non-Christian philosophical system is either identical with the Christian faith or can completely capture Christian theology. Indeed, though some philosophies are more congenial to the faith than others, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II said: “The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others.”iii

Still, it’s easy to underestimate Aristotle’s influence in Roman Catholicism, due to his influence on the “Angelic Doctor” Thomas Aquinas. The Greek philosopher’s contributions are invaluable.iv Partially for this reason, however, we’ve sometimes failed to keep critical distance between the pagan philosopher and the faith itself. Traditional Catholics are much more likely to have an Aristotelian blind spot than, say, an Epicurean blind spot.v

Probably the most unaccommodating element of Aristotle’s thought to Christian theology is the idea that the universe is eternal rather than created as the free act of a transcendent God. The implications of this belief in an eternal universe permeate not just Aristotle’s physics but his metaphysics as well.vi

This is one of the reasons that when Aristotle’s major writings were first introduced to the Christian West in the thirteenth century, they were not received with universal warmth.vii St. Bonaventure, Thomas’s contemporary in Paris, identified a key danger with Aristotle. A Franciscan friar, Bonaventure preferred the Neo-Platonism of Augustine and the other Church Fathers to Aristotle, though he drew on Aristotle’s work and was far more Aristotelian than the Church Fathers themselves.viii Of course he rejected Aristotle’s doctrine of the eternity of the world. But he was also deeply troubled that some Catholic scholars followed Aristotle in rejecting the doctrine of divine ideas or exemplars, which function as a sort of blueprint by which God creates the world.ix He saw serious consequences in this trajectory, since it implied that God did not know individuals.x

These matters might now seem like obscure scholastic disputes of the angels-resting-on-the-head-of-a-pin variety, but they relate directly to the difference between Aristotle’s philosophy and Christian theology in general, and also between the thought of Aristotle and St. Thomas. And they bear directly on the problems certain contemporary Thomists have with ID.

Nature and Art: Thomas or Aristotle?

Regrettably, the error Bonaventure identified in the thirteenth century has seen a resurgence (no doubt unwittingly) among some contemporary Thomists. This becomes clear in their treatment of Aristotle’s view of so-called “immanent teleology” — yet another term that means different things to different people.xi In its pure Aristotelian form, for teleology to be immanent means that the purposes or ends of objects and organisms are within the world, and are not the result of an intentional, transcendent agent. They do not reflect a pre-existing blueprint in the mind of a transcendent God.

When speaking of organisms, the basic idea of immanent or intrinsic teleology is that natural objects, unlike human artifacts, are directed toward the perfection of their nature rather than toward ends imposed on them externally. Though both Aristotle and Thomas freely compared organisms with art and human artifacts, neither thought that the ordinary organisms we encounter were literally the same as human artifacts. (The origin of organisms, however, is a different matter and one on which Aristotle and Thomas part company–we’ll discuss that below.)

First, consider Aristotle. In Book VI of Metaphysics, he says: “Art is a principle of movement in something other than the thing moved; nature is a principle in the thing itself.” So for Aristotle, there was a qualitative difference between nature and art, especially with respect to the teleology they exhibit.

We can get some sense of Aristotle’s point by thinking of organisms, for there are obvious differences between the organisms we encounter and human artifacts.

First of all, organisms, unlike windmills and statues, can reproduce. Setting aside the question of ultimate origin, organisms aren’t built part-by-part as human artifacts are. New organisms are born rather than produced or constructed.

Second, unlike a windmill, an organism seems to be internally directed. It is following an end, its own good, according to its own nature rather than being directed externally as is, for example, a tractor, a violin, or an arrow. This is true even of organisms that, so far as we know, are not literally acting for conscious purposes. The self-directedness is present at the earliest stages of development. To put it in contemporary terms, the information needed to build an adult human being is (presumably) present, in a nascent form, in a tiny human embryo. The process of development, though dependent on its environment, directs itself toward an end determined by its nature. It is not pushed externally like a wagon.

Third, organisms are far more functionally integrated than are human machines. The “parts” of a living organism seem directed toward the end of the entire organism far more completely than the metal and wood parts of a windmill, for instance, are directed toward being aspects of a windmill. Though they don’t bring themselves into existence, in a sense, organisms self-assemble during development.

