Sunday, November 29, 2009

Creation and Generation

One of my pet peeves, which is beginning to get up there with drivers who don't use their blinkers, is the tendency of people to talk about "God using evolution to create". This has become very common among theists of many different persuasions, and it shows the degree to which people no longer have any notion of creation. Evolution is not a means of creation; it isn't very clear that the notion of a 'means of creation' is coherent. Evolution is a theory of generation; to be more precise, it is an account of how populations change when the generation and destruction of individuals in the population is linked to variation in the individuals, through things like selection and drift. This is something entirely different from creation; living things are not created through evolution, or by evolution, or any such thing. Evolution is part of the overall account of how living things are generated, of how they change from contrary to contrary, from being that to being other than that; it therefore is part of our account for why something is this rather than that. But creation has to do not with change from contrary to contrary, not with why something is this rather than that, but with why something is at all; and, moreover, it is not a matter of change at all, although we often for convenience use analogies it has to change in order to talk of it, because change is more immediately obvious to us than creation is. As Aquinas says, "Creation is not a change, except according to a mode of understanding" (ST 1.45.2 ad 2); there are genuine analogies between the two, and thus we can model creation as a change for particular purposes, but actual conflation of the two is what Aquinas calls "false imagination". And, indeed, Aquinas has a very good discussion of why it makes no sense to say that God creates 'through' something else, where this is not a figure of speech: creation by its very nature (and unlike generation) involves no instruments or mediating causes. It involves, as one might say, direct dependence on God, regardless of the way the dependent thing might have come from something else.

Thus it is simply absurd to say that "Evolution is God's method of creation," or that "God used evolution as a way to create living things"; saying something like this is a sign that you don't know anything about what creation is. Fortunately, these descriptions are less common among actual theists who accept evolutionary theory than they are among their opponents -- you usually see their position described in this way by atheists or by intelligent design theorists or by young earth creationists, rather than by themselves. There's a reason, for that, actually; it's because these people usually allow themselves no way of distinguishing questions of creation from questions of generation, so they slide between them as if they were the same. But I have noticed it creeping into more common acceptance; and it should be rejected firmly. Creation shows up in the answers to questions that are rather different from the questions in whose answers we find evolution showing up. Treating them as if they answered the same questions is to concede incoherent assumptions, and thus make one's own position incoherent.

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