Friday, August 10, 2012

Generation is Not Creation

Apparently it's the time of the year again when ID theorists again try to co-opt Thomists and other scholastics. "Uncommon Descent" has a post trying to make the argument that Thomists should be entirely in favor of ID theory, instead of usually skeptical at best -- at least in this case it's a little less clunky, in the form of a dialogue between SB and Saint Thomas. I can prove easily, though, that the Saint Thomas who appeared to SB is not the real Saint Thomas. The key paragraphs:

SB: I agree, but the neo-Thomists also have very strong ideas about God’s process of creation, and they associate them with you. According to them, you say that God creates only through secondary causality. In other words, God doesn’t tweak his material creation—ever. God, they say, always fashions his handiwork through intrinsic finality and never resorts to external finality.

ST: How did they arrive at that novel interpretation?

SB: I asked them to provide the relevant quotes, but they didn’t get back to me.

ST: Clearly, they are misreading me. Among other things, I said that God created man’s body by forming him out of dust, directly and immediately. So, obviously, my philosophy of nature, though acknowledging the fact of secondary causality in the physical realm, does not rule out primary causality, external finality, or tweaking. Yes, I taught that God can create through secondary causality, but nowhere did I ever say that God creates exclusively through secondary causality. The neo-Thomists are just making that up. Did you explain that to them?

Saint Thomas would never, ever, ever claim that he taught that God can create through secondary causality in this context at all. Creation is inherently, by definition, primary causation. To say that God created by secondary causes would be the same as to say that creatures can be instruments of creation. However, Aquinas is quite clear that this is not possible. Peter Lombard had suggested that it was, and to the Lombard's argument he responds:

But such a thing cannot be, because the secondary instrumental cause does not participate the action of the superior cause, except inasmuch as by something proper to itself it acts dispositively to the effect of the principal agent. If therefore it effects nothing, according to what is proper to itself, it is used to no purpose; nor would there be any need of certain instruments for certain actions. Thus we see that a saw, in cutting wood, which it does by the property of its own form, produces the form of a bench, which is the proper effect of the principal agent. Now the proper effect of God creating is what is presupposed to all other effects, and that is absolute being. Hence nothing else can act dispositively and instrumentally to this effect, since creation is not from anything presupposed, which can be disposed by the action of the instrumental agent. So therefore it is impossible for any creature to create, either by its own power or instrumentally--that is, ministerially.

If we ever say that God creates by way of creatures, we can at best be speaking metaphorically. In a proper sense, only God can create, and that means that creation is in and of itself a form of primary causation. Likewise, no Thomist in trying to be accurate about the relation of the world to God would say that God creates through secondary causes, because this is to confuse generation and creation. And this is part of the problem many Thomists have about ID attempts to co-opt Thomistic theological ideas as IDistic: ID is in Thomistic terms not an account of creation at all. It is an account of generation: it claims to tell, on the basis of the natures of things, how they were originally generated. But that means that Thomistic accounts of what God can do are simply not relevant: the Thomist is going to look at ID and say -- "Is their account of the natures of things correct? And is their inference supported by a reasonable causal principle?" Note that God doesn't enter into the matter at all. It's true that God can do by primary causation what can be done by secondary causation, but ID theorists don't claim to provide a Thomistic account of divine providence and draw conclusions from that: they claim to provide an account of the natures of things and how those things are generated. And it is on this that they will be judged. ID is a theory of a particular kind of secondary causation, namely the generation of certain kinds of structures and organizations in a population; it tells us nothing about primary causation.

This is of some importance. God in Thomistic terms did not create the human race 'by means of evolution'. God creates the human race by being the primary cause on which every human being, every one who has ever existed and every one who ever will, always depends for its existence. Evolutionary theory doesn't tell us anything about creation; it's an account of how populations of organisms with certain characteristics are generated from populations of organisms with other characteristics. But creation is not generation. Individually, you and I are created by God but generated by our parents. And that's a big difference. There's a loose, figurative sense in which your parents by their generation were participating in God's creation, but all that means is that you are God's creature and the particular creature you are has as one of its characteristics the particular parentage you had. And it's not a sense relevant to the sorts of things ID talks about.


  1. Excellent points. The distinction between secondary and primary causality is very important. In fact, I think this distinction separates thomism from more contemporary views about God.

    Also, suppose that physicists find some way to show that the entire universe, i.e. the space-time continuum we live in, was 'caused' by something other than a non-physical, minded, powerful being (a la William Craig). It would do nothing to discount theism. Likewise if they find some mechanism by which the laws of nature could have been fine-tuned to the high degree which they are; the Thomistic critique of biological fine-tuning arguments applies just as easily to arguments based on the fine-tuning of the universe.

  2. I think this is quite right; a great many of the faults in some contemporary views about God are due to a conflation of primary and secondary causation.


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