Fourth, organisms (arguably) have natures. We can speak of natural kinds, such as plants and animals, flowers and dogs; but windmills and violins, we suppose, are artificial. They exist only because of human intentions.

This all seems correct so far as it goes, and is hardly problematic. But the problems surface quickly when you begin to ask follow up questions. Have organisms always been going on as they are now? Can we extrapolate what we observe in the ordinary course of things, all the way back? Although they are, in a sense, internally directed, do organisms, other natural objects, and the universe itself also have an extrinsic purpose? Ultimately, whence comes not just the purpose of organisms but also their form? Do these reflect the purposes and intentions of an agent? Where did reproducing organisms come from in the first place? Is every aspect of organisms derived from physics or chemistry? Can biological organisms be explained purely in terms of physics and chemistry? Does chemistry have within it the active potential, on its own, to give rise to organisms? In other words, are organisms immanent within lower orders like physics and chemistry? And are fundamentally different organisms immanent within the organisms that now exist?

In short, a generic notion of immanent teleology doesn’t resolve much interesting in our discussion, since the Christian, unlike Aristotle, distinguishes the ordinary generation of offspring from parent from the original creation and production of life, organisms, and the universe itself. As Catholic philosopher Vincent Torley puts it: “The intrinsic finality we find in all living things cannot account for the coming-to-be of the first living things.”xii
How is all this relevant to the ID debate? Well, to state the obvious, ID arguments focus on the origin of the natural world, and of various features of nature or organisms, and don’t imply (and certainly don’t require) that organisms lack natures or that every individual organism is literally an artifact built part by part; only that each is similar in important ways to artifacts as, ultimately, the products of intelligent agency. So on that point, they agree with Thomas, though not with Aristotle.

Since Aristotle viewed the world as eternal, he could hold teleology to be immanent, that is, within the world and individual forms, “all the way back.” (He did believe in the spontaneous generation of life, but how that fits with his general view is unclear.) Since he supposed the world had gone along as it does in the present from all eternity he didn’t feel the need to resolve the problem of where that teleology came from. He could just extrapolate from ordinary observation of frogs giving rise to frogs.

Of course, he did have a Prime Mover (or a series of movers) at the top story of the universe, but he did not think of the Prime Mover as a fully personal, transcendent, purposeful God (though at times he moved in that direction, and Thomas charitably interpreted Aristotle as a theist). What is clear, despite tough questions over how to interpret Aristotle, is that in his view, the world being moved is every bit as eternal as the Prime Mover. The Prime Mover is a final cause but not the efficient cause of the world.xiii That the world might not have existed, and might have come into existence in the finite past, seemed like an impossibility to him.xiv And the business of a God acting in nature, calling a people to himself, leading them through the desert, revealing his law, calling us by name, becoming incarnate and dying on a cross–all this would be quite bizarre to attribute to his Prime Mover.

For Thomas, the creation and its constituents ultimately fulfill not merely their own purposes, but God’s. They have both natural and supernatural ends. This goes beyond anything Aristotle believed, and contradicts Aristotle at key points. Indeed, it strikes at the very foundation of Aristotle’s view of natural teleology.

To understand what is at stake, consider the pagan philosophical account of creation known to the Church Fathers. In the Timaeus, Plato describes, in anthropomorphic language, a Craftsman or Demiurge arranging the entire cosmic order. Plato thus suggested (he calls it a “likely story”) that the universe is the product of intention and intellect (nous). In this way, the account has close affinities to the biblical picture.xv

Of course, from a Christian perspective, Plato’s Demiurge is highly deficient. It works with a pre-existent substrate (either space or chaotic matter) and so lacks the sovereignty and transcendence of God. It does not create the universe from nothing, without resistance, as God does. Moreover, the Demiurge is subordinate to the Forms, by which it models the universe. The Demiurge is, ultimately, more a mere fashioner than a creator. Finally, the idea of the Demiurge later came to describe a malevolent being that was subordinate to a higher God. Still, Timaeus shows that, for Plato, the ultimate purpose of the world comes from outside it rather than within it.
Donald Zehl explains the difference between Aristotle and Plato succinctly:

What is immediately striking … is the absence from Aristotle’s natural philosophy of a purposive, designing causal agent that transcends nature. Aristotelian final causes in the formation of organisms and the structures of the natural world are said to be immanent in nature (i.e., the nature or “form” of the organism or structure) itself: it is not a divine Craftsman but nature itself that is said to act purposively. Such an immanent teleology will not be an option for Plato. Aristotle’s teleology is local, not global: while it makes sense to ask Aristotle for a teleological explanation of this or that feature of the natural world, it makes little sense to ask him for a teleological explanation of the world as a whole. Moreover, for Aristotle the development of an individual member of a species is determined by the form it has inherited from its (male) parent: the goal of the developing individual is to fully actualize that form. For Plato the primeval chaotic stuff of the universe has no inherent preexisting form that governs some course of natural development toward the achievement of some goal, and so the explanatory cause of its orderliness must be external to any features that stuff may possess.xvi

Aristotle rejected the picture described in Timaeus, since he thought it implied both a beginning of the universe and a beginning of time.xvii And he proposed a form of teleology that did not point to a purposive agent. So, despite its obvious deficiencies, the teleology (though not the details) that Plato describes in Timaeus is closer to the biblical narrative of creation in Genesis 1 than is anything in Aristotle. For Aristotle’s “immanent teleology” to be useful for Christian theology, then, it must be significantly modified.

And Thomas did modify it. Like Bonaventure, Augustine, and many other Christian theologians, Thomas held to a doctrine of divine ideas or exemplars.xviii According to Thomas, the form and telos of natural kinds, contrary to Aristotle, must ultimately be extrinsic, “impressed” on them (his word) by God and reflecting the blueprints, ideas, or “exemplar causes” in the eternal mind of God.xix In his definitive study, Aquinas on the Divine Ideas as Exemplar Causes, Catholic University philosopher Thomas Doolan explains Thomas’s view this way:

[T]he [divine] idea is formal cause of the thing that it exemplifies even though it is not intrinsic to that thing. . . . Thomas considers the fundamental characteristic of form to be that it is a pattern by which something is the kind of thing that it is. For this reason, he concludes that form is not limited to an intrinsic mode of causality: it can be extrinsic as well. And this is what he considers an exemplar to be, namely, an extrinsic formal cause.xx

Now this doesn’t mean that Thomas thought that God constructed every individual organism separately (though he did think that God directly created each human soul). It is the nature of organisms to reproduce after their kind. But the same reasoning doesn’t apply to their origin, either ultimately or in time (say, on the fifth “day” of creation).

So Thomas reworks Aristotle along Christian (and Neo-Platonic) lines. In a sense he splits the difference between Platonic ideas or forms, which existed independently of individuals, and Aristotelian forms, which did not.xxi As a result, he has to rework Aristotle’s category of formal causation.xxii

For Thomas, the forms as exemplar causes exist independently of our minds, but not of God’s. While natural objects are composites of matter and form, the individual forms in the world reflect the exemplars in the divine mind, which are the pre-eminent formal causes of natural forms. According to the doctrine of divine ideas, the “idea of ‘man’ in the divine mind is prior to its instantiation in an individual and the common nature accounts for why all things that participate in that nature have the properties that they do.”xxiii

As Andrew Haines explains, “Thomas believes that individual objects are given their form both by an internal and external principle of intelligibility. . . [His] doctrine of realism is perhaps one of the most intriguing, since it falls in the middle of two extremes.”xxiv

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this point in the present discussion. A misinterpretation of Thomas here is one source of the opposition of some Thomists to ID. Thomas, simply put, was not strictly an Aristotelian. In fact, in his writings, he cites Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius (both Neo-Platonic in their orientation) more in total than he cites Aristotle.xxv And his fondness for Boethius — also a Neo-Platonist–is beyond dispute. Even his Aristotelianism came in part from Neo-Platonism, which integrated Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism.xxvi To explain away or dismiss this, that is, to force Aristotelianism on him, is quite simply to do violence to Thomas’ views.
Because Thomas’ views were a creative synthesis of different philosophical views in light of revelation, he could, despite all the qualifications and the obvious influence of Aristotle, still speak of the natural world as an artifact:

[A]ll creatures are related to God as art products are to an artist. . . . Consequently, the whole of nature is like an artifact of the divine artistic mind. But it is not contrary to the essential character of an artist if he should work in a different way on his product, even after he has given it its first form. Neither, then, is it against nature if God does something to natural things in a different way from that to which the course of nature is accustomed.xxvii

In other words, Thomas moves beyond Aristotle’s categories of “nature” and “art.” Pope Benedict recognizes this. God’s creation, he argues, falls between nature and artifact in the Aristotelian senses: “If creation cannot be recognized as the metaphysical middle term between nature and artificiality, then the plunge into nothingness is unavoidable.”xxviii So here, Thomas parts from Aristotle. While Thomas agreed with Aristotle on many things, to speak of the “Aristotelian-Thomistic” view of immanent teleology–as does Ed Feser, for instance–is as confusing as speaking of the “Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian” view of federal power.xxix
Recall that Thomas affirms that God even sometimes uses pre-existing objects to produce living things, for instance, in producing Adam (from the slime of the Earth) and Eve (from Adam’s rib). So natural objects such as bats and bees and beluga whales have artifact-like features. In fact, we might speak (though carefully) of the original creatures that God creates or produces as pre-eminent artifacts since, unlike mere human artifacts, not only their form but also their matter depends on the power and purposes of God alone. Moreover, unlike crude human artifacts, the teleology of organisms is both intrinsic, in one sense, but ultimately extrinsic, in another sense. Finally, their purposes are anchored in the eternal mind of God, not merely in the minds of finite artificers.

Complementary Handmaidens

I mean none of this to disparage the use of Aristotle for theology. Aristotle is brimming with insights. If I seem to be pushing especially hard against him here, it is because he is a key source of the blind spot that prevents some Thomists from seeing the promise in intelligent design, and in perpetuating the myth that ID is contrary to Catholic belief.xxx

My view is that Neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, teleo-mechanism, and other philosophical frameworks are useful when held together and used to cast light on the faith, but that all should be held critically. All have advantages and disadvantages. We should never too easily identify a philosophical system with Christianity per se. At the same time, we must guard against developing an eclectic and inconsistent hodge podge of a philosophy.

For contrast with Aristotle, let’s consider the view of a prominent teleo-mechanist, Robert Boyle.

Robert Boyle (1627-1691), a teleo-mechanist like Newton, objected to Aristotelian philosophy because he thought it tended to make nature autonomous and self-sufficient. Boyle, in contrast, used the atomistic (or corpuscularianxxxi ) philosophy that was as fashionable in his day as Aristotelianism had been in previous centuries. (Descartes had revived this view from the ancient pagan philosopher Epicurus, who viewed the basic constituents of material reality as tiny, indestructible bits of matter that could be combined into myriad forms. “Atom” literally means “not cuttable.”) Epicurus was a materialist who reduced everything to atoms moving blindly in an infinite and eternal void; so his philosophy, taken as a whole, was hardly a Christian-friendly resource. Unlike Epicurus, however, Boyle used atomism to resuscitate teleological explanation — final causation if you will — even though Descartes had sought to banish it from science. “The Epicurean atomist hypothesis–once reviled as the most materialistic and atheistic philosophy of antiquity–was turned into a theory of which God was an essential component.”xxxii

For Boyle, a virtue of this teleo-mechanist view was precisely that it showed that the physical world depended on an intelligent Creator. Since matter could hardly do anything on its own, Boyle could argue that nature’s manifest design could only be the product of a transcendent Creator. The apparent teleology of nature pointed clearly beyond nature for its source, as it did in Plato, and was not “immanent” within nature itself, as it was for Aristotle.

Boyle emphasized that physical laws and properties of matter (he preferred to speak of “rules” rather than “laws”) are the result of God’s will and not his nature, and so had to be discovered rather than deduced from reason.xxxiii They quite explicitly reflect the purposes of God, and must constantly be upheld by God. “Laws,” for Boyle, implied an active and independent Lawgiver.xxxiv

He could speak of God as constantly involved in the outcome of physical events and of fashioning human beings from a “Lump of Stupid matter.”xxxv Though not the most felicitous way of speaking, the “stupidity” of matter was not, for him, an insult to God or to the matter he created. God simply chose to create and use a quite limited material to create much more admirable beings.

In hindsight, with our knowledge of chemistry and quantum physics, Boyle’s theistic atomism looks like an over-reaction to the Aristotelian tradition. Still, Boyle was right to suspect that Aristotelian philosophy lends itself to a type of naturalism, albeit one with an Unmoved Mover at the top story. Whereas Boyle was inclined to give matter few innate propensities, Aristotle’s inclinations were just the opposite. As Cambridge philosopher David Sedley puts it, Aristotle’s “project was to retain all the explanatory benefits of [Plato’s] creationism without the need to postulate any controlling intelligence . . . .”xvi Aristotle is hard to nail down on the question of theism; but Sedley has clearly captured a tendency in Aristotle’s thought.

Held together, the contrasting views of nature in Boyle and Aristotle provide a valuable lesson: if we want to know the innate (and God-given) capacities and limits of nature, we need to look at nature itself. That is, we need to discover them. For instance, whether chemistry can give rise to life on its own is at least partly an empirical question, rather than a philosophical or theological one. Unfortunately, neither Boyle nor Aristotle was in a position to give the question much empirical traction. But we know a great deal more about the natural world–about both its capacities and limits. Rather than merely analyzing various ancient and early modern philosophies of nature to answer our questions, then, we should look at nature. We should not hold a philosophy of nature that effectively dictates what God must have done, but one open to the evidence of what God has done.

This is a robustly Thomistic attitude. In using Aristotle, Thomas was using what he took to be the most up-to-date and rigorous “science” then available, though he was careful to separate the wheat from the chaff. Certain modern Thomists, however, seem to become seized with the internal logic and systematic grandeur of Aristotelian philosophy, and unwittingly opt for that logic over the complex but intentionally Christian synthesis of St. Thomas. Rather than engaging ID and the empirical evidence on which it is based, they prefer instead to dismiss it for departing from Aristotle.xxxvii

At the same time, Catholics following closely in the actual theology and spirit of Thomas Aquinas–for whom the deposit of faith took precedent over even the greatest pagan philosophers–will be able to consider with an open mind the question: What are nature’s capacities and limits? They will also have far fewer problems with ID than do those whose philosophical intuitions are more rigidly Aristotelian.

  • i Pope Benedict XVI, “In the Beginning . . .”, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 93.
  • iiBut note that our modern distinction between philosophy and natural science is just that–modern. For St. Thomas and others, metaphysics and theology were also “sciences.”
  • iiiIn paragraph 49 of Fides et Ratio.
  • ivIndeed, Aristotle’s contributions to Western thought are hard to summarize. Where would we be without Aristotelian logic? Without the concept of prudence? Without Aristotle’s subtle analysis of virtue and his taxonomy of political systems? Without his contributions to the concept of natural law? The mind boggles in trying to imagine Western history without him.
  • vIn fact, the prominence of Aristotle in the Western Church sometimes has led other philosophies, like Neo-Platonism, to get short shrift. This has widened the gulf between Western Catholics and the Eastern Rites in communion with Rome, as well as the Eastern Orthodox, who are still much more influenced by the Neo-Platonism of the early church.
  • For example, if you read the entries in the (1910, 1911 version) Catholic Encyclopedia for “Aristotle” and “Neo-Platonism”–both written by the same author–you could easily get the impression that Aristotle was a pagan precursor to Christianity, whereas Neo-Platonism was a hostile, pagan enemy of the faith. Only at the end of the article on Neo-Platonism does the reader discover how influential Neo-Platonism was on Christianity during the first millennium. In fact, Neo-Platonism was by far the chief philosophical influence for the majority of Christian history, and shaped all the ecumenical creeds. Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology during the first millennium came almost entirely through Neo-Platonism, which took up some of Aristotle’s thought. William Turner, “Aristotle,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01713a.htm; William Turner, “Neo-Platonism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10742b.htm.
  • viFor some examples, see Scott M. Sullivan, “Aquinas the Neoplatonist“. See also Wayne J. Hankey, God in Himself, Aquinas’ Doctrine of God as Expounded in the Summa Theologiae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
  • viiLooking back, we can see the genius of Thomas lay in his attempt to reconcile and synthesize the long, Christian Neo-Platonic tradition with Aristotle, while striving to keep faith with the testimony of Scripture. “Thomas did not fall into either of the two opposing camps, though he was often attacked by both sides. He was intrigued by Aristotle’s ideas and saw how many of them could be used in developing a Christian philosophy, but neither did he take Aristotle’s side so completely that he failed to see the inadequacies of his thought. Thomas did not slavishly follow the Greek, but used him as a basis for developing his own synthesis of philosophy. In a highly original way, he used elements from Aristotle’s teaching to illuminate Christian theology.” Marianne Trouve, “How Aristotle Won the West,” This Rock 9, no. 9 (September 1998), at: http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/1998/9809fea3.asp.
  • viiiHans Thijssen, “Condemnation of 1277,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003), at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/condemnation/.
  • ix“Bonaventure,” The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 1, ed. Edward Craig (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 831. For discussion, see Leonard J. Bowman, “The Cosmic Exemplarism of Bonaventure,” The Journal of Religion 55, no. 2 (April 1975): pp. 181-198.
  • xSee discussion in John P. Dourley, Paul Tillich and Bonaventure (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975), pp. 136-137.
  • xiFor Thomist Ed Feser, for instance, it is what distinguishes Thomas and Aristotle’s view from all “modern” views, which Feser refers to as “mechanistic.” In what follows, I have Feser’s arguments in mind. See his series of blog posts on the subject: “ID versus A-T Roundup,” at Edward Feser (May 12, 2010), at: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/05/id-versus-t-roundup.html. See also Edward Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend: St. Augustine Press, 2008).
  • xii“A Response to Professor Feser,” Uncommon Descent (April 10, 2010), at: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/a-response-to-professor-feser/.
  • xiiiReijer Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2000), p. 5. Hooykaas is a quite extreme critic of Aristotle, and seems to defend a form of occasionalism as the proper interpretation of the doctrine of creation, which, he thinks, forms the conceptual basis of modern science.
  • xivThe details here are complicated, and involve interpretations of Aristotle that have been the perennial subject of scholarly debate. For discussion of Aristotle’s concept of a Prime Mover, see David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, pp. 24-44.
  • xvIn fact, the early Church Father Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) found the similarities so striking that he thought that Plato had gotten his ideas from Moses! Justin even went so far as to say that Plato wrote “in exact correspondence with what Moses said regarding God. . . .” See his “Hortatory Appeal to the Greeks,” in William Dembski, Wayne J. Downs, and Fr. Justin B.A. Frederick, The Patristic Understanding of Creation (Riesel, TX: Erasmus Press, 2008), pp. 10, 12-14. Unfortunately, Justin followed Plato in speaking of God as creating the universe out of chaotic matter.
  • xviIn Donald Zehl, “Plato’s Timaeus,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009), at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-timaeus/.
  • xviiAristotle, Physics 251b14-26.
  • xviiiFor a definitive study of this theme in Thomas, see Gregory T. Doolan, Aquinas on the Divine Ideas as Exemplar Causes. Explaining how multiple divine ideas or exemplars are to be reconciled with Thomas’ doctrine of divine simplicity is a difficult task, which I do not deal with here.
  • xixHere’s how St. Thomas puts it in Summa Theologica, I:103:1: “The natural necessity inherent in things that are determined to one effect is impressed on them by the Divine power which directs them to their end, just as the necessity which directs the arrow to the target is impressed on it by the archer, and does not come from the arrow itself. There is this difference, however, that what creatures receive from God is their nature, whereas the direction imparted by man to natural things beyond what is natural to them is a kind of violence. Hence, as the forced necessity of the arrow shows the direction intended by the archer, so the natural determinism of creatures is a sign of the government of Divine Providence.” Available online at: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1103.htm#article1.
  • xxDoolan, Aquinas on the Divine Ideas as Exemplar Causes, p. 245.
  • xxiOn the question of whether the ideas existed independently of individuals, Thomas sided with Plato and admitted as much, even as he saw himself as a critic of Plato (as he understood him). See Summa contra Gentiles, I ch. 54, 5, at: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles1.htm#54. This chapter is complicated by Thomas’ extraordinarily difficult doctrine of divine simplicity, but his affirmation of divine ideas is unequivocal. Moreover, Thomas mistakenly argued that Aristotle also held a doctrine of divine ideas or exemplars, but this is not relevant here. We are concerned with Thomas’ views themselves, not with his beliefs about what views Aristotle held.
  • xxiiThere are “forms” in God’s mind–exemplars. Though God is the ultimate cause, these exemplars are also in a sense causes. Moreover, there are “forms” in organisms, which determine what an organism is. And these “forms” also get referred to as formal causes of the individual organisms. The whole business is very complex, since the term formal cause is called into a variety of services. It’s no wonder that some Neo-Platonists, such as Proclus, appealed to six causes rather than to Aristotle’s four. Proclus’ six causes were (1) the perfective or final, (2) the paradigmatic, (3) the creative or efficient, (4) the instrumental, (5) the formal or specifying, and (6) the material. For discussion, see Lucas Siorvanes, Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy of Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 88-104.
  • xxiiiScott M. Sullivan, “Aquinas the Neoplatonist,” available at: http://www.scottmsullivan.com/articles/AquinasNeoplatonist.pdf.
  • xxivAndrew Haines, “Aquinas and Neo-Platonism,” Suite 101 (Feb. 5, 2009), available at: http://western-philosophy.suite101.com/article.cfm/aquinas_and_neoplatonism.
  • xxvIbid.
  • xxviWayne J. Hankey, Aquinas, Plato, and Neo-Platonism, in The Oxford Handbook to Aquinas, edited by Brian Davies and Eleanor Stump, available online at: http://classics.dal.ca/Files/Aquinas_Plato_and_Neo-Platonism_for_Oxford.pdf.
  • xxviiSumma Contra Gentiles (III:100:6), at: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#100. The title of this chapter is: “That Things Which God Does Apart From The Order Of Nature Are Not Contrary To Nature.”
  • xxviiiPope Benedict XVI, “In the Beginning . . .”, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 93.
  • xxixEarlier in this same chapter of the Summa contra gentiles, where he is speaking of miracles, Thomas points out that when “corporeal agents” act on each other, they may change what happens, but they aren’t acting contrary to nature: “Therefore, it is much more impossible to say that whatever is done in any creature by God is violent or contrary to nature.” That’s because the “primary measure” of everything is God:

Now, since a judgment concerning anything is based on its measure, what is natural for anything must be deemed what is in conformity with its measure. So, what is implanted by God in a thing will be natural to it. Therefore, even if something else is impressed on the same thing by God, that is not contrary to nature.

  • Ibid., III:100:4, 5. The following Question 101, On Miracles, is also pertinent.
  • xxxR. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (New York, Penguin, 1990, reprint), p. 82. Quoted in Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, p. 264.
  • xxxiCorpuscularianism was actually a modification of ancient atomism, but the details are not important in the present discussion.
  • xxxiiQuoted from the currently unpublished conference paper by Sveinbjorn Thordarson, “The Alliance of Christianity and Mechanistic Philosophy in 17th-Century England,” Journal of the Oxford University History Society (2009).
  • xxxiiiIn my view, Boyle went too far in the direction of the strong voluntarism of Ockham. Also, there is some question about just how radical Boyle’s view of natural laws was. On one reading, laws don’t really describe the nature of (created) matter at all, but are merely imposed on them moment-to-moment. This would mean that Boyle was effectively an occasionalist. But Boyle scholars disagree on this question. I suspect Boyle’s view was somewhere between “occasionalism” and “concurrentism” since he did not attempt to develop a detailed and consistent view of the relationship between divine and natural causality. This may have been due to an overreaction to Aristotelianism. But he was emphatically not a deist. In any case, what is clear is that he wanted to remove any idea of necessity from natural laws to protect God’s freedom as Creator. See Peter R. Anstey, The Philosophy of Robert Boyle (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 160-180.
  • xxxivBoyle was especially keen to defend God’s omnipotence and his active providential ordering of the world. When speaking of natural law and miracles, he said that by “the laws of nature [God] determin’d and bound up other Beings to act according to them, yet has not bound up his own hands by them, but can envigorate, suspend, over-rule; and reverse any of them as he thinks fit.” Quoted in Ibid., p. 180.
  • xxxvSee J.J. McIntosh and Peter Anstey, “Robert Boyle,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006), at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/boyle/.
  • xxxviDavid Sedley, Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. xvi.
  • xxxviiEd Feser, for instance, has written: “Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought … this abandonment has contributed to the civilizational crisis through which the West has been living for several centuries. …” Notice he does not say the abandonment of God or the doctrine of creation or the truths in the Nicene Creed, but the abandonment of Aristotelianism, which, as a major influence on Christianity, emerged twelve hundred years after the beginning of Christian history. Obviously my appreciation of Aristotle is genuine but more reserved, as is my opposition to philosophical thought from sources other than Aristotle. Feser and others are free to maintain their opinions, of course, but those opinions should not be identified with orthodox Catholic belief. Theirs is one of many schools within Catholic philosophy.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.